From Cy-VP to Sayonara?

Some speculation commences that precedent argues against Justin Verlander, the American League’s Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player Award winner for 2011, facing other than sobering after-effects. Well, now. It’s worth a look to see just what are the precedents involving pitchers who have scored both awards for a single season.

Big Newk—the first CY-VP . . .

Don Newcombe1956: Big Newk was the first Cy Young Award winner, and from his until Sandy Koufax’s a decade later the Cy was awarded to one pitcher across the board. Newcombe scored both that inaugural Cy and his MVP with a staggering 27-7 won-lost record, a solid if not league-leading 3.06 ERA, a league-leading .794 won-lost percentage, a league-leading 0.99 walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) average, 4.1 wins above a replacement-level player, a 4.2 win probablility added factor, and the fine-fielding righthander even led his league in putouts by a pitcher.

The aftermath: 1956 turned out to be the last good, never mind excellent season for Newcombe, who probably lost a lot to two years in the Army (1952-53, the same years Willie Mays lost) and a lot more to a) his tendency to get careless when the games were close and b) his battle with the bottle. In fact, his struggling began in earnest in the 1956 World Series, when he was battered as the Game Two starter for six runs and six hits in an inning and two thirds (Yogi Berra’s three-run homer finished him off) and lasted only three full innings starting Game Seven. (Berra was his main punisher again, with two-run bombs in the first and third innings, but Elston Howard’s fourth-inning-opening solo bomb finished him off this time.) In the Dodgers’ final Brooklyn season he led the National League in walks per nine innings (a remarkable 1.5 per nine) but in nothing else; he was still good for 3.5 wins above a replacement level player but his won-lost record went into the negative dramatically enough at 11-12 and his ERA swelled to 3.49. He had one more decent season (1959, for the Cincinnati Reds), but was gone after going a combined 6-9/4.48 ERA/1.33 WHIP/-0.4 WAR for the Reds and the Cleveland Indians.

Above, beyond, and about five dimensions out of reach . . .

Sandy Koufax1963: Koufax had begun coming into his own in 1961, when he smashed the National League single-season strikeout record, led the league in both strikeouts per nine (9.5) and strikeouts-to-walks (2.50), not to mention winning 18 games and shrinking his ERA to 3.52 while pitching in a park (the lopsided-arrayed Los Angeles Coliseum) that should have been killing him. After an injury-shortened 1962, when he looked like he’d rule the earth (he was 14-4 when a 17 July start lasted one inning as his circulation-compromised index finger finally did him in; he lost two of four appearances in late September, being game enough—fool enough?—to try to pitch with the Dodgers grinding against the Giants in a race that needed a playoff to decide), he exploded back in ’63—winning his first of three pitching triple crowns, leading the majors in WHIP (0.88) and strikeouts-to-walks (5.88), throwing a league-leading eleven shutouts, and finishing 10.8 WAR. That got him both his first of three Cy Youngs and his only National League MVP, and he went on to flatten the Yankees in Games One and Four during the Dodgers’ otherwise improbable Series sweep.

The aftermath: Koufax in 1964 was crusing to another likely Cy Young season when the injury that exposed his fateful arthritic elbow—he landed on four points scrambling back to base, of all things—took him out in August with a 19-5/1.74/223 strikeout/9.0 K-BB/seven shutout record. And he still ended up leading the league in the latter four when the season wrapped up. Under a medical regimen that some would call insane in the brain if they’d known its complete extent, Koufax went completely off the charts in 1965 and 1966, winning his final two Cy Youngs—which also happened to be the last two Cys awarded to one pitcher across the board—and, after retiring with a 1966 season that would have been a career year and a fluke season alike for most other pitchers, securing his Hall of Fame credentials in earnest.

Bob Gibson1968: In the Year of the Pitcher, Gibson bagged the National League’s Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards; it’s easy to think that surrealistic 1.12 ERA was the major factor, but Gibson also threw a surrealistic thirteen shutouts, struck out 268 batters, led the league with a 0.85 WHIP, and threw in his fifth straight Gold Glove award. Not to mention getting thisclose to winning three Series games for a second consecutive season. Did we also mention he led the league in WAR with 12.2?

The hitters didn’t think he was all that much of a Hoot . . .

The aftermath: Gibson in 1969 went 20-13 with a 2.18 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, 269 strikeouts, and a league-leading 28 complete games. He also led the league in WAR again, with a mere 11.7. For anyone else, that’s a career year; in 1969, it wasn’t close to enough to overthrow Tom Seaver’s Cy Young-winning coming-out party. Gibson took the Cy back with a 23-7 1970; his league-leading 23 wins were probably the reason he won the award, but he also topped the league with 10.1 WAR. His Hall of Fame case was probably secured for all time in that three-season stretch, and he had about three more solid if not off-the-chart years ahead of him before his retirement.

If only a Hammond organ was his only off-field, off-season passion . . .

Denny McLain1968: In that same Year of the Pitcher, McLain was the American League’s Gibson, more or less—those off-the-chart 31 wins were the obvious calling card, but McLain also threw 28 complete games and led the American League with a 4.44 K-BB. His 0.91 WHIP was none too shabby, either. He didn’t lead the league in any other categories other than innings pitched and batters faced, but he didn’t have to. If you want an idea about just how much of a Year of the Pitcher 1968 actually was, in the American League especially, consider that in the American League four of the league’s top ten MVP finishers were pitchers. (Behind McLain: Dave McNally, Luis Tiant, and Mel Stottlemyre. In the National League, the MVP-winning Gibson was one of only two top-ten finishing pitchers for the award, with Juan Marichal a very distant fifth.)

The aftermath: McLain performed only modestly in the 1968 World Series, sore-armed from the regular-season campaign, losing twice to Gibson (in Games One and Four) but winning Game Six with a complete-game seven-strikeout no-walk performance while the Tigers battered the Cardinals for a ten-run third and a 13-1 final—and on two days’ rest in the bargain. When the new rules took effect in 1969 including mound heights, McLain pitched—like Gibson—almost as though the changes made no difference; in fact, he landed a second straight Cy Young Award and led the league with 24 wins. It was McLain’s final taste of mound glory; he weathered a 1970 interrupted by his suspension for bookmaking, then—with arm trouble even more in earnest, aggravated by numerous cortisone shots he’d taken to alleviate it, not to mention clashes with Washington Senators manager Ted Williams (who wasn’t thrilled when the high-living McLain was dealt to the Nats)—went 10-22 with a 1.41 WHIP and a 4.28 ERA in 1971. After a complete-collapse 6.37 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 1972 (for the Oakland Athletics and the Atlanta Braves) indicated his arm was gone completely, McLain was out of baseball.

Was any cover boy treated as shabbily as was Blue?

Was any cover boy treated as shabbily as was Blue?

Vida Blue1971: After a couple of cups of coffee with the A’s in 1969 and 1970, the precocious Blue (he was 21) came into his own in 1971 with a Cy-and-MVP winning season in which he led his league in ERA (1.82), WHIP (0.95), and strikeouts per nine (8.7). Not only was he pitching like a superstar at such a young age, but he had a happy-go-lucky personality that endeared him to America so profoundly he made the cover of Time that August.

The aftermath: Blue was honoured with opening the 1971 American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles, who swept the A’s in three games; Blue took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh, before an RBI single, an RBI double, and a two-run double ended his afternoon in a 5-3 hole which held up. For 1972, however, Blue staged a contract holdout that would help bury the happy-go-lucky young man after Charlie Finley got through with him:

Well, I know you won twenty-four games. I know you led the league in earned run average. I know you had three hundred strikeouts. I know you made the All-Star team. I know you were the youngest to win the Cy Young Award and the MVP. I know all that. And if I was you, I would ask for the same thing. And you deserve it. But I ain’t gonna give it to you.

It took commissioner Bowie Kuhn to step in as a kind of peacemaker, with Blue settling for $63,000 for 1972 after having asked for $100,000. (Finley was only willing to pay Blue $50,000 for 1972, exactly what he was paying the better-established Catfish Hunter.) Perhaps his original demand might have been somewhat unreasonable in that time and place, but clearly enough Finley had taken the wrong angle in dismissing it. Blue would go 6-10 in 1972 and, though he’d end up winning 209 games in a seventeen-season career, he’d never strike out as many as 200 hitters in a season again, would only finish in the top ten four more times for a Cy Young Award (and higher than sixth once), become bitter and withdrawn according to several sources, and even deal with drug trouble—his would be among the troubling testimony in the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials—before coming to terms with his career and life and becoming renowned around his adopted San Francisco Bay Area for charity work and baseball promotion.

He left hitters bankrupt; his advisors would leave him likewise . . .

Rollie Fingers—1981: A decade after Blue’s twin award feat, his erstwhile Oakland teammate Fingers would turn the trick with the Milwaukee Brewers, when the Brewers were still in the American League. His 1.04 ERA and league-leading 28 saves in the strike-shortened season probably keyed the selection and may have helped secure his Hall of Fame jacket.

The aftermath: Fingers would save 29 in 1982 but gain a full run plus on his ERA; he’d pitched in pain most of the season and was forced to miss the Brewers’ first postseason trip including the World Series, and he was likewise forced to sit out 1983. He came back in 1984 and 1985 with useful enough seasons that, when the Brewers released him, Pete Rose wanted him to sign with the Cincinnati Reds, whose owner Marge Schott had a no-facial-hair team policy, leading Fingers, reportedly, to answer that if she’d shave her famous St. Bernard, Schottzie, he’d shave his famous handlebar mustache. Fingers would also end up bankrupt thanks to sour investments and questionable business advice later in the 1980s (he joined the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball League as a pitcher, in fact; he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992) and later fought and won a Wisconsin claim over back taxes.

Big Willie helped bring Series rings to Detroit . . .

Willie Hernandez1984: Hernandez had come up literally the hard way, a good if nothing spectacular pitcher who’d been labouring in Chicago and Philadelphia for eight seasons before the Tigers traded for him in spring training 1984. Hernandez thanked them with 32 saves in 68 games finished—and they weren’t exactly single-inning saves, either (he pitched 140 1/3 innings in eighty appearances) and was one of the key men in the Tigers’ World Series triumph.

The aftermath: He’d have two more reasonably comparable seasons, if not quite to his 1984 level, becoming known by his given name Guillermo Hernandez, before fading by the end of the decade.

Roger Clemens1986: That 20-strikeout game only launched Clemens into the national consciousness with the Boston Red Sox; he finished 1986 as the American League’s Cy Young and MVP winner with a league-leading 24 wins, 0.95 WHIP, 2.48 ERA, and 0.96 walks per nine.

Many say he should have left well enough alone . . .

The aftermath: Clemens went from there to post what would have been a Hall of Fame career even before he was said to have begun dabbling in actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. It only began with his 1987 repeat as a Cy Young Award winner; he’d win a third Cy in 1991 and a fourth in 1997, the final two Cys ┬ábelieved to be free of taint in his case, though he’d go on to win a staggering three more. After his July 2011 trial for perjury (he was accused of lying to Congress) ended in a mistrial on day two over issues of prosecutorial misconduct, the year ended with indications that Clemens would be re-tried.

Conclusion—It’s a little difficult to suggest that there’s any kind of genuine followup jinx for any pitcher winning both the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player award in the same season, unusual though the tandem honour may be.

Clearly Don Newcombe and Vida Blue were never the same pitchers again beginning the season afterward, though in Newcombe’s case there were non-baseball factors involved.

Clearly, Sandy Koufax wasn’t just in his own league, he was somewhere about five dimensions beyond it.

Clearly, Charlie Finley’s remarks in trying to keep Blue’s 1972 salary demand in line had a devastating impact on a young man’s psyche.

Clearly, Bob Gibson and Rollie Fingers had already racked impressive enough credentials going in, with Gibson going on to have a few more solid seasons (and one more Cy Young Award) and Fingers about to be compromised by injuries.

Clearly, Denny McLain got started on the right track (given the post-Year of the Pitcher rule changes) the year after he turned the tandem award trick only to veer dramatically away from that track right after that.

Clearly, Willie Hernandez’s 1984 was something of a fluke season, though not by all that much given what his two seasons to come would be.

Clearly, Roger Clemens was well enough in his own league in enough seasons to come that his eventual suspicion for actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances would be seen as just what it is, a kind of unnecessary compromise to a career that remained amazing enough as the years went on from 1986.

And, perhaps it should be clear enough that Justin Verlander will enter 2012 with at least a 50-50 chance of having a season equal to or close enough to his 2011, even if it turns out not to be one which gives him either or both awards.

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