Why Cy?

While cruising through blogs and message boards, I recently noticed an alarmingly high rate of variations of the term “Cy Young potential.” I even read an analysis of Daniel Cabrera that mentioned how, on some nights, he managed to “look like Cy Young.” Seeing these assessments so frequently made me wonder: What does it mean to have Cy Young potential? Or, for that matter, to look like Cy Young?

Does it mean the pitcher has the potential to someday hold the career record for wins? The potential to hold the career record for losses? The potential to wear those old Cleveland Spiders uniforms? We so easily forget that, unlike the Most Valuable Player award, this seasonal pitching honor bears the name of an actual player. His name is generally associated with amazing pitching and, when my eventual grandchildren have their eventual grandchildren, Cy Young will still be remembered while so many others are forgotten.

Naming an award after an actual player indicates that he not only represents, better than anyone else, what the award reflects, but also that nobody else even comes to mind. Going off of that idea I decided to investigate the career and era of Cy Young to determine if he truly deserves to have a prestigious award named in his honor. Bill James, in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers and Bill Deane, in Total Baseball, have conducted studies similar to this and I highly suggest you get your hands on them. They are incredibly fascinating.

Who is Cy Young?

Right now, go find a baseball fan and ask him the above question. I guarantee that 100 percent of the time the first answer will involve his career-record 511 wins. Probe this fan further on subjects like the years in which Young played and the teams he played for and that the answers will be along the lines of… “Uh, the 1900s, for the, uh, the Philadelphia Athletics? Black Sox?”

Most of us know absolutely nothing about a man so often blindly anointed as the greatest pitcher of all time.

Cy Young played in the major leagues from 1890-1911 (22 seasons). From 1890-1898 he was a member of the Cleveland Spiders, before joining the St. Louis Perfectos for the 1899 and 1900 seasons. During those 11 years there was no American League. The National League was major league baseball. In 1901, when the American League formed, Young joined the Boston Americans. He was an “American” from 1901-1908. From 1909 until the halfway point of the 1911 season, he pitched for the Cleveland Naps, before finishing the 1911 season and his career as a Boston Rustler. Yes, he played for two different Boston and Cleveland teams.

Though his career ended in 1911, Cy Young still holds the records for career wins, career innings pitched, career games started and career complete games. Naming an award after a player essentially tells us that said player deserves to be forever commemorated for his accomplishments. Young’s award is given to the best/most effective pitcher of a given season, which suggests that Young was the best/most effective pitcher more seasons than anyone else in his career—but was he?

Cy Young Award history

First, we need to understand how the award came into existence.

In 1910, the Chalmers Automotive Group decided to award a free car to the batting champion in each league. On the final day of that season, Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie were neck and neck for the batting title. Lajoie’s Cleveland Indians were playing the St. Louis Browns and Jack O’Connor, the St. Louis manager, decided to play his infield back, which allowed Lajoie to get seven bunt singles and defeat Cobb for the title. Anger ensued, O’Connor was fired, newspapers dramatically spiraled in front of cameras, young children shouted “EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it!” and Chalmers changed his approach.

From 1911 until 1930 there were two different versions of the MVP award, though the one recognized today did not begin until 1931. In 1956, in deciding that pitchers should have their own award, Commissioner Ford Frick created the Cy Young Award. Begun a year after Cy Young’s death, the award was to celebrate the best/most effective pitcher in a given season. From 1956-1966 the award went to the best pitcher in all of baseball. In 1967 it began to be awarded to the best pitcher in each league.

We all know about Cy Young’s ridiculously high career numbers, but the award named after him refers to one season’s pitching. The question: Doesn’t that mean Cy Young would have needed to consistently be the best season-by-season pitcher during his career?

Cy Criteria

Cy Young had a great career as a whole, but I wondered how he fared in individual seasons based on the stats that are commonly used by analysts and writers when discussing the merits of a pitcher in a given season.

  • No. 1 in career wins, but led his league only four times, and was out of the top five nine times
  • No. 1 in career innings, but led his league only twice, and was out of the top five eight times
  • No. 1 in career starts, but led his league just once, and was out of the top five 14 times
  • No. 1 in career complete games, but led his league just once, and was out of the top five eight times
  • Led the league in ERA twice, and was out of the top five 10 times
  • Led league in K/BB 11 times, and was five times out of the top five

Cy Young rarely led his league in anything other than his proportion of strikeouts to walks and yet the award for best overall seasonal pitcher bears his name? Hmm.

How many Cys for Cy?

Since the Cy Young Award did not start until 1956, and the MVP did not come into play until the final year of his career, there is no way to determine how many “best pitcher awards” Cy Young would have racked up. In the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Bill James presented a formula that could be used to predict the Cy Young Award in a given season. The formula is designed to mirror the voting patterns since the award came into play by weighting the stats that seem to attract these voters. His formula looks like this:

Cy Young points = ((5*IP/9)-ER) + (K/12) + (6*W) – (2*L) + VB

The VB stands for Victory Bonus and awards an additional +12 to those on teams who win their division. James admitted, though, that while his formula is relevant for recent votes it might not have been applicable way back when. I agree because this does not take into account certain statistics that were more prominent in the early part of the 20th century. For instance, complete games were so prominent for the first half of the 20th century that it was considered “less manly” if you could not finish your own game. Wins were never at risk of any sort of drought, either, whereas today it is rare for someone to win 21-plus games.

With ideas like this in mind I came up with a slight derivative of James’ formula that will take into account these statistics relevant to the early years of baseball. I also factored in a type of K/BB ratio since players, despite occasionally recording high strikeout totals, would post high walks counts as well. For instance, between 1890 and 1892, Amos Rusie averaged 322 strikeouts and 273 walks per season. The 322 is very high but so is the 273. It would not seem fair to simply reward him for reaching that high a strikeout count if his BB count was just as high. My version of the Cy Young formula is below:

CY PTS = ((5*IP/9)-ER) + (K/12) + (4*W) – (2*L) – (GS-CG) – (BB/8)

I got rid of the Victory Bonus because, before divisional play, few teams would make the playoffs. Plugging the numbers into my formula, here are the results from 1890-1911, the duration of Cy Young’s career. Keep in mind that Young was in the NL from 1890-1900 and the AL from 1901-1911.

NL (1890-1900)            NL (1900-1911)                 AL (1900-1911)
1890   Bill Hutchison     1901    Noodles Hahn           1901     Cy Young
1891   Bill Hutchison     1902    Vic Willis             1902     Cy Young
1892   Bill Hutchison     1903    Christy Mathewson      1903     Cy Young
1893   Amos Rusie         1904    Joe McGinnity          1904     Jack Chesbro
1894   Amos Rusie         1905    Christy Mathewson      1905     Rube Waddell
1895   Cy Young           1906    Mordecai Brown         1906     Al Orth
1896   Kid Nichols        1907    Christy Mathewson      1907     Ed Walsh
1897   Kid Nichols        1908    Christy Mathewson      1908     Ed Walsh
1898   Kid Nichols        1909    Mordecai Brown         1909     Frank Smith
1899   Vic Willis         1910    Christy Mathewson      1910     Walter Johnson
1900   Joe McGinnity      1911    Pete Alexander         1911     Ed Walsh

Cy Young, in this system, would have deserved to win four Cy Young Awards during his 22-year career. Christy Mathewson, in only eight years of that same span, would have deserved to win five.

If we extend this to the end of Mathewson’s career, we see that he would have won seven awards out of the 17 years he played, a much higher percentage than Cy’s. There were six other multiple award-winners during Cy Young’s career: Bill Hutchison (three), Ed Walsh (three), Kid Nichols (three), Amos Rusie (two), Joe McGinnity (two) and Mordecai Brown (2).

Further application

The above results stem from the duration of Cy’s career (1890-1911) but there were 44 additional seasons following his retirement that could have been used to properly name this award. Without getting into all of the winners from those 44 seasons, I have listed the significant ones below. Oh, and in 1914, a pitcher by the name of Bill James would have edged out both Pete Alexander and Christy Mathewson!

Player            Awards   Years
Walter Johnson    8        (1912-16, 1918, 1924)
Christy Mathewson 7        (1903, 1905, 1907-08, 1910, 1912-1913)
Lefty Grove       7        (1928-33, 1935)
Pete Alexander    6        (1911, 1915-17, 1920, 1927)
Cy Young          4        (1895, 1901-03)
Bob Feller        4        (1939-40, 1946-47)
Robin Roberts     4        (1950, 1952, 1954-55)
Dazzy Vance       4        (1924-25, 1928, 1930)
Bill Hutchison    3        (1890-92)
Kid Nichols       3        (1896-98)
Bucky Walters     3        (1939-40, 1944)
Carl Hubbell      3        (1933, 1936-37)
Ed Walsh          3        (1907-08, 1911)

As you can see, four pitchers would have won more awards than Cy prior to the award being named. Three other pitchers equaled Young’s dominance, and five came very close to equaling Young’s dominance. To rename the award, though, we need to factor in some stipulations.

1) You must have retired before the 1956 season
2) You must have pitched at least 12 seasons (otherwise, small sample sizes can mislead)
3) Nobody else in your league, during your career, can have come within two awards

The first stipulation helps us to rename the award in a realistic fashion. Even if Robin Roberts had won the award for seven straight years, he was still pitching as the award was named. It would not have been realistic to expect Ford Frick to name the award after a player in the middle of his career. The last stipulation ensures that nobody else came close to equaling your dominance. To determine who the award should have been named after, we have to divide the number of hypothetical awards by the total number of seasons.

That shows us which pitchers won the most in the least amount of time, meeting those requirements. Here are the results:

Name                Awards   Seasons   Award %
Christy Mathewson   7        17        0.412
Lefty Grove         7        17        0.412
Walter Johnson      8        21        0.381
Pete Alexander      6        20        0.3
Dazzy Vance         4        16        0.25
Bob Feller          4        18        0.222
Cy Young            4        22        0.182

Christy Mathewson and Lefty Grove were each the best pitcher seven times and each pitched for 17 seasons. Either would have been very well-suited to have the award named for him. Of course, though, you want a clear-cut answer. To get that, we need to look at how much they came ahead of the second place finisher. Since they pitched in different decades, it would not be fair to compare their total Cy points earned. Looking at how much they finished ahead of the runner-up shows us how dominant their seasons were relative to who else was in their league.

In Mathewson’s seven award seasons, he finished ahead of the runners-up by an average of 45.9 Cy pointss. In Grove’s seven award seasons, he finished ahead of the runners-up by an average of 46.2.

Oh, come on! At this point, after looking at stats for 11 1/2 consecutive hours, I am willing to concede that the pitcher who deserves to have the award in his honor should come from whichever era you consider the best.

The bottom line here, though, is that Cy Young is not in the discussion. In fact, he would be seventh among those who won four-plus during their careers.

To make the Hall of Fame, you need to be one of the most dominant players at your position throughout your career. To have an award in your name you need to demonstrate, much more often than anyone else, what the award represents. While Cy Young was dominant enough to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, 12 pitchers were more dominant, equally dominant or very close to equaling Cy’s dominance during their careers. On top of that, one pitcher, Mathewson, was much more dominant than Cy Young during the career of Cy Young!

There were 66 seasons of major league baseball before this award was named. Just as he did with the Roger Maris asterisk, Ford Frick missed the mark.

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