Can a losing pitcher win the Cy Young?

November, 18, 2010
11/18/10
4:31
PM ET
OK, so we have our first Cy Young winner with a 13-12 record. That's some sort of progress, I suppose. How far can we take this thing, though? Would King Felix have won if he'd gone 12-13, instead? Or 9-16?

I wasn't able to conduct an exhaustive search, but here are seven pitchers who finished with outstanding Wins Above Replacement (WAR) but losing records ...

Jon Matlack, 1974 (8.6 WAR)
The Mets left-hander went 13-15 but led the National League with seven shutouts, and finished third in the league in ERA, fourth in strikeouts. His WAR was tops. The Cy Young went to marathon reliever Mike Marshall, with 20-6 Andy Messersmith scooping up most of the first-place votes that Marshall didn't get it. Nine pitchers were mentioned on Cy Young ballots. Matlack wasn't one of them.

Phil Niekro, 1977 (8.5 WAR)
Atlanta's knuckleballer went 16-20 in his 43 starts, finishing second in WAR and strikeouts while leading the National League in innings. Niekro's 4.03 didn't rank anywhere among the league's best, and he didn't garner a single point in the Cy Young voting.

Dave Roberts, 1971 (8.5 WAR)
Roberts, a conventional left-hander, went 14-17 for a San Diego squad that lost 100 games. Roberts' WAR was third best in the league, his 2.10 ERA second best. He showed good control and led the league in home-run ratio, but wasn't a strikeout pitcher (at all). He tied for sixth in the Cy Young balloting, picking up a couple of third-place votes. (Fergie Jenkins and Tom Seaver finished first and second, and did pitch better than Roberts.)

Roger Clemens, 1996 (7.7 WAR)
Clemens' ERA ranked just seventh in the American League, but his WAR was second best (not that we knew it, then) and he led the league in strikeouts. Clemens didn't appear on anyone's Cy Young ballot.

Bert Blyleven, 1976 (6.7 WAR)
His WAR was fourth best in the American League, his strikeouts third best, his ERA just ninth best. You really can't have a losing record and a non-impressive ERA and expect any Cy Young support.

David Cone, 1993 (6.6 WAR)
It's hard to figure how Cone's WAR was third best in the American League, as his ERA was just 10th best. He did rank fourth in strikeouts, but he also finished second (worst) in walks. Even ignoring his 11-14 record, there certainly wasn't anything there screaming (or even whispering) "Cy Young" (though Cone would pitch better for the Royals the next season, deserving and winning his only Cy Young Award).

Ben Sheets, 2004 (6.3 WAR)
Entering 2004 with a losing career record (33-39) and a subpar career ERA (4.42), Sheets halted one of those trends by posting a 2.70 ERA that ranked third in the National League. He also finished second in strikeouts and WAR (for pitchers) and third in innings. But his 12-14 record earned him just one point in the Cy Young balloting. It's hard to argue that Sheets deserved to win. Randy Johnson should have won ... but Johnson went 16-14 and lost to Roger Clemens (18-4).

Of course, everyone's favorite example is Nolan Ryan in 1987, when he led the National League with a 2.76 ERA but went just 8-16 and finished fifth in the Cy Young balloting. Ryan certainly pitched brilliantly that season. I don't think he deserved the big award. Ryan did lead the National League in both strikeouts and strikeout-to-walk ratio. But his home ballpark (the Astrodome) really helped pitchers, and his 212 innings was good for just ninth in the league.

Cy Young-wise, it was a weird year. Nobody won 20 games in the National League, which left the voters in a bit of a quandary. In what I'm guessing is the closest three-pitcher race in the history of the award, reliever Steve Bedrosian finished two points ahead of Rick Sutcliffe and three points ahead of Rick Reuschel. Meanwhile, the award probably should have gone to Orel Hershiser, who finished a distant fourth mostly because of his 16-16 record but posted a 3.06 ERA (third best) and threw more innings than anyone else.

Another famous example of wins trumping everything else is Bob Welch's Cy Young Award in 1990, when he went 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA and a pedestrian strikeout-to-walk ratio, while Roger Clemens went 21-6 with a 1.93 ERA and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the league.

What's odd, in retrospect, is that Clemens didn't go 17-12 or something. He won 21 games. But the voters simply couldn't stop staring at Welch's 27 wins, even though many of them knew perfectly well that Clemens had actually been the better pitcher.

I don't think that would happen today. Today, I think Clemens would win, and I think Hershiser might win, and I think Matlack would draw at least some support from the voters.

It's a funny thing about losing records, though. We all understand that a pitcher can control only so many things, and run support really isn't one of them. To a large degree, a pitcher's wins and losses are due to luck, and to his teammates. So if he pitches well but loses, we really can't hold that against him. Still, it seems to me that if a pitcher pitches really well -- is among the two or three best pitchers in the league -- it's still pretty hard to wind up with a losing record.

I think the Cy Young voters are ready to seriously consider supporting a losing pitcher. It's just not going to come up very often.

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