R.A. Dickey received 27 of the 32 first-place votes to win the NL Cy Young Award, the first given to a pitcher who primarily throws the knuckleball. The knuckler has always been thought of as a trick pitch or gimmick, never garnering the respect of a conventional pitcher. If voters would have just looked at results instead of styles, this would not have been the first accolade.
Phil Niekro was one of the best pitchers of all-time, accumulating 91.7 rWAR, 10th all time among pitchers. The closest he came to a CYA was a 2nd place finish in 1969, when he actually rated 10th in WAR at 5.9. Niekro really started to dominate in ’74, finishing 2nd in WAR and third in the CYA. Amazingly, WAR leader Jon Matlack did not even get a vote, likely due to his 13-15 record. The next season, Niekro finished 4th in WAR and didn’t get a vote. The disrespect really starts in ’76, as he finished 2nd in WAR and didn’t get a vote or even make the All-Star team.
In ’77, Niekro finished 2nd in WAR with 8.6 wins, a mark no pitcher came close to this year. However, he again got no CYA votes and didn’t make the All-Star team. Rick Reuschel finished 3rd in the voting, almost surpassing the WAR total of first and second place pitchers Steve Carlton and Tommy John. The next year, Niekro led the NL with 9.6 WAR, over 3 WAR ahead of the 2nd place pitcher. He ended up 6th in the voting, as Gaylord Perry‘s 4 WAR season was nearly a unanimous pick. Niekro again easily finished first in WAR in ’79 and finished 6th in the voting, behind Bruce Sutter. Phil couldn’t even finish ahead of his brother Joe, despite doubling him in WAR. Niekro did finish 5th in the ’82 voting with a sparkly 17-4 record, though he was only worth 2.8 WAR.
It’s fairly obvious that some of the lack of success in the voting came from playing on absolutely horrible Braves teams of the late 70’s. From ’74-’79, Niekro’s record was 108-97, while the team only surpassed 70 wins once during that stretch. The poor defense led to a half-run inflation of the ERA, similar to what Dickey faced this season. He also pitched half his games in the old Fulton County Stadium, the Launching Pad. The hitter’s ballpark can also make an ERA look worse than it is.
Niekro has not been the only quality knuckleballer in the CYA era. His aforementioned brother Joe got a couple top 5 CYA finishes in ’79 and ’80, but his best season was in ’82, finishing a close third in WAR behind Steve Rogers and Mario Soto, not getting a single vote. Wilbur Wood spent three seasons in the bullpen for the White Sox before posting two of the best seasons in the modern era. He averaged 350 IP in those seasons, compiling 11.5 and 10.3 WAR. In the CYA vote, he finished 3rd in ’71 and 2nd in ’72, also posting a nice 7 WAR season in ’73, finishing 5th in the voting. Hoyt Wilhelm had a 7.4 WAR season during ’59, his lone year as a starter, not receiving a single vote. Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, and Tim Wakefield all had some good seasons, but none of which were CYA worthy.
Today was an interesting day, as results were used in voting instead of style. R.A. Dickey was one of the two best pitchers in the NL this year, and he got the credit he deserved. I do not expect a similar result for the AL MVP award, but that’s a whole ‘nother post. I wonder how many awards Niekro could have won if a more unbiased evaluation would have been used 35 years ago.