Monday, June 16, 2014

Niekro, Blyleven & Stieb - Flying Under the Cy Young Award Radar

How underrated was Phil Niekro?  In three different seasons - 1974 - '78 - '79 - he posted the highest WAR among all National League pitchers - 7.8 - 10.0 - 7.6 - but never won a Cy Young Award.

In 1977, his 8.9 WAR was second only to Rick Reuschel's 9.4 - and neither of them won the CYA - it went to Steve Carlton, who posted a 5.9 WAR.  Niekro, in fact, never even got a single vote that year.

For the entire decade of the '70's, Niekro and his knuckle-ball flew under the Cy Young Award radar, despite the fact that his 64.7 WAR for a pitcher was second only to Tom Seaver's 67.1 - a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Yet with all of his accomplishments throughout his long and illustrious career, Phil Niekro didn't even get enough votes for Cooperstown until his fifth try.

Bert Blyleven - another underrated great pitcher and prankster - had to wait nearly 15 years before he finally got in.

In 1973, his 9.9 WAR was tops in the American League, but in the CYA voting that year - the man with perhaps the greatest curve-ball in history - finished a distant seventh.

In the strike-shortened '81 season, Rollie Fingers won both the AL MVP and Cy Young Awards, with a 4.2 WAR.  Blyleven's 5.6 WAR led the way for pitchers - yet received nary a CYA vote.

In '84, his 7.2 WAR was second only to Dave Stieb's 7.9 - and neither of them won the CYA - although Blyleven finished third - and Stieb - another highly underrated pitcher - finished seventh.  Relief pitcher Willie Hernandez and his 4.8 WAR won it that year.

In 1989, at the advanced age of 38, Blyleven had the second highest WAR among AL pitchers - 6.0 - yet finished fourth in the CYA voting.  At least this time, the pitcher with the highest WAR - Bret Saberhagen (9.7) - won the Cy Young Award.  Imagine that.

Dave Stieb - at least for three straight seasons - may have been the most underrated pitcher in major league history.  From 1982 to 1984, Stieb was the best pitcher in the American League, but never came close to winning a Cy Young Award.  In 1982, however, The Sporting News named him Pitcher of the Year - an honor usually bestowed upon a Cy Young Award winner...

Stieb's greatest claim to fame came with having two no-hitters and one perfect game broken up in the ninth-inning - just one out shy of nailing down all three.  No quitter - he finally got one on September 2, 1990 - the only one in Toronto Blue Jays history.

Time to examine another batch of Cy Young Awards.  Niekro, Blyleven and Stieb had a lot of company in getting snubbed - including three rookies and a future Hall of Fame reliever who got snubbed as a starter - and should have been snubbed as a low-WAR reliever.

PART TWO - Revising CYA History (1976 - 1985) - 5 Out of 20 Correct Picks According to WAR 

The year was 1976.  A free-spirited Detroit Tigers rookie pitcher - Mark "The Bird" Fidrych - captivated the nation with his antics - most notably, his frequent in-game-on-the-mound conversations with baseballs - with explicit instructions on what he wanted them to do.  Apparently, they listened.

Fidrych was not only the best pitcher in major league baseball in 1976, he was the best all-around player in the American League - period - with a 9.6 WAR as proof.

Coincidentally, in the National League, Joe Morgan was putting together his second straight MVP season with an identical 9.6 WAR.

However, Fidrych was runner-up to Jim Palmer (6.6 WAR) for the Cy Young Award, while Thurman Munson (5.3 WAR) won the Most Valuable Player Award.  

Of course, The Bird took home the AL Rookie of the Year Award - with the highest WAR ever recorded by a rookie - until Mike Trout came along in 2012 - posting his astounding 10.8 WAR.

That same year - 1976 - San Francisco Giants pitcher - John "The Count" Montefusco - the '75 NL Rookie of the Year (6.4 WAR) - rejected any notion of experiencing a sophomore jinx in his second full season.  His 6.9 WAR was the highest for any National League pitcher in '76 - but Randy Jones (4.8 WAR) took home the CYA - while The Count's CYA vote count was zero.

Here are the rest of the CYA winners (through '85) - along with evidence (if applicable) that indicates another pitcher deserved to win (more often than not):

1977 (AL) - Sparky Lyle (3.7) - Frank Tanana (8.3)
1977 (NL) - Steve Carlton (5.9) - Rick Reuschel (9.4)

1978 (AL) - Ron Guidry (9.6)
1978 (NL) - Gaylord Perry (4.3) - Phil Niekro (10.0)

1979 (AL) - Mike Flanagan (3.9) - Dennis Eckersley* (7.3)
1979 (NL) - Bruce Sutter (4.9) - Phil Niekro (7.6)

(*For Eckersley, who probably deserved to win the CYA in '79, this makes up for the one he'd get in '92 for no good reason.)

1980 (AL) - Steve Stone (4.0) - Britt Burns (7.0)*
1980 (NL) - Steve Carlton (10.2)

(*Burns was a Chicago White Sox rookie in 1980, and despite the high WAR, only finished 5th in the ROY voting.)

1981 (AL) - Rollie Fingers (4.2) - Bert Blyleven (5.6)
1981 (NL) - Fernando Valenzuela (4.8) - Steve Carlton (5.5) 

1982 (AL) - Pete Vuckovich (2.8) - Dave Stieb (7.7)
1982 (NL) - Steve Carlton (5.5) - Steve Rogers (7.7)

1983 (AL) - Lamar Hoyt (3.7) - Dave Stieb (7.0)*
1983 (NL) - John Denny (7.4)

(*Stieb's reward for being the best AL pitcher in '82 without winning the CYA was to be completely snubbed by voters in '83 - despite once again, being the league's best pitcher.) 

1984 (AL) - Willie Hernandez (4.8) - Dave Stieb (7.9)*
1984 (NL) - Rick Sutcliffe (3.9) - Dwight Gooden (5.5)**

(*Stieb's reward for being the best pitcher in the American League for the third straight year was a seventh place finish in this year's CYA race.  Whoopee.)

(**Gooden was good enough to go back-to-back.  See below.) 

1985 (AL) - Bret Saberhagen (7.3)
1985 (NL) - Dwight Gooden (12.1)*

(*Gooden was so good in '85, he posted the highest WAR of any pitcher since the CYA was established in 1956.)

Up Next:  Part Three (1986 - 1995) - Two More Overrated Closers & Other Surprises 

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