Seasons in Boston: 1901-1908
Honors: Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, 1903 World Series Champion, 1901 Pitching Triple Crown, 1892 and 1901 ERA Title
Red Sox Numbers: 2.00 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 192 W, 275 CG, 38 ShO, 1341 K, 69 ERA-, 54.8 fWAR
Signature Season (1901): 371.1 IP, 158 K, 33 W, 38 CG, 5 ShO, 1.62 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 44 ERA-, 7.8 fWAR
Researching Denton True Young, better known as Cy Young, gave me an even greater respect for the age of the game of baseball than I already had. Young was born in March of 1867, less than two-years after Robert. E. Lee formally surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Young was born in a rural Ohio farming community to a former private in the Union Army. When the Spanish-American War broke out in the spring of 1898, Young was already 31 and in the ninth year of his major league career. He retired from the major leagues in 1911 over 100 years ago and six full years before the U.S. entered World War I. The history teacher in me loves this stuff.
It’s impossible to know how a player like Young would fare if he was pitching in today’s MLB. Since we can’t make that comparison we need to rely on how he did in the era in which he pitched. Young is one of the few players who enjoyed success in baseball’s earliest time period, during which the rules were frequently being changed to create the modern game, but he also enjoyed success in the Modern Era.
Young led the league in wins in 1892 before the pitchers mound was moved from 50ft away to 60ft, 6 in. He led the league in wins again in 1895 a few years after foul bunts were classified as strikes. Young didn’t even wear a glove until 1896. He won the pitching Triple Crown in 1901 making the switch to the new American League with the Boston Americans, now known as the Boston Red Sox. After the mound was lowered in 1904 he lead the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio twice and won twenty games two more times. One of those twenty-win seasons took place in 1908 when you were no longer allowed to use mud to alter the baseball.
I have the feeling Young would’ve enjoyed success had he been born in any era. He excelled with so many of the traits that make pitchers successful today. He had a blazing fastball early in his career that led to immediate success. He developed excellent command of his fastball as his major-league career advanced, walking the fewest batters per nine innings 14 times in his 22-year major-league career, including nine straight from 1893 through 1901. When he arrived with the Americans in 1901 he was 34 years old and losing velocity. He then adapted by placing his fastball exactly where he wanted it, relying on multiple deliveries, and featuring two versions of a devastating curveball, one over the top and the other a sweeping side arm version. He was also remarkably durable, only being injured once during his career and once more to end it.
Young’s incredible career led to some of baseball’s most unbreakable records. He is the all-time leader in wins with 511, games started with 815, complete games with 749, innings pitched with 7,356, and batters faced with 29,565. As Joe Posnanski puts it, “while Young’s 511 victories have become one of baseball’s magic numbers, it is also unrepeatable. It’s not a mountain to climb. That mountain doesn’t exist anymore.” Joe is right, and this can make it hard to appreciate these old records. Pitching has changed so much over the last 100-plus years that the outlandish innings and wins totals almost seem cartoony and they lose some weight. As a fan of baseball history I appreciate the records for what they meant at the time and focus on era adjusted stats like ERA+ to help me understand what these performances actually meant.
The first eleven years of Young’s major league career were spent mostly with the Cleveland Spiders as well as two years with the St. Louis Perfectos, which were renamed the Cardinals the following year. Young won 240 games with a 138 ERA+ for the Spiders over nine seasons, 46 games with an ERA+ of 137 for the Perfectos/Cardinals, and 192 games with an ERA+ of 147 with the Americans/Red Sox. Young was without a doubt the best version of himself when he was in Boston even though while he was here he was pitching in his age 34 through 41 seasons. Over the course of his career Young led the league in wins five times (three with Boston), shutouts seven times (three with Boston), WHIP seven times (four with Boston), and twice in both strikeouts and ERA (both once with Boston).
It is worth noting that some of Young’s added success in 1901 may have come from decreased competition. 1901 was the first year of the American League and major league baseball went from eight teams to 16 teams with this addition. During his eight seasons with the Americans/Red Sox, Young won a team record 192 games, a mark he now shares with Roger Clemens. Young has one more loss than Clemens, but reached this win total in nearly 100 fewer starts. Young is first in team history in WHIP at 0.97, complete games at 275, and is again tied with Clemens for the franchise lead in shutouts at 38. He ranks second in team history in FanGraphs WAR at 54.8 and is barely second to Smoky Joe Wood in ERA at 2.00 vs Wood’s 1.99. He ranks third in innings pitched at 2728.1, tied with Clemens again in ERA- four fourth best at 69, and fifth in strikeouts at 1341.
In a career this long and this storied, Young was bound to have some interesting firsts. He became the first pitcher to throw a pitch in the World Series in 1903 while pitching for the Boston Americans. Although he lost Game One of the series he would win Games Five and Seven, helping his team to win the best of nine series. They would win the pennant in 1904 as well, but the New York Giants refused to play them in the World Series. Young also threw three no-hitters during his career, two with the Americans/Red Sox, one of which on May 5, 1904 was the first perfect game in the American League. He was 37 when he did this.
All told Baseball-Reference WAR says that Young’s career was worth an incredible 165.7 wins above replacement, making him the most valuable baseball player of all-time ahead of both Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. FanGraphs calculates his value at 131.5 second to only Clemens among pitchers and as the eighth most valuable baseball player ever to live. Baseball-Reference ranks his 1901 season which they value at 12.6 wins above replacement as the third most valuable of the Modern Era behind only 1912 and 1913 Walter Johnson.
All of this success was achieved simply and efficiently. When he described his pitching strategy Young said, “I aimed to make the batter hit the ball and I threw as few pitches as possible.” In the offseason he would return to the farm and split wood to stay in shape. Although the sixth grade educated Young was likely unfamiliar with the Buddhist concept of the Middle Way, his five standards were remarkably congruent with this idea.
1. Be moderate in all things
2. Don’t abuse yourself
3. Don’t bait umpires
4. Play hard
5. Render faithful service to your employer
This line of thinking and his natural ability combined to create one of the greatest pitching careers of all-time, leading to his election in Baseball’s inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1937. He was inducted in 1939 and died in 1955 at age 88. His remarkable career, the best years of which were spent in the Americans/Red Sox organization, earns him the number three spot in the Red Sox All-Time rotation.