There’s been a lot of talk about the Reds 2014 starting rotation being their best ever.
And while the starting five of Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Alfredo Simon, Homer Bailey and Matt Latos has only been intact a few weeks, they would certainly have to be considered near the top of that list.
But historically the Reds — at least in the modern era of baseball — have been known more for their bats than their pitching. A host of Reds players have won the Most Valuable Player award but not a single Reds pitcher has ever won the Cy Young Award.
The Cy Young Award was created in 1956 to honor baseball’s best pitcher. In 1967 it was split for the two leagues (National and American). Despite that, not one Reds pitcher has won the award.
Four times, a Reds hurler finished second in the voting: Tom Seaver (1981), Mario Soto (1983), Danny Jackson (1988) and Pete Schourek (1995.) Several others have finished fourth including Cueto (2012), Aaron Harang (2007), Jack Billingham (1973), Jim Merritt (1970) and Clay Carroll (1972.).
One other Reds pitcher finished fourth and that was Bob Purkey in 1962. Purkey had a sensational season that year but was overlooked amid the hotly contested Giants-Dodgers pennant race. Still, Purkey’s performance that year rivals almost any other Reds hurler in their history so the 1962 season will be discussed at length in this article.
Two other pitchers need to be mentioned. In 1975, Don Gullett was pitching incredibly well before a fractured thumb sidelined him for two months. He easily would have won 20 games (he finished 15-4) and he was clearly establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Also, Wayne Simpson’s performance in his rookie year (1970) saw him jump to an incredible 13-1 record before his shoulder blew up. He was a big part of the Reds torrid start (70-30) and that injury cost whatever chance he had at the Cy Young or Rookie of the Year.
Several factors resulted in Reds runner-ups for the Cy Young Award. Here’s a closer look.
Bob Purkey, 1962
Purkey was one of the “Big Three” starters from the 1961 pennant winning Ragamuffins, the other two being Joey Jay and Jim O’Toole. A right handed hurler, Purkey and right fielder Frank Robinson had monstrous 1962 seasons for Cincinnati. Robinson was even arguably better than in his MVP ’61 season by batting .342 with 39 homers and 142 RBIs (and an OBP of .421 to boot.) Purkey finished with a 23-5 record and an earned run average of 2.81 in pitching 288 innings.
Unfortunately for Purkey and Robinson, both were overshadowed by the Giants and Dodgers who finished 1-2 in the NL with the Reds coming in third. Maury Wills broke Ty Cobb’s stolen base record for a single season and was the MVP despite just a .299 batting average; Robby finished fourth behind Wills, Willie Mays and Tommie Davis. Purkey was also fourth in the Cy Young voting behind Don Drysdale (Dodgers) and San Francisco pitchers Jack Sanford and Billy Pierce finished second and third.
Purkey finished fourth in the voting but was third in wins, had the best ERA, second most complete games, best winning percentage and second in fewest walks allowed. Purkey was labeled once as “the Reds young, handsome changeup artist” and it infuriated him. He bragged to Cincinnati Post sportswriter Earl Lawson that more than once he had busted Mays inside with his fastball.
1962 was Purkey’s career year. He pitched with the Reds for two more seasons before being traded to the Cardinals and he finished his career with the Pirates in 1966.
Tom Seaver, 1981
The strike-shortened 1981 season was not kind to the Reds, who finished with the best record in baseball but because of the quirky “half season” format, didn’t even make the playoffs. Seaver fell short in the Cy Young voting as well, losing to LA’s Fernando Valenzuela.
Seaver had a 14-2 record and a 2.54 ERA that year. Valenzuela was 13-7 but had seven shutouts and led the league in strikeouts. Plus, Fernando-mania made him a media darling in 1981. Tom Terrific had his hey-dey with the Amazings but by 1981, Fernando was king.
Mario Soto, 1983
Soto was the Reds best pitcher of the 1980s. He was durable, had a hard fastball and a devastating change-up. The big problem for Soto were the bad Reds teams he played on and a propensity of giving up home runs. Cincinnati finished dead last in both 1982 and 1983, which made Soto’s 17-13 record in ’83 even more remarkable.
John Denny won the Cy Young with a 19-5 record and a 2.37 ERA but in other stats, Soto was clearly better. Soto pitched 31 more innings than Denny but allowed 22 fewer hits. He also had 103 more strikeouts and 11 more complete games than Denny. The difference? Denny played for the NL champs (Philadelphia) and Soto toiled for the last place Reds.
Soto played his entire career (1977-1988) with the Reds. He remains very popular with Cincinnati fans.
Danny Jackson, 1988
In September of 1988, Danny Jackson looked to be the first Reds Cy Young Award winner ever. He was cruising to a 23-8 record, an ERA of 2.88 and he was keeping the Reds in contention. The long Cy-less streak looked to be over.
And then Orel Hershisher went crazy.
Hershisher went on a dominant tear of the NL, tossing shutout after shutout and eventually broke Drysdale’s consecutive scoreless streak inning of 58 innings.. During that time, the Dodgers pulled away from the Reds and the rest of the NL West. Then they won the NL playoff series and beat the vaunted Oakland A’s on Kirk Gibson’s one-legged home run and behind the Bulldog (Hershisher.) And the Cy Young Award went to the Bulldog.
Both Hershiser and Jackson finished with 23-8 records. Hershisher had 8 shutouts, Jackson six. Their stats were incredibly close. But the Bulldog dominated September and October and won the Cy Young easily.
Jackson was acquired from the Kansas City Royals after the 1987 season for Ted Power and Kurt Stillwell. Jackson was 9-18 in ’87 for a very good Royals team. 1988 was his career season; but he faded after that due to injuries. Still, he started Game 2 of the 1990 World Series for the Reds. The Reds eventually released him but Jackson came back to make the All-Star team in 1993 before retiring.
Pete Schourek, 1995
Here’s another overlooked lefty. Schourek came to the Reds from the scrap heap, courtesy of Jim Bowden and was a nice acquisition. He was claimed off waivers from the Mets by the Reds. In 1994, he split time in the bullpen and started a few games as well, finishing 7-2. Schourek became the ace of the 1995 staff, carving out an 18-7 record. He was a crafty lefty with a decent enough fastball to keep hitters honest.
The Cy Young that year went to Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who had an astounding record of 19-2 accompanied by a 1.63 ERA. No one was going to take the award from Maddux that year.
The ’95 Reds were a good team, but largely forgotten due to the sweep they endured at the hands of the Braves and the incredibly horrible series that Reggie Sanders had. Schourek had a good postseason, posting a 1.26 ERA, beating the Dodgers in the Reds playoff sweep of them and pitched well against the Braves. He was the Reds Opening Day pitcher on April 1, 1996 when Umpire John McSherry died of a heart attack. Injuries went on to plague Shourek and he was released by the Reds after going 4-5 and 7-8 the next two seasons.
So is this the year the Reds claim their first Cy Young Award winner? Or will they have another runner up?
Johnny Cueto looks like the best bet. And the race would include Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright.
History proves that fate will move its huge hand. It will help Cueto if the Reds make the playoffs. It will help Cueto if Joey stays in the lineup. And it will certainly boost Johnny’s chances if he has a strong September.