The Greatness of Cy Young and the Importance of Health
At times, exceptional statistics blur just how exceptional a player was. Stalin supposedly commented, “One death is a tragedy, a million a statistic.” The nearest baseball parallel is the extraordinary nature of Cy Young’s achievements. Winning 300 games is exceptional, winning 500 is a statistic.
Consider some of Young‘s statistics:
511 wins (nearly 100 more than Walter Johnson, the widely acknowledged best pitcher ever)
749 Complete Games (More complete games than anyone but Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, or himself ever started)
An average record of 25-15 from 1891-1909 (the only years he started more than 21 games),
And a whole host of other records that are too amazing to comprehend (Most innings pitched, games started, batters faced, etc.)
The counting stats are astonishing and are fundamentally a product of three things: Cy Young’s outstanding pitching ability, the era in which he pitched, and his extraordinarily good health. The first point is obvious, supported directly by the stats listed above. The second point explains why Cy Young started 45 games in 1902, for example, but the major league leader in 2008 started only 34. The Cy Young era involved 3- or 4-man rotations, unlike the 5-man rotations of the current era. This gives Young more opportunities to pile up his surreal numbers. However, extra opportunities are only important in light of point #3.
The more you pitch, the more chances you have to get hurt. Consider another pitcher from the same era, Ed Walsh. Walsh starts 49 games in 1908, winning 40. He follows up this incredible season by only starting 28 games. His arm needed a full season to recover. Following the lighter work load in 1909, he starts 36, 37, and 41 games the next three seasons. His arm never recovers from the 41 starts, though, and he starts 26 total games his last 5 seasons. Walsh, while compiling the lowest ERA in the history of baseball, could not stand up to the rigors of 40+ starts per season. Cy Young could.
Health is the great unrecognized component of baseball greatness. (If you have the misfortune of being a Mets fan this year, you already know this.) Contrast Young with Sandy Koufax. With Koufax, you get 6 very good seasons, 3 of which are 3 of the best seasons ever pitched. With Young, you never get a year quite as good as Koufax in 1963, 65, or 66, but you get a pitcher who wins 295 games after the age at which Koufax retired. Cy Young was a better pitcher than Sandy Koufax, or Ed Walsh mentioned earlier, because he had a better elbow. Sometimes greatness comes down to the health of one rarely noticed joint.