The Fernando Valenzuela Award?
Walker Buehler suggested a new award, the Valenzuela. For the "Best Rookie Pitcher". A fun idea, but who should it be named for?
Who is Walker Buehler? And What Did He Say?
Walker Buehler was the 24th overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He quickly moved through the Dodgers farm system and would make his MLB debut late in the 2017 season for a 9.1 inning sample. He would return to Triple-A to start the 2018 season and would find himself back in the majors by the end of April. Though he had two different IL stints in the season, he would still finish 3rd in the National League Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Ronald Acuna Jr. and runner-up Juan Soto.
Since then, Buehler has been a solid MLB pitcher for the Dodgers, earning himself two All-Star nods, a Top-5 and Top-10 finish for Cy Young voting, and he won the 2020 World Series.
Unfortunately, last season Buehler suffered an injury that ultimately resulted in him needing Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss the rest of the 2022 and all of 2023 season to this point. Recently, Buehler has made news as a return in September of this year is possible. He also said the following on the "Just Baseball Show" (link here):
"I personally think there should be a rookie Cy Young as well. Not to be like, 'Oh, I should get all this stuff,' but I was third in the Rookie of the Year to Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto...neither of them pitch, so who am I competing against?"
He then continued, saying:
"[Spencer] Strider [last year] and [Eury] Perez this year, they should be rewarded in some way...Give that guy a plaque, he was the best starting pitcher rookie in the game."
He also already coined a name for the award:
"For me, it should be a consideration. Let's have a Fernando Valenzuela Award. Best rookie pitcher ever."
An interesting name- and a player likely on his mind due to the recent jersey retirement of Fernando Valenzuela by the Los Angeles Dodgers. But, is it true? Did Valenzuela have the best rookie year for a National League pitcher ever?
The Best National League Rookie Pitching Season Ever:
In 1981, Fernando Valenzuela became the first- and still only- pitcher to ever win a Rookie of the Year and a Cy Young award in the same season. But, was that the greatest National League rookie season ever? Let's go to the stats:
In 1981, Fernando Valenzuela started all 25 games he played while leading the National League in games started (25), complete games (11), innings pitched (192.1) and the MLB in shutouts (8) and strikeouts (180). All told, he finished with a 13-7 record (.650 WP%), had a 2.48 ERA, 135 ERA+, and a 1.045 WHIP. But, was it the best?
Some would argue that we should go all the way back to 1901 and take a look at Christy Mathewson with the New York Giants. It would fit thematically with the Cy Young award to name a new pitching award after another legend from the turn of the century, right? While the only stat Mathewson led was wild pitches (23) for the NL, he had a 20-17 record (.541 WP%), pitched in 40 games, started 38 of them (while finishing the other 2), and had 36 complete games with 5 shutouts. He totaled 336.0 innings, threw 221 strikeouts, had a 2.41 ERA, 138 ERA+, and a 1.146 WHIP.
Maybe instead, you'd like to see a pitcher with more league-leading stats and not give a guy from Bucknell any more praise. (Sorry! It's in my Lafayette Leopard blood to say that.) So, how about Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander in 1911? He led the National League in complete games (31) and innings pitched (367.0) while leading the MLB in wins (28) and shutouts (7). He pitched 48 games with 37 starts and 11 finishes, a 28-13 record (.683 WP%), a 2.57 ERA, 132 ERA+, 1.128 WHIP, and threw 227 strikeouts for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Maybe even a different Dodger could be considered. Hideo Nomo's 1995 rookie season matches Valenzuela's in terms of national attention as it helped bring people back to the sport after the 1994 player strike. Nomo would lead the NL in strikeouts (236) and go on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award. He started all 28 games he pitched with 4 complete games and 3 shutouts to a 13-6 record (.684 WP%), a 2.54 ERA, 149 ERA+, and a 1.056 WHIP over 191.1 innings.
Maybe you like the prefix "Cy" for the award and want to go with Cy Blanton. How much fun would that be? The Cy Young and the Cy Blanton awards! For what it's worth, Blanton's 1935 campaign for the Pittsburgh Pirates is a forgotten great. He led the National League in ERA (2.48), ERA+ (159), shutouts (4), and WHIP (1.081) while pitching 35 games- starting 30, completing 23, and finishing 3 others- to an 18-13 record (.581 WP%) over 254.1 innings with 142 strikeouts.
Truthfully, however, the best argument comes from Dwight Gooden's 1984 season with the New York Mets. He won the NL Rookie of the Year and finished 2nd in the NL Cy Young (to Ryne Sandberg). Though he only led the NL in strikeouts (276) he also led the MLB in WHIP (1.073). He had a 17-9 record (.654 WP%) over 31 games (all starts) with 7 complete games and 3 shutouts. He totaled 218.0 innings to go with his 2.60 ERA and 137 ERA+.
Those are 6 arguable names for the award.
Maybe a chart would be best to compare these great rookie seasons:
(Bold = Lead NL; Bold Italics = Lead MLB)
Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.
While comedian pick in me says to obviously go with Cy Blanton and the homer in me (thanks to my favorite baseball players ever being Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki) says to go with Hideo Nomo, but I'm going to go against my personal judgements and go with Christy Mathewson.
This award would accompany the Cy Young award and what better player than Mathewson? He's arguably the best pitcher in baseball history and his personal story is one that many fans don't, but should, know.
Consider the introduction to the article, "The First Face of Baseball", by Larry Brunt from the Baseball Hall of Fame (link here):
"In the early spring of 2015, after Derek Jeter retired, MLB.com ran a social media campaign to anoint the new “Face of Baseball.” It’s a relatively new concept that has been applied to players from Nomar Garciaparra to Mike Trout, and assigned retroactively to Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, among others.
But if there ever was a first “Face of Baseball,” it was Christy Mathewson.
Baseball in the beginning of the 20th century was considered an undignified game, played by ruffians for the pleasure of gamblers. In fact, many players did come from tough backgrounds, swinging out of coal mines and pitching out of farmlands to eke out a living at baseball. Few had college educations. Even fewer were seen as virtuous. Mothers (Mathewson’s included) did not want their sons to grow up to be baseball players.
Christy Mathewson changed all that. And the combination of his talent on the field and charisma off it helped him become one of the first five members of the Hall of Fame in 1936."
The article itself is very well written and I do highly recommend everybody reads it.
In short, Christy Mathewson was the first ballplayer to give the sport a positive image. He was a well respected man by teammates, the press, umpires, and fans. He was one of the first to have a college education and he was known as being the first man to smile in baseball. He was the games first role model on top of being one of the very best.
From the article, it recounts Mathewson's sportsmanship:
"He won the 1905 World Series almost single-handedly: Three complete game shutouts, giving up 13 hits and one walk in 27 innings, with 18 strikeouts. But Mathewson’s Giants lost the World Series in 1911, 1912, and 1913. No one blamed Mathewson (who went 2-5 in those Series, in spite of a 1.33 ERA); in fact, his sportsmanship was lauded. One editorial read, 'In victory he was admirable, but in defeat he was magnificent.' Mathewson himself said, 'You can learn little from victory. You can learn everything from defeat.'"
In 1918, Mathewson voluntarily left the sport to serve in World War I and served in the Chemical Service department, in which a leak would ultimately lead to both his lungs being damaged. Ultimately, this would be the leading contributor in his early death at 45 from tuberculosis.
His may not have been the best rookie season by a National League pitcher ever. But, the story, nature, and character of Christy Mathewson should allow his legacy to be remembered more. He would be the most deserving to be named for that honor.
If it was me, the yearly award for Best Rookie National League Pitcher would be named for Christy Mathewson.
Check back tomorrow at 2:00 PM for my evaluation of who the American League award should be named after, and a list of who (likely) would've won this award going back to 2000!