This article was written by Monte Cely
This article was published in 2008 Baseball Research Journal
Major League Baseball marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Cy Young Award in 2006. The award was established in 1956 by Commissioner Ford Frick to honor the best pitcher in major league baseball. The award was named for all-time wins-leader Denton True “Cy” Young, who had died the year before, in 1955. Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) vote for the award, with two writers per team in each major-league city casting the ballots. Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers was the first recipient.1
From 1956 through 1966, only a single Cy Young Award winner was named for all of Major League Baseball. Soon after Commissioner Frick retired, the rules were amended so that the award would go to a pitcher from each league. After Denny McLain and Mike Cuellar tied for the AL award in 1969, the rules were further adjusted to allow the BBWAA voters to cast “weighted” votes for first, second, and third places. It was not until 1974 that a reliever, Mike Marshall of the Los Angeles Dodgers, won the Cy Young Award. Since then, eight more Cy Young Awards have gone to the key man from the bullpen. Through 2006, about 10 percent of all Cy Young Awards (nine of the 92) have been bestowed on the relief ace (see table 1).
What achievements got them the nod, and why did these nine relievers get selected over a starter? This paper will examine the historical context, key performances and statistics for the Cy Young award-winning relievers, compare their achievements to those years’ top starters, and attempt to draw conclusions as to what factors led to their selections.
Several articles in The Baseball Research Journal (BRJ) have examined the Cy Young Award and in particular sought to predict which pitchers may have won the award in years before its establishment in 1956. The subject of relief pitchers winning the Cy Young has been touched on, albeit lightly, in some of these earlier research papers.
Lyle Spatz (BRJ, 1988) reported the results of a survey conducted by SABR members to determine pre-1967 “winners” of retroactive Cy Young Awards.2 The only retro Cy Young to be awarded to a reliever in this survey was Jim Konstanty, on the strength of his NL MVP season for the pennant-winning Phillies “Whiz Kids” of 1950. Referring to Willie Hernandez’s AL Cy Young win in 1984, Lyle writes that it caused “much controversy, the usual refrain for a Cy Young Award winning relief pitcher. . . . a significant number of fans and sports writers oppose giving the award to a reliever.”
Alan and James Kaufman (BRJ, 1993) predicted retro Cy Young Award winners by looking at performance criteria and MVP voting.3 The authors directly address the question “what does it take for a relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award?” Their conclusions:
- Finishing high in MVP voting among pitchers does not guarantee that a reliever will win the Cy Young Award.
- Starters must falter to allow a reliever to win the Cy Young Award. (By “falter,” the authors really mean that the top starters did not finish highly in that season’s MVP voting.)
Stuart Miller (BRJ, 1995) advocated for more emphasis on individual statistics, such as ERA and WHIP, in the selection of the Cy Young Award winner.4 With respect to relievers, Miller concluded that “their role is so different, they should only compete for the Fireman of the Year Award.”
In previous research on the Cy Young Award (BRJ, 2007), I compared key individual-and team-oriented performance metrics to determine how often Cy Young Award winners (and their teams) led in the various statistical categories.5 I concluded that leadership in wins (credited to the pitcher) and team finish (did the pitcher’s team win their division?) were most often indicative of the Cy Young Award winner. The methodology used in that earlier paper did not appear to apply as well to relievers as to starters, and thus was planted the seed for the topic of this article you are now reading.
Here is some historical context for relief pitchers in their rise to prominence and recognition as legitimate candidates for the Cy Young Award:
1950. Jim Konstanty, relief ace of the Whiz Kid Phillies, wins the National League Most Valuable Player Award, the first reliever to be so honored. Konstanty went 16—7 with 22 saves in 74 appearances. Ironically, he lost his only start of the year when, in a 1—0 decision won by the Yankees, he pitched Game 1 of the World Series. All expert polls indicate that, if the Cy Young Award had been in existence, Konstanty would have won it.
1959. Elroy Face, relief ace of the Pittsburgh Pirates, wins 18 games against only 1 loss in 57 appearances. Face’s winning percentage of .9474 is the all-time highest for pitchers with more than 15 decisions in a season. He does not get even one vote for the Cy Young Award.
1960. A reliever is named on a sportswriter’s ballot for the first time in Cy Young Award voting. Lindy McDaniel of the Cardinals gets a single vote for his efforts as the ace of the Cards’ bullpen.
1973. Mike Marshall of the Montreal Expos finishes second in Cy Young voting. “Iron Mike” appears in 92 games (setting the record, since broken, for pitching appearances in a season), winning 14 and leading the NL in saves with 31. However, Marshall can’t match Tom Seaver’s strong performance for the pennant-winning Mets.
1974. Now playing for the Dodgers, Marshall breaks his own record for most appearances by a pitcher with 106, all in relief. This record still stands. Marshall also set a record, since equaled, for most consecutive game appearances as a reliever—13. He wins the first Cy Young awarded to a reliever, beating out teammate and 20-game winner Andy Messersmith.
1977. Sparky Lyle becomes the first reliever to win the Cy Young in the American League. Although he pitched significantly fewer innings than Marshall (137 versus Marshall’s 208.3), he still pitched almost two innings per appearance and led the AL with 72 appearances. Two AL starters, Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan, split the voting behind Lyle. Neither played for a division winner. None of the starters for the East Division—winning Yankees were truly overwhelming; Torrez led with 17 wins (14 after coming from Oakland early in the season), Figueroa and Guidry had 16 each, Gullet 14. Dennis Leonard of the Royals, champions of the Western Division, finished with 20 wins but in fourth place in the voting, one vote behind Ryan. Lyle never started a major-league game.
1979. Bruce Sutter wins the NL Cy Young. Sutter is considered the first of the “pure closers” to win the award. He is also known as the pitcher that brought the split-fingered fastball to prominence. Sutter logged 110 strikeouts in 101 1⁄3 innings across 62 appearances and led the NL with 37 saves. He continued the trend of a reduced number of relief innings pitched, appearing exclusively in the later innings of a game. Sutter narrowly won the Cy Young, collecting 72 points and 10 first-place votes versus 66 points and 9 first-place votes for Joe Niekro of the Astros. Niekro and his teammate J. R. Richard, also of the Astros’ rotation, split much of the remainder of the vote, as Richard finished third. Niekro tied for the NL lead with 21 wins, while Richard led in ERA and strikeouts for second-place Houston. On the division winners, Tom Seaver led the Reds with 16 wins, and John Candelaria led the Pirates with 14.
1981. This was the infamous “split season” brought on by a midyear player strike, which lasted from June 12 through August 9 and blew a hole in the heart of the baseball season. Winners were declared for each half of the season, creating the possibility of up to eight playoff teams. Rollie Fingers not only captured the AL Cy Young but also became the first relief pitcher ever to win both a Cy Young and an MVP Award. Fingers’s margin of victory over starter Steve McCatty of the A’s in the Cy Young voting (49 percent advantage in points and a margin of 16 [22 to 6] first-place votes) was the largest up to that time for a reliever over a starter. Although McCatty “led” the AL in wins, it was only 14, good for a four-way tie. Fingers clearly outdistanced the field in saves, with 28 over Goose Gossage’s 20. Along with his 6 wins, Fingers figured in 34 of the Brewers’ 62 wins. Fingers’s stellar 1.04 ERA this season is the lowest ever posted by a Cy Young Award winner (if you waive the innings-pitched requirement for consideration in league leadership).
1984. Relievers finished first and second in AL Cy Young voting this year. Willie Hernandez of the Tigers, the Eastern Division champions, took the Cy Young along with the American League MVP. Dan Quisenberry of the Royals, the Western Division champions, finished second in the Cy Young voting. Hernandez appeared in a major- league-leading 80 games for the Tigers, while Quisenberry led the AL with 44 saves. The Tigers won 104 games, winning the East by 15 games and winning 20 more games than did the Royals in the West. Although the Tigers had a strong season, none of their starters greatly outpaced the others—Jack Morris won 19, Dan Petry 18, and Milt Wilcox 17. Petry’s 3.24 ERA, the lowest among the Tigers’ starters, ranked only eleventh in the league among qualifiers. Hernandez’s ERA was 1.92 in 1401⁄3 innings; moreover, he had 9 wins.
1985. Hoyt Wilhelm became the first reliever elected to the Hall of Fame. Wilhelm pitched for 21 seasons (1952 to 1972) and was considered the greatest reliever of his era. Wilhelm never won a Cy Young Award, his prime years having been in the era of only one award for both leagues and when the bias against considering relievers for the award was firmer. Since Wilhelm’s election, he has been joined in the Cooperstown bullpen by Rollie Fingers (class of 1992), Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006), and Goose Gossage (2008).6
1987. Steve Bedrosian of the Phillies won the NL Cy Young by the smallest voting margin to date (4 percent over Rick Sutcliffe of the Cubs) of any reliever to receive the award. Although he polled the most total votes and the most first-place votes, his first-place votes were only 9 of 24. None of the division-winning teams had any dominating starters. Mike LaCoss and Rick Reuschel of the Giants, winners of the Western Division, had 13 wins each, and Reuschel tallied only 5 of those after being acquired midseason by the Giants. Danny Cox, Bob Forsch, and Greg Mathews of the Cardinals, winners of the Eastern Division, had only 11 wins each. Bedrosian figured in 45 (40 saves plus 5 wins) of the Phillies’ 80 victories, and his ERA of 2.83 bested all NL starters except for league-leader Nolan Ryan (2.76).
1989. Mark Davis won the NL Cy Young over starter Mike Scott of the Astros. Davis saved an NL-leading 44 games and won 4, figuring in 48 of the 89 wins for the Padres, who finished second. Davis with his 1.85 ERA bested all starting pitchers of record in the NL. For the third-place Astros, Scott led the league with 20 wins, but he had 10 losses and finished seventeenth in ERA (3.10) and a distant second in voting for the Cy Young. (Davis received 19 of 24 first-place votes.) The Cubs, winners of the NL East, had three of the NL’s winningest pitchers—Greg Maddux with 19, Mike Bielecki with 18, and Rick Sutcliffe with 16. For the Giants, winners of the NL West, Rick Reuschel led the club with 17 wins (good for fifth place in the league), and Scott Garrelts topped the NL in ERA (2.28) and won 14.
1992. Dennis Eckersley of the A’s won the AL Cy Young over starter Jack McDowell of the White Sox. Eckersley had a league-leading 51 saves and, added to his 7 wins, figured in 58 of the Athletics’ 96 wins. Eckersley’s 1.91 ERA was a full half-run better than that of the top AL starter (Clemens at 2.41), and his WHIP was below 1. Eckersley also ran away with the AL MVP vote, taking 15 of the 28 first-place votes and outpacing Kirby Puckett with an overall vote total of 306—209. Of the starters for the A’s, winners of the AL West, Mike Moore was 17—12 and Ron Darling was 15—10. Jack Morris of the Eastern Division—winning Blue Jays was 21—6 but placed out of the top 25 in ERA at 4.04, trailing several starters on his own staff.
1998. Trevor Hoffman of the Padres receives the most first-place votes for the NL Cy Young Award but finishes second to Tom Glavine in overall total points. Hoffman received 13 first-place votes to Glavine’s 11. Glavine’s overall total of 99 points bested Hoffman’s 88.
2003. Eric Gagne of the Dodgers won the NL Cy Young, beating out starter Jason Schmidt of the Giants. Gagne set a major-league record by converting 55 consecutive saves during the season. He posted a 1.20 ERA, allowing only 37 hits and 20 walks and striking out 137 in 821⁄3 innings for the second-place Dodgers. Gagne received 28 of 32 first-place votes in the widest margin for an NL reliever who has won the Cy Young. Gagne’s 6.23 walk plus hits per 9 innings is the lowest ever for a Cy Young Award winner.
STATISTICAL ANALYSES AND DISCUSSION
Relievers have won the Cy Young Award nine times and nine times have finished second (see appendix for details). On one occasion, in 1984 in the AL, relievers finished first and second in the Cy Young voting. And so, on eight occasions a starter finished first and a reliever second and on another eight occurrences a reliever finished first and a starter second. With respect to some key performance indicators (from appendix), here are some comparisons for those 16 seasons:
There appear to be no mano a mano same-season comparative-performance metrics that dictate when a reliever wins the Cy Young Award as opposed to when a starter edges out the reliever who got the most points. With respect to ratio statistics, such as ERA and WHIP, the reliever appears to perform better regardless of whether or not he wins the Cy Young, although much of that may be explained by relievers pitching far fewer innings than do starters. It’s probably a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition that, to contend seriously for the Cy Young, a reliever have a superior ERA. It also appears that a starter’s chances are diluted when he does not pitch for a division-winning team.
Historically, the relievers’ Cy Young Award wins are concentrated in the 1970s and 1980s:
This historic trend coincides with the evolving role and prominence of the relief pitcher as well as with the transition from a four-man to a five-man starting pitching rotation. The advent of a Cy Young Award in both leagues in 1967 also helped improve the chances that a reliever could win the award. Conversely, the ascendancy of middle relievers and setup men in recent years has probably reduced the chances for relievers to win the Cy Young Award in the future.
So, when do relievers win the Cy Young Award, and why?
Although Jim Konstanty of the 1950 Phillies probably would have won a Cy Young if the award had been in existence then, since its advent in 1956 the following are key events and trends:
The table began to be set for relievers in 1967, when Major League Baseball started awarding a Cy Young to pitchers in each league. As relief pitching (especially “closing”) became more prominent as a specialty and something clearly distinct from starting pitching, recognition for relievers gradually began to be registered in Cy Young voting. Concurrently, starting pitchers received fewer starts with the advent of the five-man pitching rotation, yielding fewer wins and fewer innings pitched.
From 1974 to 1992, relievers won eight Cy Young Awards. Three of these relief aces also won league MVP awards (all in the American League). Before 1974, no relievers won the Cy Young Award, and since 1992 only one reliever has won.
In reviewing the historical and statistical data, we can see that a reliever may win the Cy Young Award when the following conditions exist.
The reliever has superior “rate” statistics (especially ERA, and also WHIP) when compared to those of the contending starters, and one or more of the following also occurs:
There is no dominant starter in the league or no clearly superior “ace” on the staff of the contending teams.
The reliever has a record-setting season.
External forces (strike, shortened season, split sea-son, etc.) “muddy” the results among the starters, rendering the traditional “yardsticks” (20 wins, 200 innings pitched, 200 strikeouts) less meaningful.
Pitching is in a time of transition. The advent of the five-man rotation coupled with the advent of the specialized relief “closer” caused expectations for starters to change.
MONTE CELY lives in Round Rock, Texas, home of the popular minor-league affiliate of the Houston Astros. A longtime fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, he saw his first major- league game with his father at Sportsman’s Park (Busch Stadium I) in 1959, and then in 2006, with his son Matt, was in attendance for the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series–clinching game at Busch Stadium.
Thanks to Bill Gilbert and Jan Larson, members of SABR’s Rogers Hornsby Chapter (Central/South Texas), for their review of this paper and suggestions. Thanks also to Scott Flatow and Nick Frankovich for their editing, fact-checking, and enhancements.
Lyle Spatz, “Retroactive Cy Young Awards,” Baseball Research Journal 17 (1988): 2—5.
Alan S. Kaufman and James C. Kaufman, “Another Look at Hypothetical Cy Young Award Winners,” Baseball Research Journal 22 (1993): 65—70.
Stuart Miller, “How Voters Decide the Cy Young Award,” Baseball Research Journal 24 (1995): 157—59.
Monte Cely, “The Cy Young Award, Individual or Team Recognition?” Baseball Research Journal 35 (2007): 48—53.
National Baseball Hall of Fame, www.baseballhalloffame.org.
Sources and clarifications for the statistical table presented in appendix:
Statistics are from the Baseball Almanac website, unless noted below. For WHIP and innings pitched, statistics and rankings were taken from Baseball Reference, www.baseball-reference.com.
Cy Young voting was taken from the Baseball Reference website. Various statistics for the 1981 and 1994 seasons may seem low because of work stoppages.
Click the image below to download the appendix to Monte Cely’s article.