In 1890, Denton True Young, a 23-year-old hurler for the Cleveland Spiders took the mound in the first of what would be a 24-season Major League career. He had been born just two years after the end of the American Civil War, while the Hatfields were feuding with the McCoys (or the other way ‘round; not placing blame here), and a dozen eggs cost about $0.35. His first season ended with 147.2 IP and an ERA of 3.47; fairly pedestrian numbers for somebody who would eventually have one of MLB’s most prestigious awards named after him.
It’s probably a good thing he went by “Cy” because the “Denton True Young Award” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Cy Young on Cy Young Day at the the Huntington Avenue Grounds, August 13, 1908. Via Boston Public Library pic.twitter.com/jhfZ4evp2Z
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) October 25, 2022
He may not have lit the world on fire in his first year, and those 1890 fantasy players were probably disappointed if they had over-invested their FAAB dollars, but it didn’t take long for him to make his mark on the game.
The very next season in 1891, he won 27 games in 423.2 innings with a sub 3.00 ERA and followed that up with an 1892 campaign that saw him win 36 games, pitch 453 innings, and sport a 1.93 ERA.
And these weren’t the only years in which his win total was greater than his age; he did that four times en route to a career 511 wins, 2,803 strikeouts, 7354.2 innings-pitched. His page at the National Baseball Hall of Fame says:
CY YOUNG PITCHED THE FIRST PERFECT GAME IN AMERICAN LEAGUE HISTORY WHEN HE LED THE BOSTON RED SOX TO VICTORY OVER CONNIE MACK’S PHILADELPHIA ATHLETICS ON MAY 5, 1904
I don’t know why they felt the need to shout, but clearly, this guy was good. Surely, had the award existed while he was playing, he would have won many Cy Young awards. Sadly, they did not.
But they do now, and each year we, the fans of baseball, get to argue about who is most deserving of the eponymous award and complain loudly and often when our guy loses out to somebody else. Sometimes it’s just the noise of sore losers.
And sometimes it is well-deserved.
And so we embark upon a journey of reflection of some of the biggest Cy Young award snubs of all time starting, of course, with the fact that Cy Young himself never won the award despite the fact that, “For 19 straight years, the right-handed pitcher was in the Top 10 in his league for number of innings pitched” (baseballhall.org).
What a sham.
The award goes back to 1956 when Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers won the very first one. Back then, there was not one award per league, just one overall, and Donny snagged it. So I also went back to 1956 and looked at a couple of elements to decide which losses felt the most “snubby.”
I relied heavily on https://cyyoungpitchers.com to get my initial picks mostly because, while most sites list the winners, and some list the runners-up, the wonderful folks over there also list vote points, number of first-place votes, and some helpful stats including Wins, ERA, and WAR. They also have descriptions of the voting process throughout the history of the award, and it has not always been the same.
We all know that these are not necessarily the marks of successful seasons, but in different eras, they did seem to rule the day. For example, there was a time when being a 20-game winner weighed heavily on the results.
So the first thing I looked at was how many first-place votes a player received and when it was close, it seemed as though it was likely it could have gone the other way. The next thing I considered was if there was a large gap between a winner’s WAR and any runners-up, even when WAR wasn’t really a thing. Finally, I looked at ERA discrepancies in the same way.
These are not perfect systems, but they gave me, and now give all of us, a starting point.
I have 29 players. The first came during the time when there was but a single winner and the remaining 28 have been broken in groups of four, each of which will have the snubbiest snub of the bunch giving us a grand total of:
The Eight Biggest Cy Young Snubs of All Time
A Group Unto Himself
1958 | Warren Spahn
"A sore arm is like a headache or a toothache. It can make you feel bad, but if you just forget about it and do what you have to do, it will go away. If you really like to pitch and want to pitch, that's what you'll do."
Warren Spahn pic.twitter.com/LUqoPZp1Ly
— Jim Koenigsberger (@Jimfrombaseball) October 19, 2022
Before we get going here, don’t feel too bad for Warren; he’d won the award the previous year in 1957. But a snub is a snub and winning the award the previous year shouldn’t have factored into the process. I’m not saying it did, I’m just saying it shouldn’t have. However it went down, Spahn lost to the Yankees’ Bob Turley by one vote.
What’s really wild about the process in the early days was how few voters there were. In 1956 and 1957 there were only 16 voters and in 1958 just 15. Five of those first-place votes went to Turley and four went to Spahn (three each to Lew Burdette and Bob Friend).
Pinstripe Alley, a Yankee blog, helps contextualize the season which was highlighted by an impressive showing in the World Series:
Turley won his first seven starts in 1958, including four shutouts and a one-hitter. And while Turley dominated on the mound all season, his performance against the Braves in the 1958 World Series was even more impressive.
With Turley on the mound, and the Yankees one game away from elimination, the team began what is widely considered to be the greatest comeback in World Series history. Turley threw a shutout in Game 5, picked up a 10th-inning save in Game 6 and another win in Game 7.
Who is to say what makes a pitcher “the best” in a given year, especially at a time when the analysis was more focused on games won than strikeout percentage or spin rate? Turley did have a better ERA than Spahn, 2.97 to 3.07, but Spahn had a better WHIP, one more win, more than 40% fewer walks, and nearly 45 more innings-pitched.
Spahn’s WAR was also 4.1 to Turley’s 3.6, but to be fair to the voters, they didn’t know what that was.
In the end, the World Series performance likely iced it for the Yankee ace. It came down to a single vote. Spahn had already won one. A coin-toss? Maybe. But that’s almost the definition of a snub.
1969 | Denny McClain (AL) 1970 | Sam McDowell (AL)
1971 | Wilbur Wood (AL) 1974 | Phil Niekro (NL)
In 1969, Mike Cuellar and Denny McClain both won and both lost. They actually tied, both having received 10 first-place votes each. Can you be a snub if you won the award? If you deserved to win it all on your own, then absolutely you can. That year, McClain won 24 games to Cuellar’s 23. McClain threw around 35 more innings and while his ERA was 2.80 to Cuellar’s 2.38, a fact that probably carried far more weight than it should have, Denny’s WAR was 8.1 to Mike’s 4.4. Maybe the pitcher that got the biggest shaft was actually Jim Perry, whose 6.3 WAR only garnered 3 first-place votes, but he wasn’t close to winning, so it’s hard to call him a snub.
The 1970 American League winner wound up being the aforementioned Jim Perry who received 55 vote points. You might imagine that the snub came in just under that in second place but if you did you’d be wrong. Dave McNally got 47 points, putting him in second place, and our man Sam McDowell was actually the third-place finisher with 45 votes (a familiar name, Mike Cueller came in fourth, but tied Perry with 6 first-place votes; that probably didn’t feel great). There were a total of 7 vote getters and what makes this a particularly brutal year of voting is that Sam McDowell had the highest WAR of the group at 8.3 while the first and second-place finishers accumulated just 3.8 each. Sam’s ERA was also the lowest of the three at 2.92 (compared to 3.04 and 3.22) and he struck out 304 batters. In case you missed that, I’ll write it again in bold this time. McDowell had 304 strikeouts in 1970. Perry and McNally had 168 and 185, respectively. That is quite a thing. What likely mattered far more than it should have is that both Perry and McNally won 24 games and McDowell won just 20, but it’s hard to say, looking back with the context we have now, that McDowell did not have the best season that year.
In 1971, the American League Cy Young went to Vida Blue of the Oakland Athletics. If there was an award for the name that conjures the most calming imagery, Vida would be a shoo-in. In this case, however, it was his 98 vote points, including 14 for first place, that got him the honor. The second-place finisher, Mickey Lolich, got 85 vote points. A close race, but between the two, justice was served. The snub here was Wilbur Wood who put up an 11.7 WAR season and only got 23 vote points with just a single first-place vote. Blue probably still should have won on the numbers, but the discrepancy in the vote was nearly criminal so this definitely qualifies as a snub.
The NL award in 1974 went to Mike Marshall. He got 96 total vote points, 17 for first place. It was a landslide victory but it should not have been. This is another instance where the third-place finisher did not get his due, but this time, the stats support that he probably should have won. Phil Niekro got a measly 15 vote points but had a 7.9 WAR to Marshall’s 3.1 And if you’re sick of WAR, Niekro also outpaced him in ERA, WHIP, Wins, Strikeouts, and IP and came in third. Third!
Biggest Snub in Group A: Sam McDowell, 1970 (AL)
#ICYMI: The character of Sam "Mayday" Malone, the alcoholic ex-#RedSox pitcher portrayed by Ted Danson in Cheers, was loosely based on the #Indians lanky, real, hard-throwing "Sudden" Sam McDowell. "I would say I'm better with women than [Sam Malone] was," McDowell later joked. pic.twitter.com/3Prhl4Wkqy
— Earl Weaver's Last Hurrah (@1982Orioles) September 27, 2020
1976 | Mark Fidrych (AL) 1977 | Rich Reuchel (NL)
1977 | Nolan Ryan (AL) 1979 | Tommy John (AL)
The 1976 AL Cy Young voting was overwhelming, giving Jim Palmer the honor with 108 vote points. He got 19/24 first-place votes and left second-place finisher Mark Fidrych in the dust. Whether you remember him from his playing days, or simply recall his work as a spokesperson for insurance, most baseball fans know Jim Palmer was awesome. But that doesn’t mean Mr. Fidrych didn’t deserve his due. Mark had a better ERA, 2.34 to 2.51, and the two men’s WHIPs were separated by just 1/1000th of a point. Palmer won 3 more games that year but crossed what was an all-important threshold of 20 (22 vs. 19) and outpaced Fidrych in strikeouts by 62 (159 vs. 97). But what’s a killer is, and hear me out on this WAR thing, Mark had a 9.6 WAR versus Jim’s 6.5 and that was the highest of all nine vote-getters. Between that and the drubbing he took in the voting (108 vs. 51), Mark got snubbed.
1977 saw the NL award go to Steve Carlton who won 23 games, the most of any vote-getter, in what seems to have been a race to the most wins means you win the Cy Young as well. This is another case of the second-place finisher probably deserving to finish in second and our snub candidate being the third-place vote-getter. It’s also another case based mostly on WAR and the ridiculous nature of the lopsided voting being so out of line with it. Rich Reuchel had a 9.5 WAR and lost to two guys with 5.9 and 4.4, respectively. Whatever the criteria and methodology, it seems flawed if it’s off by this much.
Nolan Ryan is a household baseball name and while he had a storied career full of milestones and successes, one thing he did not win was the 1977 American League Cy Young Award. Sparky Lyle and his 26 saves did. And while I cannot cite WAR as a reason Ryan should have beaten Lyle due to the positional variance, I feel obliged to point out that it was the second-highest among all vote-getters, only surpassed by Frank Tanana who, ironically, finished dead last and may have his own case as a snub after receiving just 3 vote points. And how do we draw a line of comparison between Nolan Ryan and Sparky Lyle given their completely different roles and seasons? For that matter, why did Lyle beat out Jim Palmer who finished in second place? The difference in the vote points between first and fourth was just 11 (56 – 49) which clearly shows that the writers were a bit split as well.
1979 was a weird year in American League. While Tommy John is the snub candidate here, this may actually be more of a case of the least-deserving winner in all of Cy Young history which really makes every other vote-getter a snub. Worse yet, the voting wasn’t even close. Mike Flannigan of the Orioles won, getting 26 of 28 first-place votes and 136 vote points compared to second-place finisher Tommy John who received just 51 total and a single first-place vote. Jerry Koosman and Dennis Eckersley both had 7.2 WAR seasons and finished with just 5 and 1 total points each, respectively. Flannigan did not have the lowest ERA of vote-getters. He did not have the lowest WHIP, the most strikeouts, the best K/9, or the best ERA+ of the group. He did have the most wins at 23 to Tommy John’s 21. It was the only season Mike Flannigan ever received Cy Young votes and, while he had a heck of a season, it seems that having been the guy with the most wins was a really big deal and definitely should not have been.
Biggest Snub in Group B: Tommy John, et al, 1979 (AL)
Happy 79th Birthday to Tommy John! After his revolutionary surgery in 1974 at age 31, Tommy won 164 more games, made three All-Star teams and was the NL Cy Young runner-up in '77. pic.twitter.com/znW0flHvsT
— 1974 Baseball Tweets (@1974Baseball) May 22, 2022
1980 | Mike Norris (AL) 1983 | Dan Quisenberry (AL)
1984 | Dave Stieb (AL) 1987 | Rick Sutcliffe (NL)
In 1980, the AL Award was given to Steve Stone who you might remember from… well, you probably don’t remember him at all. This was the only season in which he received Cy Young votes and only made 15 additional appearances thereafter. Mike Norris finished second despite having the exact same number of first-place votes as Stone (it was the rest of the formula that gave Steve the 100-92 vote-point victory). The reality here is that Norris almost unquestionably deserved to win. Yes, he had a higher WAR, but also a much better ERA (2.53 vs. 3.23), WHIP (1.048 vs. 1.297), strikeouts (180 vs. 149), and innings pitched (284.1 vs. 250.2). Stone had 25 wins to Norris’ 22 in what can only be explained as a significant over-emphasis on win totals. Norris got jobbed.
Dan Quisenberry is a name I remember from my youngest days of collecting baseball cards which is apropos of nothing but gives me a chance to tell you that in 1983 he lost the AL Cy Young to LaMarr Hoyt. I do not remember him from my early baseball card-collecting days at all. Not one bit. Quisenberry was a submariner and a closer at a time when maybe people didn’t know exactly how to value closers. The comparisons are tough: Quisenberry had an ERA of 1.94 to Hoyt’s 3.36. But… closer and starter. But, for more useful context, Jack Morris, Richard Dotson, Ron Guidry, and Scott McGregor, all starters who got Cy Young votes, all had better ERAs than Hoyt. What LaMarr had going for him was having the most wins in the American League for the second year in a row: 19 in 1982 and 24 in 1983. And even as a closer, Quisenberry had the highest WAR of all vote-getters. Jack Morris makes a pretty good honorable mention here as a snub candidate as well with his 20 wins and 232 strikeouts, but in the end, the closer seems to have been stiffed for being a closer.
In 1984 the American League saw Willie Hernandez rack up 32 saves on a 1.92 ERA and 7.2 K/9. He got 12 first-place votes and netted 88 total to beat out Dan Quisenberry (who probably was getting sick of being beaten out) by 17. Dave Stieb, on the other hand, got just one. He and Jack Morris tied for dead last in Cy Young voting. This one may be more of a “Dave Stieb didn’t get his due” rather than “Willie Hernandez didn’t deserve to win” kind of snubs, but Stieb had the best WAR of the bunch at 7.9 and also racked up 198 strikeouts over 267 innings. That dude deserved more than one vote point.
The National League Race in 1987 was bonkers. Nolan Ryan had 270 strikeouts, maintaining an 11.2 K/9 over 211.2 innings. His teammate, Mike Scott, added another 230 Ks to that total. They finished in 5th and 6th place respectively. Bob Welch had the highest WAR at 7.1 and Rick Sutcliffe won the most games with 18 victories. Perhaps it was because he did not break the magical 20-game threshold that most wins didn’t push him over the finish line, or maybe it was the fact that Steve Bedrosian saved 40 games with a 2.83 ERA and people were falling in love with lights out closers, but Rick lost to Steve by just 2 vote points. Getting that close and being a starter versus a closer is snub-ville.
Biggest Snub in Group C: Mike Norris, 1980 (AL)
Mike Norris pitched (10) seasons and logged (22) of his (58) career Wins in a single campagin (1980) pic.twitter.com/OsTIi3NbZr
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) January 17, 2021
1988 | Dennis Eckersley (AL) 1990 | Frank Viola (NL)
1990 | Roger Clemens (AL) 1993 | José Rijo (NL)
1988 must have been the year that the dominant closer stopped getting a bump in the vote because the American League Cy Young went to Frank Viola in a landslide. He got 27 of 28 first-place votes and won with 138 vote points to Dennis Eckersley’s 52, which gave him a second-place finish. What stinks for Eck, besides his sneaky cheese, is that he saved 45 games for Oakland that year and was a big part of the team making it to the World Series. His ERA was 2.35 with a 0.867 WHIP. Snub.
Maybe karma got the best of things in 1990 because the National League award went to Doug Drabek of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Frank Viola finished third place despite having around 30% higher WAR, a better ERA, and about 50 more strikeouts than Drabek. Viola got zero first-place votes and 99 fewer total vote points than Drabek. This feels like not only did Drabek run away with an award he may not have totally deserved, but the disrespect on Viola’s name was brutal too. Maybe Eck put a hex on him.
1990 continued to be weird as the American League award went to a guy with a 2.9 WAR while Roger Clemens gathered 10.4. Clemens’ ERA was almost a full run lower than Bob Welch’s. Roger had a 1.082 WHIP to Bob’s 1.223 and Clemens struck out 209 batters. Bob Welch struck out 127. Clemens won 21 games that year, but Bob Welch won an amazing 27 on an Oakland team that finished 9 games ahead of the pack in the AL West. However, how much of that win total was because the A’s were a great team? It’s entirely possible Clemens would have won over 30 with that squad.
The 1993 NL award was a landslide for Greg Maddux who, if you don’t know, was a very good pitcher. Maddux got 119 vote points and 22 of the 28 first-place votes. He had a 5.8 WAR season. José Rijo finished with 8 vote points, none for first place, and had 9.2 WAR season. The stat lines were also very similar in ERA and WHIP and Rijo struck out 30 more batters than Maddux. José only collected 14 wins to Greg’s 20, and that feels like a major factor here. Rijo finished 5th in the voting, behind all guys that had won 20+ games. Just doesn’t seem fair to have that be such a large component.
Biggest Snub in Group D: Roger Clemens, 1990 (AL)
8/30/90 Roger Clemens hits the 20-win mark for the third time in five years. From 1986 through 1990 he goes 100-42. #DirtyWater pic.twitter.com/kzSPAqmIiX
— ⚾ J. Daniel ⚾ (@JDaniel2033) August 30, 2022
1993 | Kevin Appier (AL) 1996 | Kevin Brown (NL)
1998 | Kevin Brown (NL) 2001 | Mike Mussina (AL)
1993 continues with the AL award going to Jack McDowell of the White Sox. Of the top three finishers, he had the lowest WAR, the highest ERA, the highest WHIP, and the fewest strikeouts. He got 21 of 28 first-place votes based almost solely on 22 wins; he was the only one in the group to get to 20. But c’mon, man! Randy Johnson finished second in the voting and had a whopping 308 Ks. Kevin Appier, however, got mega-jobbed getting just one first-place vote and 30 vote points to McDowell’s 124. Appier had a 9.3 WAR and Jack earned 4.4. Kevin also had the lowest ERA and WHIP of the bunch as well.
In 1996, Kevin Brown got snubbed and it wouldn’t be the last time, but, to be fair, it was a minor snub. The National League award went to John Smoltz who had an amazing year for a fantastic team. Smoltz had 24 wins to Brown’s 17 and John struck out an incredible 276 batters while Kevin struck out just 159. Brown, however, had a very impressive 1.89 ERA to Smoltz’s 2.94. This may be more of a case of Brown not getting his due than Smoltz being undeserving, but I bet it felt just as lousy to lose.
Kevin Brown’s 1998 snub was a bit more of a gut punch. The National League award went to a starter, so it’s not like he was simply beaten out by Trevor Hoffman’s insane closer performance (which did beat out Brown as Hoffman finished second and Brown finished third, but I digress…). It was another Atlanta arm that stole the show as Tom Glavine took home the hardware. The 20-win thing seemed to be a big deal again as Brown had a better WAR, ERA, and WHIP. He also struck out 100 more batters than Glavine and still lost 99-76 in vote points as well as 12 points behind the aforementioned Hoffman. Brutal.
There were six vote-getters in the American League in 2001 with Roger Clemens running away with the victory. Mike Mussina finished 5th with just 2 total points. Here’s the thing, of those six, he finished second in ERA, first in WHIP, first in strikeouts, and first in WAR. Clemens finished first in… votes. That’s it. Not only that, he was LAST in ERA and WHIP. What gives?
Biggest Snub in Group E: Kevin Brown, 1998 (AL)
Kevin Brown pitching during his 16 strikeout performance in game 1 of the 1998 #NLDS pic.twitter.com/nSr0DcJUI8
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) October 12, 2022
2004 | Randy Johnson (NL) 2005 | Dontrelle Willis (NL)
2005 | Johan Santana (AL) 2012 | Justin Verlander (AL)
The 2004 NL Cy Young winner was Roger Clemens instead of Randy Johnson. Clemens received 23 of 32 first-place votes and beat out Johnson 140-97. Roger won 18 games to Randy’s 16, but Johnson had the better ERA, WHIP, and K/9. He had more strikeouts, the highest WAR of all vote-getters, and walked less than 2 batters per nine innings. Maybe the voters that year were bird lovers?
In 2005, the National League award went to Chris Carpenter by 20 vote points over Dontrelle Willis. Dontrelle won more games, had a lower ERA, and a higher WAR. Carpenter did strike out 43 more batters, which must have earned him the 19 first-place votes to Willis’ 11 to push him over the finish line.
Continuing the 2005 trend, the AL had its own snubbery as the winner was Bartolo Colón who won 21 games that year but was second-to-last among vote-getters in ERA and likely wasn’t even the most deserving starter as Johan Santana nearly doubled his WAR with a lower ERA and WHIP with 238 strikeouts to Bartolo’s 157. Mariano Rivera probably had a better case than Colón, too, but Santana should’ve walked away with the hardware.
The NL award in 2012 was given to David Price over Justin Verlander by just four vote points, 153-149. In any photo finish, it’s almost an automatic snub to whichever guy loses because both were deserving. In this case, however, the WAR suggests that the voters got it wrong for sure.
Biggest Snub in Group F: Johan Santana, 2005 (AL)
Three pitchers from the Washington Senators/Minnesota #Twins have struck out 200 or more batters and walked less than 50: Walter Johnson (1913), Jim Kaat (1967), and Johan Santana (2005-06). @Twins #mlb @mlb @johansantana pic.twitter.com/pZa29G2IXI
— Retro Baseball (@retro_baseball) January 7, 2020
2015 | Zack Greinke (NL) 2016 | Justin Verlander (AL)
2018 | Aaron Noa (NL) 2021 | Zack Wheeler (NL)
The 2015 NL award went to Jake Arrieta over Zack Greinke 169-147. Arrieta won 22 games and was the only pitcher of the vote-getters to go over 20 wins. However, Zack had a better ERA and WHIP and a slightly higher WAR. This case is less about whether it should have been close, because both clearly had fantastic seasons (8.3 and 9.1 WAR), but more of a case that in nearly any other year Greinke could’ve run away with it. And if one should have edged out the other, it probably should have been Zack beating out Jake.
The American League award in 2016 was given to Rick Porcello, at the time with the Boston Red Sox. He had a surprisingly good and resurgent year, but it may be one of the worst wins of all time. He went 22-4 which is an incredible record, but looking at the individual skills over which he had more control, Verlander had a lower ERA, lower WHIP, nearly double the WAR, and 65 more strikeouts. If this was to be redone today, it would almost certainly go to Verlander over Porcello.
In 2018, the NL Cy Young was awarded to Jacob deGrom in an absolute drubbing. deGrom got 29 of 30 first-place votes getting a total of 207 vote points. He was absolutely awesome, so this snub is more of an, “it stinks to have been really good the year deGrom was also so good” kind of a snub. Aaron Nola got just 86 votes despite having the highest WAR of all vote-getters that year, including deGrom.
The 2021 season was a comeback after Covid spectacular. The National League Cy Young was a barn-burner between Corbin Burnes and Zack Wheeler with the former beating out the latter. The final vote tally was 151-141 with both pitchers getting 12 first-place votes. Both had incredible cases to be chosen, but, again, if it was a horse race with a photo finish and one had to edge out the other, Wheeler’s 7.6 WAR should’ve edged out Burnes’ 5.6.
Biggest Snub in Group G: Justin Verlander, 2016 (AL)
The Eight Biggest Snubs
So there you have it folks, a very long list full of information that you probably mostly disagree with! Before we part ways (hopefully still as friends), here is a quick recap of the eight biggest Cy Young snubs of all time, in chronological order, not the greatest degree of snubbiness:
Warren Spahn, 1958 (MLB)
Sam McDowell, 1970 (AL)
Tommy John (and everybody else that year), 1979 (AL)
Mike Norris, 1980 (AL)
Roger Clemens, 1990 (AL)
Kevin Brown, 1998 (AL)
Johan Santana, 2005 (AL)
Justin Verlander, 2016 (AL)
May the great debate begin!
Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)