Cy Young. The all-time leader in wins, losses, starts, complete games, innings pitched, and more. If you’re a casual baseball fan, you may not know those off the top of your head. But if you clicked on the link to this article, then you’ve heard of the award that bears his name, which is given to the best pitcher in each league every season.
With the awards season beginning this past Monday with the top three finishers in each award being announced, I asked myself, “How would Cy Young himself do in this year’s Cy Young voting?” I know he died over 60 years ago, but let’s pretend he’s alive. And no, not 149-year-old Cy Young. Anyway, there’s no easy way to go about answering this question, because Cy Young didn’t pitch in 2016. He didn’t even pitch in 1916.
For argument’s sake, I’m going to put him in the National League, as those three finalists have better numbers than those of the American League. This puts him up against Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs and Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals. In reality, any of these three starters could win the award in 2016. But who has the advantage when Cy Young himself gets thrown into the mix? Let’s find out:
MLB.com’s Tom Tango created a points system, which has looked at the tendencies of voters going back to 2010. His system, while simple, accurately predicted the top five finishers in both leagues in 2015 — all in the correct order. The formula he uses is simple: (IP/2 – ER) + SO/10 + W. To start off, I’ll compare their 2016 values, according to the aforementioned point system, of the actual finalists and Cy Young’s 162-game average. The results look as shown:[table “” not found /]
Cy Young wins! It’s sort of close, but I don’t really like this exact methodology. Young averaged throwing 291 innings per 162 games, something that hasn’t been done since Bert Blyleven threw 293.2 innings in 1985. Max Scherzer led all NL pitchers in 2016 with 228.1 IP. I won’t penalize Young that much, as his ability to constantly pitch broke so many major league records. Since Tango’s system started looking at data in 2010, I’ll look at that time frame as well. Justin Verlander pitched 251 innings in 2011, which is the most by any pitcher in that seven-year span. I’ll set that as Young’s inning mark as well and adjust his other numbers accordingly.
Here’s how Tango’s rankings look now:[table “” not found /]
When giving Young an innings limit similar to one that a modern day ace could barely reach, Young would finish fourth out of four in the NL. If you add in the American League’s top finishers, you’ll get a list of seven that looks like this:[table “” not found /]
As you can see, Cy Young finishes smack dab in the middle of the real 2016 Cy Young finalists after putting a minor inning adjustment on him.
For completeness and another comparison, you could convert his stats to the default modern run environment on baseball-reference.com. Using his actual 162 game average of 291 innings pitched, Young facing the 2016 MLB (or our best way of modeling it) would finish with a Tango Cy Young score of 78.7. This keeps him behind all three of our NL pitchers, but ahead of the three AL pitchers.
Yes, it’s nearly impossible to guess, or even estimate, how Cy Young would fare in the modern age of baseball. Why not try, though? Obviously, pitching in a three-man rotation gives Young a huge advantage, but after negating that advantage Young has over modern pitchers, the results aren’t that extreme at all. Cy Young might not have even won an award named after himself on the NL side, as the estimate I used actually ranks him last of four. This is just speculation and fun with numbers, and you definitely can’t compare a pitcher born in 1867 to one born 122 years later in 1989, but isn’t it fun to try?