Why was Cy Young so awesome?
August 19, 2007 10:56 AM   Subscribe

Why was Cy Young so awesome?

I'm well aware of his achievements and impact on the game, but I've never found a good explanation of why he was such a remarkable pitcher. Given that baseball was a fairly young sport when he played, I'm assuming that a good part of the reason is because he "figured out" things (new mechanics? wider variety?) that pitchers previously either couldn't or hadn't thought to do. Is that the case? What's the story behind his success?
posted by mkultra to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total)
his stats speak for themselves. most career wins. most complete games. (most career losses). most innings pitched, most starts, 2798 strike-outs. 3 no-hitters, and a perfect game. his stats alone make him arguably the greatest.

but, i think he is also seen as the bridge between the traditional and the modern game. he helped established major league baseball as we know it today.

he has also had a fair bit of popular culture exposure. ogden nash wrote a poem about him:
Y is for Young,
The magnificent Cy;
People batted against him,
But I never knew why.

posted by Flood at 11:18 AM on August 19, 2007

Response by poster: his stats speak for themselves.

They don't, and that's why I'm asking the question. I can understand some of the stats simply as a matter of endurance, but 511 wins is so far beyond anyone else, as are things like 5 seasons of 30+ wins.

More recent pitching greats have been analyzed to death, primarily because there are detailed records (and recordings) of their work, but I don't see similar work done on Young.
posted by mkultra at 11:45 AM on August 19, 2007

The #wins is due in part to previous generations of pitchers pitching on less than 4 days rest on a regular basis. With modern pitchers, it's news if a starter goes to work on only 3 days rest.
The advent of the closer also takes away some of the wins a starting pitcher might otherwise get if he had stayed in the whole game.
posted by jmd82 at 11:51 AM on August 19, 2007

Yeah, seconding jmd82. Pitchers of that era pitched in more games. They also pitched more complete games. Ballclubs even used to make pitchers pitch both games of a doubleheader. 18 innings in one day. So when you look at, for instance, Glavine winning his 300th game, you'll notice that he left in the 6th inning. Pretty weak when compared to what the old timers used to do. That's why Young also had the most losses. He just pitched more games than any other pitcher. On top, of course, being an excellent pitcher in an era that slightly favored pitching over hitting - at least more so than now.
posted by billysumday at 11:58 AM on August 19, 2007

Response by poster: If that's the case, why isn't there anyone from that era with stats even approaching his?
posted by mkultra at 12:08 PM on August 19, 2007

Durability. There's a reason pitchers don't pitch as much as they used to: Most arms (specifically ligaments which provides most of the speed) will simply fall apart under that much duress. Cy Young's kind of a freak of nature being able to pitch as often and long as he did.
If Nolan Ryan pitched as often as Cy Young and never broke down, just imagine how many more K's he's have.
posted by jmd82 at 12:21 PM on August 19, 2007

If that's the case, why isn't there anyone from that era with stats even approaching his?

For the same reason there were so few hitters whose stats compared to the Babe (Josh Gibson excluded, of course). They were dominating figures in the game during their careers.
posted by (bb|[^b]{2}) at 12:22 PM on August 19, 2007

If that's the case, why isn't there anyone from that era with stats even approaching his?

In counting stats? Cy Young played in more games. Remember he has the most career losses too. Look at other pitchers from his era like Christy Mathewson, Three Finger Brown, and Kid Nichols. (There are others.)

Mathewson, Nichols, and Brown are right with Young in career numbers for K/9IP, WHIP, ERA+. All 3 have a better win percentage than Young. However, Mathewson and Brown played in about 2/3 of the games Young did and Nichols, 1/2.

Also, since professional baseball was so new then, there may have been other factors that led to players before Young not playing for as many years as he did: not a legitimate career, not enough money, politicking between the various leagues/teams/owners, etc. Al Spalding won almost 80% of his games in his career. He played 7 years from 1871 to 1877 and had 253 wins. If he played longer, who knows how many wins he would have.

On preview: what jmd82 said.
posted by mathlete at 1:17 PM on August 19, 2007

Best answer: If I'm understanding you right (and I hope I am), you're asking how he was able to achieve all that he did and rack up such unbelievable stats.

From what I've read, the answer comes down to two things:

1) Like the rest of the short list of the all-time greatest pitchers he had ungodly physical gifts. He didn't just have a good arm, he had a Nolan Ryan/Roger Clemens/Walter Johnson/Bob Feller, et al. kind of arm. Young was quoted as saying, "All us Young's could throw. I use to kill squirrels with a stone when I was a kid, and my granddad once killed a turkey buzzard on the fly with a rock." Obviously this may be apocryphal, but it's a lot of fun. More concretely, we know that during the early part of Young's career his primary catcher Chief Zimmer used to pad the inside of his catching glove with a piece of beefsteak to protect his hand from Young's fastball.

2) In an era when the game was evolving dramatically and rapidly, he constantly adapted. To give an idea, here's a timeline (hat tip: Baseballlibrary.com):

1890 - Cy Young's rookie season.
1893 - The pitching rubber, previously 50' from home plate, is moved back to its present distance of 60' 6".
1898 - The balk rule is first introduced.
1900 - Home plate is changed from a 12" square to a 5-sided figure 17" wide.
1901 - The National League first counts a foul ball not caught on the fly as a strike (unless the batter has two strikes on him); the AL adopts the same rule in 1903.
1904 - The height of the pitcher’s mound is set at not higher than 15".
1911 Cy Young retires.

He developed conditioning habits that allowed him to stay remarkably injury-free, even in an era when pitchers were expected to throw many, many more innings than they do these days. In 1895 he began throwing what he called a "slow-ball" in order to reduce the burden on his arm, and found that it actually became an equally effective pitch for getting batters out - in short, Cy Young invented the change-up. For the first three weeks of spring training he wouldn't throw at all, devoting all his time to conditioning his legs. Young once gave his view on the proper warm-up:

"I never warmed up ten, fifteen minutes before a game like most pitchers do. I'd loosen up, three, four minutes. Five at the outside. And I never went to the bullpen. Oh, I'd relieve all right, plenty of times, but I went right from the bench to the box, and I'd take a few warm-up pitches and be ready. Then I had good control. I aimed to make the batter hit the ball, and I threw as few pitches as possible. That's why I was able to work every other day."
posted by JustDerek at 1:55 PM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cy Young figured out how to throttle back and throw that "slow ball" to bad hitters, i.e. most of the opposing team's lineup. The bottom half of late 19th century lineups were filled with guys who nowadays would have trouble getting out of Double-A. So, Cy could dial it down to those guys and give his arm/shoulder a bit of a rest. Even if they hacked at it, it was likely to be a groundball.

Nowadays you have utility infielders hitting the weight room and hitting instruction down to a science, as well as a much larger population competing for a roster spot. You can't dial it down as much, especially in the AL with the DH. Pitchers have answered by having 4-5 pitches in their arsenal, but they're throwing 100-120 pitches at 100%.

But Cy throttled and got away with it. He wasn't the first to do it, but he had the stuff to get away with it.
posted by dw at 8:14 PM on August 19, 2007

Best answer: why isn't there anyone from that era with stats even approaching his?

The thing is, when you're playing in an era where the top pitchers win 30-40 (and sometimes 50!) games a year, it doesn't take much to distance yourself from other pitchers really quickly. His 511 wins were over 22 years (1887-1911); look at guys like Charley Radbourn who won 309 in 11 years (1881-1891) or Pud Galvin who won 364 games in 15 years (1879-1892) and imagine what a few more good years for them would've meant.

It's hard to overstate the changes in baseball during the time Cy Young pitched. Take a look at this chart of games started and this chart of wins over time-- especially the column on the far right that shows the leader each season. In the 1880s and early 1890s the league leaders were starting 60-70 games. By the mid-1890s it was the low 50s, in the 1900s it was in the 40s, and by the 1920s league leaders were starting around 40 games or less.

So in that context, by the time you get to Christy Mathewson's 373 wins in the 17 years between 1900 and 1916 (when his career ended due to fighting and being injured in World War I) and Walter Johnson's 417 in the 21 years between 1907 and 1927, they really don't seem that far off from Young.

That's not to say that Cy Young wasn't a great pitcher. But he was a great pitcher, with good longevity, at a fortuitous time for racking up win totals. And by overlapping eras he got the benefits of racking up wins in the first half of his career but also a decreasing workload in the second half of his career, which probably helped the longevity thing. So he "only" had to be great, not superhuman-amazing, to rack up that gaudy 511 that looks so huge to us these days.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 11:13 PM on August 19, 2007

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