Friday, November 14, 2008

Cy Young Award history

Now that Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum have been named the latest Cy Young Award winners, it's worth a moment to look at the history of the award.

The idea for the Cy Young Award came out of the belief that pitchers should be honored separately from position players. In one of his few positive accomplishments, commissioner Ford Frick helped orchestrate the new award, which initially honored one pitcher in both leagues, as selected by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Frick instituted the award partly because pitchers received little representation in the MVP voting. So it’s ironic that the first Cy Young winner was the man who also won that year’s MVP award: Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe in 1956.

(In fact, pitchers’ eligibility for both awards has never been addressed by the BBWAA, and every time a guy wins both, griping can be heard all over the land. The gripers do have a point: Why should one group of players have the chance to win two awards, while everybody else can only win one? The flip side is just as frequent: When a pitcher has a dominant season, some writers refuse to vote for a pitcher; that’s what happened to Pedro Martinez in 1999, when two writers left him off their MVP ballots entirely. The BBWAA can resolve the issue pretty easily—by rendering pitchers ineligible for the MVP Award—but for some reason, they haven’t.)

After Newcombe won, his career pretty much fell apart, making him the first victim of the so-called Cy Young Jinx. Supposedly, the Jinx strikes pitchers the year after they win, and a cursory look at the record gives that theory some credence. Some infamous Jinx victims include Bob Turley, Mike Marshall, Steve Stone, Pete Vuckovich, LaMarr Hoyt, and John Denny. However, superstitions aside, it’s pretty easy to figure out why the Jinx struck these guys: they were above-average pitchers who had one great season that was good enough to win them the award. It’s hard enough to have a good season, let alone a great season, and it’s unfair to expect these pitchers to have consecutive great seasons.

Pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson—all multiple award winners—were (or are) legitimately great pitchers from whom great seasons are expected. The Cy Young Jinx is, in fact, simply a matter of a pitcher returning to his old self.

Back to the award history: At commissioner Frick’s insistence, the first 11 awards were given to the best pitcher in both leagues. When he retired, the award was changed to honor one pitcher in each league, which is how we have it today; it never did make sense to have Koufax compete with Whitey Ford, but most of what Frick did made no sense, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

At first, the voting structure was kind of screwed up: one writer in each major league city placed a single name on the ballot, and the pitcher who got the most votes won. MVP Award voting, on the other hand, features a weighted ballot on which writers place 10 names in descending order. In 1969, the screwed-up voting system victimized the BBWAA when Mike Cuellar and Denny McLain tied for the award with 10 votes apiece. After that, the voting changed to an MVP-like weighted system—voters placing three names on their ballots with five points going to the first-place pitcher, three to second place, and one to third place. That’s how it is today, and it’s a good system.

Here's a list of multiple award winners (H/T

7 - Roger Clemens
5 - Randy Johnson
4 - Steve Carlton
4 - Greg Maddux
3 - Sandy Koufax
3 - Pedro Martinez
3 - Jim Palmer
3 - Tom Seaver
2 - Bob Gibson
2 - Tom Glavine
2 - Denny McLain
2 - Gaylord Perry
2 - Bret Saberhagen
2 - Johan Santana

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