How a Verlander Cy would make history

Houston Astros v Toronto Blue Jays
Justin Verlander during his no-hitter against the Blue Jays; if he wins this year’s AL Cy Young Award, he’ll make league history in another way . . .

Even I didn’t catch on and I was watching the game. But Justin Verlander’s no-hitter last Sunday could put him into the history books for reasons other than the no-hitter himself.

That’s because, according to Jayson Stark, five pitchers have thrown no-hitters in the same seasons in which they won Cy Young Awards and Verlander, in theory anyway, could become the sixth. But he’d still make history if he wins this year’s American League Cy—because no American League pitcher has yet won the Cy the same year they went no-no.

The previous five: Jake Arrieta (Cubs), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Hall of Famer Roy Halladay (Phillies), Mike Scott (Astros), and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (Dodgers). National Leaguers all. And Koufax did it twice: in 1963, when he pitched the second of his four career no-hitters; and, in 1965, when his fourth proved that practise really makes perfect.

That’s not Verlander’s only shot at the history book this year. (If he does win, it would be his second Cy Young Award.) Suppose he and his rotation mate Gerrit Cole finish one and two in the American League Cy Young Award voting. (It could happen, folks.) According to Stark, it’d be the first time rotation mates ever finished 1-2 in the AL Cy Young vote.

And only one pair of starting rotation mates ever finished 1-2 in a Cy Young Award vote before. No, it wasn’t Koufax and Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. Good guess, though. Koufax won three Cys when it was still a major league award, not one in each league, and he won all three unanimously. Drysdale won it in 1962 even though it’s arguable that Cincinnati’s Bob Purkey probably should have won the award; Dean Chance (Angels) won the 1964 Cy but Koufax was posting a Cy-worth season when it ended after the baserunning injury that exposed his elbow arthritis at last.

It took until 2001 for rotation mates to finish 1-2 in a Cy Young Award vote: Hall of Famer Randy Johnson won the National League award, and should-be Hall of Famer Curt Schilling finished second. The Big Unit, of course, can’t complain since he won five Cy Young Awards including four straight; Schilling’s major Cy Young Award problem is having Cy-worth seasons when someone else was a) just a shade better or b) having a career year.

IF NO KOUFAX—Suppose Sandy Koufax wasn’t in the Show when he copped those three major league-awarded Cy Young Awards? Who would have won them in 1963, 1965, and 1966?

If you go by wins above a replacement-level player, and if Cy Young voters went by it in 1963 (yes, we’re theorising, since nobody thought about WAR back then), the winner would have been . . . Dick Ellsworth, the 23-year-old Cubs lefthander who just so happened to have his career year.

Ellsworth was credited with 22 wins, but he posted career-best full-season 2.11 earned run average (second in the National League to Koufax) and 2.68 fielding-independent pitching. Hall of Famer Juan Marichal won 25 games and had a sub-3.00 ERA for the first time in his career (2.42) and a solid 2.62 FIP.

So how did Ellsworth end up with more WAR than Marichal? Easy: Ellsworth pitched in maybe the National League’s most notorious hitters’ park for a notoriously lousy team still mired in its looney-tooney College of Coaches rotating managers experiment, and he really had to work for those 22 wins. (His ’63 ERA+ was a Show-leading 167.) Marichal’s team was better even though his Giants finished third in the league behind the pennant (and World Series) winning Dodgers and the second-place Cardinals.

Considering that Marichal was credited with 25 wins for a bona-fide pennant contender, it’s entirely possible that if Koufax hadn’t been in the league Marichal would have won the 1963 Cy Young Award. But Koufax was in the league and his ability to miss bats and avoid walks while leading a team to a pennant was just too overwhelming.

Koufax actually didn’t lead major league pitchers in WAR for 1965—Marichal did. So why did Koufax win his second Cy Young Award. Too easy: 26 wins and a fourth no-hitter in as many seasons, which was a perfect game in the bargain. Not to mention pitching the pennant clincher on two days’ rest at the end of a hammer-and-tongs pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants. And breaking Hall of Famer Bob Feller’s single-season major league strikeout record (with 382) didn’t hurt, either.

But if you went by 1965 WAR Marichal had an MLB-leading 10.3 to Koufax’s fourth-in-Show 8.1. There were two guys in between Marichal and Koufax among the 1965 major league WAR-leading pitchers, both of whom were having their career years: Sam McDowell (Indians) and Jim Maloney (Reds), both of whom finished with 8.2 WAR. And McDowell was arguably better than Maloney that year: McDowell led the American League with a 2.18 ERA and a 2.08 FIP; Maloney’s were a few points higher than Sudden Sam’s.

In 1966, the Dodgers and the Giants went at it for a final time among those 1960s pennant races and this time Koufax led the Show with his 10.3 WAR. He also led with a) his fifth-straight league-leading ERA (1.73, which also led the Show for the third time), his sixth-straight Show-leading FIP (2.07), his fourth Show strikeout title (317), and a Show-leading 27 wins.

Marichal finished right behind Koufax with 9.1 WAR, and Hall of Famer Jim Bunning (Phillies) finished with 9.0. As a matter of fact, only one American League pitcher finished in the top ten Show WAR among the hurlers in ’66: Gary Peters (White Sox), with 5.3.

It’s really to mourn that Juan Marichal, the arguable best righthanded pitcher of the 1960s, never won a Cy Young Award, either the MLB version or the league version, but it wasn’t his fault that a) Sandy Koufax was his contemporary through 1966, and b) someone else not named Koufax had either a career year (Dean Chance, 1964; Mike McCormick, 1967), an extraterrestrial year (Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, 1968), or came into his own completely and to stay (Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, 1969) during several of Marichal’s best seasons.

WHITHER WHITEY?—You may have noticed Hall of Famer Whitey Ford missing from the above discourse. In 1963, the Yankee bellwether got credit for 24 wins while helping lead his Yankees to (what a surprise) the pennant. So why didn’t Ford get much of a Cy Young Award nod that year?

For one thing, Ford wasn’t quite as good as Koufax and Marichal at missing bats; he lived on the ground ball as well as generally avoiding walks. For another thing, Ford got slightly better run support per start than Koufax, Marichal, and Ellsworth did in 1963.

On the other hand, his 24 wins were the second and final time Ford was a 20+ game-winner. And both those seasons came following the Casey Stengel era. The legend about Stengel and Ford is generally true; the Ol’ Perfesser really did tend to save Ford for the Yankees’ best opponents if he could help it.

According to Jay Jaffe’s The Cooperstown Casebook, a researcher named Jason Brannon discovered that Ford made forty percent more starts against the Yankees’ top two rivals than its bottom two in the Stengel era. When Ralph Houk succeeded Stengel starting in 1961, Ford made seven more starts (39) than in the only season Stengel allowed him to make more than thirty. And what do you know: Whitey won the Cy Young Award that year.

Except that he won 25 games but shows only 3.7 WAR. Even if you think Edwin Starr was right (War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!), you should know the reason: the 1961 Yankees simply bludgeoned the competition with all those home runs, and they could make any pitcher look like a Hall of Famer, never mind a Whitey Ford who is a bona-fide Hall of Famer.

(The ’61 Yankees are also slightly overrated as a team because of all those home runs and the Mantle-Maris home run chase. If you take the word of Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups, and it’s a good word to take, five Yankee teams were actually far enough better; from first to fifth—the 1998, 1927, 1939, 1923, and 1937 editions. Me, I’d have thrown in the 1954 edition, if only because there’s something a little sad about a team winning 103 games and not winning the pennant . . . because the Indians chose ’54 to have their career year.)

POOR RICHARD’S ALMANAC—Dick Ellsworth, alas, had a 1966 he’d have just as soon forgotten. At age 26 had a respectable 3.46 FIP but his ERA barely missed reaching 4.00 . . . and he was hung with a major league-leading 22 losses. And the 1966 Cubs finished in tenth place.

The lefthander probably should have suspected it was going to be that kind of year when Topps released his baseball card in the spring. Bad enough: the player shown on the face was righthanded. Worse: The the photograph on the front was actually Ken Hubbs, the Cubs’ second baseman (and 1962 NL Rookie of the Year)—who’d been killed in a February 1964 small plane crash.

The good news is that the 1966 Ellsworth/Hubbs card may not be all that valuable among collectible baseball cards. ComC, the Redmond, Washington-based card and comic trading Website, lists a mint condition Ellsworth/Hubbs at no higher than $55.74. The most valuable Ellsworth card? The 1964 card he shares with Sandy Koufax and Bob Friend (Pirates) showing the National League’s 1963 ERA leaders, at $142.48.

Losing Ken Hubbs was devastating to the Cubs and to baseball, of course, especially given the irony that he took up flying to conquer his fear of it. But Dick Ellsworth didn’t deserve to be embarrassed the way he was on his 1966 baseball card, either.

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