After the death of Cy Young in 1955, Major League Baseball decided to honor the greatest pitcher of all time by naming an award after him, and giving it to the best pitcher in the game (according to a poll of writers). It was soon doubled to cover both leagues.
But like the World Series Most Valuable Player Award, there were a lot of years and pitchers before the award was instituted.
So, what better way to kill some time in the off-season than wonder who might have won the award if it began in 1912, the year after Cy Young retired?
This is entirely my opinion. I’ll be mostly looking at Wins and Earned Run Average, because those were the numbers that mattered most back then. Teams didn’t have huge bullpens with late-game specialists like they do today; a pitcher was expected to start every fourth day and go as long as they could. I’ll start by visiting the Baseball Reference website and sorting pitchers by ERA+; it’s a good way to have the best pitchers rise to the top. It won’t be the only criteria; it’s no fun reducing things to a single number. I might look at things like WHIP in close cases.
It should be noted that for much of the 1920s, the leagues handed out their own MVP awards. Walter Johnson and Dazzy Vance were the only pitchers to earn that honor – both in 1924. Starting in 1931, the Baseball Writers Association of America began giving out the Most Valuable Player award that we know of today.
Prior to the Cy Young award, these pitchers won the MVP:
1931 Lefty Grove
1933: Carl Hubbell
1934: Dizzy Dean
1936: Carl Hubbell
1939: Bucky Walters
1942: Mort Cooper
1943: Spud Chandler
1944: Hal Newhouser
1945: Hal Newhouser
1950: Jim Konstanty
1952: Bobby Shantz
I will consider them in my selections – but I’m pretending I’m voting myself, so I won’t actually be beholden to them.
As always, feel free to bestow your own awards.
AL: Walter Johnson (33-12, 1.39 ERA, 303 K) of the Washington Senators led the majors in ERA and strikeouts, and was one win shy of leading in that category to Smokey Joe Wood (34-5, 1.91, 258 K).
NL: Rube Marquard had the better record (26-11 to 23-12), but the Giants’ Christy Mathewson’s ERA was way better (2.12 to 2.57).
AL: Walter “Big Train” Johnson was even better this year, going 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA and 243 K’s, leading the majors in each by a wide margin.
NL: The Phillies’ Tom Seaton (27-12, 2.60 ERA, and a league leading 168 Ks) will make it close, but Christy Mathewson (25-11) repeats thanks to a much lower ERA of 2.06
This year’s an interesting one. Do we include the Federal League? Why not?
AL: Voters might be tired of giving it to Walter Johnson, so the Red Sox’ Dutch Leonard may use his amazing 0.96 ERA (along with a 19-5 record) to eke out the win, even though he appeared in 15 fewer games.
NL: The Braves’ Bill James went 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA.
FL: Claude Hendricks of the Chicago Chi-Feds went 29-10 with a 1.69 ERA, racking up 34(!) complete games to lead ALL the leagues.
AL: Another one for Walter Johnson (27-13, 1.55 ERA, 203 Ks), who led the league in pretty much everything.
NL: Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Phillies led the majors in wins, strikeouts, and ERA (31-10, 241, 1.22).
FL: The Chicago Chi-Feds’ George McConnell (25-10, 2.20 ERA) just barely edges out Eddie Plank of the St. Louis Terriers (21-11, 2.08 ERA) because people back then liked Wins better than ERA+….
AL: Walter Johnson has an off year (25-20, 1.90 ERA), so the Red Sox’ Babe Ruth takes home the trophy (23-12, 1.75 ERA) despite pitching fewer innings. Hey, Johnson has enough of them, anyway.
NL: A repeat for Grover Cleveland Alexander, who leads the majors in wins (33-12), ERA (1.55) and the league in strikeouts (167).
AL: The White Sox’ Eddie Cicotte went 28-12 with an ERA of 1.53, leading the league in both.
NL: Grover Cleveland Alexander does it again, leading the majors in wins with a 30-13 record and strikeouts with 200. A 1.83 ERA helped, too.
AL: Walter Johnson won the pitching “triple crown” by leading the majors in wins with a 23-13 record, an ERA of 1.27, and 162 Ks.
NL: Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs led the NL in all those categories: 22-10, 1.74 ERA, 148 Ks.
AL: Eddie Cicotte gets the nod here over Walter Johnson thanks to a much better record: 29-7 to 20-14. Yes, Cicotte was on a pennant-winning team, and Johnson was better in ERA, strikeouts, and FIP, but they were pretty close on all the “rate” stats. It will be a close vote.
NL: Another one for Hippo Vaughn, who came in second in the league in wins (21-14) and ERA (1.79), and led the league strikeouts (141).
AL: Stan Coveleski of the Indians beats out the Yankees’ Carl Mays. Mays may have had the better record (26-11 to 24-14), but Coveleski had a much better ERA (2.49 to 3.06).
NL: Now pitching with the Cubs, Grover Cleveland Alexander led the majors in wins (27-14), ERA (1.91), and strikeouts (173).
AL: Red Faber of the White Sox led the majors in ERA with 2.48, and his 25-15 record was good for third in the majors in wins.
NL: Burleigh Grimes of the Dodgers finished with a 22-13 record, good to tie the Pirate’s Wilbur Cooper (22-14) for the league lead in wins; his ERA of 2.83 and 30 complete games gives him the edge.
AL: Red Faber repeats, leading the majors in innings pitched (352.0) and complete games (31), and the league in ERA (2.81), while building a record of 21-17.
NL: This is a close one. The Reds’ Eppa Rixey had the better record (25-13), but Wilbur Cooper of the Pirates (23-14) had a significantly better ERA (3.18 to 3.53).
AL: George Uhle of the Indians was by far and away the league leader in wins with a 26-16 record, but when it came to things like ERA and strikeouts, he was nowhere near the top. Still, he got some MVP consideration, so with few other people standing out…. Maybe Herb Pennock of the Yankees (19-6, 3.13 ERA, but only 238.1 innings pitched (#30 in the majors))….
NL: The Reds’ Dolfe Luque led the majors in wins (27-8), ERA (1.93) and was second in strikeouts (151).
AL: Walter Johnson led the league in wins (23-7), ERA (2.72), and strikeouts (158). That was good enough for the MVP Award, so… This is his fifth “Cy Young” award.
NL: The Dodgers’ Dazzy Vance won the MVP award in the National League, so…. (28-6, 2.81 ERA, 262 Ks)
AL: A close election, but I’m giving it to Cleveland’s Stan Coveleski (20-5, 2.84 ERA) over Walter Johnson (20-7, 3.07 ERA) and Ted Lyons (21-11, 3.26 ERA).
NL: Another close one. Dazzy Vance had the better record (22-9 to 21-11), but Eppa Rixey of the Reds had a much better ERA (2.88 to 3.53). Vance led the majors in strikeouts with 200, and got some MVP votes. You know what that means.
AL: The A’s Lefty Grove led the majors in ERA (2.51) and strikeouts (194), but it’s going to be really hard to overcome a 13-13 record. Cleveland’s George Uhle was second in the AL in both – and led the majors in wins with a 27-11 record.
NL: Ray Kremer of the Pirates had the best record (20-6) and ERA (2.61) in the league.
AL: Teammates Waite Hoyt and Wilcy Moore of the Yankees were the league’s best pitchers. Hoyt had the better record (22-7 to 19-7), but Moore had the better “rate stats” (ERA 2.28 to 2.63, for one). Moore was used more in relief (12 starts to Hoyt’s 32) and pitched fewer innings (213.0 to 256.1). If we go with those numbers, it looks like we’ll have to give it to Hoyt. However, Ted Lyons of the White Sox actually came in third in the MVP voting (22-14, 2.84 ERA, 307.2 IP), so he certainly would have won the award. He beat Hoyt in WAR (7.9 to 6.0) after all.
NL: Ray Kremer of the Pirates led the league in ERA with 2.47 while compiling a 19-7 record. The Cardinals’ Jessie Haines had a better record (24-10) with a close enough ERA of 2.72 in many more starts (36 to 28). The Cubs’ Charlie Root led the majors in wins with a 26-15 record, and came in fourth in the MVP voting. Your call – I’m going with Jessie Haines
AL: Lefty Grove tied for the lead in wins with a 24-8 record (the Yankees’ George Pipgras went 24-13) while compiling a 2.584 ERA (3rd in the league) and collecting a league-leading 183 strikeouts.
NL: Burleigh Grimes of the Pirates led the majors in wins (25-14) and innings pitched (330.2), and actually came in third in the MVP voting. Dazzy Vance of the Dodgers led the majors in strikeouts (200) and the league in ERA (2.09) while compiling a 22-10 record. And a 10.3(!) WAR. I’m casting my vote for Vance.
AL: George Earnshaw of the A’s led the majors in wins with a 24-8 record, but teammate Lefty Grove led in ERA with 2.81 and strikeouts with 170 while finishing with a 20-6 record.
NL: A close race between Burleigh Grimes (17-7, 3.13 ERA) and the Cubs’ Pat Malone (22-10 to lead the league in wins, 3.57 ERA). Malone happened to lead the league in strikeouts with 166, so…
AL: The A’s Lefty Grove won the Pitcher’s Triple Crown with a 28-5 record, a 2.54 ERA (in the best year ever for hitters, remember!), and 209 K’s – all of which led the major leagues.
NL: Despite a 17-15 record, Brooklyn’s Dazzy Vance kept his ERA down to a league-leading 2.61.
By the way, if you haven’t figured it out, the ones in italics are the pitchers I would vote for.
And if you thought I’d do the whole thing in one huge post when I can break it up and milk it for three or even four…you haven’t been following me long, have you.