Thursday, December 2, 2010

When Was The Best At His Best?

When a pitcher piles up 511 wins, 749 complete games, 76 shutouts, 2,803 strike outs, and a 2.63 ERA in a 22 year career, it’s mighty hard to determine which season was his best. This is an especially daunting task when that pitcher is none other than the crown jewel of hurlers, the namesake of possibly the most prestigious award in all of baseball, the indomitable Cy Young.

You can take his 1892 performance with Cleveland, where he won 36 games and pitched a mind-boggling 453 innings. His ERA was a microscopic 1.93 and he fanned 168 batters. But he was a fiery and muscular 25-year-old with scarcely an idea of what he had just accomplished. Therefore, how can I bow to mere statistics? It’s simply too easy to shield myself with the numbers alone.

The same can be said of Cy’s output in 1895, also with Cleveland. Young, now 28, notched 35 wins against only 10 losses. But he wasn’t the utterly dominant pitcher he was just three years prior. In fact, he allowed his ERA to balloon (well, for Cy) to 3.26 by the end of that season…and he had a good squad to back him up.

Let’s fast forward a few years to 1901, Cy’s debut season with the Boston Americans of the AL. Now, 34 years of age, the crafty Young threw 371 innings, won 33 games and shrunk his ERA back down to a nearly invisible 1.62. OK, so now we’re getting somewhere. We’re starting to see what this man was truly made of.
Although Cy was very good in 1901, in my eyes this season wasn’t good enough to be considered his “best.” There was just something missing.
Let’s jump ahead again to the season…the year of 1908. It was a very forgettable one for Boston (now the Red Sox), who finished four games under .500 and in 5th place. But Cy Young logged a performance which rivals that of any pitcher in baseball history. 

Of Boston’s 75 wins, 21 of them were owned by Young despite the shaky team he had behind him that year. He only lost 11 games while pitching 299 innings. He struck out 150 batters against only 37 walks, and he allowed (get this!) only a single home run the entire season. Young reduced his ERA to a career low of 1.26 and even tossed his third career no-hitter in a game against New York on June 30.

But none of these statistics are what really move me to decree 1908 as Cy Young’s landmark season on the mound. The most impressive statistic was not one bred by baseball at all. It was one bred by nature. Everything he accomplished in ’08 took place inside the pudgy body of a 41-year-old man. And yes, I think it’s pretty safe to say performance enhancers weren’t at work here, people. I gotta be honest, I’m not 100 percent sure they even had ice back then.

What this man was able to accomplish at such a ripe age simply defies nature. It puts things in perspective by reminding us, as we begin to formulate some early preferences for this year’s award winners, why Mr. Young’s name adorns such a valuable piece of hardware over a hundred years later. And it’ll still be the same a hundred years after that.

Now that you’ve had a chance to crunch some of the numbers, which of Cy Young’s illustrious seasons do you love most?

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