Q&A: Bert Blyleven on Felix Hernandez (and Much More)
When Felix Abraham Hernandez pitched scoreless ball for eight innings in his home debut for the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday, there was one former major leaguer on hand who was two months younger than baseball's newest teenage sensation when he won his first big-league game. His name? None other than Rik Aalbert Blyleven. You see, Blyleven was working that night as a broadcaster for the Minnesota Twins, the team Hernandez defeated, 1-0.
Born on April 6, 1951, Blyleven made his major-league debut in June 1970 when he was 19 years and 2 months old. Bert did much more than just pitch in the big leagues that season. He went 10-9 with a 3.18 ERA and was named the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News.
In Blyleven's first month in the majors, he pitched a complete-game victory against the Chicago White Sox, allowing just two hits, one walk, and one run while striking out eight. Bert tossed four more complete-game wins that season, including two four-hitters (one of which was a shutout), a three-hitter, and a seven-hitter in which he fanned 12 batters. Get this, Blyleven allowed no more than two runs in 14 of his 25 starts that year.
Who better to ask about Hernandez than Blyleven himself? I caught up with Bert on Thursday to get his impressions of the young pitcher already known as King Felix.
Rich: Felix Hernandez pitched a five-hit, no-walk shutout over eight innings in his first major-league start at home Tuesday night against the Minnesota Twins. How did he look in person?
Bert: Felix looked like a young man that was on a mission. That mission was trying to prove that he belongs at the major-league level.
Rich: According to the telecast on Fox Sports Net, Hernandez was throwing 96-97 MPH consistently and the gun even registered 98 on occasion. Does that square with what you witnessed?
Bert: Yes. What impressed me was that he was throwing that hard in the 7th and 8th innings. He had excellent control of his fastball and that's the key to pitching a great ball game, in which he did.
Rich: In addition to his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, Felix throws a big, overhand curveball. You were known to throw a few of those in your day. How would you rate his curve?
Bert: Hernandez has very tight rotation on his curveball and he got some strikeouts in the game on his curveball. His curveball is thrown hard but, from what I saw, he doesn't have the big curveball that I had. I feel he has a Kerry Wood curveball. He was able to throw it for strikes and that's another key.
Rich: Hernandez also was effective with his changeup. Mid-to-high-90s fastball, good breaking ball, and a change. Three quality pitches. Do you think he has what it takes to become the star pitcher everyone has been forecasting?
Bert: Let's wait and see, he has made only two major-league starts. Baseball and especially the Mariners are looking for young major-league pitchers to help bring fans into the park. Let's not compare him to anyone else and let him be Felix Hernandez and not the next Bob Gibson, Bert Blyleven or whoever.
Rich: I know you are reluctant to compare Hernandez to others, but, if you wouldn't mind, I wanted to ask you about two other pitchers. The first one, Dwight Gooden, went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA while striking out a career-high 276 batters in just 218 innings during his rookie season in 1984 when he was 19.
Bert: Again, let's see how Felix does in his next start and how he finishes the season. Baseball has always compared this player to that player. Hernandez has made only two major-league starts. It's not fair to him to start comparing him to Gooden or any other pitcher. "Doc" Gooden had a very bright future in the game of baseball but ruined it by taking drugs. We will never know how good he could have been over a long career because of his choices.
Rich: That's true. All right, I promise the next one will be the last. It's someone you've watched pitched many, many times. Johan Santana.
Bert: Johan Santana is a very good pitcher who is also from Venezuela. You can stop there with the comparisons. Johan won the 2004 American League Cy Young Award. Besides the one game, what has Hernandez won?
Rich: Hernandez, like his countryman Santana, throws a good changeup. That said, there aren't many 19-year-olds who have a change in their repertoire. Why is that?
Bert: Usually 19-year-old pitchers aren't mature enough or they want to throw the ball pass everybody to worry about the changeup. I was that way when I came to the big leagues in 1970, at the age of 19. It looked like Felix has learned that a changeup is a big part of his repertoire to help keep the hitters off balance.
Rich: I was impressed with Hernandez's mound presence. I know it is easy not to get flustered when you are sailing along the way he was Tuesday night. However, there were a couple of times in that game in which a pitcher with less composure might have lost it out there. Were you as impressed with his poise as you were with his stuff?
Bert: Very much so because of the score of the game. It was a 0-0 game until the Mariners put a run on the board in the bottom of the 7th. He worked out of a couple of jams throughout his appearance and when he needed an out, he got it.
Rich: Hernandez is the youngest pitcher to start a major-league game since Jose Rijo in 1984. Why do you suppose that the number of teenage pitchers has declined so sharply over the years?
Bert: The number has declined because minor-league pitchers don't throw enough. Come on, minor-league managers and pitching coaches, along with their organizational staffs, rarely let a starter go past the 7th inning and they pitch about once every 5th or 6th day. If a young minor-league pitcher has more then 150 innings in a season, my God, they shut him down. The pitch count is so over-rated. I believe mound presence would tell you more then a pitch count! Plus the hitters on the other side would let you know, too, if he was tiring because of the hard-hit balls.
Rich: As you mentioned, you pitched in the big leagues in 1970 when you were just 19 years old. In fact, at 19 years and 2 months, you were even younger than Felix. Heck, you were less than a year from having graduated from high school. How nervous were you in your first big-league start?
Bert: I was very nervous in my major-league debut. My first start was against the Washington Senators in Washington, June 5, 1970. I was with the Twins and we had Jim Perry and Jim Kaat on our staff. They helped me so much in my first few years. I won my first major-league game 2-1, but the first batter I ever faced, Lee Maye, hit a 3-2 fastball over the right field fence for a home run. Believe it or not, that kinda relaxed me and I ended up pitching 7 innings, allowed 5 hits, 1 run, 1 walk and 7 strikeouts. It's a game that will be with me for the rest of my life. What a way to start my career.
Rich: You were also the youngest player in the majors that season. Jeff Burroughs, the number-one pick in the amateur draft the previous season, was the only other player in the majors who was born in 1951. However, Jeff only played six games and had 12 at-bats. You pitched 164 innings in 27 games. Gosh, you even had 50 at-bats that year.
Bert: I wouldn't call those at-bats. They were more of a bad hitter trying to make contact. I did learn the art of bunting, and I did take a lot of pride with that. [Note: Bert had 56 sacrifice bunts in approximately 500 plate appearances over the course of his career.] But I wasn't a very good hitter. My first major-league hit was a single off Mel Stottlemyre of the Yankees in my second start. But I lost the game 2-1 in Yankee Stadium. I think my career batting average was like .131. Swing as hard as you can and hope you make contact. That was my approach to hitting. I just swung and missed too many times.
Rich: Well, they finally took the bat out of your hands after the 1980 season. However, you went on to pitch for 12 more years, the last being in 1992 when you were 41.
Bert: Actually the Designated Hitter rule came in to the American League in 1973 so I didn't have to hit anymore, except for Pittsburgh from 1978 through the 1980 seasons. I personally liked that rule because I could stay in more games rather than to be pinch hit for the the 6th, 7th or 8th innings. Plus in Minnesota our DH was Tony Oliva. Not a bad guy to hit for the pitcher, huh? Tony was a great hitter and it's a shame that he is not in the Hall of Fame. Just too bad his knees were bad. He still put up great numbers in the time he did play, just like Kirby Puckett. And just like for a pitcher, Sandy Koufax.
Rich: Although Oliva began his career more than 40 years ago, the number of Latin players has grown by leaps and bounds since then, with Hernandez being the latest. Do you think the globalization of the game, if you will, has been the biggest change in baseball the past few decades?
Bert: If you have baseball talent the scouts will find you, no matter where you live. The game has changed because of so much talent in the Latin American countries. These players work hard to try and fullfil a dream. It's the American way, isn't it? I was born in Holland but raised in Southern California. I was given the opportunity to fulfill my baseball career, but it took a lot of hard work. The Latin American players have the same opportunity like everyone else to succeed. I think that's great.
Rich: OK, it's time to get your crystal ball out. A couple of writers have speculated that Hernandez could be the next best bet to win 300 games. He's got 299 to go. How many wins would you guess Felix will get in his career?
Bert: Wow, I'm surprised the writers didn't say he might be the next 400-game winner. How do they know? One major-league win and two good outings shouldn't be considered as a future 300-game winner.
Rich: Since you retired 13 years ago, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux are the only pitchers who have exceeded your win total of 287. Do you think we will ever see another 300-game winner during our lifetime?
Bert: I hope there are more 300-game winners in the future for baseball. That means that individual, whoever he or she would be, will have the love of the game to stay at it for a lot of years. That will only help promote baseball in the coming years.
Rich: George Brett and Robin Yount reached the 3,000 hit milestone in your last year. Eight more players have joined that parade since then while six have crashed the 500-HR party. There are now 26 players in the 3,000-hit club and 20 in the 500-HR club. By the same token, there have only been 22 pitchers who have won 300 games--and only 15 since 1900. You rank 17th in wins among modern-day pitchers.
Looked at it another way, had you been a hitter, you would rank right there with Rickey Henderson in hits and Eddie Mathews and Ernie Banks in home runs. With or without 300 wins, you are in pretty rarefied territory.
Bert: The same could be said about the pitchers that struck out 3,000 batters or more. Only 13 pitchers have accomplished that feat compared to the 26 hitters that have 3,000 hits or more. As a starting pitcher, at any level, the hardest thing to do is win a baseball game. You depend on your teammates to make the plays behind you and score the runs you need to win a game. It took me a long time to realize this as a pitcher. When I was younger and I lost 1-0 or 2-1, which I did a lot, I thought it was all my fault because we lost. I know this attitude allowed me to pitch 23 years at the major-league level. When I lost, I worked harder; and when I won, I worked harder to compete for the next game. But it takes a team to win and lose. That is what's so great about the game of baseball and why I still love the game.
I broadcast for the Minnesota Twins and I look at each game, that we televise, as if I were pitching that game. Through my job, I have a lot more then 287 career wins. But I also have a lot more then 250 career losses.
Rich: Speaking of broadcasting, you've become famous for circling fans on your telestrator during games. Now, if we can just get more Hall of Fame voters thinking in terms of circling your name come December.
Bert: I wish I could sit down with every writer that doesn't vote for me for the Hall of Fame. I know they will say that I never won a Cy Young or that you won only 20 games in one season or they would say I won only 287 games. I would respond and ask them to look at the Hall of Fame pitchers, and they would be surprised to see that a lot of them never won a Cy Young. I would ask them if they knew exactly how difficult it is to win a major-league game. I would have them look at the 300-game winners and then look at the guys that didn't win 300 in the Hall. They would see that there are a lot more pitchers who didn't win 300 in the Hall of Fame then the 22 who did win 300.
Rich: That's for sure.
Bert: My career numbers rank with the great pitchers in the game in every category. I hope they put as much time doing their homework as any pitcher does in preparing for a game. You are all hereby "circled."
Rich: Thank you for your time, Bert. I appreciate your thoughtful and candid responses.
Bert: My pleasure. Take care, Rich.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer and USS Mariner.]