Now that Felix Hernandez has won the American League Cy Young award with a 13-12 record, it seems safe to declare an end to the era when the voting for the award was based largely, at times seemingly exclusively, on pitching wins and losses. Prior to Hernandez, the record for fewest wins by a pitcher to win the award in a non-strike year was 15 by the Giants' Tim Lincecum, and the AL record was 16 by the Royals' Zack Greinke. Both of those came last year, evidence that Hernandez's win is not an isolated event but rather the continuation of a trend that suggests pitchers are being evaluated more completely than ever before.
In fact, it has been five years since a pitcher was clearly robbed of the award because of an insufficient win total. However, misassigned Cy Young awards were commonplace during the first half-century of the award's existence. Even taking just a cursory look back at the results, one can find more than twenty examples of a pitcher who clearly didn't deserve the award winning it due to a sparkling won-loss record, and those were just the obvious ones. There were several other votes in which the matter is less clear-cut, but an argument could be made that the wrong man won.
Looking back, the end result of a lot of those errant votes was simply to shift the awards around among the game's best pitchers. It's a trend that began with the very first Cy Young in 1956, when Early Wynn of the Indians had 20 wins and posted a 2.72 ERA, 18 complete games and 155 strikeouts but lost to Don Newcombe of the Dodgers (each league wouldn't get its own winner until 1967), who went 27-7 but had a 3.06 ERA, 18 complete games and 139 K's. Wynn later won in 1959, beating a more deserving Vern Law, who then beat a more-deserving Don Drysdale in 1960. Drysdale was again the best pitcher in baseball in 1962, that time properly taking home the Cy Young award, though it should have been his second.
Of course, that's all handy coincidence, and those multiple wrongs don't make any of those misassigned awards right. Just ask Mike Mussina, the pitcher most likely to be harmed by that wins-based voting. Mussina should have won the AL award over his teammate Clemens in 2001, but instead ended his career without a Cy Young. For a lesser pitcher that would have been a simple disappointment, but for Mussina, a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, that could prove to be a crucial omission from his resume when he comes up for election in 2014.
Not every miscast Cy Young vote is based on wins and losses. For one thing, there's not always single obvious alternative for every undeserving winner. That can make the wins-leader something of a default choice, as was the case in the American League in 1993, when winner Jack McDowell (3.37 ERA, 158 K's, 10 complete games, 22 wins) was clearly the wrong choice, but the right choice (Randy Johnson -- 19 wins, 3.24 ERA, 308 K's, perhaps) was less clear. Such a circumstance can also punt the Cy Young over to a relief pitcher. That was the case in the National League in 1987 when Nolan Ryan posted an 8-16 record but also led the National League in ERA (2.76) and the majors in strikeouts (270). That was just one of four very good seasons by a starting pitcher in the NL, but none of them was overwhelming enough to keep the award from going to Phillies reliever Steve Bedrosian, who had a league-leading 40 saves.
Also, though the award is now considered to be purely for the "best" pitcher in each league, team performance has clearly influenced the voting in the past and seemed to be a common consideration prior to the 1970s. One obvious example is Jim Lonborg's 1967 AL award, when the Impossible Dream Red Sox surged to an unexpected pennant that clearly swayed the voters away from Joe Horlen of the White Sox, who lost the pennant on the season's final weekend. That Horlen finished with a far better ERA (2.06 to Lonborg's 3.16), more shutouts (a league-leading six to Lonborg's two) and better numbers in hits per nine, strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP was overshadowed by Lonborg superior win total (22 to 19) and performance down the stretch for the pennant-winning BoSox.
In many cases, however, wins were clearly the thing. Here, then is a quick look at six of the most egregious wins-based gaffes in the Cy Young award's history.
Richard led the majors in ERA and strikeouts, threw 292 1/3 innings, including 19 complete games and four shutouts, and his Astros finished in second place in the NL West, but his 18-13 record apparently underwhelmed the voters. They gave the award to Bruce Sutter, who had a fine season closing for the NL East's fifth-place Cubs, but had been even better two years earlier (7-3, 1.34 ERA, 31 saves) when he finished sixth in the voting. Richard, who received just 3.39 runs per game of support from his offense in 1979, finished third in the vote.
Welch got 15 first-place votes to Clemens' eight. Both the A's and Red Sox won their divisions, but Welch's 27 wins were (and remain) the most since Steve Carlton won 27 in 1972 and no one had won more since Denny McLain's 31 in 1968. Welch received 5.21 runs per game of support from the Bash Brothers A's to the 4.34 runs per game Clemens received from the Red Sox lineup.
Despite vastly superior numbers to Glavine in almost every category, Maddux didn't get a single first-place vote and finished fourth. The Braves scored 5.25 runs per game for Glavine compared to 4.61 per game for Maddux.
Mussina didn't get a single first-place vote and finished fifth overall. The Yankees scored 5.74 runs per game for Clemens, but just 4.21 runs per game for Mussina. In large part thanks to that run support, Clemens won 16 straight games from May 26 to September 19 and boasted a 20-1 record at the end of the streak, by which time he had all but locked up what became his sixth Cy Young award. Clemens gave up five runs in a start three times during that streak but went 2-0 in those games thanks to the Yankees scoring 29 runs in those three contests.
Clemens got 23 of 32 first-place votes. Johnson, who also pitched a perfect game that season, got just 3.56 runs per game of support from a Diamondbacks team that won just 51 games. Clemens got 4.81 runs per game of support from the wild card-winning Astros.
Santana finished third in the voting. Colon received 5.55 runs per game of support from the AL West champion Angels to Santana's 4.47 from the NL Central's third-place Twins.