Designated HitterDecember 13, 2005
If Don Sutton Was Great . . .
By Rob Neyer

Forget the Hall of Fame. Imagine that Cooperstown is best known as the home of The Farmers' Museum ("Just head north on Route 80 and you can't miss it!").

For the moment, let's just focus on this question . . . Was Bert Blyleven a great pitcher? As great as (just to name two pitchers that come to mind) Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton? Let's look at some basic stats -- and I mean basic, even-an-old-sportswriter-gets-them stats -- along with one category that's just a tiny smidge past basic...

          Wins Losses WinPct   ERA   ERA+
Sutton     324  256    .559   3.26   108
Ryan       324  292    .526   3.19   111
Blyleven   287  250    .534   3.31   118

Those 324 wins are awfully impressive, and certainly more than 287. But did you notice those next two columns, with the losses and the winning percentages? Because he lost many fewer games than Ryan, Blyleven's actually got the better winning percentage.

Considering the vagaries of ERA, theirs are virtually indistinguishable. Look at that last column, though . . . ERA+ is sort of an adjusted ERA, taking into account the twin contexts of league and home ballpark, with 100 representing an average performance, ERA-wise. And the best of this group? Bert Blyleven, and it's not really close. Considering the closeness of their career records and their actual ERA's, I think any reasonable person would have to admit that if Sutton and Ryan were great pitchers and I --can think, without trying real hard, of an organization that's decided exactly that -- then Blyleven must have been great, too. Not just great, but as great.

Let's forget Nolan Ryan for a moment, and focus on Don Sutton. Ryan gets extra credit for all the no-hitters and the ability to throw 100 miles an hour and the inability to know where his next pitch might go. Sutton, though, gets no extra credit. Ask a fan what distinguishes Don Sutton, and he'll probably say something about curly gray hair. Sutton is considered a great pitcher for one reason, and one reason only: cold, hard numbers.

So let's look at some numbers, shall we?

  • Sutton won twenty games once; Blyleven won twenty games once.

  • Sutton finished in the top ten in his league in ERA eight times; Blyleven did it ten times.

  • Sutton finished in the top five in strikeouts three times; Blyleven did it thirteen times.

  • Sutton finished in the top ten in innings pitched ten times; Blyleven did it eleven times.

  • Sutton finished in the top five in shutouts eight times; Blyleven did it nine times.

  • Sutton pitched in fifteen postseason games and went 6-4 with a 3.68 ERA; Blyleven pitched in eight postseason games and went 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA.

    Yes, Sutton did win thirty-seven more games than Bert Blyleven. That's a significant number, too. But as a friend likes to point out, pitchers don't win games; teams win games. The cold, hard fact is that Sutton pitched for better teams than Blyleven did, and thus was better-supported by his teammates. Does anybody really want to argue that if their positions had been reversed throughout their careers -- that if Blyleven, for example, had spent most of his career pitching for the Dodgers -- their career records wouldn't be reversed, too?

    Forget the Farmers' Museum. I'll never travel north on Route 80, because when I go to Cooperstown it's to see the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, right now the Hall of Fame is seriously deficient, because it still does not contain a plaque containing the semi-likeness of Bert Blyleven. And this continuing sorry state of affairs is a testament to the stubbornness of the voters who can't see past their own prejudices.

    Rob Neyer is a senior writer for ESPN Insider and the author of several baseball books. This essay is a revised version of one that initially appeared in Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups (Scribner, 2003).

    [Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

  • Comments

    Ahh... the slippery slope of finding the lowest standards.

    If Phil Rizzuto and Don Sutton are the standard, the Hall would probably have to double in size. Does anyone really want that? It's an overwhelming place as it is.

    Who said Sutton was the lowest standard? Since 1900, he ranks 8th in wins, 7th in strikeouts, and 9th in shutouts among all pitchers. He is much more than a borderline Hall of Famer. I wouldn't put him in the inner circle with guys like Johnson, Grove, Alexander, Mathewson, and Koufax (who was a teammate in what was his last year and Sutton's rookie year) or contemporaries such as Carlton, Gibson and Seaver, but his record sits comfortably above tens of pitchers whose plaques reside in Cooperstown.

    One of the reasons why Neyer chose Sutton is because he happens to be the most similar pitcher to Blyleven. They also pitched during the same era. Blyleven's numbers are at least on par with Sutton's across the board. He just wasn't "credited" with as many wins (which, as Rob points out, has as much or more to do with the rest of the team as it does with the pitcher who started the game).

    Maybe you could put forth the argument against Blyleven. If so, have at it. I'm still waiting to hear a convincing reason why Blyleven should not be in the HOF.

    He's 5th in career K's, 9th in career shutouts, 19th all time in ERA vs. League Average. How can he not be in? A simple obsession with WINS, that's how!

    The anemic offenses he played with are estimated to have cost him 26 wins over the course of his career. I wonder if that is a record.

    Subpar Cy Young voting is another reason that is cited, but that, too, boils down to the voters paying way too much attention to raw wins. 1973 and 1977 are the best exhibits. In those two years, he was clearly in the top three pitchers in the league both times, and very arguably the best, but he got a TOTAL of one Cy Young vote for both of those years combined.

    "If Don Sutton [became] the standard, the Hall would probably have to double in size."

    There are currently 60 pitchers in the Hall of Fame. If the Hall doubles in size when Don Sutton becomes the standard, then it follows that there about 60 pitchers out there who are not in the Hall of Fame and who are roughly equal to Don Sutton. Who would those 60 pitchers be, Chris? I'd love it if you could name, say, ten of them, because I'm having trouble coming up with two.

    For "Chris", who posted the first comment: see Dayn's article today comparing Blyleven to Warren Spahn - there's an argument that avoids shooting for "lowest standards" (because regardless of whether or not Sutton was a borderline HoFer, a lot people are almost as skeptical of Sutton's candidacy as they are Blyleven's).

    However, nice argument anyway Rob, because you do a good job not just mapping out Blyleven's qualifications, but also in re-affirming Sutton's (who, as we've just confirmed, is still viewed by many as a questionable HoFer).

    Also, sure, pass up the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, but you should definitely check out the Fenimore House across the street, as well as continuing on Rt. 80 another 10 miles for some very tasty cider, donuts and fudge from Fly Creek Cider Mill.

    Sutton's league-adjusted career ERA+ is 108. I could name over 150 pitchers with a better career ERA relative to their league.

    Sutton was overrated because he passed the arbitrary '300' win threshold. You're trying to make the case for someone who is underrated because of win totals by pointing to someone who is clearly overrated because of win totals. At best it's unconvincing (in my opinion) and at worst it's a disingenuous comparison.

    I think the comparison to Spahn is much more helpful, for what its worth.

    Of course you can name dozens, or even hundreds, of pitchers with better career ERA+ than Sutton. Clay Carroll, Jose Rijo, and John Tudor come to mind. But do you honestly think Carroll, Rijo, and Tudor come close to Sutton's superiority over such a long period of time? Of course not. You said, Chris, that the Hall would double in size if Sutton were the standard, which means that there are dozens of pitchers out there with career credentials that match Sutton's who aren't in the Hall. Those are the names I'm interested in (just a handful will do), not the names of guys on the career ERA+ leaderboard.

    (Besides, I don't know who you're referring to as making the case for Sutton based on mere wins alone, because no one on this thread has done that. Everyone here recognizes that individual wins are a bit of a chimera. On the other hand, Don Sutton won 324 freaking games. That's not just passing the 300-win threshold, that's obliterating it. And while the number 300 might be arbitrary compared to, say, 295 or 304 or whatever, 324 wins are NOT arbitrary. That is to say, it's nearly impossible to compile 324 wins over a career -- no matter what context in which you pitch -- and not be a great pitcher. In fact, no one has won 324, or even 300, games without having impeccable HOF credentials, and I can't claim that Sutton is the first.)

    After I get all my reserach done, you naysayers will be surprised at some startling facts on Bert.. For example, in '70 Bert was only 19 years old.. From '70-'76, Bert had a better ERA in 4 of 7 years, a WHIP ratio difference of only .07 during that span, and had more strikeouts in every year except his rookie year... versus Jim Palmer during that stretch, Palmer won 3 Cy Youngs, but Bert was equally as good or better than Palmer is three of six years... Versus Steve Carlton, Bert had a better ERA in 5 of 7 years and had MORE K's in 5 of 7 years, and won more games in 3 of 7 years.... Versus Fergie Jenkins, bert had a better ERA in 6 of 7 years, a better WHIP in 3 of 7, and had more K's in 5 of 7 years... In 1973, when Bert led the league in CGs, Shutouts, K's and had 20 W's and was second to Palmer in ERA, but got one vote... Don't even make me bring up Bert vs Nolan Ryan...

    As far as Don Sutton is concerned: Hall of Fame, yes. Great,no. Consistent, unarguably. Never missed a start! Never on the DL for an arm related injury. Always overshadowed by a better picher (Palmer, Seaver, Carlton etc. Big knock- only won 20 once, never on a World Series winner. Show me any pitcher today who can put up numbers like his,isn't on the DL half the time yadayadayda. You can't. All he could do was beat you. Money in the bank for 17 wins,35 starts,200 innings. 9 shutouts in 1972, nobody even has 9 complete games now. Probably won half his victories on smarts. Velocity went down, here's the curveball. Shut up everyone, it's pure jealousy. A pitcher's pitcher, a total gamer. The last of a bygone era. Greg Maddux is the last 300 game winner-ever! I know the game is different now but that's not the point. You win 12 games now and get 40 million!

    Bert Blyleven's career numbers are comparable, if not better than simmilar pitchers of his era. Nolan Ryan had a lower winning percentage, and his career strikeout numbers are marred by the fact that he also walked nearly 3000 batters in his career, compared to Blyleven's modest 1322. Ryan's WHIP was 1.25 and Blyleven's was 1.20. Blyleven also averaged 230 innings per year over his 22 year career when adjusting the numbers from the strike shortened 1981 season and threw 242 complete games. People lose sight of the fact that starting pitchers were used differently in that era and weren't pulled in the 6th or 7th inning just because the team had a lead. The sacred cow of 300 career wins is a poor benchmark to use when measuring a pitcher's overall greatness. It should also be noted that he was 4-1 in 6 career postseason starts.

    Take Sutton, Perry, Niekro, Gibson, Seaver, and Blylevens' career numbers minus wins and losses, and see if you can tell which is which. (ERA, K's, innings, shutouts, complete games) I've done it on various blog sites. Take his first 9 seasons, and average them out. Look at Catfish Hunters stats. Look at Drysdale. Jenkins. He is better than all those guys.