Only four relief pitchers have won a Cy Young Award in the past 35 years, the last coming in 2003 when Eric Gagne captured the honor.
Gagne, Dennis Eckersley (American League, 1992) and Mark Davis (National League, 1989) and Steve Bedrosian (NL, 1987) each put up superb seasons in their Cy Young campaigns, but were they the right call?
Each closer beat out accomplished starters for the award, something that hasn’t happened again in nearly two decades. Should a reliever with fewer than 100 innings pitched be considered the best pitcher in his league when others have pitched two or three times as many innings that season?
With 2022 marking the 35th anniversary of Bedrosian’s Cy Young victory — the closest vote in the history of the award — MLB.com gathered 14 of its writers and asked them to vote for the 1987 NL Cy Young Award with the benefit of hindsight. Knowing what we know today with regard to the way pitchers are evaluated, would the results differ?
Voters were asked to rank the eight pitchers who received votes in 1987, with a first-place vote worth eight points, a second-place vote worth seven points and so on.
The real top 5
Steve Bedrosian, RP, PHI
Rick Sutcliffe, SP, CHI
Rick Reuschel, SP, PIT/SF
Orel Hershiser, SP, LA
Dwight Gooden, SP, NYM (tied)
Nolan Ryan, SP, HOU (tied)
The “new” top 5
Nolan Ryan, SP, HOU
Orel Hershiser, SP, LA
Bob Welch, SP, LA
Mike Scott, SP, HOU
Rick Reuschel, SP, PIT/SF
Starters ruled the ballot in the re-vote, as Bedrosian plummeted from first place to seventh. Ryan — who didn’t earn a single first-place vote while finishing in a tie for fifth place in 1987 — received eight of the 14 first-place votes this time around.
THAT WAS THEN …
In hindsight, it’s surprising that Ryan was listed on any ballots given his 8-16 record. Although the ballot was expanded to five spots in recent years, voters were allowed to list only three pitchers at the time, and given the premium that used to be put on win-loss record, Ryan’s eight victories and .333 winning percentage were too low for most voters to overlook despite his league-leading 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts.
Bedrosian led the Majors with 40 saves for the Phillies, though he suffered eight blown saves throughout the year. He posted a solid 2.83 ERA, but he allowed 11 home runs in 89 innings, the same number given up by Gooden in 179 2/3 innings and just two fewer than Reuschel served up in 227 frames.
Although WAR did not exist in 1987, Bedrosian’s was 2.3 that season, the lowest for any Cy Young winner in history.
Bedrosian finished with nine first-place votes in the actual vote, one of five pitchers to earn at least one. Reuschel received eight and Sutcliffe got four, while Hershiser had two and Gooden the other. Bedrosian received a total of 57 points in the final vote, edging Sutcliffe (55) and Reuschel (54) for the award. No pitcher was named on every ballot. In fact, Reuschel — who had more first-place votes than anyone other than Bedrosian — only appeared on 14 of the 24 ballots.
Gooden, who won the award in 1985, missed the first two months of the season after testing positive for cocaine during Spring Training, landing him in a drug rehabilitation center. He went 13-4 with a 2.87 ERA in his first 19 starts that season, but a bad September stretch (2-3, 4.42 in his final six starts), may have cost him a shot at his second Cy Young.
BIGGEST GAINERS IN THE RE-VOTE
Ryan is obviously the big winner here, leaping from a tie for fifth into the top spot. Just as the actual vote was the closest in history, our re-vote was just as close; Ryan finished with 98 points, edging out Hershiser (95).
Hershiser jumped from fourth place to second, his league-high 264 2/3 innings surely helping his cause. Hershiser — who went 16-16 with a 3.06 ERA in 1987 — went on to win the Cy Young the following year, posting the best season of his career in 1988 (23-8, 2.26 ERA).
Welch — whose 7.1 bWAR actually led all NL pitchers that season — skyrocketed from eighth to third, earning one first-place vote and 71 points.
Scott (66 points) moved from seventh to fourth, as the 1986 NL Cy Young winner struck out 233 batters that year, second only to Ryan.
BIGGEST FALLERS IN THE RE-VOTE
Bedrosian suffered the most precipitous fall in the new vote, tumbling from first place to seventh while failing to receive a single first-place mention.
Bedrosian had a fine season for a closer, but given what we have seen from closers over the past three decades, it was hardly a standout performance. In most years, those numbers would have been considered disappointing for Mariano Rivera, and as we know, the greatest closer of all time never took home a Cy Young Award.
Sutcliffe, who won the 1984 NL Cy Young Award despite making just 16 starts for the Cubs after being traded by Cleveland in mid-June, fell from second place to sixth. Sutcliffe led the league with 18 wins that season, though that stat didn’t carry much weight with our voters, who chose an eight-game winner for the award.
Reuschel also dropped in the re-vote, plunging from third place to fifth. He led the league with a 1.097 WHIP, 12 complete games and four shutouts, though his other numbers — 13-9, 3.09 ERA, 107 strikeouts — didn’t impress our panel.
Gooden also dropped in the re-vote, finishing eighth after placing fifth in the actual vote. He was the lone starter not to log at least 200 innings, though his total of 179 2/3 was still rather impressive given that he missed the first two months of the season.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
No surprise here, but the indifference toward win-loss record in 2021 was evident in our re-vote. This year’s Cy Young winners — Robbie Ray and Corbin Burnes — had 13 and 11 victories, respectively, something that wouldn’t have happened in 1987. Julio Urías, the only 20-game winner in 2021, might have been a unanimous winner back in those days.
Jacob deGrom’s 10-win season in 2018 remains the lowest for a starting pitcher in a 162-game Cy Young season (he also won with 11 in 2019), but Ryan’s eight-win year in 1987 was certainly deserving of such an honor.
Despite his 324 career victories and record 5,714 strikeouts, Ryan never won a Cy Young during his remarkable 27-year Hall of Fame career. He placed second in 1973 and third in both ‘74 and ’77, but those were the only top-three finishes for the legendary right-hander.
Bedrosian completed his 14-year career with 184 saves, though 1987 was his clear apex from a personal standpoint, as he made his only All-Star team and collected the only Cy Young and MVP votes he would ever receive. He closed for the NL champion Giants in 1989 following a midseason trade, then won his only World Series ring as a setup man for the 1991 Twins.