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

If you want to get an idea of how high the bar is to become a Hall of Fame pitcher, consider that only two of the 17 Cy Young winners from the 1980s have been inducted. One, Steve Carlton, is a four-time winner whose career spanned three decades. The other, Rollie Fingers, was one of the better relievers in the game throughout his 16-year career.

Those not in the Hall of Fame had a shorter span of greatness, even if only one year. Temporarily unlocking that Cy Young ability can come down to a change of scenery, a strong supporting cast, or working with a new pitching instructor. In other words, being in the right place at the right time. Here’s a look back at how the NL Cy Young winners of the 1980s were acquired.

1980 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Steve Carlton PHI 35 Trade (STL) Feb’72 24 9 304.0 2.34 2.42 8.8
2nd Jerry Reuss LAD 31 Trade (PIT) Apr’79 18 6 229.1 2.51 2.99 4.6
3rd Jim Bibby PIT 35 Free Agent (CLE) Mar’78 19 6 238.1 3.32 3.82 2.6

At the time, St. Louis Cardinals lefty Steve Carlton and Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Rick Wise were in very similar situations. Both were All-Stars in their mid-20s who wanted to be paid a higher salary than their respective teams were offering for the 1972 season. Players didn’t yet enjoy a right to free agency. If a player held out for his preferred salary, he might find himself sitting out part of the season, or on the trading block; very rarely did teams submit to a player’s salary demands.

With less than two months before Opening Day, the Cardinals and Phillies agreed on a Carlton-for-Wise trade. Both players signed for exactly what they had wanted with their new teams, according to Wise. Carlton’s salary rose from $40,000 to $65,000.=; Wise wanted to double his $25,000 salary, so it’s assumed that he made $50,000.

While Wise met expectations with solid back-to-back seasons for St. Louis — he was an All-Star in 1973 — Carlton was more of an enigma after two years in Philly. After winning his first Cy Young award following a 27-win, 1.97 ERA season in year one, he posted a 3.90 ERA and 20 losses the following year. But by the time he won his third Cy Young award in 1980 at the age of 35, it was clear that he was one of the best pitchers in the history of the game and a lock for the Hall of Fame.

1981 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Fernando Valenzuela LAD 20 Purchased (MEX) Jul’79 13 7 192.1 2.48 2.44 4.9
2nd Tom Seaver CIN 36 Trade (NYM) Jun’77 14 2 166.1 2.54 3.58 1.8
3rd Steve Carlton PHI 36 Trade (STL) Feb’72 13 4 190.0 2.42 2.33 5.3

The story goes something like this. Sometime in the mid-70s, Mexican League scout Mike Brito, a former Washington Senators’ farmhand, struck out in a semipro game on a wicked screwball from a right-hander named Bobby “Babo” Castillo. On Brito’s recommendation, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Castillo in June 1977. A year later, Brito was hired by the Dodgers as a scout.

In 1979, the Dodgers would take a chance on another pitcher discovered by Brito, an 18-year-old lefty out of the Mexican League named Fernando Valenzuela. Armed with a curveball and an unimpressive fastball — as we’d soon find out, he also had a remarkable baseball IQ and maturity beyond his years — Valenzuela was urged to add a third pitch to his repertoire. Brito suggested that Castillo, who had spent parts of multiple seasons in the Dodgers’ bullpen, teach the youngster his screwball. It didn’t take long for Valenzuela to perfect the pitch, beginning his fast rise to stardom.

When Valenzuela got the call to the big leagues in September 1980, Brito was already well-known around the game as the sharp-dressed man with the Panama hat, cigar, and radar gun standing directly behind home plate at just about every Dodgers game. Castillo was in the Dodgers’ bullpen, where Valenzuela would spend his first few weeks in the majors. The two combined for four shutout innings in Valenzuela’s second appearance. That must’ve been a proud moment for Brito.

Now, think how surreal it must’ve been for Castillo in 1981 when this 20-year-old rookie led the team to a World Series championship using the screwball that he taught him.

1982 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Steve Carlton PHI 37 Trade (STL) Feb’72 23 11 295.2 3.10 2.41 8.2
2nd Steve Rogers MON 32 Drafted 1st Rd (4) ’71 19 8 277.0 2.40 2.76 6.4
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd-T Bruce Sutter STL 29 Trade (CHC) Dec’80 9 36 102.1 2.90 3.63 0.2
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd-T Fernando Valenzuela LAD 21 Purchased (MEX) Jul’79 19 13 285.0 2.87 2.81 6.1

A 37-year-old Carlton was still going strong in 1982. He pitched at least nine innings in half of his 38 starts and had 11 double-digit strikeout games. The old guy also proved that he could still hit, collecting four multi-hit games and the 10th and 11th homers of his career.

On the other hand, the player he was traded for a decade earlier was not “still going strong.” The 36-year-old Wise was released by the San Diego Padres after his lone appearance of the season — it was also the final game of his career — on April 10.

1983 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY John Denny PHI 30 Trade (CLE) Sep’82 19 6 242.2 2.37 2.80 5.8
2nd Mario Soto CIN 26 Amateur FA (DOM) Dec’73 17 13 273.2 2.70 3.41 4.5
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Jesse Orosco NYM 26 Trade (MIN) Feb’79 13 17 110.0 1.47 2.65 2.2

Locked in a tight division race with three weeks to go in the 1982 season, the Phillies made a rare September trade for Cleveland Indians pitcher John Denny. In exchange, the Phillies sent pitcher Jerry Reed, pitcher Roy Smith, and outfielder Wil Culmer to the Tribe. The 31-year-old Denny was in the midst of a disappointing season with Cleveland, but he had plenty of previous success throughout his career. In fact, he had led the National League in ERA back in 1976 for the Cardinals, the team the ’82 Phillies were trailing in the NL East.

After Carlton spun a three-hit shutout over the Cardinals the following day to take a half-game lead in the division, the Phillies went on to lose five of the next six, including both of Denny’s first two starts with his new team. By the time Denny would redeem himself with a one-hit shutout on October 1, the Phillies had been eliminated from postseason contention. Fortunately, Denny’s last impression in 1982 was a sign of things to come.

After a brilliant regular season, the highlight of Denny’s year, and maybe his entire career, came when he beat the Baltimore Orioles in game one of the World Series after allowing just one run over 7 2/3 innings.

1984 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Rick Sutcliffe CHC 28 Trade (CLE) Jun’84 16 1 150.1 2.69 2.96 6.0
2nd Dwight Gooden NYM 19 Drafted 1st Rd (5) ’82 17 9 218.0 2.60 1.69 8.3
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
3rd Bruce Sutter STL 31 Trade (CHC) Dec’80 5 45 122.2 1.54 3.05 1.5

The Cubs hadn’t won their division or been to the playoffs since 1945. They hadn’t even been close to being good since a handful of second place finishes from 1969-1972. But two months into the 1984 season, it was clear that this Cubs team was a contender. Led by a young core of position player talent, most notably Ryne Sandberg and Leon Durham, and closer Lee Smith, the Cubs were holding on to a slim lead in the NL East in June. With the Cardinals, Phillies, and an up-and-coming Mets team all fighting it out, general manager Dallas Green wasn’t going to take the chance that his starting rotation would be a weak link on an otherwise talented roster.

While Steve Trout and Scott Sanderson were having much success early in the season, Green first addressed a lack of rotation depth by trading for Boston Red Sox pitcher Dennis Eckersley in late May. Less than three weeks later, he’d pull off one of the most consequential trades in team history when he acquired pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, a 27-year-old former Rookie of the Year and All-Star, from the Cleveland Indians in a seven-player deal. In exchange, the Cubs gave up four players, including starting right fielder Mel Hall and outfielder Joe Carter, who Baseball America ranked as the organization’s number two prospect.

Both Eckersley and Sutcliffe had ERAs over 5.00 when acquired — Sutcliffe had also dealt with a tooth infection earlier in the season — so Green was hoping that a change of scenery would help them turn things around. That wouldn’t have been a huge surprise given their track records. But Sutcliffe responded with what would be the best four-month stretch of his 18-year major league career, winning 16 of 17 decisions, posting a 9.3 K/9 rate — his highest previous rate was 5.9 K/9 — and throwing seven shutout innings in the team’s first playoff game in 39 years.

1985 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Dwight Gooden NYM 20 Drafted 1st Rd (5) ’82 24 4 276.2 1.53 2.13 8.9
2nd John Tudor STL 31 Trade (PIT) Dec’84 21 8 275.0 1.93 2.71 6.4
3rd Orel Hershiser LAD 26 Drafted 17th Rd ’79 19 3 239.2 2.03 2.73 5.4

Although Joe McIlvaine was able to find a gem in the 13th round of his first amateur draft as the New York Mets’ Scouting Director — outfielder Lenny Dykstra was the 315th overall pick out of Garden Grove High School in California — it was, in retrospect, a highly unproductive group. Outfielder Terry Blocker, the number four overall pick, was a bust. The team’s 12th round pick, a pitcher out of San Jacinto College named Roger Clemens, went unsigned.

Year two was a different story, though, as four of McIlvaine’s first five picks either directly or indirectly contributed to the team’s championship season in 1986. After going with a college outfielder in the first round in 1981, he went the opposite route by taking a high school pitcher named Dwight Gooden with the fifth pick. Second round pick Floyd Youmans was the best prospect included in the trade with the Montreal Expos for catcher Gary Carter. Third round pick Roger McDowell had 22 saves and 14 wins for the ’86 champs. Fifth rounder Gerald Young was part of the trade with the Houston Astros to land third baseman Ray Knight.

In order for the Mets to draft Gooden, four teams had to pass on the kid who would become one of the biggest stars in the game within two years. With the first pick, the Cubs selected high school shortstop Shawon Dunston, who made two All-Star teams in 18 major league seasons and had one of the most impressive throwing arms you’ll ever see. The Blue Jays followed with the best college player on the board, University of New Orleans shortstop Augie Schmidt, who never played a game in the majors. At pick number three, the Padres opted for high school pitcher Jimmy Jones, who pitched a one-hit shutout in his major league debut before having an otherwise mediocre career. The Twins selected Wichita State lefty Bryan Oelkers, who had a 6.01 ERA in 103.1 big league innings, with the fourth pick.

1986 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Mike Scott HOU 31 Trade (NYM) Dec’82 18 10 275.1 2.22 2.16 8.6
2nd Fernando Valenzuela LAD 25 Purchased (MEX) Jul’79 21 11 269.1 3.14 2.80 6.2
3rd Mike Krukow SFG 34 Trade (PHI) Dec’82 20 9 245.0 3.05 3.31 4.2

Sure, the 1986 Mets are a legendary team that won a championship with a cast of amazingly talented and memorable players. But one of the most overshadowed aspects of their run to the World Series is how overmatched they were in their two NLCS losses by a guy they had drafted a decade earlier and traded away for a bench player after the 1982 season. I mean, his team lost the series and Astros pitcher Mike Scott (18 IP, ER, 8 H, BB, 19 K, 2 W) still won the MVP!

To be fair, when the Mets traded Scott to the Astros for first baseman/outfielder Danny Heep, there wasn’t as much of a premium placed on young, controllable starting pitching as there is today. Injuries weren’t as common and a team’s best starters were easily good for 200-plus innings in a season. And giving up on the 27-year-old Scott, who had just posted a 5.14 ERA with over 11 hits per nine innings allowed and almost as many walks as strikeouts, was unlikely to cause much of a stir. Of course, Scott with a split-fingered fastball — he learned the pitch prior to the 1985 season from Roger Craig, who was in between jobs during that offseason — was a completely different pitcher than the one the Mets away years earlier.

1987 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Steve Bedrosian PHI 29 Trade (ATL) Dec’85 5 40 89.0 2.83 3.79 0.8
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
2nd Rick Sutcliffe CHC 31 Trade (CLE) Jun’84 18 10 237.1 3.68 4.11 3.4
3rd Rick Reuschel PIT/SFG 38 Trade (PIT) Aug’87 13 9 227.0 3.09 3.33 5.0

Lots of smart people will argue that relief pitchers shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, nor should they win MVP or Cy Young awards. The reasoning is that they simply do not throw enough innings to be as valuable as a starting pitcher or position player. Yet, most baseball fanatics couldn’t have a conversation about the “good ol’ days” without discussing some of the best relievers of a particular era. For the 1980s, it was guys like Steve “Bedrock” Bedrosian, John Franco, Rich “Goose” Gossage, Dan Quisenberry, Jeff Reardon, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Kent Tekulve who were most memorable for their unique pitching motions, facial hair, and ability to record the last out of a win.

Those in the media who vote for awards also understand the impact of a closer, especially when they’re covering a team without a good one. Things can get ugly fast and the games can feel especially long when a team doesn’t have a reliable closer to shut down the opposing team at the end of a game. Whether it’s energizing the fans or taking the air out of the crowd, the feeling is quite impactful. So, when a reliever has a particularly standout season, such as Bedrosian saving 40 games for the Phillies in 1987, it tends to garner much attention.

Acquired from the Atlanta Braves along with outfielder Milt Thompson prior to the 1986 season for All-Star catcher Ozzie Virgil and pitching prospect Pete Smith, Bedrosian was moved back to the bullpen after making 37 starts the previous season. As the new closer, Bedrosian saved 29 games for a second place Phillies’ team in his first season with the team. In 1987, the 29-year-old became the third National League pitcher in baseball history to save at least 40 games in a season.

1988 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Orel Hershiser LAD 29 Drafted 17th Rd ’79 23 8 267.0 2.26 3.18 4.0
2nd Danny Jackson CIN 26 Trade (KCR) Nov’87 23 8 260.2 2.73 3.02 5.2
3rd David Cone NYM 25 Trade (KCR) Mar’87 20 3 231.1 2.22 2.58 5.3

In the span of a month, the Dodgers added two of their most successful pitchers of all time. A month before purchasing Valenzuela’s contract from the Mexican League, they drafted a right-handed pitcher out of Bowling Green University named Orel Hershiser. Like Valenzuela, there wasn’t much about Hershiser that screamed “future Cy Young winner.” He was a good college pitcher without a big-time fastball.

But early in his minor league career, Hershiser hadn’t changed many minds about his potential. If he had, the Dodgers probably wouldn’t have agreed to trade him and three others to the Texas Rangers for 31-year-old catcher Jim Sundberg prior to the 1983 season. Sundberg vetoed the deal, however, a fortunate turn of events for a team that would benefit from the decision not far down the road.

By 1988, Hershiser had established himself as one of the better pitchers in the National League. The Dodgers were coming off of back-to-back 89-loss seasons, however, and made several acquisitions during the offseason — outfielder Kirk Gibson, shortstop Alfredo Griffin, and relievers Jay Howell and Jesse Orosco all joined the team — to help improve a struggling ball club. Even 43-year-old Don Sutton, who won 230 games for the Dodgers between 1966-1980, returned on a free agent contract. But for the most part, it was the Orel Hershiser show in 1988.

It turned out that his 23 wins, 15 complete games, eight shutouts, and record-setting streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings during the regular season was just a warmup act. In 42 2/3 postseason innings, the “Bulldog” was 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA. By the time he struck out Tony Phillips to close out the World Series against an A’s team that had won 104 regular season games, there was no question that Hershiser was, at the moment, the best pitcher on the planet.

1989 NL Cy Young
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W Sv IP ERA FIP WAR
CY Mark Davis SDP 28 Trade (SFG) Jul’87 4 44 92.2 1.85 2.69 2.2
Rank Name Team Age How Acquired W L IP ERA FIP WAR
2nd Mike Scott HOU 34 Trade (NYM) Dec’82 20 10 229.0 3.10 3.42 2.6
3rd Greg Maddux CHC 23 Drafted 2nd Rd (31) ’84 19 12 238.1 2.95 3.45 3.7

The seven-player trade that sent Kevin Mitchell, Dave Dravecky, and Craig Lefferts to the San Francisco Giants in July 1987 turned out to be mostly one-sided, although Padres general manager Jack McKeon can at least say he acquired a Cy Young winner. Third baseman Chris Brown, a 25-year-old who was an All-Star the previous season, was likely the key to the deal for San Diego, but McKeon also got two young pitchers, Mark Davis and Mark Grant, who had been bouncing back and forth between the Giants’ rotation and bullpen.

While Grant would work primarily out of the Padres’ rotation initially, Davis would never make a start for the team. The decision paid off as the left-hander quickly settled into his role out of the bullpen. He was an All-Star in 1988, saving 28 games and striking out 102 batters over 98.1 innings. In 1989, he stood out on a talented Padres’ team, posting a 1.85 ERA and saving 44 games in 48 chances, winning the Cy Young over former award recipients, Scott and Hershiser, and an impressive 23-year-old named Greg Maddux.

The following offseason, Davis would cash in by signing a four-year, $13 million contract with the Kansas City Royals. It didn’t go well, though, as Davis’ best days were behind him. It wouldn’t be the last time a team regretted giving a lot of money to a relief pitcher.

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Barney Coolio
3 years ago

Bobby Castillo: The guy with the panama hat, light blue sportcoat, cigar, and radar gun, behind the plate at Dodger games.

So THAT’S who that guy was! I always thought, “Man, that guy is living the good life and likes to show it.” Unfortunately, he passed away 6 years ago at age 59.

Smiling Politelymember
3 years ago
Reply to  Jason Martinez

Anyone who watched Dodger games in the 80s-90s knows Mike Brito, sitting behind home plate in the panama straw hat with the radar gun, listening to Vin call him the smartest guy in the stands, chattin it up with the folks around him 🙂 He and Mary Hart *are* home plate at Dodger Stadium