How They Got There: The 1980-1989 AL Cy Young Winners

Last week, I explored how each of the National League Cy Young winners of the 1980s were acquired. Six came to their teams in trade, while two were acquired through the amateur draft and one had his contract purchased from the Mexican League. Highlighting the American League list is a 19th overall draft pick, a 19th round draft pick, and two players who are probably better known for their post-playing careers than they were for their time as big league pitchers. Here’s a look back at how the AL Cy Young winners of the 1980s were acquired.

1980 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Steve Stone BAL 32 Free Agent (CHW) Nov’78 25 7 250.2 3.23 3.99 2.9
2nd Mike Norris OAK 25 Drafted 1st Rd (24) ’73 22 9 284.1 2.53 3.25 6.0
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Rich Gossage NYY 28 Free Agent (PIT) Nov’77 6 33 99.0 2.27 2.48 3.2

Eight years into his big league career, Steve Stone had played on just two winning teams. As a rookie in 1971, he made 19 starts for a first place Giants team with four future Hall of Famers on the roster. Six years later, he was a 15-game winner for a third place White Sox team that came won 90 games. The following season, they lost 90. A 31-year-old free agent entering the 1978-79 offseason, Stone had plenty of suitors. Playing for a winning ball club was certainly a top priority, which made his decision to sign a four-year, $760,000 contract with the Baltimore Orioles an unsurprising one.

While they were a fourth place team, the Orioles’ 90-71 record in 1978 extended their streak of winning seasons to 11. Jim Palmer was coming off of his fourth consecutive 20-win season. A trio of impressive young starters — Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan, and Scott McGregor — were proving to be a strong supporting cast. The lineup had an up-and-coming star named Eddie Murray. Stone would ride that wave of talent all the way to his first postseason appearance — he pitched two innings of relief during the team’s seven-game World Series defeat to the Pirates — before taking on a starring role in 1980.

Only a few years prior to beginning his career as the color commentator paired with legendary Chicago Cubs’ broadcaster Harry Caray, Stone exemplified how one could leave it all on the field. In a year during which he decided to throw his curveball more than 50% of the time, Stone won 25 games while pitching a career-high 250 2/3 regular season innings and an additional three perfect innings in the All-Star game. After missing much of the 1981 season due to shoulder tendinitis, Stone retired.

1981 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Rollie Fingers MIL 34 Trade (STL) Dec’80 6 28 78.0 1.04 2.07 2.6
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
2nd Steve McCatty OAK 27 Non-Drafted FA Jun’73 14 7 185.2 2.33 3.48 2.7
3rd Jack Morris DET 26 Drafted 5th Rd (98) ’76 14 7 198.0 3.05 3.75 2.7

Four days after being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in an 11-player offseason deal with the San Diego Padres, Rollie Fingers was on the move again. Along with fellow future Hall of Famer Ted Simmons and starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich, who would go on to play power-hitting first baseman Clu Haywood in the 1989 classic Major League, Fingers was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Sixto Lezcano, outfielder David Green, and a pair of starting pitchers, Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen.

The 34-year-old Fingers, who has one of the greatest names and mustaches in baseball history, is considered one of the pioneers of an era when the value and popularity of a team’s best relief pitcher was increasing substantially. So while he wasn’t the first reliever to win a Cy Young — Dodgers’ pitcher Mike Marshall won it in 1974 — it’s fitting that he was the first of this new era to win an MVP. Jim Konstanty of the Phillies was the first reliever to win the MVP back in 1950.

Aside from his 1.04 ERA, which was second in the league among relievers, none of Fingers’ stats from the strike-shortened 1981 season jump out too much. Measured by today’s standards, his six blown saves in 34 chances would be cause for concern. But given that he averaged five outs per appearance and pitched at least two innings in 41% of his games, it’s not as relevant as it would be today. A big reason for Fingers’ recognition was that he was a key part of the Brewers’ first playoff appearance since becoming a franchise in 1969. For Milwaukee baseball fans, it was their first taste of the postseason since 1958. And Fingers, in front of that home crowd, allowed just one earned in 36.2 regular season innings.

This write-up was originally published as part of How They Got There: The 1980-1989 AL MVPs.

1982 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Pete Vuckovich MIL 29 Trade (STL) Dec’80 18 6 223.2 3.34 4.03 2.4
2nd Jim Palmer BAL 36 Non-Drafted FA Aug’63 15 5 227.0 3.13 3.95 3.0
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Dan Quisenberry KCR 29 Non-Drafted FA Jun’75 9 28 136.2 2.57 3.45 1.5

How often does a team acquire two future Hall of Famers in the same trade? How often does a team acquire two pitchers in the same trade who go on to win the Cy Young award in consecutive seasons? I’m going to assume the answer to both questions is “probably never before” — see the aforementioned Cardinals-Brewers trade — “and probably never again”.

The addition of Fingers and Simmons, who had combined for 11 All-Star selections, was expected to be a key to pushing a very good Brewers team over the top. Despite three consecutive winning seasons, they had failed to make the playoffs since becoming a franchise in 1969. Vuckovich, on the other hand, was a 28-year-old who had played for three different teams in just over five big league seasons and was better known for his antics on the mound. He had won 39 games between 1978-1980 for the Cardinals, so he was expected to contribute. To extent to which he did, though, was likely a pleasant surprise.

After a disastrous debut with the team on April 14, 1981 — in which he allowed seven earned runs in 3 2/3 innings, including a grand slam to Carlton Fisk — Vuckovich won 32 of his next 41 decisions to help lead the Brewers to back-to-back AL East titles. He also started the team’s AL pennant-clinching victory in game five of the 1982 ALCS (6.1 IP, 3 ER), as well a pair of World Series games against the Cardinals. There would be no bigger stage for Vuckovich until, as Clu Haywood, he faced off against Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn in 1989.

1983 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY LaMarr Hoyt CHW 28 Trade (NYY) Apr’77 24 10 260.2 3.66 3.33 5.4
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
2nd Dan Quisenberry KCR 30 Non-Drafted FA Jun’75 5 45 139.0 1.94 2.86 2.7
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Jack Morris DET 28 Drafted 5th Rd (98) ’76 20 13 293.2 3.34 3.38 6.2

Just prior to the start of the 1977 season, the Chicago White Sox traded All-Star shortstop Bucky Dent for outfielder Oscar Gamble, who was a year away from free agency, and a pair of pitching prospects, LaMarr Hoyt and Bob Polinsky. While the 27-year-old Gamble provided an immediate payoff with a .974 OPS and a career-high 31 homers in what would be his lone season with the Sox, Polinsky and Hoyt were still in the minors when Dent became the World Series MVP for the Yankees in 1978.

Polinsky, a first round pick of the Yankees in 1973, never made it to the majors and was out of baseball after the 1979 season. Hoyt would soon make an impact, however, winning 18 games and picking up 10 saves while bouncing back and forth between the rotation and bullpen in 1980-1981. When he won his first nine decisions of the 1982 season while posting a 1.45 ERA, he appeared on the brink of stardom. He couldn’t sustain that success, however, as he would go 10-15 with a 4.26 ERA the rest of the way. Halfway through the 1983 season, it was more of the same for the 28-year-old Hoyt. After being knocked out of a start in the second inning on July 8, Hoyt’s record dropped to 9-9 with a 4.35 ERA.

Just when the White Sox might’ve figured that his early-season success the previous year was a fluke, Hoyt rebounded in a big way. In his final 17 starts, he went 15-1 with a 2.92 ERA to help the White Sox clinch their first division title in 24 years. He’d also shine in his lone postseason start, a complete game, 2-1 victory over the Orioles.

After a bad season in 1984, Hoyt was sent to the Padres in a seven-player deal that included prospect Ozzie Guillen, who would, coincidentally, become the White Sox’s first All-Star shortstop since Dent.

1984 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Willie Hernandez DET 29 Trade (PHI) Mar’84 9 32 140.1 1.92 2.58 3.2
2nd Dan Quisenberry KCR 31 Non-Drafted FA Jun’75 6 44 129.1 2.64 3.42 1.5
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Bert Blyleven CLE 33 Trade (PIT) Dec’80 19 7 245.0 2.87 3.37 5.0

An up-and-coming Tigers team had progressed from 83 wins in 1982 to 92 wins in 1983. But that was just barely good enough for second place in the AL East, six games behind the World Champion Baltimore Orioles. The following offseason, general manager Bill Lajoie took a mostly conservative approach to retooling his ball club. In a span of two weeks in late December, he signed 36-year-old Darrell Evans, an All-Star with the San Francisco Giants during the previous year, and re-signed starting pitcher Milt Wilcox and reliever Doug Bair. Things were mostly quiet after that until he pulled off a four-player trade with the Philadelphia Phillies close to three months later.

Although the trade did not seem to have major significance at the time, the Tigers had a clear need for bullpen help — specifically, a left-handed reliever to complement All-Star Aurelio LopezHoward Bailey, the team’s only lefty to log significant innings out of the bullpen in 1983, had a 4.88 ERA. With less than two weeks before Opening Day, Lajoie finally filled that void. In exchange for veteran utilityman John Wockenfuss and 26-year-old outfielder Glenn Wilson, the Tigers acquired first baseman/outfielder Dave Bergman, who the Phillies had just acquired from the Giants, and 29-year-old lefty reliever Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez.

While Hernandez wasn’t a household name amongst relief pitchers, he had been very good at his job over six previous seasons with the Cubs and Phillies, who had acquired him in May 1983. He pitched four shutout innings in three World Series games against the Orioles, proving that he could succeed on the biggest stage. That’s where the Tigers hoped to be, although they could not have envisioned Hernandez as the AL MVP on a championship team with Kirk GibsonChet LemonJack MorrisAlan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker.

This write-up was originally published as part of How They Got There: The 1980-1989 AL MVPs.

1985 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Bret Saberhagen KCR 21 Drafted 19th Rd ’82 20 6 235.1 2.87 2.89 6.2
2nd Ron Guidry NYY 34 Drafted 3rd Rd (67) ’71 22 6 259.0 3.27 3.47 4.9
3rd-T Bert Blyleven CLE/MIN 34 Trade (CLE) Aug’85 17 16 293.2 3.16 3.16 7.0
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd-T Dan Quisenberry KCR 32 Non-Drafted FA Jun’75 8 37 129.0 2.37 3.05 2.7

A year after selecting Mark Gubicza and David Cone in the 1981 amateur draft with the 34th and 74th picks, respectively, the Royals would use the 480th pick on high school pitcher Bret Saberhagen. How in the world was this kid, who would make his major league debut at age 19 and win a Cy Young and World Series MVP in his second big league season, still available in the 19th round? Due to a shoulder injury and a late start because of an extended basketball playoff run, Saberhagen fell off the radar of most scouts prior to the draft. He dominated in the playoffs, which had yet to begin when 479 players were chosen before him in the draft.

After an impressive one-year stint in the minors, Saberhagen pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Yankees in his big league debut and finished his rookie year with eight strong innings against the soon-to-be World Champion Detroit Tigers in the ALDS. Less than 13 months later, he closed out game seven of the World Series with a five-hit shutout over the Cardinals. At age 21, he had a Cy Young award, a World Series MVP, and a 20-win season.

1986 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Roger Clemens BOS 23 Drafted 1st Rd (19) ’83 24 4 254.0 2.48 2.81 7.1
2nd Teddy Higuera MIL 28 Purchased (MEX) Sep’83 20 11 248.1 2.79 3.40 5.1
3rd Mike Witt CAL 25 Drafted 4th Rd (92) ’78 18 10 269.0 2.84 3.14 6.7

1987 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Roger Clemens BOS 24 Drafted 1st Rd (19) ’83 20 9 281.2 2.97 2.91 8.4
2nd Jimmy Key TOR 26 Drafted 3rd Rd (56) ’82 17 8 261.0 2.76 3.61 5.6
3rd Dave Stewart OAK 30 Free Agent (PHI) May’86 20 13 261.1 3.68 3.77 4.8

Seventeen teams passed on an All-American pitcher out of the University of Texas at Austin named Roger Clemens, including the Seattle Mariners twice (picks seven and 17). With the first overall selection, the Minnesota Twins drafted right-handed pitcher Tim Belcher, who they were unable to sign.

Within a year, those teams were regretting the decision to draft any other player but Clemens. The 21-year-old was already turning heads as a rookie and was only two years away from winning his first Cy Young award. His career was in jeopardy, however, after he was diagnosed with a torn labrum by Dr. James Andrews after battling shoulder soreness throughout the 1985 season.

To this day, there is uncertainty surrounding the recovery process of this type of injury. But it couldn’t have gone much smoother for Clemens. Andrews performed the arthroscopic surgery and prescribed rehabilitation exercises that had him back on the mound to start the fourth game of the 1986 season. In his first 15 starts, the 23-year-old was 14-0 with a 2.18 ERA on a Red Sox team that had not been to the postseason since 1975. Including the playoffs, Clemens finished the year with 38 starts and 288 innings and became the eighth pitcher of all-time to win both an MVP and Cy Young in the same season.

In 1987, Clemens would become the rare pitcher to win a Cy Young award on a losing team. He also wasn’t an All-Star. After 16 starts, he had a 6-6 record with a 3.66 ERA. But he turned things around, winning 14 of 17 decisions with a 2.45 ERA over his final 20 starts.

A version of this write-up was originally published as part of How They Got There: The 1990-1999 AL Cy Young winners.

1988 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Frank Viola MIN 28 Drafted 2nd Rd (37) ’81 24 7 255.1 2.64 2.95 6.3
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
2nd Dennis Eckersley OAK 33 Trade (CHC) Apr’87 4 45 72.2 2.35 2.23 2.3
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Mark Gubicza KCR 25 Drafted 2nd Rd (34) ’81 20 8 269.2 2.70 2.93 6.2

After taking Arizona State third baseman Mike Sodders, Baseball America’s College Player of the Year, with the 11th pick of the 1981 amateur draft, the Minnesota Twins selected pitcher Frank Viola out of St. John’s University with the 37th pick. Sodders was one of seven first round picks from that class to never play in the majors. Viola, however, ended up as one of the most successful players from a talented group of second rounders, including Mark Langston and Mark Gubicza.

Viola’s arrival in the major leagues was fast, but it wasn’t successful. In 1982, the 22-year-old rookie had a 4-10 record and 5.21 ERA on a Twins team that lost 102 games. Things weren’t much better in year two as he went 7-15 with a 5.49 ERA. He was much-improved in 1984, though, when he began a decade-long run as one of the better pitchers in the game. During that span, the lefty would win 163 games while posting a 3.42 ERA and averaging 242 innings per season.

Entering the 1988 season, Viola had a World Series championship and World Series MVP on his resume. But after getting knocked around in an Opening Day blowout loss at Yankee Stadium, Viola and the Twins had to quickly recover from their World Series hangover. Viola did — he posted a 2.48 ERA while winning 24 of his next 30 decisions —  but the team did not. Despite a strong second half, they could not catch the Athletics; Oakland easily ran away in the AL West.

The following July, Viola was traded to the New York Mets in a six-player deal that landed pitchers Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani in Minnesota.

1989 AL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Bret Saberhagen KCR 25 Drafted 19th Rd ’82 23 6 262.1 2.16 2.45 7.5
2nd Dave Stewart OAK 32 Free Agent (PHI) May’86 21 9 257.2 3.32 3.59 3.2
3rd Mike Moore OAK 29 Free Agent (SEA) Nov’88 19 11 241.2 2.61 3.15 4.4

A veteran of five big league seasons, the 25-year-old Saberhagen entered the 1989 season having already been through his share of highs and lows. Those would continue for more than a decade — trades to the Mets and Rockies, a no-hitter, injuries, a late-career stint with the Red Sox, and multiple postseason appearances — but his career was about to hit its peak.

Despite a 3-4 start to the season, Saberhagen was looking strong with three earned runs or less allowed in 10 of his first 11 starts. Over his final 25 starts, though, he went 20-2 with a 1.93 ERA. In addition to winning his second Cy Young, he won the Gold Glove award for the first and only time of his career. Two seasons later, his career with the Royals was finished.

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2 years ago

In case anyone else was curious, Bill James says that Tigers GM Bill Lajoie, a coworker for a few years, was the grandson of HOF-er Nap Lajoie. Here’s the quote:

“I was never sure how to pronounce “Lajoie” until I worked with his grandson, Bill Lajoie, with the Red Sox. Bill pronounced it “La-Joy” with just a hint of an “uh” sound after it, “La-Joy-uh”, but really just “La-Joy”. Not Lah-Joe-A or anything like that.”