The Greatest Non-Cy Young Seasons in History

Bryce Harper won the National League Most Valuable Player this season, and the vote was unanimous. Kris Bryant won the NL Rookie of the Year, and the vote was unanimous. Josh Donaldson‘s American League MVP victory wasn’t quite as clear-cut — 23 to seven over Mike Trout — and Dallas Keuchel’s AL Cy Young even less so — 22 to eight over David Price.

Still, most of the major award victories were fairly one-sided, and they all came down to just two parties duking it out for the top spot. And this is how it usually goes. Occasionally, there’s some discrepancy between the last couple candidates, but more often than not it’s pretty clear who will take home the hardware at year end. If there is any controversy, it’s almost always between just two guys. Very rarely do you see three players eligible for the same award, all of which with a legitimate case to win.

And yet, the 2015 NL Cy Young vote looked like this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 10.09.02 AM

Jake Arrieta emerged victorious, in my opinion rightfully so, but it’s clear by the vote that there was no obvious winner. And it probably came as a surprise to some that Clayton Kershaw didn’t receive more top-two votes and make the race even closer than it actually was.

I mean, Jake Arrieta finished with an ERA that started with a one, and had one of the best second halves in baseball history. Zack Greinke finished with an ERA that started with a one, and it was the lowest we’d seen since Greg Maddux in ’95. Clayton Kershaw finished with a FIP that started with a one, and it was the second consecutive year we’d seen him do that. The ERA wasn’t much higher.

Trying to pick an obvious winner from those three is like trying to pick which duffle bag full of $100 bills you want to take home without having the chance to count every last note. Just close your eyes and pick at random. Either way you’re walking out of that room with a big bag full of money.

It’s great that Arrieta won, because he totally deserved it, but it’s an equal bummer that Greinke and Kershaw didn’t win, because they totally deserved it, too. It’s a shame that seasons like the ones Greinke and Kershaw just had will go down in the record books unrecognized, solely because “sweet lord the caliber of the pitching talent in baseball today is unbelievable what a time to be alive whiffs everywhere.”

The consolation prize for Greinke and Kershaw is that they’re not alone, and they don’t have to go unrecognized. We just witnessed one of the greatest trios of single-season pitching performances in baseball history, so let’s give the runners-up of present and past their due.

There’s an issue with attempting to do an exercise like this with pitchers, and it’s the same struggle I had when examining the historical nature of Kershaw’s five-year stretch earlier in the month. The issue, of course, is how radically pitcher usage has changed in the last half century. It’s nearly impossible to rack up 10+ WAR as a pitcher these days, because in order to so you almost have to throw 250+ innings, and that just doesn’t happen anymore. So instead of using one methodology to determine the greatest non-Cy Young winning seasons in history, I’ve used several. It’s up to you to decide which one you like best. This post isn’t going to have a definitive answer. It’s all about perspective.

The way I’ve done things here is examined all qualified pitcher seasons since 1967, which is when they started giving out a Cy Young Award to each league. That decision seems pretty foolproof. Then, I’ve selected the top 20 pitcher seasons, using three different methods.

The first is simply by ERA and FIP, of course using ERA- and FIP- to adjust for park factors and the era’s run environment. There’s no unanimous agreement whether it’s better to use ERA or FIP to determine a pitcher’s value, so instead we’ll use a split of the two. The ones who rise to the top are the ones who prevented runs at an elite rate, and also overpowered batters with elite strikeout, walk and home run figures. The second method is by WAR. This, of course, gives more weight to workload, and less weight to overall dominance. Again, we use a mix between ERA (rWAR) and FIP (fWAR). The third method, and the one I like the best, is a mixture of the first two methods! Mixtures everywhere! Using some quick math, we can determine standard deviations above the mean from each of the first two methods and use a split of those two z-scores to give us a ranking that weighs both dominance, by ERA and FIP, and workload, by WAR.

Boring explanation, over and out. Sortable tables!

Top 20 Non-Cy Young Seasons, by ERA/FIP, ’67-Present
Year Name Team IP K% BB% HR/9 ERA FIP ERA- FIP- E-/F- Winner
2003 Pedro Martinez BOS 186 28% 6% 0.34 2.22 2.21 48 51 50 R. Halladay
1990 Roger Clemens BOS 228 23% 6% 0.28 1.93 2.18 47 55 51 B. Welch
2002 Pedro Martinez BOS 199 30% 5% 0.59 2.26 2.24 50 54 52 B. Zito
2004 Randy Johnson ARI 245 30% 5% 0.66 2.60 2.30 57 50 54 R. Clemens
2015 Clayton Kershaw LAD 232 34% 5% 0.58 2.13 1.99 57 52 55 J. Arrieta
1997 Greg Maddux ATL 232 20% 2% 0.35 2.20 2.43 53 58 56 P. Martinez
2005 Roger Clemens HOU 211 22% 7% 0.47 1.87 2.87 44 67 56 C. Carpenter
1971 Tom Seaver NYM 286 26% 6% 0.57 1.76 1.94 52 60 56 F. Jenkins
1997 Randy Johnson SEA 211 34% 9% 0.85 2.30 2.85 50 62 56 R. Clemens
1998 Kevin Brown SD 256 25% 5% 0.28 2.39 2.25 60 53 57 T. Glavine
1996 Kevin Brown FLA 233 18% 4% 0.31 1.89 2.88 46 67 57 J. Smoltz
2003 Mark Prior CHC 211 28% 6% 0.64 2.43 2.47 57 56 57 E. Gagne
1968 Luis Tiant CLE 258 27% 7% 0.56 1.60 2.03 53 62 58 D. McLain
2015 Zack Greinke LAD 222 24% 5% 0.57 1.66 2.76 44 72 58 J. Arrieta
2011 Roy Halladay PHI 233 24% 4% 0.39 2.35 2.20 61 56 59 C. Kershaw
2013 Matt Harvey NYM 178 28% 5% 0.35 2.27 2.00 64 53 59 C. Kershaw
1998 Greg Maddux ATL 251 21% 5% 0.47 2.22 2.81 53 65 59 T. Glavine
2010 Josh Johnson MIA 183 25% 7% 0.34 2.30 2.41 56 62 59 R. Halladay
2003 Jason Schmidt SF 207 25% 6% 0.61 2.34 2.64 56 63 60 E. Gagne
1973 Bert Blyleven MIN 325 20% 5% 0.44 2.52 2.30 63 58 61 J. Palmer

We begin with the ERA and FIP method, which reveals that Pedro Martinez’s 2003 season was the most dominant qualified pitcher season in history not to win a Cy Young, as he lost to Roy Halladay in the voting. Of course, this immediately reveals the one flaw in relying solely on ERA and FIP, in that it ignores innings. The reason Halladay won the award, despite a combined ERA/FIP that was 20% worse than Pedro’s, is that Halladay threw 266 innings that year — 80 more than Martinez.

In Kershaw’s case, one finds that only four pitchers in the Cy Young era have ever posted a better combined ERA/FIP and not won a Cy Young. In Greinke’s case, one finds that nobody has ever posted a better adjusted ERA and not won a Cy Young.

Top 20 Non-Cy Young Seasons by WAR, ’67-Present
Year Name Team IP K% BB% HR/9 ERA FIP rWAR fWAR tWAR Winner?
1971 Tom Seaver NYM 286 26% 6% 0.57 1.76 1.94 11.6 9.1 10.4 F. Jenkins
1973 Bert Blyleven MIN 325 20% 5% 0.44 2.52 2.30 9.7 10.8 10.3 J. Palmer
1969 Bob Gibson STL 314 21% 8% 0.34 2.18 2.24 11.2 8.8 10.0 T. Seaver
1971 Wilbur Wood CHW 334 16% 5% 0.57 1.91 2.62 10.6 8.7 9.7 V. Blue
1998 Kevin Brown SD 256 25% 5% 0.28 2.39 2.25 8.5 9.5 9.0 T. Glavine
1970 Fergie Jenkins CHC 313 22% 5% 0.86 3.39 2.80 8.5 9.5 9.0 B. Gibson
1997 Greg Maddux ATL 232 20% 2% 0.35 2.20 2.43 9.9 8.0 9.0 P. Martinez
1990 Roger Clemens BOS 228 23% 6% 0.28 1.93 2.18 9.2 8.2 8.7 B. Welch
2004 Randy Johnson ARI 245 30% 5% 0.66 2.60 2.30 7.8 9.6 8.7 R. Clemens
2002 Curt Schilling ARI 258 31% 3% 0.98 3.14 2.35 7.7 9.4 8.6 R. Johnson
1974 Phil Niekro ATL 300 16% 7% 0.54 2.31 3.00 10.1 6.9 8.5 M. Marshall
1968 Luis Tiant CLE 258 27% 7% 0.56 1.60 2.03 9.5 7.4 8.5 D. McLain
1969 Juan Marichal SF 299 17% 5% 0.45 2.10 2.38 9.0 7.8 8.4 T. Seaver
1988 Roger Clemens BOS 264 27% 6% 0.58 2.93 2.17 7.4 9.2 8.3 F. Viola
1973 Nolan Ryan LAA 326 28% 12% 0.50 2.87 2.56 7.9 8.7 8.3 J. Palmer
1971 Mickey Lolich DET 376 20% 6% 0.86 2.92 2.85 8.3 8.3 8.3 V. Blue
2015 Clayton Kershaw LAD 232 34% 5% 0.58 2.13 1.99 7.9 8.6 8.3 J. Arrieta
1998 Greg Maddux ATL 251 21% 5% 0.47 2.22 2.81 9.0 7.5 8.3 T. Glavine
1996 Kevin Brown FLA 233 18% 4% 0.31 1.89 2.88 9.7 6.7 8.2 J. Smoltz
1985 John Tudor STL 275 16% 5% 0.46 1.93 2.71 10.0 6.4 8.2 D. Gooden

As one might expect, when we switch over to WAR, a bunch of seasons from 40 years ago jump to the top of the list. The 2003 Pedro season from above disappears entirely. Pedro’s runner-up, 1990 Roger Clemens, drops from second to eighth.

But Kershaw remains! Kershaw’s 232.2 innings pitched led the major leagues this season, and so he was able to accumulate enough WAR — both by ERA and FIP — to stay in the top 20.

Top 20 Non-Cy Young Seasons, ’67-Present
Year Name Team IP K% BB% HR/9 ERA FIP E-/F- tWAR Z Winner?
1971 Tom Seaver NYM 286 26% 6% 0.57 1.76 1.94 56 10.4 3.3 F. Jenkins
1973 Bert Blyleven MIN 325 20% 5% 0.44 2.52 2.30 61 10.3 3.2 J. Palmer
1990 Roger Clemens BOS 228 23% 6% 0.28 1.93 2.18 51 8.7 3.0 B. Welch
1969 Bob Gibson STL 314 21% 8% 0.34 2.18 2.24 64 10.0 3.0 T. Seaver
1997 Greg Maddux ATL 232 20% 2% 0.35 2.20 2.43 56 9.0 3.0 P. Martinez
2004 Randy Johnson ARI 245 30% 5% 0.66 2.60 2.30 54 8.7 3.0 R. Clemens
1971 Wilbur Wood CHW 334 16% 5% 0.57 1.91 2.62 62 9.7 2.9 V. Blue
1998 Kevin Brown SD 256 25% 5% 0.28 2.39 2.25 57 9.0 2.9 T. Glavine
2015 Clayton Kershaw LAD 232 34% 5% 0.58 2.13 1.99 55 8.3 2.8 J. Arrieta
2003 Pedro Martinez BOS 186 28% 6% 0.34 2.22 2.21 50 7.6 2.8 R. Halladay
1968 Luis Tiant CLE 258 27% 7% 0.56 1.60 2.03 58 8.5 2.8 D. McLain
1996 Kevin Brown FLA 233 18% 4% 0.31 1.89 2.88 57 8.2 2.7 J. Smoltz
2002 Pedro Martinez BOS 199 30% 5% 0.59 2.26 2.24 52 7.4 2.7 B. Zito
1998 Greg Maddux ATL 251 21% 5% 0.47 2.22 2.81 59 8.3 2.6 T. Glavine
1997 Randy Johnson SEA 211 34% 9% 0.85 2.30 2.85 56 7.9 2.6 R. Clemens
2011 Roy Halladay PHI 233 24% 4% 0.39 2.35 2.20 59 8.2 2.6 C. Kershaw
2015 Zack Greinke LAD 222 24% 5% 0.57 1.66 2.76 58 8.0 2.6 J. Arrieta
2002 Curt Schilling ARI 258 31% 3% 0.98 3.14 2.35 64 8.6 2.6 R. Johnson
2005 Roger Clemens HOU 211 22% 7% 0.47 1.87 2.87 56 7.5 2.5 C. Carpenter
2003 Mark Prior CHC 211 28% 6% 0.64 2.43 2.47 57 7.5 2.5 E. Gagne
Z: Averaged z-scores of the E-/F- and tWAR columns

Now, for the table I find most interesting. Taking into consideration both overall dominance and workload, we find that Kershaw and Greinke each have a case for two of the 20 greatest pitching seasons in the last half-century to not win a Cy Young Award. Kershaw slots one spot ahead of the ’03 Martinez season in our first table, as his 50-inning advantage over Martinez is barely enough to outweigh the five percent deficit in combined ERA/FIP.

Our all-time greatest pitching season to not win the Cy Young is Tom Seaver’s 1971 season, in which he posted a combined ERA/FIP 44 percent better than league average — he was essentially as dominant as Kershaw and Greinke this year — while pitching 286 innings. That year, Seaver was edged out by Fergie Jenkins, who finished with a 69 ERA-/FIP- over an unthinkable 325 innings.

Sorting this final table by year brings us to our conclusion, which is that Greinke and Kershaw’s seasons stand the test of time, with regards to multiple historical pitching seasons in the same year not being recognized with a Cy Young. The last time two pitchers had years like the ones Kershaw and Greinke just had and came away empty-handed was 2003, when Pedro lost to Halladay and Mark Prior lost to Eric Gagne. Not since Greg Maddux and Kevin Brown lost to Tom Glavine in ’98 has Major League Baseball seen a more historical trio of pitching seasons in the same league than the ones that Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw just had, and nothing like that had ever happened before then. Greinke and Kershaw may go down as runners-up, but they should be remembered as some of the greatest runners-up the game has ever seen.

For those interested, the full spreadsheet used for this post with all 3,915 pitcher seasons since 1967 — Cy Young winners and all — can be found right here.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

84 Comments
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Sam
6 years ago

I had not seen that two idiots didn’t put Kershaw in their top 3. That is awful.

Well-Beered Englishman
6 years ago
Reply to  Sam

If they put Scherzer, it’s not that bad, but … it’s still kinda bad.

Bipmember
6 years ago

Both put Cole third, one also put Bumgarner ahead. Which, for both of those, there isn’t much of a way to explain that except for wins…

3 Rings!
6 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Come on, Bumgarner is just as good as Kershaw and better than Greinkie and Arrietta. Posey got robbed too, I know Harper was good but Posey deserved some votes to be #1.

alphadogsball
6 years ago
Reply to  Bip

@3 Rings!

Not bad, needs more “even year” references though for maximum trollage.

potcircle
6 years ago
Reply to  Bip

bumgarner can actually hit like a baseball player… i’m guessing those guys thought that mattered…

it was an impossible vote… i would have gone kershaw, arrieta, greinke… but i kind of feel like i’m wrong…

potcircle
6 years ago
Reply to  Bip

that guy…

Yosted
6 years ago
Reply to  Sam

Hal McCoy(Cincinatti): Arrieta/Grinke/Cole/Bumgarner/Kershaw
Manny Navarro(Miami): Greinke/Arrieta/Cole/Kershaw/deGrom

http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/eye-on-baseball/25380327/mlb-awards-2015-cy-young-voting-results-and-ballots

August Fagerstrom to John Paul Morosi to Buster Olney and Back...
6 years ago
Reply to  Sam

Bryce Harper won this year at the University of national best player and it was a unanimous vote. He won the NL Rookie of the Year, and it was a unanimous vote for Chris Bryant. Mike Trout over 23 – seven – and even less Dallas Keuchel Al Cy Young – 22 David Price of the American League MVP Josh Donaldson eight clear victory was not enough.

However, the most significant win awards rather one-sided. They were all out for first place only duking to the two parties. This is normal as you. Occasionally, the last pair there is a gap between the candidates, but more often than not, because obviously a lot of hardware to take home at the end of the year. If there is a argument between the two men almost always. Double win the same prizes awarded to the three players are very rarely seen.

Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back
6 years ago

Bryce Harper season at the National University for the best and it was unanimous. Won NL Rookie of the Year and was a unanimous decision to Chris Briant. Mike Trout 23-7 or less, much more Dallas Keuchel Al Young C-22 David Price is a clear victory for the US League MVP Josh Donaldson eight is not enough.

However, especially winning a prize face. They were the first, for both sides. This is normal and you. Sometimes in the past few months, there is a gap between the candidates, but Villa did, because obviously a lot of material at the end of this year. If there is a dispute between the two men most of the time. A double Avard three players are rare.

LISTEN TO WHAT I HAVE TO SAY
6 years ago
Reply to  Sam

ESTEBAN LOAIZA 2003. HERO!!!