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Mudville: April 18, 2024 9:35 am PDT

Doubling Down

Who is more valuable, a starting pitcher who starts 30 or more games, a reliever who saves 30 or more games, or an everyday ballplayer?

In 10 cases, the pitcher was judged more valuable.

That’s how many times a pitcher has won both the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award in the same season. The number of position players who have won both awards is zero – since a player can’t win the Cy Young Award (although Shohei Ohtani might be able to do something about that).

I’ve thought about this because not only can a position player not win the Cy Young, but how do you determine who is worthy of being named “Most Valuable” player on a team? If a team wins a division or wild card spot, should that team have an MVP over players whose team did not make the postseason?

If a team finishes last, it can still have a player voted most valuable. This happened in 1987, when Andre Dawson led the majors in home runs [49], RBI [137] and batted .287. The Chicago Cubs finished last in the NL East that season.

No disrespect to Dawson, who I think was one of the most talented players in the 1970s and 80s, but the Cubs would have finished last without him. The runner-up in the MVP voting was Ozzie Smith, whose Cardinals won the NL East.

In 2008, Dustin Pedroia won the AL MVP when he led the league in hits, runs and batted .326. California Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez saved 62 of the team’s 100 victories. Who was more valuable? In the Cy Young Award race, Cleveland’s Cliff Lee was 22-3 with an ERA of 2.54. He pitched in 31 games that season. Rodriguez threw in 76 games that year. Again, who was more “valuable”?

My “solution” is to either A) Rename the MVP to “Player of the Year” – given to a player (not a pitcher) or B) Add the Player of the Year Award to the MVP and Cy Young Awards. Under B, a pitcher can still win both the MVP and Cy Young Award, but a player is recognized for having an outstanding season. Under this criteria, Dawson’s outstanding season in 1987 would likely have won him Player of the Year honors.

In 1956, the Cy Young Memorial Award was established by baseball commissioner Ford Frick to recognize the best pitcher in baseball. Named for the all-time wins leader, Denton True “Cy” Young, winners are selected by the Baseball Writers Association of America. During the first 11 years of the award only a single winner was selected for both leagues until Commissioner Frick retired; the rules were then amended to provide for a winner from each league.

After a voting tie in 1969 resulted in the American League award being given to both Detroit’s Denny McLain and Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar, the voting rules were adjusted to allow the BBWAA voters to cast “weighted” votes for first, second, and third places.

Ironically, the first time a Cy Young was presented to a pitcher that pitcher also won the MVP Award.

***

Don Newcombe, 1956. (UPI)

In 1956, Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe enjoyed his finest year, leading the majors in victories and winning percentage by posting a 27-7 record. He made 36 starts and two relief appearances, tossing 18 complete games. So dominant was his presence that beginning on September 19, he was pitching on two days’ rest to help keep the Dodgers on pace with the Milwaukee Braves.

“Buzzie Bavasi (Dodgers general manager) always insisted that Newk’s ’56 season was the best single season ever by a pitcher – that is till the World Series and game seven when Yogi (Berra) stepped in to bat,” said Michael Shapiro, author of The Last Good Season, a chronicle of the 1956 Dodgers and the events that took them west. In the top of the first, Berra belted a two-run home run to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead in a game they won 9-0, making Berra’s blast the game-winning – and championship winning – run.

Peter Golenbock, author of several baseball books including Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, said, “The Brooklyn Dodgers won pennants in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956 because Branch Rickey decided to break the color barrier and sign African-American players. Jackie Robinson was the first, of course, but bringing up Roy Campanella to catch and Don Newcombe to pitch made winning all those pennants possible. Newcombe, who was the ace of the staff in 1956, during his ten-year career, won 149 games, pitched 24 shutouts, and had a career era of 3.56.  He was the first African-American player to start a World Series game.”

(Newcombe missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons to military service.)

Runner up in the MVP and Cy Young voting was Newcombe’s teammate, Sal Maglie, who went 13-5 after being acquired from Cleveland. Third in the voting was Henry Aaron, who won the NL batting title while belting 26 home runs and driving in 92 runs, helping his team come within one game of the pennant-winning Dodgers.

***

Seven years later, another dominant performance by a Dodgers starter netted both awards.

1963 was the year Sandy Koufax became great. He won the triple crown of pitching, leading the majors in victories [25], strikeouts [306] and ERA [1.88]. He even threw in a no-hitter for good measure, blanking the Giants 8-0 on Saturday, May 11 at Dodger Stadium.

After Koufax won game one of the 1963 World Series, striking out 15 New York Yankees (a World Series record at the time) en route to a 5-2 win, Casey Stengel supposedly said, “I can see how he won 25, but how did lose five?”

Koufax received a unanimous vote for the Cy Young, but what about the MVP? No pitcher had won both awards since Newcombe. Koufax took 14 of the 20 first place votes, totaling 237 points. Dick Groat, in his first season with the St. Louis Cardinals, finished second with 190 points, helping the Cards to a late season stretch in which they almost caught the Dodgers before fading at the end. Groat had won the 1960 MVP Award when he won the NL batting title and helped Pittsburgh win the pennant and stun the baseball world by upsetting the Yankees in seven games in the World Series. Henry Aaron, who came within seven batting points of winning the triple crown, finished third with 135 points.

Koufax is probably the best case for a pitcher being the most valuable player on his team. In 1968, Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12, Denny McLain won 31 games, and several Cy Young winners lost five or fewer games while leading the majors in victories. In 1964, Koufax had a bad arm and made “only” 29 starts, going 19-5, and the Dodgers were nowhere near the pennant. In his last two seasons, he won 53 games, made 82 starts, earned two saves in 1965, and completed 27 games each year. With him, LA won two pennants. In those two seasons, he won the Cy Young, and finished second each year in the MVP voting.

In 1965, he was runner-up to Willie Mays, who hit a career best 52 home runs that season, but the Giants were in second place, two games behind the Dodgers. Roberto Clemente received the MVP Award in 1966, when he set career highs with 29 home runs and 119 RBIs, and edged Koufax by 10 points for the award, even though the Bucs finished third, three games behind the Dodgers.

***

1968 will be remembered as the year of the pitcher, and for good reason. Carl Yasztremski won the AL batting title by hitting .301 and run production in both leagues dropped. Baseball officials were so concerned about offense that after the season they lowered the pitching mound, hoping to boost hitting. That year featured two of the greatest pitching seasons ever, Denny McLain with Detroit and Bob Gibson with St. Louis.

Each man won both the Cy Young and MVP.

McLain became the first pitcher to win 30 or more games since Dizzy Dean won 30 in 1934. He was 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA for the Tigers, who won the AL pennant and took on the Cardinals in the World Series. Gibson went 22-9, but his ERA was an astonishing 1.12. At one point, he hurled 56 consecutive scoreless innings. Each man was the unanimous choice for the Cy Young.

In the AL MVP voting, McLain garnered every first-place vote, and outdistanced teammate Bill Freehan 280 points to 161.

In the National League voting, Gibson received 14 first place votes to Pete Rose’s six and totaled 242 points to Rose’s 205.

***

Rollie Fingers was a closer in a different era, when closers pitched more than one inning, and often pitched in games that were tied or even when the reliever’s team was trailing.

The Hall of Fame inductee was the first reliever to reach 300 saves. He was also the first reliever to win both the Cy Young and MVP in the same season.

“Everybody said I had a chance to win the Cy Young, but I hadn’t even thought about the MVP,” Fingers said recently. “I was happy and surprised.”

It was an unusual season, when the owners and players couldn’t reach an agreement, primarily about free agency and compensation to teams losing players. Games were not played after June 12, and the strike lasted about four weeks.  The two sides reached an agreement on July 31, and play resumed on August 9 with the All-Star Game, with regular season play resuming one day later.

“I sat around and did nothing, it was kind of hard,” Fingers recalled. “When play resumed, it was like going to spring training again. I threw on the side (during the strike). The first game played (after the stoppage) was the All-Star game. I was the loser, I wasn’t ready to pitch.”

The Steubenville, OH native (also the hometown of Dean Martin and Jimmy the Greek) was an integral part of the Oakland A’s that won three World Series championships from 1972-74. After the first World Series championship, A’s owners Charlie Finley called Fingers and offered him a $1,000 raise for the following season. “I hung up on him and hired an agent,” said Fingers. “I never talked to him again.”

Then free agency entered baseball, and Fingers took his talents to the San Diego Padres, who later traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, but before he threw a pitch for Whitey Herzog, Herzog sent him to the Milwaukee Brewers.

In the strike-affected 1981 season, the Brewers finished first in the second half (following the strike) in the AL East, with a record of 31-22. They lost to the first-half winner, the Yankees, in the divisional playoff.

Fingers led the majors with 28 saves in 34 opportunities; he went 6-3 with an outstanding 1.04 ERA. He received 22 out of 28 first place votes for the Cy Young, ahead of Oakland’s Steve McCatty, who was tied with Fingers’ teammate Pete Vukovich and Detroit’s Jack Morris, with 14 wins, but McCatty’s 14 wins apparently accounted for more with the voters.

In the MVP voting, Fingers received 319 total points, ahead of Oakland’s Rickey Henderson’s 308. Fingers received 15 first-place votes while Henderson received 12. Henderson, only 22 years old in 1981, batted .319, led the majors with 135 hits, 89 runs, and 56 stolen bases in 78 attempts.

The A’s finished first in the AL West during the first half of the season, and third in the second half. They swept the divisional round against the Kansas City Royals, but lost in the championship series to the Yankees, 3-0.

Rollie Fingers, 1981. (Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

***

1984 was the year the Detroit Tigers won everything. They were in first place in the AL East from start to finish – winning 104 games – finishing 14.5 ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays. They swept the Kansas City Royals for the AL Pennant and took care of the San Diego Padres in five games for the World Series title. So, who from that talent-laden team won the MVP – Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson? Who won the Cy Young? Jack Morris or Dan Petry?

Both awards were won by reliever Willie Hernandez, who the team acquired near the end of spring training on March 24, 1984.

“The Tigers ended their long search for a top left-handed relief pitcher Saturday when they traded John Wockenfuss and Glenn Wilson to the Philadelphia Phillies for Willie Hernandez and first baseman-pinch hitter Dave Bergman.” proclaimed the Detroit Free Press.

“Hernandez is quality,” Tigers manager Sparky Anderson told the paper. “We got the one thing that we really, really wanted.”

After Detroit had signed veteran left-handed hitter Darrell Evans to play first base and Hernandez to shore up the bullpen, Anderson said, “I know that you can’t do much better than that.”

The year before with Philadelphia, Hernandez was the set-up man for Fireman of the Year Al Holland, and set career high in wins, strike outs and innings pitched.

For the Tigers, he earned 32 saves in 33 chances, with a 9-3 record and an ERA of 1.92. He showed how valuable he was by setting a Tigers record for appearances, logging 80 that season and finishing 68 games (both led the majors), and becoming (at that time) only the sixth pitcher in history to pitch 80 or more games in a season.

Hernandez won the AL MVP with 306 overall points. Minnesota’s Kent Hrbek finished second, followed by another reliever, Kansas City’s Dan Quisenberry. Several everyday players had outstanding seasons in 1984, but their teams weren’t close to making the postseason or achieving a solid record.

Boston’s Tony Armas led the majors with 43 home runs and 123 RBI and batted .268; Don Mattingly won the batting title hitting .343, with 23 HR with 110 RBI. The Red Sox finished fourth in the AL East, 86-76, while the Yankees finished third at 87-75. In the AL West, only the Kansas City Royals played above .500 at 84-78. The Twins and California Angels tied at 81-81. Hrbek’s numbers were good (he batted .311 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs), but again, his team finished .500.

In the Cy Young voting, Hernandez won with 88 points, with Quisenberry finishing second with 71 points.

Baltimore Orioles standout Mike Cuellar showed Hernandez how to throw a screwball, and he used it extensively in 1983. His new teammate, Darryl Evans said after Detroit acquired the pitcher, “He’s one of the top five (lefties in the NL), He throws strikes. He comes right at you, and he doesn’t walk many. With his screwball, he’s able to get right-handers out.” (In 1984, right-handed batters hit .202 off Hernandez while left-handed hitters batted .173 against him.)

Willie Hernandez, 1984. (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

***

In his third season with the Boston Red Sox, Roger Clemens established himself as one of the game’s top starting pitchers. In 1986, he led the majors with 24 wins – against only four losses – and a 2.48 ERA. He won the first of his seven Cy Young Awards – receiving every first-place vote – finishing well ahead of Milwaukee’s Teddy Higuera, the only other 20 game winner that season. The Red Sox needed all of Clemens’ victories, as they edged the Yankees for the AL East division, winning 95 games against New York’s 92.

Clemens received 19 of the 28 first -place ballots for MVP, totaling 339 points. Yankee Don Mattingly had five first-place votes and 258 points, while Clemens’ teammate Jim Rice finished third with four first-place ballots and 241 points. Mattingly batted .352 (finishing second to another Clemens teammate, Wade Boggs, who hit .357) and led the majors with 238 hits. He hit 31 home runs and drove in 113. Rice batted .324, hit 20 home runs and had 110 RBIs. Mattingly’s performance was certainly worthy of an MVP, but his team finished behind the Red Sox for the division title. That, and Clemens’s overpowering performance, probably gave The Rocket the boost to win the awards.

***

Dennis Eckersley has had two distinct pitching careers. As a starter, he pitched a no-hitter, was a 20-game winner and made an All-Star team. Despite his accomplishments, he was traded from Cleveland to Boston and then to the Chicago Cubs. By the time he reached the Cubs, he was suffering from tendonitis and, according to his wife, had a drinking problem. After a miserable 1986 season, Chicago traded him to the Oakland A’s and Eckersley entered rehab. A’s manager Tony LaRussa assigned him to the bullpen, and when closer Jay Howell was injured, LaRussa had Eckersley nail down wins. Both relievers had 16 saves in 1987, but the A’s traded Howell and anointed Eckersley the closer.

In 1988, Eckersley led the majors with 45; the A’s won the AL West and pennant before losing the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Minnesota’s Frank Viola ran away with the Cy Young Award, but Eckersley finished second in the voting. In 1990, he saved 48 games while pitching to a microscopic 0.61 ERA (in 71.1 innings). He finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, and sixth in the MVP category, won by teammate Rickey Henderson.

In 1992, “Eck” again led the majors with 51 saves (in 54 chances), going 7-1 with an ERA of 1.91.

In the Cy Young voting, he received 19 out of 28 first place votes for a total of 107 points, finishing ahead of some of the AL’s best starting pitchers: Jack McDowell, Roger Clemens, Mike Musina, Jack Morris and Kevin Brown. In the MVP balloting, Eckersley garnered 15 first place votes for 306 points, finishing ahead of second place Kirby Puckett, who batted .329, with 19 home runs, 110 RBI and led the majors with 210 hits. The Twins finished second to the A’s in the AL West, winning 90 against Oakland’s 96. Perhaps that was the swaying factor in Eckersley and not Puckett winning the award.

***

Sometimes it’s not how many games you win that puts you in contention for the Cy Young Award, it’s how few losses you incur. Detroit’s Justin Verlander led the AL with 34 starts in 2011, and won 24, but just as importantly he lost only five games. He also led the league in ERA at 2.40, in innings pitched with 251, and in strikeouts, with 250 (against only 57 walks). Those stats made him the unanimous choice for the 2011 CY Young, receiving all 28 first place votes. He totaled 196 points, well ahead of runner-up Jared Weaver of California, who garnered 97 points.

Verlander won the MVP in a tight race; he collected 13 of 28 first place votes, and compiled 280 points, finishing 38 points ahead of runner up Jacoby Ellsbury of Boston, who had 242, and 49 points ahead of Toronto’s Jose Bautista, who finished third.

***

Like Verlander, Los Angeles Dodger Clayton Kershaw probably impressed Cy Young voters with how many games he didn’t lose. In 33 starts, the left-hander lost only three against 21 wins (which led the major leagues in 2014), and pitched to a major-league best 1.77 ERA. His numbers, both high (wins) and low (losses), helped him receive all 30 first-place votes in the voting. Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto was second, having a 20-9 record, and an ERA of 2.25; he led the league with 34 starts (one more than Kershaw) and pitched more innings (243.2 to Kershaw’s 198.1) He also led the majors in strikeouts with 242. He had one less win than Kershaw, but lost six more; was that the difference among the voters? Also, Los Angeles won the NL West with a 98-64 record; the Reds finished third in the NL Central with a 76-86 record. Despite winning 26 percent of his teams wins that season, Cueto finished 12th in the MVP voting.

In a close race for MVP, Kershaw won by receiving 18 first-place votes and 355 points. Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton was second with eight first place votes and 298 points. Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen had four first place votes and garnered 271 points. Stanton led the majors with 37 home runs, but the Marlins finished fourth in the NL East with a 77-85 record with Pittsburgh finishing second in the NL Central to St. Louis. McCutcheon, who won the MVP the year before, had his usual excellent season, batting .318 with 25 home runs, 83 RBI and 18 stolen bases, helping the Bucs nab the NL’s wild card spot.

***

In 66 seasons, only 10 pitchers have won both awards. With five and six-man rotations, pitch counts and innings limits, it might be more difficult for pitchers to be an MVP. So, why not change the MVP to “Player of the Year” to acknowledge outstanding performances by an everyday player. Or add Player of the Year to the two awards?

Then again, there’s that darn Ohtani. Being a player and a pitcher, it’s possible he could win all three!

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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