Every baseball fan knows the name of Cy Young, if for no other reason than baseball’s top annual award for pitching excellence is named in his honor. Most also know that he is the all time leader in pitching wins (511), a record that will almost surely never be matched.
However, the vast majority of fans who know of Young also tend to write him off because of the era he pitched in (1890-1911). His wins and losses are attributed to massive amounts of innings pitched every year (some years double the norm of today’s pitchers) and the relative absence of relief pitching. In other words, he was the beneficiary of quantity, not quality. This purpose of this article is to demonstrate that this perceived lack of quality is far from accurate.
It is true that baseball was a very different game in Cy Young’s day. Many rules were different, the teams and leagues of his early years are almost completely foreign to us, and the quality of equipment and training was vastly inferior. Yet the basics are still the same, and other pitchers of his era had the same rules and limitations as he did. He faced largely the same hitters as everyone else. And I argue that in order to gauge an athlete’s greatness, the only fair way is to compare him to his contemporaries. There are simply too many variables at play to directly compare him to modern pitchers. Instead, I will show that he was the best in his day, and that his legend as the first great pitcher in professional baseball is legitimate. Naming the Award after him at the time made perfect sense.
There were many changes in professional baseball during Young’s 21 seasons, but two rule changes in particular had by far the greatest impact on the game. In 1893, Young’s 3rd full season, the pitching mound was moved back five feet further from home plate to its present day 60 feet 6 inches. I don’t think I need to detail how enormous this change was. The new rule was implemented because hard throwers like Young were increasingly overpowering batters. So when I take a look at his career numbers, I am going to begin in 1893, and put aside his first two and a half years. Things were different back then, but to compare stats from a mound 5 feet closer than it would be during the next 115+ years would not be realistic.
The other game-changer came in 1903. The newly formed American League decided to adopt the National League’s rule of counting foul balls as strikes. Before that, only foul bunts, foul tips into the catcher’s glove, and some mysterious judgment call by the ump about a hitter’s ‘honest attempt’ to hit the ball were counted as strikes. Obviously, this new rule gave the pitchers a strong new advantage. Young’s strikeouts per nine innings rate jumped from 3.74 in 1902 to 4.64 in ’03 and rose to a career high 5.89 in 1905.
So, in order to best demonstrate Young’s success, I will talk about his statistics during two sections of his career: 1893-1902 and 1903-1910. In his final year, 1911, Young was 44 years old and played for two teams, pitching a career low 126.1 innings. For the sake of highlighting his great years, and thus displaying the reason why he was so revered back then, I will leave that final season out of the discussion. Arguing Michael Jordan’s basketball superiority would likewise skip over his final year in Washington. Neither Young nor Jordan were immortal or perfect, and that is not the issue here.
When the American League and National League came to terms in forming the Major Leagues (as we know it today) in 1903, Young had already been pitching with the mound at 60 feet 6 inches for ten full seasons. The statistics I will use to present his accomplishments at that time are the ones below. These have been gathered and created by Fangraphs, one of the best stat sites on the web. Understanding them is crucial to understanding Young’s dominance.
“ERA-” : Earned Run Average is a long used stat that lets us know how many (earned) runs a pitcher allows per game. A newer statistic, which adds a “-“, is a way of adjusting the ERA based on ballparks they played in. It is then expressed by a number in relation to other pitchers in that season. So we do not look at the number on its own as much as where it ranks him among his peers.
“FIP-” : Since I have no desire to get into the nitty gritty of sabermetrics, I will describe FIP as a measurement of the strikeout, walk, hit-by-pitch and homerun rates of a pitcher. It is not necessarily better or worse than ERA. It is simply measuring only these particular elements of a pitcher. And just like ERA- above, “FIP-” adjusts for ballparks and ranks the pitcher relative to others in that same season.
“K/9” : Strikeouts per 9 innings rate.
“BB/9” : Walks per 9 innings rate.
“K/BB” : Strikeout to Walk ratio.
“WHIP” : Walks and hits per inning pitched rate.
Add these all up and you get a pretty good idea of a pitcher’s ability when it comes to getting outs and strikeouts, giving up hits, walks, runs and homeruns. That pretty much covers it.
1893-1903 (Includes all pitchers who pitched 1500 innings or more during this time. This would be the equivalent of at least 6 of the 10 seasons at 250 innings per year, a seasonal total that was very common back then.)
During this span, here are Young’s stats:
FIP- (83) : 1st in baseball
BB/9 (1.45) : 1st in baseball
K/BB (1.99) : 1st in baseball
WHIP (1.20) : 1st in baseball
ERA- (72) : 3rd in baseball
K/9 (2.87) : 4th in baseball
In other words, he was the best at not allowing walks, or baserunners in general. It also indicates that he was one of the top three or four guys in striking batters out and not allowing runs to score. As a side note, the two pitchers who had a better ERA- during this era each pitched fewer than half as many innings as Young. Add to this that Young also lead this ten year span in Wins and Shutouts (31), and you can understand how he earned his reputation before joining the American League.
The final stretch of Young’s career is in many ways even more impressive. Young was 36 years old during the 1903 season, and was 43 during the last year accounted for here. In other words, past his prime. However, the new foul ball rule offset some of his aging, as he gained quite a few strikes from pitches that were fouled off. Strikes he had never gotten before.
To make this even more interesting, I will take Young’s numbers and hold them directly against the numbers of the widely acclaimed great pitcher Christy Mathewson during that same time span. Keep in mind that Mathewson was in his prime at this point, 23-30 years old.
1903-1910 (1250 innings minimum)
BB/9 : Young (1.09) 1st in baseball. Mathewson (1.74) 6th in baseball.
K/BB : Young (4.03) 1st. Mathewson (3.10) 3rd.
WHIP: Young (0.98) 1st. Mathewson (1.01) 5th.
FIP- : Young (76) 3rd in baseball. Mathewson (68) 1st in baseball.
ERA- : Young (79) 9th. Mathewson (68) 3rd.
K/9 : Young (4.41) 12th. Mathewson (5.40) 5th.
So even past his prime, Young was still the best at not walking batters and letting off hits. He placed extremely high in the other categories too. Mathewson was probably better than the older man during this time, but only by a little.
Cy Young was the best pitcher in baseball history leading into the newly formed league in 1903. And he could have gone toe-to-toe with the younger Mathewson on any give day during the eight years after that. Of course, Walter Johnson came along right at the end of Young’s career. He may possibly have been better than Young and Mathewson, but MLB was right to name the pitching award after Young. It not only celebrated the fathers of the modern game, but one of the best pitchers in the league’s history.