The Baseball Time Machine:  Denny Young

It’s time we took another ride aboard the Baseball Time Machine. Here’s a reminder of what these journeys are all about:

We take a player from the long past. We make the assumption that his exact genetic clone – the same DNA – appeared on the planet in a much later era, an era we’re quite familiar with: the current era. We make the further assumption that this kid grew up to become a big league ballplayer, as did the original. Then we apply everything we know about (a) the innate qualities of the player and (b) the conditions of the current era, and come up with our best depiction of just what kind of a player the guy would be: just how well would he do, competing against modern players, under modern conditions?

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Today we explore the career of the pitcher whose very name will forever symbolize pitching excellence, the man who set the standards against which all pitchers since have striven to match.

Cy Young: Childhood and Skill Development

Denton True Young was born March 29, 1867, near Gilmore, in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. He was the eldest child of five in a moderately prosperous and solidly respected farming family. Young “Dent” spent a boyhood in the rolling, bucolic Ohio landscape that might be considered the classic Middle American myth, a living Currier & Ives print: attending a two-room country school, tending to chores on the family farm, going fishing, climbing trees, skipping rocks.

He was quiet and friendly, well behaved and well liked. As was customary in that time and place, Dent’s education was finished after the sixth grade. (Though he possessed strong intelligence, and was not illiterate, Dent would read and write little for his entire life.) As a teenager he assumed regular farm work responsibilities, but also had plenty of time for fun. His rock-throwing skill became extraordinary – he could sometimes nail a bird in flight – and this attribute led Dent to often assume the pitching duties in the local town baseball games that filled late-nineteenth century summer weekends.

He grew to a strapping six-feet-two, remarkably tall for those days, and a broad-shouldered 170 pounds by his late teens. Though he became a renowned local player, Dent didn’t pursue baseball with particular focus; rather it was simply one enjoyable part of a full, responsible young manhood. At the age of 21, with his family’s blessing, Dent finally began to take more time away from the farm, and played some semi-pro ball for the team in Carrollton, Ohio, about 35 miles from home. Pitching and playing second base, he diligently applied himself to developing his skills, and within a year was emerging as a local star.

In the spring of 1890, the 23-year-old Dent decided to take his shot at a fully professional baseball career. Demonstrating the balance of confidence and prudence that would characterize him lifelong, Dent smoothly negotiated an offer to become a pitcher for the Canton ball club of the Tri-State League.

Denny Young: Childhood and Skill Development

Dennis Troy Young was born March 29, 1967, in the small town of Gilmore, Ohio. He was the eldest child of four in a prosperous farming family. Young Denny’s boyhood was a TV-commercial-perfect slice of Middle American normality: riding bikes, shooting bb-guns, learning to drive the family tractor, and playing Little League baseball.

He was quiet and friendly, well behaved and well liked. He didn’t get straight A’s, but Denny was a good student. He particularly enjoyed sports: in football, basketball, and baseball, Denny’s combination of lanky athleticism and disciplined fundamentals allowed him to stand out on his school squads as quarterback, forward, and pitcher. But despite local acclaim, young Denny didn’t buy into any jock stardom ethos; he maintained a genuine self-effacing sense of humor, and earnestly honored his classroom work.

Denny grew to a strapping six-feet-four, and a broad-shouldered 185 pounds by his senior year in high school. He resisted the urging from various coaches to specialize, and instead enjoyed himself as a good-but-not-great team leader in all three sports. Consistent with his family’s wishes, in 1985 Denny accepted a scholarship to Kent State University, to pursue a degree in Business Administration. Serious about his academic efforts, he allowed himself to play only one sport at the college level, choosing baseball.

He made the varsity team in his sophomore year, and as a junior Denny blossomed as one of the best college pitchers in the country. But, demonstrating characteristic prudence, he resisted entreaties to turn pro, and instead committed to staying in school. In June of 1989 Denny graduated from Kent State with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business, and was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the first round of the MLB amateur draft.

Cy Young: Early Professional Career

Dent was more than an immediate success with Canton; he was an immediate sensation. Before the end of April, his new teammates as well as the newspapers were so taken with him that they had granted him a dramatic nickname: “The Cyclone.” The precise origin of the monicker isn’t certain, but clearly it was an expression of awe and delight at the country boy’s crackling fastball, and at his startling skill and confidence in deploying it. “Cyclone” was soon shortened to “Cy,” and in that form the nickname would forever stick.

Canton was a dismal last-place ball club in 1890, but Cy shone through as a bright new star. His won-lost record was just around .500, but all observers agreed that the newcomer was as good as any pitcher in the Tri-State League, and he was soon attracting the attention of major league scouts.

A happy coincidence now greeted Cy’s career. The struggling Canton team was in need of an infusion of cash, and a buyer of their fresh young star would provide it; meanwhile, the appearance of the upstart Players League left the major leagues stretched thin for talent, and many big league teams were ready to take a chance on prospects with less seasoning than normally required. The Cleveland Spiders of the National League decided that the rural Ohio phenom was worth a flyer, and on July 30, 1890, they purchased his contract from Canton. Within a matter of a few months, Cy had leaped from semi-pro ball to the major leagues.

Given his extremely scanty professional experience, the Spiders likely didn’t have especially high expectations regarding Cy. A reasonable payoff for them would have just been Cy holding his own at the major league level, allowing the team to sell a few extra tickets by promoting the eastern Ohio hayseed with the colorful nickname, at least until the novelty wore off.

But as had been the case in Canton that spring, Cy quickly turned heads. Not only was he an impressive physical specimen – his six-two frame had filled out to around 200 strong and solid pounds – but he was no kid. He was 23 years old, not only an adult in years, but full-grown in manner and bearing. He carried himself with poise, and while he had seen little of the big-city world, was not one to be dazzled or seduced by its temptations. It should be understood that he was no prude: Cy knew how to deal in profanity, indeed he liked to hear and to tell a salty joke, and he enjoyed snuff, cigars, and whiskey – but he handled it all in sound moderation. He kept regular, responsible hours, easily established good relations with teammates, management, and the press, and calmly, confidently engaged into a big league pitching career.

He three-hit Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts, 8-1, in his debut, and went on to post a solid 9-7 record over the final two months of the 1890 season. The following year, at age 24, Cy established himself as one of the most dependable pitchers in the league: third in games, seventh in innings, sixth in strikeouts, eighth in ERA, fifth in wins. Much more than holding his own at the big league level, Cy was on the verge of stardom.

Denny Young: Early Professional Career

The Indians in 1989 assigned Denny to their Kinston, North Carolina, farm club in the Class A Carolina League. The rookie was not only an impressive physical specimen – his six-four frame had filled out to around 210 strong and solid pounds – but he was no kid. Denny was a 22-year-old college graduate, and mature beyond his years. He carried himself with poise, and was not one to be easily seduced by the temptations of life on the road as a pro ballplayer. He was no prude, but he kept regular, responsible hours, easily established good relations with teammates, management, and the media, and calmly, confidently engaged into a professional pitching career.

Denny proved to be more than an immediate success; he was an immediate sensation. By the end of July he was 9-1 with a 1.32 ERA, and the Cleveland organization granted him a mid-season promotion to Canton, Ohio, of the Double-A Eastern League. Greeted by the local media and fans with a returning hero’s welcome, Cy encountered a bit more challenge at this level of competition, but still went 7-4 with a 2.98 ERA over the remainder of the 1989 season. The Indians rewarded their number-one draft choice with a September call-up, and Denny got his feet wet in the major leagues that fall, enjoying a few innings of mop-up relief.

Impressive though he was, Cleveland felt it would be in Denny’s best interest to get a season of Triple-A experience under his belt. So in the spring of 1990 they assigned him to Colorado Springs of the Pacific Coast League. Pitching his home games at high altitude, Denny’s ERA took an early-season beating, but he kept his composure. By early July he was leading the league in wins, at 11-5 with a 4.16 ERA. The Indians, having dropped below .500, decided it was time to put Denny into the big league rotation. He finished out the 1990 season as a major league starter, and took some rookie lumps but held his own at 5-5 with a 4.17 ERA.

The following year, at age 24, Denny established himself as one of the more dependable starters in the league, going 15-13, 3.35, in 221 innings. Now more than holding his own at the big league level, Denny was on the verge of stardom.

Cy Young: Prime Years

In 1892, the 25-year-old Cy broke through with the best all-around season of any pitcher in baseball, leading the league in wins, winning percentage, and ERA. If there had been a Cy Young Award in existence at the time, Cy himself would surely have won it.

The following year, 1893, marked one of the most significant rule changes in baseball history. In an effort to introduce more offense into the game, the National League reconfigured the pitcher’s “box,” introducing the pitcher’s “rubber” at its current distance of 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, effectively moving the pitcher five feet further away from the hitter. This required a major adjustment for pitchers, and most definitely succeeded at sparking the offense: scoring soared to unmatched heights for several years. Many pitchers were never able successfully negotiate the change, which proved to be a career-wrecker for several erstwhile stars.

Cy, like few others, handled the extraordinary challenge with aplomb. His experiments in adjusting to the new arrangement were a leading influence in the development and widespread adoption of what we now recognize as the standard pitcher’s windup. Like all other pitchers, Cy’s rate stats took a beating in the first few years after 1892, but he never wavered from his status as one of the most consistent, durable, and effective of all pitchers.

Through the rest of the decade, Cy was never the most dominant pitcher in the league. He had an excellent fastball, but it’s clear that others threw harder, Amos Rusie most obviously. Both Rusie and Kid Nichols often put up more impressive numbers than Cy. But no one was more consistently good, more reliably effective, than Cy.

Durability was his first distinguishing characteristic: he handled a daunting workload and practically never got hurt. While even by the standards of the day he couldn’t be considered a fitness fanatic – over the years he gradually put on weight, and by his late career was decidedly pear-shaped – his early-to-bed, early-to-rise farmer’s habits served him well toward maintaining health and vigor. Working a smooth, easy, motion with which he seamlessly mixed overhand, three-quarter, and sidearm deliveries, he not only avoided arm trouble, but even seemed to get slightly stronger as the years rolled by.

But perhaps his most extraordinary hallmark was control. Cy arrived in the majors with great control, and from then on he steadily improved it. He mixed a variety of breaking pitches in with his signature fastball, and painted corners with astonishing precision. He lead his league in fewest walks per innings pitched every year except one over the 14 seasons from 1893 through 1906, and the one year he didn’t lead the league he was second-best.

Cy would merit near-certain inclusion in the Hall of Fame had his career ended in 1900. Through the age of 33, he had won 286 major league games, and had been one of the sport’s biggest stars for a decade. But in 1901 he jumped to the Boston franchise of the fledgling American League, and proceeded to enjoy his greatest run of success. No doubt aided by the slightly expansion-dampened level of competition, Cy was utterly dominant for three straight years, and was a major figure in ensuring the popularity and success of the new major league. Yet still was nowhere near finished, remaining a highly durable and effective ace through the age of 42.

Cy’s prodigious career totals – most notably, 749 complete games, 7,355 innings, and 511 victories – are obviously artifacts of the particular conditions of his era. In no other age of baseball history could it have been feasible for a pitcher to record such totals. Yet in acknowledging this, we too often fail to properly comprehend just how astounding Cy’s achievements were. The fact that no other era could have yielded such numbers doesn’t make it inevitable that his era would; indeed his career figures tower over those of his very greatest contemporaries. It’s difficult to imagine any alternative baseball history scenario under which any pitcher could possibly win more than 511 games. Suffice to say that one of the most confidently true statements one can ever make is this: no one else will ever, ever, win as many games as Cy Young.

And yet probably even more than his staggering statistical achievements, it was his demeanor that finally earned Cy Young the universal respect he commanded. He was a natural leader, even as a very young player, providing strong and sure example and guidance. He was neither colorful nor charismatic, but instead exhibited deeper and truer strengths than those of mere personality. He was a superstar who was unfailingly generous with his time and with his money, who listened more than he spoke, and whose personal integrity was beyond the faintest question. He was an intense and stern competitor, in the midst of an era and style of baseball notorious for dirty brawling rowdiness, yet as biographer Reed Browning reminds us:

… he pitched over 7,000 innings in over 900 games and endured countless bad calls by umpires, bad plays by teammates, bad behaviors by opponents, and bad performances by himself – [but] he was never thrown out of a game.

One can draw no other conclusion than this: major league baseball could not conceivably have chosen a more fitting name to memorialize the highest honor it offers to pitchers. Browning well summarizes the lasting legacy:

Cy Young was no saint. But he was an honorable man, he treated people fairly and considerately, and he thus merited the confidence that his colleagues placed in him. All this was possible because his identity was not grounded in a need for fame but in his commitment to what one admirer called ‘the science of right living.’ Amid the shifting sands of baseball excesses Cy Young was a rock.

Denny Young: Prime Years

In 1992, the 25-year-old Denny broke through with an outstanding all-around season, putting together a 19-6 record with a 2.64 ERA, and finishing third in the AL Walter Johnson Award voting.

The following year, 1993, marked the beginning of an offensive boom in the major leagues. Like most other pitchers, Denny’s rate stats suffered a bit over the next several years. But he has never wavered from his status as one of the most consistent, durable, and effective starters in baseball.

Denny has never been a dominant pitcher. He has a fine fastball, but there have always been others throwing harder, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens most obviously. Several aces have put up more impressive numbers than Denny. But few have been more consistently good, more reliably effective, than Denny. The pitcher he’s come to be most often compared with is Greg Maddux: Denny is bigger and stronger than Maddux, and throws harder, but in all other respects of style and demeanor they are quite similar. Denny hasn’t had quite the career of Maddux, but he’s close, and has gained ground in the past few years.

Durability has been Denny’s first distinguishing characteristic: year in and year out, he’s handled a full workload and practically never gotten hurt. While never a conditioning fanatic like some of his contemporaries – indeed, in recent years Denny has become a bit broad in the beam – his low-key, common sense lifestyle has served him well toward maintaining health and vigor. Working a classic smooth, easy, three-quarter delivery, he has not only avoided arm trouble, but even has seemed to get slightly stronger as the years have rolled by.

His most extraordinary hallmark is control. Denny arrived in the majors with good control, and from then on he has steadily improved it. He mixes a variety of breaking pitches in with his still-crisp fastball, and paints corners with astonishing precision. He is perennially at or close to the league lead in fewest walks per innings pitched, and in recent years his walk rate has approached historically great levels.

Through the age of 33, he had won 171 major league games, and had been one of the AL’s better pitchers for a decade. But in 2001 he signed with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent, and has proceeded to enjoy his greatest run of success. In his first year with Boston, Denny led the league in ERA and strikeouts, and finished a close second to Clemens in the AL Walter Johnson Award balloting — a result that stirred up a certain amount of controversy among the “stathead” community that generally felt Denny was more deserving. But in 2002, at age 35, Denny led the league in starts, complete games, innings, and wins, and this time he won a close WJ Award contest over Barry Zito.

Like The Big Unit, and like Curt Schilling, Denny has enjoyed his peak seasons in his mid-30s. He will be 38 in 2005, but he shows little sign of slowing down. The 300-victory plateau appeared unattainable to him just a few years ago, but with 251 through 2004, it now seems that he has a very realistic shot at the mark that would virtually assure him eventual election to the Hall of Fame.

Year   Club  Age   G  GS  CG   IP   W   L    H  BB   SO  HR   ERA
1989  CLE A   22   2   0   0    3   0   0    4   2    1   1  6.00
1990  CLE A   23  17  16   1   93   5   5  103  26   59   8  4.17
1991  CLE A   24  35  32   6  221  15  13  225  69  156  17  3.35
1992  CLE A   25  34  34  10  238  19   6  215  55  155  19  2.64
1993  CLE A   26  35  34   9  245  17  10  251  48  187  20  3.21
1994  CLE A   27  24  24   6  178  14   7  192  37  108  24  3.42
1995  CLE A   28  31  30   5  213 *19   6  191  45  185  19  3.31
1996  CLE A   29  35  35   9  259  19  11  247  53  229  27  3.48
1997  CLE A   30  32  31   3  216  14  13  234  40  162  27  3.97
1998  CLE A   31  33  33   7  235  18   9  241  35  182  28  3.53
1999  CLE A   32  33  33  *8  229  17   9  225  39  166  32  3.03
2000  CLE A   33  33  33   6  226  14  13  240  30  207  27  3.89
2001  BOS A   34  34  34   7  231  19   7  229  28 *225  24 *2.62
2002  BOS A   35  35 *35  *7 *241 *23   7  238  39  196  28  3.07
2003  BOS A   36  33  33  *9  265  20   9  258  28  201  30  2.97
2004  BOS A   37  33  33   3  218  18  11  239  21  185  32  3.57

          G   GS  CG    IP    W    L     H   BB    SO   HR  ERA
Career  479  470  96  3311  251  136  3332  595  2604  363  3.31

References & Resources
For a figure of such immense stature in baseball history, it’s amazing how few biographical resources on Cy Young exist — an illustration, perhaps, of just how much Young’s quiet, calm, rather bland personality allowed his feats to stand in unmatched disproportion to his personal fame. Despite the highly prestigious award named in his honor, it’s likely that many fans, asked to name the greatest players in baseball history, would list a dozen more prominent names before remembering Cy Young. And it’s a near certainty that practically no fans today know anything at all about Young’s life and character, while just about all are quick to offer an anecdote about Ruth, Cobb, or Williams, or even about such Young contemporaries as Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, or Cap Anson.

Fortunately, a few years ago Reed Browning wrote Cy Young: A Baseball Life (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000). This is a work of depth and seriousness worthy of its subject. It’s served as the primary non-statistical resource for this piece, and especially given the poverty of other sources focusing on Young, it has to be considered indispensable reading for anyone wanting to learn about the human being behind the number 511, and behind the name on the award.

The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (pp. 435-436) presents a few interesting tidbits of discussion about Young’s delivery and repertoire. But an excerpt from Browning’s book is the primary quote, and given Young’s massive legacy in the art of pitching, it’s a disappointingly meager entry in an otherwise richly informative work.

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