When the Mets' R.A. Dickey picked up his 20th win on Wednesday, the knuckleballer completed the narrative part of winning a major award; sometimes it's not just raw numbers; but stories that attract the voters. In doing so, he put a slight damper on Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto's own bid for that award. Cueto doesn't have his own tale of overcoming physical shortcomings and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to bolster his candidacy. He's just been really good. So it's entirely possible that he will go down as the umpteenth Reds pitcher since 1956 to not win a Cy Young award.
Considered by WAR (and depending on whose WAR you look at), Cueto and Dickey, as well as Clayton Kershaw, are bunched closely enough that no great crime will have occurred regardless of who wins. Still, the Reds have been around since the introduction of the Cy Young award and have won zero Cy Youngs, whereas the Mets didn't come along for another six years but have already grabbed four (three to Tom Seaver, one to Dwight Gooden). Why have the Reds, who have often put together good or great teams, never won the big pitching award?
The short answer is, the Reds just haven't been into that.
Keep in mind that until quite recently, winning 20 games, or whatever the league-leading number of victories, figured heavily in Cy Young voting. Despite Zack Greinke's and Félix Hernández's triumphs, they will no doubt continue to do so. In the 56 years since the Cy Young award came along, the Reds have had a grand total of nine 20-game winners, and only two -- Tom Browning in 1985 and Danny Jackson in 1988 -- since 1970. Part of that was by design. When you think of the Big Red Machine, you don't think of big games from starting pitchers, you think of manager Sparky Anderson earning the nickname "Captain Hook" for this then-frequent recourse to the bullpen (the 1975 championship Cincinnati Reds threw 22 complete games, which today would lead either league by a wide margin).
The Reds had six postseason teams during the 1970s. Jim Merrit was the sole 20-game winner in 1970. Jack Billingham won 19 games a couple of times, but with unexceptional ERAs. Gary Nolan and Don Gullett won as many as 18 games, but due to a tendency to break down often didn't get enough starts to pile up the big victory numbers. Tom Seaver was excellent in 1978, but no doubt because his 16-14 record paled in comparison to his previous Cy Young seasons, he didn't get even a single vote; in those days, won-lost records were all the pitcher's fault.
Seaver's partial season in 1977 was also excellent, but it wasn't until Rick Sutcliffe in 1984 that a pitcher got serious notice for a post-trade performance. Like Sutcliffe, Seaver won 20 games (21 in the latter's case) between his two teams, but unlike Sutcliffe's Cubs, Seaver's Reds did not win a division title. Tom Terrific finished a distant third in the voting. Seaver did come close in 1981, when he went 14-2 and led the league in victories in that strike-shortened season, only to be edged 70-67 in the balloting by Fernandomania (and properly so).
Lou Piniella's 1990 champions were even more about the bullpen than Sparky's teams were; like the 1975 and '76 champions, their winningest pitcher (Browning) topped out at 15 victories. It was the "Nasty Boys" bullpen of Randy Myers, Norm Charlton, and Rob Dibble that stole the show from pitchers like Jose Rijo and first-half phenom Jack Armstrong. Myers finished fifth in the voting that year, with a grand total of one point.
The Reds have had great seasons from starting pitchers in the non-championship years, just not big pitcher-win seasons. With a WAR total pushing 9.0 (On the BB-Ref scale), Rijo was likely the most valuable pitcher in the National League in 1993, but he finished a distant fifth behind four 20-game winners because he won only 14 games. Bronson Arroyo pitched a league-leading 240.2 innings in 2006 while posting a 3.29 ERA in a 4.49 league, but went 14-11 and so received no award consideration. Mario Soto and his amazing change-up were dominant in 1982, but the Reds lost 100 games, so he got only "honorable mention" status in the voting. He had another good year in 1983, but the Reds did not; he jumped up to second in the voting, but finished behind John Denny of the triumphal Phillies "Wheeze Kids."
Overall, there is a continual disconnect between the Red's biggest starting pitcher ERA seasons and their biggest win seasons; Billingham could win 19 games with an 89 ERA+ in 1974, but Rijo couldn't get past 15 with a 153 ERA+ in 1991.
In total, there have been 18 seasons by 12 Reds pitchers which finished in the top five in Cy Young voting, but no winners. Seaver had three, Soto and Rijo two each. In addition to the two second-place finishes mentioned above, there has been just one other; Pete Schourek finished approximately 85 light years behind Greg Maddux in 1995. We're still waiting for a first-place finisher or a retroactive recognition of pitchers like Dolph Luque 1923, Pete Donohue 1925, or Bucky Walters 1939. After this fall's vote, we'll probably still be waiting.