From 1956 (the year of the first Cy Young Award, won by the Dodgers' Don Newcombe) through 2010, 11 pitchers led their league in the three Triple Crown categories -- wins, ERA and strikeouts -- with only one of those 11 failing to garner every single first-place vote in Cy Young Award voting. In 1997, the Blue Jays' Roger Clemens led the American League with 21 wins, a 2.05 ERA and 292 strikeouts, but received only 25 of the possible 28 first-place votes (still enough for a runaway victory in the balloting). The Mariners' Randy Johnson captured two first-place votes that year, and Orioles closer Randy Myers was the recipient of one.
If the announcements of Kershaw and Verlander as the 2011 Cy Young Award winners felt more like separate coronations and exclamation points for the superior seasons produced by these two aces, the induction of these two pitchers into the Cy Young Award club (previously inhabited by 68 different pitchers) still provides an invitation for all sorts of explorations. Where do Kershaw and Verlander fit inside the history of the Award; how do their seasons stack up against some of the previous winners, what, outside of their Triple Crown numbers this year, stands out about the remarkable seasons produced by the Tigers righty and the Dodgers southpaw?
The musings below offer just a few of the ways these questions can be answered and serve as just another excuse to recollect the brilliant mound demonstrations we witnessed this past season.
The Age Factor
Verlander's Cy Young Award was produced in his age-28 season: a relatively common occurrence for those voted to be the best pitcher in the league. Of the 100 previous winners of the award, 11 of them were in their age-28 season; only the 14 in their age-27 season outpace that total.
Verlander joins Mike McCormick (1967), Fergie Jenkins ('71), Tom Seaver ('73), Catfish Hunter ('74), LaMarr Hoyt ('83), Rick Sutcliffe ('84), Frank Viola ('88), Clemens ('91), Mark Davis ('89), Greg Maddux ('94) and Pedro Martinez (2000) in the group of pitchers to win the award in their age-28 season. Not a bad group, considering it includes three Hall of Famers and three others whose career numbers and peak performances put them squarely inside the numerical range for future induction. So how does Verlander's 2011 season look when placed alongside the age-28 Cy Young seasons produced by the immortals Jenkins, Seaver, Hunter, Clemens, Maddux and Martinez? His 24 wins are tied for second behind only Hunter's 25 in 1974, his 2.40 ERA ranks fourth, his 251 innings pitched rank fifth, his 0.920 WHIP ranks third and his WAR of 8.6 ranks fourth.
If Verlander's age places him in a somewhat typical age bracket for Cy Young Award winners, Kershaw's makes him anything but typical. Of the (now) 102 winners of the Award, he is only the seventh to be in his age-23 season or younger, joining Dean Chance (age-23 season), Vida Blue (21), Fernando Valenzuela (20), Dwight Gooden (20), Bret Saberhagen (21) and Clemens (23). Not surprisingly, since there is something exceptionally magnetic about a young gun taking the league storm, Kershaw's predecessors possess some of the more iconic single seasons the game has witnessed. How does Kershaw's season in 2011 look in comparison? His 21 wins rank fourth, his 2.28 ERA ranks fourth, his 248 strikeouts rank third, his 0.977 WHIP ranks fourth and his 7.0 WAR ranks fifth.
Verlander's 24-5 record was good for a league-leading .828 winning percentage. When that winning percentage is tied into the amount of innings he threw (251) and his stinginess with baserunners (0.920 WHIP), his season looks positively historic.
Unanimous Cy Young winners
|2007||Jake Peavy||San Diego|
|1988||Orel Hershiser||Los Angeles (NL)|
|1984||Rick Sutcliffe||Chicago (NL)|
|1978||Ron Guidry||New York (AL)|
|1968||Bob Gibson||St. Louis|
|1966||Sandy Koufax *||Los Angeles (NL)|
|1965||Sandy Koufax *||Los Angeles (NL)|
|1963||Sandy Koufax *||Los Angeles (NL)|
Interestingly enough, both Koufax in 1963 and McLain in '68 captured the Cy Young Award and the MVP, which turned out to be harbinger of things to come for Verlander's own MVP Award.
Swing and Hope for the Best
While Carl Hubbell was famously striking out five future Hall of Famers in a row during the 1934 All-Star game, Lou Gehrig -- the second of the five victims -- was reported to exclaim to Jimmie Foxx (the third slugger to go back to bench without making contact), "You might as well cut away ... That guy won't give you anything to hit."
In 2011, National League hitters could have muttered some of the same sentiments to themselves and their teammates after facing Kershaw.
Kershaw's season was notable for so many reasons, including his relative strikeout and walk rates. The Dodgers southpaw fanned batters at a rate of 9.57 for every nine innings pitched (third best in the Majors) and walked 2.08 batters per nine innings thrown (19th best in the Majors). Only two seasons ago, Kershaw's walk rate was at 4.79 per nine.
So what he has done -- cutting the walk rate in half while maintaining his impressive strikeout rates -- has not only produced his first Cy Young Award, but has also placed him among a small club of pitchers. In baseball history, 96 pitchers have whiffed at least 9.50 batters per nine in a season, but only 14 of them had a lower walk rate than Kershaw put up in 2011. Of those 14 ahead of Kershaw, none were as young as the 2011 NL Cy Young winner Award winner. Ben Sheets ('04) and Zack Greinke ('09) were the next youngest, having accomplished the feat in their age-25 seasons.
Although Kershaw did come up short in his bid to match Verlander's feat of being a unanimous selection for the Cy Young Award (and instead joined Clemens in 1997 as the only Triple Crown winners to yield a first place vote to someone else), one gets the sense that this Cy Young Award-winning duo in 2011 will long be connected -- not only because they made this season the first since 1924 to feature two Triple Crown winners (Walter Johnson and Dazzy Vance took the honors that year), but also for their twin and intertwined abilities to stand at center stage in a six-month revue that wowed, impressed and allowed fans to reach back and recollect some of the greatest and most electric pitching seasons the game has seen during the Cy Young Award era. That seems kind of award-worthy in and of itself.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.