Cy Young's Most Unbreakable Record (Isn't What You Think)

   on March 24 2013 7:59 PM

 

Let’s face it:  there are a lot of career records in Major League Baseball are unlikely to be touched any time soon.

But the one mark that stands head-and-shoulders above all the others on the unbreakability scale often tends to get overlooked.

This record has been in place for more than a century without being challenged, and all indications are that it is getting tougher and tougher to approach with each passing year.

It’s not Nolan Ryan’s records for strikeouts or no-hitters, nor is it Pete Rose’s hits mark.  Tris Speaker’s record for doubles has been approached in recent years, while all of Barry Bonds’ recent marks could be vulnerable should the game move back toward slugging.

The mark often cited as the most unbreakable is Cy Young’s 511 wins.  And while this one is on the right track, even that one pales in comparison to Young’s most ridiculous number.

Cy Young’s 749 complete games isn’t just unbreakable, but laughably unbreakable.

A True Workhorse

Like all players who rack up huge numbers, Cy Young was able to take full advantage of the era in which he played.

It is important to remember that, while Young’s single-season complete game totals look absurd by today’s standards, they were not at all out-of-place during the course of his career.  Young only led the league three times, and this does not even include the three highest single-season totals (two of which were with the shorter mound distance) that he recorded during his career.

But what set Cy Young apart even from his contemporaries was his uncommon durability.  Few players of that era ever had careers lasting two decades, and the game was particularly tough on starting pitchers as they were expected to go all nine innings every time out.  While none of his direct contemporaries played more than 15 seasons, Young lasted 22 years and had between 28 and 48 complete games in a season an astounding 19 times.

By comparison, Pud Galvin – the man whose complete games record Cy Young broke – had only 11 such seasons. 

It was a different game, one where the threat of the ball leaving the yard was minimal, the strike zone was much larger, and pitchers were instructed to pitch to contact – and to take it easy against certain hitters.  In short, it was the perfect time for starting pitchers to rack up big-time numbers.

Fate Steps In

Of course, Young’s exceptional durability might not have mattered as much had MLB not experienced a massive reorganization at the turn of the century. 

For much of the 1890s, the 12-team National League essentially had a monopoly on the highest level of the Majors.  But hard times set in during the 1899 season, which led to the NL contracting from 12 to 8 teams for the following year.   This resulted in the same number of talented players competing for a fewer number of jobs, and it was not a coincidence that the 33-year-old Young had the worst full season of his career that year.

But fate then decided to step in, as the newly-formed American League started raiding the NL for talent in an effort to challenge for supremacy.  Young jumped at the chance to play in the new league, which did not contain as many star players as the NL but did manage to succeed in spreading out MLB’s talent base to a greater extent than ever before.

Taking advantage of playing against a lesser level of talent, Young produced the best season of his career in 1901.  He would remain one of the AL’s top workhorses throughout the decade, producing seven of the eight lowest ERAs of his career while playing in Beantown.

Structural Changes

Why has this record become so unbreakable?  For starters, complete games have become increasingly rare.  They have been in decline ever since MLB moved the mound back to 60 feet, 6 inches in 1893, and virtually every advance to occur in the game ever since – from the livelier ball to better equipment to the lowered mound to the designated hitter in the AL – has benefited the hitters. 

In other words, it is tougher than ever for a pitcher to make it through a game without the help of his bullpen.

Pitch counts in the modern game also make it more difficult, but not for the reasons you might think.  Walk and strikeout rates were much lower in both the NL and AL during Cy Young’s career, meaning it took far fewer pitches to get all the way through a game.  While Young is likely to have thrown more pitches than any other player, the best estimates still work out to around 124 pitches over nine innings.  Add in the notion that pitchers like Young were probably not throwing at maximum effort to every batter, and it is easy to see where pitch counts are a secondary factor.

There is also some thought that the five-man rotation, which came into vogue during the 1970s, makes it tougher to rack up enough starts to even begin contemplating a run at Cy Young’s mark.  However, that does not appear to actually be the case.  Pitchers are actually making more starts than ever before; of the 22 players with 600+ career starts, only three (Galvin, Walter Johnson,  and Grover Cleveland Alexander) saw their careers end prior to integration.

If anything, this only reinforces just how exceptional Cy Young was even for his era.

More Unbreakable by the Year

So just how unbreakable is Cy Young’s complete games record?

As mentioned before, complete games have been in decline ever since the mound was moved closer, and there is no indication that they are ever going to return.

The second-highest total still belongs to Galvin, who utilized the closer mound (and perhaps with some chemical assistance) to rack up 646 complete games. 

Walter Johnson’s 531 gives him the highest of any post-1900 pitcher.

Warren Spahn, whose career began with a cup of coffee in 1942 and was in the Majors for good in 1946, has the highest total (382) of any pitcher post-integration. 

Steve Carlton, who retired with 254 in 1988, is the last pitcher to come within even a third of Young’s total.  Randy Johnson, who retired in 2009, is the last player to have even reached 100 for his career.

Among active players, Roy Halladay leads the pack with 66 in his career.  CC Sabathia is in second place with 35.  The top 40 active players combined do not have 700 complete games in their careers.

It is safe to say that Cy Young’s record is becoming more laughably unbreakable by the year.

Compared to Other Records

All of that is well and good, but what makes Cy Young’s complete games record so much more unbreakable than any of his other career records?

Simple:  all of his other records (Wins, Losses, Innings Pitched, Runs, Hits, even WAR) consist of statistics that occur far more frequently in the modern game.

For example, Young’s 511 wins has never, ever been approached.  However, both a win and a loss are awarded to a pitcher in every single game and are not restricted solely to pitchers who start the game.   On the other hand, complete games only happen when a starting pitcher throws every single inning of the game. 

In 2012, pitchers recorded 2430 wins and 2430 losses.  Only 128 of those 4860 decisions were the result of a complete game.

It’s also important to note that only starting pitchers can record a complete game.  And while pitchers are making more starts than ever before, the fact remains that only two pitchers (Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton) have ever made enough starts in their careers to even qualify for Cy Young’s complete games mark.

And while no pitcher will ever get close to Cy Young’s win total, MLB is producing more 300-game winners than ever before.  Of the 24 pitchers to win 300 games in their careers, ten have hit the milestone since 1982.  And the current generation of pitchers has gotten just as close as the previous ones; Greg Maddux (355 wins) and Roger Clemens (354) aren’t all that far behind Spahn’s 363 even though the two modern pitchers combined for only 227 complete games. 

Similar arguments work for innings pitched, runs and hits allowed, and even WAR.  Like won-loss record, all of those stats can be recorded by a variety of means that are not open to complete games.

Ryan’s 5714 strikeouts is actually far more vulnerable than any of Young’s records, as modern pitchers are striking out more hitters than ever before.  There have been 16 pitchers that have recorded at least 3000 strikeouts in their careers; only Walter Johnson did not pitch in the 1970s or later.  

Pete Rose’s 4256 hits falls under a similar heading, particularly considering baseball has never stopped producing players with 3000+ hits.  In fact, Derek Jeter could reasonably make a run at this record in the next few years if he stays healthy.  Meanwhile, the records for Home Runs, RBI, and Runs have all either been recently broken or had players make strong runs at them.

However, there are two offensive records that might one day be as unbreakable as Young’s complete games total:  Sam Crawford’s 309 triples and Rickey Henderson’s 1406 stolen bases.

Triples are one of the few offensive stats that have declined significantly since the Dead Ball Era, due to a combination of a ball that will travel farther and home parks that are smaller.  As such, no player has gotten even halfway to Crawford’s mark since Roberto Clemente (166).  The active leader is Carl Crawford (no relation to Sam), who has 114 in what looks like a declining career.

Henderson’s stolen base mark is considered unbreakable because he has such a ridiculous advantage over the next-highest total, as no other player has even 1000 in their career.  Stolen bases are more likely to come back in vogue than triples, and in fact the recent drop in scoring might be enough to convince speedsters that Henderson’s record is worth pursuing.  Still, the active leader in steals is Juan Pierre with 591, and he is nearing the end of the line.

But note that, even though the active leaders for triples and steals are only about a third of the way to the career marks, they are still much closer to reaching those totals than Roy Halladay is to Cy Young’s complete games mark.

There is one other mark that warrants special consideration:  Cal Ripken’s streak of 2632 consecutive games.  Modern understanding of the benefits of time off make this record very safe, as the closest anybody has come since Ripken ended his streak was Miguel Tejada’s 1152 consecutive games from 2000-07.  However, this is not technically a career record, though it obviously would take up the bulk of a player’s career games.  Also, people claimed that Lou Gehrig’s 2130 was the most unbreakable before Ripken came along.  Since the only requirement (other than consistently good play) is to play a single inning, this one still looks more vulnerable than Cy Young.

Conclusion

Unless the game experiences a radical transformation, there is no reason to think that complete games will ever again rise to Dead Ball-era levels.  So there should really be no debate that Cy Young’s 749 complete games is the most unbreakable career record in all of baseball.