If Don Sutton Was Great . . .
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.]