4 Lessons MLB Pitchers Should Take from Cy Young's Legacy
Friday, March 29th will mark what would have been Cy Young's 143rd birthday.
Young was one of the best pitchers of all time, winning the first World Series, holding six career records that have stood over 90 years, and enjoying a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and on Major League Baseball's All-Century team.
However, with each passing year and each presentation of the American and National League Cy Young awards, Young's accomplishments become a more distant memory. Cy's impressive productivity over his long and successful career seem more and more detached from the game of today.
Still, even though Denton True Young first put on a major league uniform 123 years ago, many of his methods and beliefs about pitching can still be useful to the major league pitchers of today.
Here are some pointers that Cy Young would give to current pitchers if he were alive to share them.
Try Not to Be Too Perfect
Cy Young's major league record of 511 career wins will most likely never be surpassed.
The game of baseball has changed. Relief pitchers and five-man rotations heavily limit a starter's amount of appearances, and a sore arm is a danger rather than a badge of honor.
Twenty-win seasons are few and far between, and thirty-win seasons have disappeared entirely.
Despite all this, there is a simple way for pitchers to extend their outings, seasons, and careers—throw fewer pitches.
It sounds basic, but most pitchers struggle mightily to keep their pitch counts under control.
Even in Cy Young's day, most hurlers were unable to manager their pitch counts, and when confronted with the heavy workload that came from being part of a two or three-man rotation they would break down after short, mediocre careers.
So how did Cy make it through 22 years and 815 starts? He just let the batter hit the ball.
"I'd take a few warm-up pitches and be ready. Then I had good control. I aimed to make the batter hit the ball, and I threw as few pitches as possible. That's why I was able to work every other day."
He wasn't trying to be too perfect with his spots like many pitchers today. He just threw the ball and dared the batter to hit it.
And more often than not, they didn't.
Perfect Control Before You Perfect Your Breaking Pitches
Like all pitchers, Cy Young began to lose the zip on his fastball as he aged, and he began to rely more on his curveball.
Unlike most older pitchers, he continued to maintain excellent form.
When asked about his curve later in life, he responded, "Any young player who has good control will become a successful curve pitcher long before the pitcher who is endeavoring to master both curves and control at the same time. The curve is merely an accessory to control."
This is a fascinating and insightful statement. Putting control first and letting the rest fall into place later made Young's transition from power to finesse that much easier.
It makes perfect sense. Life in the major leagues will be easier for a pitcher with great control attempting to get more break on his pitches than for a young gun with great natural stuff trying to find the strike zone.
Take Gavin Floyd, for example.
Floyd is not a household name like that of Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but it isn't because he lacks the tools necessary.
Floyd has always had one of the best curveballs in baseball, and when it falls in the right place, it's nearly unhittable.
Sadly, his inability to consistently throw strikes has kept him from reaching his full potential.
If earlier in his career Floyd had made control a priority rather than adding extra bite to his curve, baseball fans might be seeing him every July at the All-Star game instead of at the back of the Chicago White Sox rotation.
If You Want to Talk off the Field, Make Sure You Can Talk on the Field
Near the beginning of the 20th century, trash talk in sports was nothing like it is today.
That doesn't mean it didn't exist.
On May 2nd of 1904, Rube Waddell pitched a one-hit shutout against Cy Young's Boston Americans on a day Young didn't pitch. and he subsequently taunted the ace in an effort to goad him into pitching the next time the two clubs faced.
Three days later, Young did much more than just pitch. He pitched a perfect game.
The perfect game was the first in the history of the American League, and fittingly, the last batter Young faced was Waddell himself.
After retiring Waddell to end the game, Young called out, "How do you like that, you hayseed?"
Hayseed, synonymous with yokel or bumpkin, probably would not be the term used by most pitchers in 2013 after throwing a perfect game, but the lesson of shooting down others words with your play nevertheless stands.
In today's game, trash talk is amplified whenever possible by the media, and when players take part, they better be ready to perform on the field.
In June of 2012, closer Frank Francisco of the New York Mets referred to the New York Yankees squad as "those chickens" just before the subway series between the two teams, and Yankee catcher Russell Martin responded, "We'll see who's chicken when he gets in there."
Francisco, surprisingly enough, was ready to practice what he preached, and when the Mets beat the Yankees 6-4 in the first game of the series, he picked up the save.
Don't Take Your Losses Too Hard
Cy Young is the winningest pitcher in major league history, but he also has the most career losses, ending up 316 times on the wrong end of the scoresheet.
If Young had let each loss get to him, he would have been institutionalized.
Young played on a few poor teams and had more than his fair share of poor starts, but remaining steady and unfazed, he still finished his career 195 games above .500.
Nowadays, getting over a loss as a starting pitcher is much more difficult than it was for Young.
When Cy suffered through a rough outing, he would only have to wait one or two days before getting back on the mound.
In a five-man rotation, there is much more time to sit around and stew over what you did wrong before having another chance to pitch.
That isn't to say, however, that persevering through bad stretches is impossible in today's major leagues.
Take Jeremy Guthrie's 2012 season, for example.
Guthrie started the year with the Colorado Rockies, and it couldn't have been more painful.
Nine losses and a 6.35 ERA in 15 starts forced Guthrie out in a hurry, and by the end of July, he was a Kansas City Royal.
His poor play and exit from the Rockies certainly couldn't have helped his mental state, but in KC, he was able to put aside his demons and turn his season around, going 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA on an underachieving Royals team.
Mental toughness was one of Cy Young's greatest strengths, and if more major league pitchers possessed that same toughness, slumps would be shorter, ERA's would be lower, and who knows, maybe scoring levels in baseball would drop down to what they were back in Cy's dead ball era.
Maybe baseball isn't so far removed from its past after all.
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