Re-Award Season: 1990 AL Cy Young, Roger Clemens

In our new series, we are going back into history and taking a second look at some award races that probably should have ended differently.

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 14: Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens walks on the field after being inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame before a game between the Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 14, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Some history is revisionist history. With respect to those honored with postseason awards, there were instances in which someone was more deserving. Understanding changing criteria and added scrutiny recently toward the voting process, we began our look back at awards that need a redo.

Roger Clemens already has enough Cy Youngs, right? He won seven, but it should be eight.

We can’t claim it to be a total injustice. Clements had already been recognized as his league’s top pitcher twice and won the MVP in 1986. But from an unbiased and unapologetic numbers observation, there’s little doubt who was the best on the mound in the American League in 1990.

The final tally went in favor of Oakland’s Bob Welch, who overwhelmed with a win count of 27. That was the most by any pitcher since the last 30-game winner, Denny McLain, in 1968. No one has won that many games in a season since. The closest has been 24 victories: John Smoltz in 1996, Randy Johnson in 2002, and Justin Verlander in 2011.

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With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that wins are not the ultimate barometer of excellence. Clemens bested Welch in ERA (1.93 to 2.95), strikeouts (209 to 127), walks (54 to 77), home runs allowed (seven to 26), and WAR (10.4 to 2.9). The only redeeming stat in Welch’s corner was pitching 9 2/3 more innings than Clemens. That’s it.

Clemens had an adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 211. In the integration era, a pitcher has posted a 200+ ERA just 22 times. The next-closest pitcher to Clemens in ERA+ that year was Houston’s Danny Darwin at 169. Welch ranked 17th at 125.

Could the end result have been a case of voter fatigue? Possibly, but wins were a definite culprit. For decades, it was the bottom of line of many decisions on superiority when it came to pitchers. We could use more context, though.

Welch was part of an Oakland A’s club coming off a World Series title and posted an MLB-best 103-59 record with American League MVP Rickey Henderson leading the charge. The A’s won their third straight pennant, sweeping away Clemens’ Red Sox in the ALCS, before getting swept themselves by the Reds.

The pitching matchup in the opener of the ALCS between Boston and Oakland? Clemens against…Dave Stewart, who wound up as the third-place finisher in the Cy Young voting.

Stewart led the AL in innings (267 IP), complete games (11) and shutouts (four). Against Clemens, he outdueled “The Rocket” by going eight innings and allowing just one run. Clemens didn’t allow any A’s to score, but exited after the sixth only to watch the bullpen relinquish nine in the final three frames of lopsided defeat.

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Welch won Game 2 with a solid one-run, 7 1/3-inning performance. By the time it got to Game 4, Oakland held a 3-0 lead as Clemens tried to stave off elimination. Neither the A’s nor home plate umpire Jerry Cooney would let him. His struggle and inability to get strike calls led to an abrupt ejection from Conney. Boston’s fate was sealed.

While playoff results have no bearing on a regular season award, it’s of note that the A’s second-game starter take the award over the Red Sox ace, Stewart’s postseason excellence notwithstanding. It’s not like Welch was a postseason novice. He’d been in the spotlight in 1978 as a youngster with the Dodgers and closed out a World Series contest.

It’s also interesting that Welch and Stewart didn’t cancel each other out in some regard. And if wins were such a factor, Clemens having 21 victories for a team that won 88 and needed each one to win its division should have been a deciding factor even if this isn’t the “most valuable pitcher” being chosen.

Still, everything else is a landslide in Rocket’s column. Clemens had a 1.93 ERA compared to Welch’s 2.95. Clemens struck out 82 more hitters in 9 2/3 fewer innings while walking 23 fewer hitters. Welch allowed 26 homers to Clemens’ seven. As for WAR, Clemens laps Welch: 10.4 to 2.9.

This was one of three instances where Clemens finished top-three in the Cy Young without winning. A case can be made that he should have taken it in ’92 when he lost out to A’s closer Dennis Eckersley, and even in 2005 when he posted a better WHIP than winner Chris Carpenter and runner-up Dontrelle Willis. But ’90 was the most galling.

We can look back at history and say Clemens could have been a 10-time Cy Young winner. None of that would have made a difference when it comes to his induction to the Hall of Fame, where his alleged use of PEDs has kept him out for now.

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Meanwhile, the 1990 season ended up being a career-making one for Welch. A 17-year veteran who came up to huge potential with the Los Angeles Dodgers and a famous Fall Classic showdown with Reggie Jackson that ended in a strikeout. He spent the first career in Los Angeles and the last seven in Oakland.

Welch was a model of consistency, pitching to a 3.47 ERA while eclipsing 200 innings nine times. He was a two-time All-Star and a two-time World Series champion. And thanks to those 27 wins in 1990, his resume will always include that highest distinction: a Cy Young winner.