The best to never win a Cy Young Award

March 29th, 2020

Cy Young holds Major League records for career wins (511), starts (815), complete games (749) and innings (7,356), and he ranks third all time in Wins Above Replacement (163.8, per Baseball-Reference). But despite all of his accomplishments, the right-hander never had the honor of winning the award that was named after him.

In fairness to Young, who was born 153 years ago Sunday, the Cy Young Award wasn't handed out for the first time until the year after he died. As a result, there are plenty of Hall of Famers like Young who didn't have a chance to compete for an award recognizing the best pitchers in the game.

As it turns out, the lack of a Cy Young Award also isn't that uncommon among some of the greatest pitchers after the award was first established in 1956. You can see that for yourself below as we look at the best hurlers -- besides Young himself -- in the modern era (since 1900) to never win a Cy Young Award.

(Pitchers in each category listed in order by bWAR)


The best pitchers who played before the advent of the Cy Young Award.

Walter Johnson, 1907-27 (164.5 bWAR)

If there was an award for the best pitcher in Johnson's time, "The Big Train" -- and not Young -- might have racked up more than anyone else. Johnson led the American League in ERA five times, in wins six times and in strikeouts a whopping 12 times. He also won the pitching Triple Crown three times and was a two-time AL MVP, in the days before the modern MVP Award when repeat winners were rare. All time, Johnson ranks second in bWAR (164.5) and wins (417), is tied for seventh (min. 1,000 innings) in ERA+ (147) and is ninth in strikeouts (3,509).

Grover Cleveland Alexander, 1911-30 (119 bWAR)

While Johnson dominated the AL from 1907-27, "Old Pete" was arguably the best the NL had to offer for much of that time. Like Johnson, Alexander led his league in ERA five times and in wins six times, and he won three pitching Triple Crowns. In terms of ERA+, his best season came in 1915, as the righty went 31-10 with a 1.22 ERA (225 ERA+), a 0.84 WHIP and 241 K's over 376 1/3 innings for the Phillies. Alexander finished his 20-year career with 373 wins (tied for third all time) and 119 bWAR (15th).

Lefty Grove, 1925-41 (106.7 bWAR)

Grove's success was virtually unrivaled in the first two decades of the live ball era, which began in 1920. As offense exploded around baseball, Grove led his league in ERA an MLB-record nine times, winning the Triple Crown in two of those years. Grove was named AL MVP in 1931, as he went 31-4 with a 2.06 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 288 2/3 innings, notching one of just four 30-win seasons since the beginning of the live ball era. The southpaw's lifetime 148 ERA+ is the third best in history among pitchers with at least 2,000 frames.

Christy Mathewson, 1900-16 (106 bWAR)

Mathewson first arrived on the scene in 1900 and pitched for 17 years, going 373-188 with a 2.13 ERA over 636 games. Spending nearly his entire career with the Giants, the righty led the NL in ERA five times and in wins four times, winning the Triple Crown twice. When the very first Hall of Fame class was inducted in 1936, Mathewson was enshrined alongside the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Johnson.

Carl Hubbell, 1928-43 (68.2 bWAR)

There's a case to be made for several others in this fifth spot, but we'll go with Hubbell. The left-hander is perhaps most famous for striking out five future Hall of Famers in succession during the 1934 All-Star Game, but he was also a two-time NL MVP and a three-time league ERA champion. In his first MVP season in 1933, Hubbell led the NL in ERA (1.66), WHIP (0.98), innings (308 2/3) and wins (23).

Others: Robin Roberts*, Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser, Mordecai Brown, Rube Waddell

*Note: Roberts pitched for 11 years after the Cy Young Award was established, but his best seasons were mostly before that point, and his last year (1966) came before the award was given to the best pitcher in each league (rather than to one pitcher representing all of MLB).

They had their chance

The best retired pitchers who played after 1956 and never won a Cy Young.

Bert Blyleven, 1970-92 (94.5 bWAR)
Closest calls: AL 3rd place; 1984, '85

Despite recording 287 wins, a 3.31 ERA and 3,701 strikeouts over 22 seasons in the Majors, Blyleven lasted on the Hall of Fame ballot for more than a decade before finally getting elected in his 14th year of eligibility. If he had won a Cy Young Award or two, it might not have taken him so long. Blyleven's best season was undoubtedly 1973, as he won 20 games and posted a 2.52 ERA with 258 strikeouts in 325 innings. But his best chance of actually winning the Cy Young was arguably 1984 (19-7, 2.87 ERA), when he finished in third place behind two relievers -- Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry.

Mike Mussina, 1991-2008 (82.8 bWAR)
Closest call: AL 2nd place, 1999

Mussina had an ERA+ of 125 or better in 12 different seasons, but he was never quite the best pitcher in the league, at least in the eyes of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Part of the problem was that Mussina's AL contemporaries were some of the greatest pitchers ever, including Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson. That said, Mussina did top Clemens in ERA, WHIP, bWAR, innings and strikeouts in 2001, when Clemens won the AL Cy Young Award on the strength of his 20-3 record. Mussina, who went 17-11, finished fifth.

Nolan Ryan, 1966-93 (81.3 bWAR)
Closest call: AL 2nd place, 1973

You may be surprised to learn that Ryan never claimed a Cy Young Award, as his name is practically synonymous with the type of hard-throwing, fire-breathing aces that so often win. The closest Ryan got was 1973, the year he went 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA and 383 strikeouts -- a single-season record in the modern era. In a close race, Ryan came in second behind Jim Palmer (22-9, 2.40 ERA, 158 K's), whose Orioles went 97-65 while Ryan's Angels went 79-83. Ryan finished his career with 5,714 strikeouts, which ranks first all time.

Curt Schilling, 1988-2007 (79.5 bWAR)
Closest calls: NL 2nd place; 2001, '02, '04

There have been only five instances in MLB history of teammates finishing first and second in the Cy Young Award voting; Randy Johnson and Schilling were involved in two of them with the D-backs, and Schilling was second both times. Schilling also had an outstanding 2004 season (21-6, 3.26 ERA, 203 K's) after being traded to the Red Sox, but once again came in second, as Johan Santana took the top spot with a 20-6 record, a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts.

Kevin Brown, 1986-2005 (67.8 bWAR)
Closest call: NL 2nd place, 1996

There were few better than Brown from 1996-2000, a span in which he ranked second among all pitchers with 36.7 bWAR and third (min. 400 innings) in ERA+ (164). Brown led MLB with a 1.89 ERA for the Marlins in 1996, but he finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting behind John Smoltz (24-8, 2.94 ERA, 276 strikeouts). In terms of bWAR, Brown was even better two years later, as he went 18-7 with a 2.38 ERA and 257 K's in 257 innings. However, he came in third behind Tom Glavine (20-6, 2.47 ERA, 157 K's) and Padres teammate Trevor Hoffman (53 saves, 1.48 ERA) in a tight race that saw all three earn at least eight first-place votes.

Others: Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Luis Tiant, Juan Marichal, Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, Dave Stieb, Roy Oswalt

If it hasn't happened by now ...

The best active pitchers who haven't won a Cy Young Award and are unlikely to do so at this point in their careers.

, 2006-present (59.5 bWAR)
Closest call: NL 5th place, 2011

Hamels ranks fourth among active pitchers in bWAR behind Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, but unlike those three, the left-hander hasn't put together a Cy Young Award-winning season. The 36-year-old is still an above-average arm, but he has started to show signs of decline, dealing with injuries and posting a 3.92 ERA over the past three years.

, 2006-present (44.8 bWAR)
Closest call: NL 2nd place, 2016

Lester has made at least 31 starts in each of the past 12 years, posting a 3.50 ERA in that span, but his days of contending for Cy Young Awards appear to be over. The 36-year-old lefty hasn't reached the 200-inning mark since 2016, when he finished second behind Max Scherzer in the NL Cy Young race. Last season, he allowed the most hits (205) in the league and had a 4.46 ERA with a 1.50 WHIP.

, 2005-present (40.5 bWAR)
Closest calls: NL 2nd place; 2010, '13

Wainwright was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 2009-14, recording a 2.83 ERA and finishing among the top three in the NL Cy Young voting four times. Wainwright actually received more first-place votes than anyone else in the NL in 2009, but he came in third place behind Tim Lincecum and Cardinals teammate Chris Carpenter in total points. The right-hander followed that up with a second-place finish behind Roy Halladay in 2010, and he was second to Kershaw in '13. Now 38 years old, Wainwright has registered a 4.58 ERA since the beginning of 2016.

, 2009-present (36.8 bWAR)
Closest calls: NL 4th place; 2014, '16

While his postseason dominance is well documented, Bumgarner was a terrific regular-season pitcher in his heyday as well, recording a 3.00 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP and a 9.1 K/9 mark during a run of six straight 200-inning campaigns that began in 2011. However, the left-hander hasn't received a Cy Young vote since that streak ended. And after signing a five-year deal with the D-backs in December, the 30-year-old can no longer rely on the friendly confines of the Giants' spacious home park, where he recorded a 2.48 ERA over 2018-19 (5.16 on the road).

, 2008-present (32 bWAR)
Closest call: NL 2nd place, 2014

Among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings from 2011-16, only Kershaw had a better ERA+ than Cueto (145), who also found himself behind the lefty in the 2014 NL Cy Young race. Cueto delivered his best season as a big leaguer that year, going 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and a league-leading 242 strikeouts, but Kershaw was better (21-3, 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 239 K's) and earned NL MVP honors in addition to the Cy Young Award. Six years later, Cueto is trying to bounce back from Tommy John surgery. He has made just 38 starts over the past three seasons combined.

Others: Gio González

It could still happen

The best active pitchers with at least 1,000 innings who haven't won a Cy Young Award but still have a reasonable chance to do it.

, 2010-present (45.3 bWAR)
Closest call: AL 2nd place, 2017

It's truly shocking that Sale hasn't won yet. His lifetime 140 ERA+ is the 16th best in history, and his 5.4 K/BB ratio ranks first (min. 1,000 innings). The left-hander was a top-six finisher in the AL every year from 2012-18, and he placed no lower than fourth in four of those seasons. The closest he got was 2017 (2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 308 K's), when he was edged out by an exceptional Corey Kluber (2.25 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 265 K's). Sale is facing an uphill climb, as he has opted to undergo Tommy John surgery and will likely be 32 years old by the time he throws another pitch in the Majors. That said, a Cy Young run can't be ruled out when it comes to a pitcher of this caliber.

, 2010-present (33.5 bWAR)
Closest call: NL 3rd place, 2017

As Strasburg showed during the 2019 playoffs, he has the ability to be the best pitcher in baseball when he's healthy and at the top of his game. Strasburg's 2017 performance (2.52 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 22.4 K-BB%) closely resembled that of Scherzer (2.51 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 27.3 K-BB%), but Scherzer threw 25 1/3 more innings than his teammate to gain the edge in the NL Cy Young voting. Kershaw placed second and Strasburg third. Strasburg is still going strong, as he went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA and 251 K's over an NL-leading 209 innings last season before taking his game to an even higher level in the postseason.

, 2013-present (23.9 bWAR)
Closest call: AL 2nd place, 2019

How does a 20-win, 2.50-ERA, 326-K, 0.89-WHIP season not earn you the Cy Young? When your teammate puts up an equally impressive campaign and defeats you by the slimmest of margins. That's what happened to Cole last year, as his brilliant season netted a second-place finish in the AL race behind Verlander, who went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA, a 0.80 WHIP and 300 strikeouts. Cole, 29, arguably has the best chance of anyone in this category of eventually winning.

, 2012-present (22.4 bWAR)
Closest call: AL 2nd place, 2013

At first glance, a 33-year-old pitcher with a 4.16 ERA over the past two seasons doesn't seem like a strong contender for the Cy Young Award. But a closer look reveals that Darvish really turned a corner after the 2019 All-Star break, recording a 2.76 ERA with a 118-to-7 K/BB ratio over 81 2/3 innings. With a diverse arsenal that has helped him post the highest lifetime K/9 mark (11.1) in MLB history (min. 1,000 innings), Darvish might still have what it takes to go Cy hunting.

, 2012-present (17.1 bWAR)
Closest call: NL 5th place, 2018

Only five pitchers MLB-wide have earned Cy Young votes in each of the past two seasons: Jacob deGrom, Verlander, Cole, Scherzer and Corbin. In that span, the southpaw has recorded a 3.20 ERA with 484 strikeouts in 402 innings. Corbin doesn't throw especially hard, but he could ride his excellent slider to the top of the mountain.

Others: Carlos Carrasco, Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer, Charlie Morton