On April 7th, 1984, a young right-hander from Tampa, Florida took the mound for the New York Mets as they faced the Houston Astros. Unable to wait for the first pitch, the recent call up from the Triple-A Tidewater Tides showed up to the Astrodome early. Jumping a fence and waiting by the door to the players’ entrance for hours, Dwight “Doc” Gooden simply couldn’t wait for his moment, for his first pitch, and what would ultimately be his first career win.
This game would be the first of Doc’s stellar first season that would eventually end with him winning the National League Rookie of the Year award. That wasn’t a surprise to anyone, though, as it was Doc’s award to lose from that first pitch onward.
Doc Gooden’s 1984 was incredible, to say the least. Over 31 starts, Doc went the distance seven times, logging shutouts in three of those games. Over his 218 innings of work, Doc absolutely stifled hitters, holding opposing bats to just 6.6 hits per 9, and 1.073 walks and hits per inning (WHIP), both of which led the league. Those are veteran numbers right there.
In 15 of his 1984 starts, Gooden fanned more than ten hitters. Finishing the year strong, Gooden hit double-digit Ks in 4 out of his 5 insane September starts, including a 5-hit complete game shutout against the Pirates. With games like that, it’s no wonder that Doc led the entire league in strikeouts per 9 (11.4) and total strikeouts with 276, a rookie record that still stands today.
With his 17-9 record, 2.60 ERA, 137 ERA+, and a Rookie of the Year trophy in his hand, Doc Gooden was a sure-thing to win the Cy Young too, right? Wrong.
Let me introduce to you the 1984 National League Cy Young winner: Rick Sutcliffe.
Five years prior to Gooden’s MLB debut (almost to the day), a 23-year-old right-hander took the ball in the later innings of a tight Dodgers/Padres showdown. Rick Sutcliffe, in his MLB debut, would pitch five innings that night, securing the first win of his career, and the first win of the season that would win him Rookie of the Year honors in 1979.
However, a lot had changed since 1979. After struggling to maintain his Rookie of the Year promise, the Los Angeles Dodgers shipped him off to Cleveland. This was a good time to start over. Prior to leaving LA, the Dodgers had just won the World Series, and Sutcliffe had failed to make their Fall Classic roster.
With five MLB seasons and a plethora of experience under his belt, Sutcliffe’s roller coaster of a career was just beginning. After a tough go-round during the 1983 season, Sutcliffe was trying to get back on the horse, attempting to find the ability he was once lauded for. And 1984 was just what he needed.
With a 16-1 record, it’s easy to see how dominant Sutcliffe was for the Chicago Cubs in ’84. Matching Gooden’s seven complete games and three complete-game shutouts, Sutcliffe was a Godsend for the Cubs in the second half. Moving down his stat line, Sutcliffe posted a 2.69 ERA, 1.078 WHIP, and a solid 144 ERA+. When looking at the whole picture, it’s obvious to see why the BBWAA awarded Sutcliffe the Cy Young. With his pristine record, solid stat line, and his ERA+ marking him as a well above average pitcher, Sutcliffe deserved to win.
Unless, there was another pitcher who should have been considered. And guess what… There is.
For the sake of surprise, let’s call this pitcher Mr. X.
Mr. X started the season playing for a team in the American League, but was then sent to the National League in an early-season trade. Despite that, he put up solid numbers. They weren’t out-right Cy Young contender numbers, but good numbers for a pitcher in the 1980s.
Looking at his season, on the whole, Mr. X’s 20-6 record, 9 complete games, 3 shutouts, and 213 Ks over 244.2 innings pitched, are nothing to shake a stick at. If anything, the fact that Mr. X won 20 games is historically enough to put him in the Cy Young conversation on its own. If there’s one thing the BBWAA loved back in the day it was a 20-game winner. However, in ’84, the other two 20 game winners would eventually finish tied for fourth in the final voting, so what makes Mr. X a Cy Young competitor?
Well, let’s look at all three of our Cy Young candidates side-by-side.
Doc Gooden: 31 starts, 17-9, 7 complete games, 3 shutouts, 218 innings pitched, 276 Ks, 2.60 ERA, 137 ERA+, 1.073 WHIP, 6.6 H/9, 0.3 HR/9, 11.4 K/9, 1.69 FIP, 5.5 WAR.
Rick Sutcliffe: 20 starts, 16-1, 7 complete games, 3 shutouts, 150.1 innings pitched, 155 Ks, 2.69 ERA, 144 ERA+, 1.078 WHIP, 7.4 H/9, 0.5 HR/9, 9.3 K/9, 2.28 FIP, 3.9 WAR.
Mr. X: 35 starts, 20-6, 9 complete games, 3 shutouts, 244.2 innings pitched, 213 Ks, 3.64 ERA, 109 ERA+, 1.304 WHIP, 8.6 H/9, 0.6 HR/9, 7.8 K/9, 2.96 FIP, 3.8 WAR.
So, now that we’re looking at them head-to-head… to me, it still seems like Gooden has the upper hand. However, on the opposite side of things, it would appear that Mr. X, doesn’t belong in the top three. The 3.00+ ERA, the 1.304 WHIP, the pedestrian pitching ratios, all seem run of the mill. That would make sense. With an ERA+ of 109, Mr. X was only a touch above league average for 1984, whereas Sutcliffe and Gooden were well above.
There’s no reason that Mr. X should be in the conversation. He’s a good pitcher, but not so much Cy Young worthy, right?
Well, now’s probably a good time to reveal who Mr. X is, and he’s none other than the 1984 Cy Young Winner Rick Sutcliffe.
That’s right. Let it sink in.
I know what you’re thinking, “How can Rick Sutcliffe have two sets of stats?” The simple answer is he doesn’t, but he does have splits, particularly league splits.
Rick Sutcliffe began the 1984 season playing for the Cleveland Indians.
Cleveland didn’t offer relief from his pitching woes at first, as Sutcliffe waffled between promises kept and promises broken. And finally, after 15 starts in 1984, Cleveland sent him west to Wrigley Field. And that’s where Rick Sutcliffe would become the 1984 Cy Young winner.
So how bad was it in Cleveland that it would taint his impeccable Cy Young numbers? It’s not awful, but not great. Over 15 starts, Sutcliffe posted a 4-5 record, a 5.15 ERA, a 1.664 WHIP, and a 1.26 K/BB over 94.1 innings of work, summarized by his 80 ERA+. Here’s a side-by-side of Sutcliffe’s full 1984 numbers and his numbers in Chicago.
- Rick Sutcliffe in Chicago: 20 starts, 16-1, 7 complete games, 3 shutouts, 150.1 innings pitched, 155 Ks, 2.69 ERA, 144 ERA+, 1.078 WHIP, 7.4 H/9, 0.5 HR/9, 9.3 K/9, 2.28 FIP, 3.9 WAR.
- Rick Sutcliffe in Cleveland and Chicago: 35 starts, 20-6, 9 complete games, 3 shutouts, 244.2 innings pitched, 213 Ks, 3.64 ERA, 109 ERA+, 1.304 WHIP, 8.6 H/9, 0.6 HR/9, 7.8 K/9, 2.96 FIP, 3.8 WAR.
Sutcliffe was below average in Cleveland, and then turned a corner in Chicago, because the Cubs gave him something he desperately needed.
In his 20 starts as a member of the Cubs, Sutcliffe’s teammates scored 6 or more runs 10 times, offering him quite the cushion of support. Even better still, in 18 of Sutcliffe’s 20 Chicago starts, the Cubs scored more than 3 runs of support for his efforts.
That’s amazing. It’s nice to see teammates supporting each other on such a frequent basis.
The same could not be said for Dwight Gooden.
While half of Sutcliffe’s starts involved the Cubs scoring 6 or more runs, half of Doc’s starts fell on the other end of the spectrum. Over his 31 starts for the Mets, 14 of them saw the Mets score 2 or fewer runs. In those games, Gooden struck out the majority of the 276 Ks, and earned a 3.06 ERA. In those games, Doc Gooden took the hill, essentially by himself, as a 19 year-old kid with his team on his back. The sheer will and strength it must have taken to carry a professional ball club by yourself must be insane. And yet Dwight Gooden did it 31 times as a Rookie.
Doc Gooden was not afforded the same opportunities as Rick Sutcliffe. Gooden’s Mets were a far less potent team at the plate.
FIP is a weird one to be sure, and there’s very little chance that the BBWAA in 1984 was aware of the metric, but let’s talk about it anyway. To be brief, as described by the Baseball Prospectus Gods, “Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) converts a pitcher’s three true outcomes into an earned run average-like number.”
Baseball-Reference adds that “pitchers have minimal (if any) control over the outcomes of balls that are put in play against them. The two corollaries of this discovery, which has proven to be true in the most general sense (with a number of caveats and exceptions), are that a pitcher’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) will regress toward the league average – usually .300 – if given enough opportunities, and that the Three True Outcomes – walks, strikeouts, and home runs – are the primary indicators of actual pitching skill.”
Baseball Prospectus also gives you this valuable chart of recent pitchers and their FIPs, just to give you an idea of what’s good and what’s bad.
- Excellent – Roy Halladay 2.17
- Great – David Price 3.36
- Average – Tim Stauffer 4.00
- Poor – Carlos Zambrano 4.56
- Horrendous – Bronson Arroyo 5.68
So where do our heroes line up? Well, for the sake of argument, let’s only use Sutcliffe’s Chicago numbers. Rick Sutcliffe, in the National League, had a FIP of 2.28, which would place him in the “Excellent” category of BP’s chart above. So where’s Doc?
He’s in a tier all to himself at 1.69. There’s simply no comparison between them. Doc was on another planet in 1984, and that planet happened to be on a team that put him behind the eight-ball more times than Sutcliffe was.
Is that Doc’s fault? Should he be penalized? Should Sutcliffe? Am I crazy?
The BBWAA of yesteryear has always favored wins more than other metric, and today we’re lucky to be living in a world with much deeper analysis. But I simply cannot shake the thought that Doc Gooden was absolutely robbed on this one. How can a guy lead the league in six pitching categories and still miss out on the hardware? It’s insane to me.
But then again, perhaps Sutcliffe, who has fought back from a dramatic downturn in performance, deserves the moment in the sun. Rick Sutcliffe turned things around in a major way when he landed in Chicago. And perhaps that has earned him the reward.
What is more important? The win or the battles? Can you put the weight of the result over the weight of the fight? Can you separate the “I in Team” from the “War in Award?”
It’s tough to say. And yet, 36 years later, here we are talking about it. Because before you began reading this you didn’t know who won the 1984 NL Cy Young. But I bet you do know who won the last two NL Cy Young awards. It’s because of seasons like 1984, and pitchers like Rick Sutcliffe, Mr. X, and Dwight Gooden, that the future and present have evolved from our past.
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