Designated HitterDecember 17, 2005
The Case for Bert Blyleven: A Late Convert Joins the Flock
By Bob Klapisch

So I was staring at the big-lettered flyer that landed in my mailbox this week, screaming at me -- Hall of Fame voter, and the target of a 37-cent propaganda campaign courtesy of BertBelongs.com.

I could almost feel the spittle on my face.

"You have another chance to put Bert Blyleven in the Hall of Fame. Don't whiff!"

Unsure whether I was supposed to feel threatened or guilty, I respectfully placed the postcard in the trash, right next to the Rite Aid coupons. It was only then I noticed the flip-side of the mailing, which reminded me that only five pitchers had ever totaled more than 3700 strikeouts.

Now I really felt guilty. Thirty seven hundred? I didn't know that. Or, if I did, I made it a runner-up to what I considered a more compelling Cooperstown stat -- won-loss record, which in Blyleven's case was never good enough to get my vote. I wrote off his achievements to longevity, not necessarily excellence and tried to keep my conscience quiet.

The problem, of course, is that no one tells writers how to judge a Cooperstown beauty pageant. The task is even more difficult when you're asked to assess a career you've only marginally covered. I was in high school when Blyleven registered his only 20-win season in 1973. When Blyleven's career intersected mine in the mid-80s, we still never actually crossed paths: I was covering the Mets for the New York Post, while he was busy racking up wins in the American League.

If it was only arithmetic, filling out a Cooperstown ballot would be stress-free, guilt-free and far less controversial. But which numbers do you pick? And even if you decide that, say, strikeouts are more important than winning percentage, many believe stats by themselves are a weak, if not cowardly, way to avoid thinking through the election.

It was Dick Young who told me in my rookie year at the Post, "choosing a Hall of Famer is like voting for president. You'll just know who the right guy is."

That kind of over-simplified logic is what made Young a tabloid hero but otherwise a brutally narrow-minded man. Mike Marley, who used to cover boxing for the Post, summed up Young thusly: "Frequently wrong, never in doubt."

I didn't want to end up like Young, mean and inflexible. So I rescued the flier from the trash and decided it was time to re-think Blyleven. But instead of crunching numbers, I summoned a few ghosts from the Seventies and early Eighties, the ones who actually remember Blyleven in the flesh, not just through BaseballReference.com.

I spoke to Henry Hecht, who covered the Yankees in the Billy Martin era and preceded me at the Post. I asked if he would vote for Blyleven.

"Absolutely not," Hecht said. "He was never a dominant pitcher. He won 20 games just one time. How many games over .500 did he finish? Thirty seven or eight? Tommy John finished 57 over and I couldn't vote him. Tommy was my friend and it broke my heart to tell him, but I couldn't give him my vote. So why would I vote for Blyleven?"

I hung up looking for a more profound summary of Blyleven's numbers. Hecht was statistically correct about the right-hander's 287-250 record, but it was also true that Blyleven's ERA was as good or lower than the league average in 17 of his first 18 seasons. Numbers don't lie, Hecht said, but it sure depends on which number you let whisper in your ear.

Maybe it wasn't Blyleven's fault that he didn't win more often. As blessed as he was with that monstrous curveball, Blyleven was clearly cursed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like in 1984 when he won 19 games for an Indians team that finished sixth in the East. Or in 1986, when he won 17 games for the Twins, who finished 21 games out of first place.

If Blyleven had pitched for the Mets that year instead of Minnesota, he might've won 25 games and inched ever closer to the holy grail, 300 for his career. What was it that made him so tough to hit? What made him so special? It was that curveball, obviously. I remember its huge, looping trajectory, wondering how the hell he gripped that pitch and generated so much spin.

Finally, it dawned on me: Blyleven was a Hall of Famer not just because of his 3701 strikeouts or 287 wins or a 2.47 ERA in the post-season. It was the uniqueness of his best weapon, the curveball, that set him apart. All the great ones manage to put a singular mark on the game. Sandy Koufax had what old-timers called the greatest lefthanded curveball of the last 50 years. Steve Carlton had that untouchable slider. Nolan Ryan had the heat, even until the end. Mariano Rivera has the meanest cut-fastball a pitcher of any age could ever hope for.

Lucky for me I'm able to write about Rivera's killer pitch up-close -- indeed, ask him how it's thrown.

"Loose wrist, plenty of spin," he said. "It's easy, bro."

It's not, of course. Rivera has a gift so few pitchers possess: that long, loosed-armed delivery which gives him incredible whip-like action with every cut-fastball. David Cone used to call Rivera "Inspector Gadget" because of the way his arm seemed to extend upon release of the ball.

I never had the chance to break down Blyleven's mechanics, so I called another star from that era, to ask for a scouting reported. When I reached Goose Gossage, he was driving on a Colorado interstate, happy to talk about a pitch that was still freshly imprinted in his memory bank.

"Oh my God, that fucking curveball was unreal," Gossage said. "People used to talked about (Dwight) Gooden's hook, I swear Blyleven's was better. I've never seen anything like it -- then or now. You know the expression, 'dropping off the table?' That's what his curveball was like. It just disappeared. And the thing is, he threw it hard, then he'd blow that fastball right by you up in the strike zone. Guys had no chance."

So when I asked Gossage if he thought Blyleven deserved to be in the Hall, I could almost see his eyebrows flexing, as if to ask: are you kidding me?

"Hell, yes," Goose said. "Dominant pitcher, great pitcher. He's one of the guys I don't understand why they haven't made it yet. (Andre) Dawson, (Jim) Rice...that guy intimidated the shit out of every pitcher. He made that whole (Red Sox) lineup tougher. No one ever intimidated me, but I'll be honest, Jim got my attention."

Goose hung up, but not before we promised to run into each other at some point in 2006.

Yankees' spring training maybe -- or, I said respectfully, at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown.

"Ah, we'll see," Gossage said. "But if you're going to cover it, tell Bert I said hello. I'm hoping he makes it."

He's at least one vote closer today.

Bob Klapisch covers baseball in New York for The Bergen Record and ESPN.com. He's been a Hall of Fame voter since 1995 and says: yes on Gossage, no on Mattingly and yes on Pete Rose...the day after he passes away.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

Comments

i really enjoyed your article on bert blyleven. as a lifelong pittsburgh pirate fan i can tell you that bert and candeleria were a killer combination. blyleven distinguished himself with the pirates as well as with the twins before that. he has two rings to go along with 287 wins. definately hof numbers. i met him one time and he signed my world series ball. i asked him how he threw his great curveball, as i was also a pitcher. he took the ball and wrapped his fingers completely around the ball and smiled.

Ah, yes. This was the missing piece to all your arguments, Rich. This is why I'd vote for Bert Blyleven: that curveball. The most jaw-dropping pitch I've ever seen anybody throw.

When you combine his numbers with the pure aesthetic beauty of that pitch...that's what made him special, and very much worthy of celebrating.

Thanks, Ken. Or are you just trying to build a case for Barry Zito in the years to come? :-)

Another high-profile convert! Nicely done, Rich, and thanks to Klapisch for keeping an open mind.

Speaking of Blyleven and Candelaria, in a Saturday column the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gene Collier made a half-assed comparison of the two that's rather off-base: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05351/624041.stm

Within that piece, Collier also attacked and distorted something I wrote at Baseball Prospectus on the Hall candidates (including Blyleven), so I took the trouble to pen him a letter, which I've published: http://futilityinfielder.com/blog/2005/12/seamheads-on-crystal-math.shtml

Barry Zito's curveball is the second-best I've ever seen. Blyleven's is the first.

Now, I wouldn't put Zito in the Hall for that alone, but if he ends up with, say, Tom Glavine-type numbers for his career, I'd probably argue that the beauty of Zito's curveball should put him over the top.

Probably 98% of baseball fans watch baseball to appreciate the aesthetic experience, not to appreciate numerical accomplishments. So why should we exclude the very reason we watch from the choices we make when celebrating the sport?

Subjective aesthetic value is, to me, a perfectly valid thing to consider. There's value towards winning, and there's also value towards watching.

How could any baseball fan not just love to watch Blyleven and Zito throw those curveballs? Aren't they just beautiful things? Aren't they worth celebrating, worth remembering?

"Maybe it wasn't Blyleven's fault that he didn't win more often."

Golly, you think so? You mean a pitcher doesn't pitch a shutout in every win and give up 24 in every loss?

I don't get it, if you know what pitcher win-loss record is isn't it the most obvious thing in the world that it doesn't measure a pitchers performance, but the performance of the team while that pitcher is on the mound. It like implying that Barry Bonds has no effect on who wins the game. Why don't we look at left fielder win-loss record. And while we're at it, how hard is it to even consider park effects.

Klapisch seems to have sensed that prevailing oppinion was changing, and had to come up with some "old school" rationalization for why he was changing his oppinion. "Blyleven threw a curverball? I never thought of that before."

"Numbers don't lie, Hecht said, but it sure depends on which number you let whisper in your ear."

So use your brain, numbnuts. What is a pitcher trying to do. Prevent runs, right? Why don't we look at how well he did that. You'd proabably like to know how well a DH hit wouldn't you?

"Did you see the game last night?"
"No, I missed it. How did Blyleven pitch?"
"He went eight innings gave up 1 run on five hits, strick out seven, walked two, got the no decision."
"How am I supposed to know from those 'numbers' how well he pitched? Did he have swagger? Did he have that steely glint in is eye? Did he just care about winning?"
"Um, I don't know, you'd probably have to ask him."
"I think, I'll ask Godot when he comes."
"Well, shall we go?"
"Yes. Let's og."

Please, please ... just say no to Mr. Blyleven ... any pitcher who walks out on a team in the middle of a season, like Mr. Blyleven did to the Pirates for 10 days during the 1980 season, deserves more shame than fame. He let his teammates down, and proved to be the selfish numbers monger that he continues to be to this day, only he was far removed from being retired at the time. You can make a HOF case either way with his numbers, but you can't make a case for him based on heart.

There a ton of legitimate HOFers who've done worse things (and were worse people), most infamous being Ty Cobb.

josh:
The fight to put Blyleven into the HoF begins and ends with convincing the BBWAA. Insulting one of their members (whether deserved or not) is likely to make them less receptive to this community's arguments.

I remember Blyleven's curve, and it was wicked. But the best curve I ever saw was by Dave Steib. It was a 12-6 curve that was just brutal. I remember sitting behind home plate and watching the action on it, and thinking to myself that if I could just throw one like that, I'd have myself a career and a chance at millions.

Bert belongs simply because of the lousy teams he played on. Lets see.....60 shutouts, 15 1-hitters.....I don't know how many 1-0 or 2-1 or 3-2 losses he had.....but, I know it was alot....and had he maybe played on a better team that he could have at least won half of those games, well there would not be any arguing because he would be well over 300 wins.....we wouldn't have to be talking about the killer curve ball or 3700+ K's or 4700+ innings or 240+ complete games or none of that crap....ask Reggie Jackson who belongs......of course Bert belongs.......Lets get real......put him in you idiots.........

Definitely an injustice what has been done to Blyleven. 287 victories, 3,700 + strikeouts, 60 shutouts, 2 World series rings... who are they going to vote in? Sutter? Gossage? Come on, Bert's numbers are superior to a lot of other HOFers. Also Dawson, Rice and Concepcion have great numbers. We'll see.

I was 10 when Bert first joined the Minnesota Twins. I watched him as often as he was on TV. Anyone who looks at his wins and losses is missing much of the picture. He played on a lot of lousy teams for the Twins and Rangers in the 70's and Cleveland in the 80's. He never had much run support - in 1971, the Twins scored just 18 runs in his 15 losses. Take a look at his ERA and you will see what kind of pitcher he was. In 10 of his first 12 years he was never over 3.18 - many of those years it was under 3.00! Not only did he have 60 shutouts but he had many games where he only gave up one run.

The following paragraph says it all about Bert:

Only 22 pitchers in baseball history won more games than Blyleven and of those eligible for the Hall, only one Tommy John is not in. Thirty-seven pitchers who won fewer games than Blyleven are enshrined. Perhaps even more telling, of Blyleven's 250 losses, nearly 30% were by one run; in all, he lost 115 games by two runs or less. Batters hit only .247 against him, and Blyleven's career earned run average of 3.31 over nearly 5,000 innings is better than 20% of the pitchers in the Hall. He pitched 242 complete games, well more than 35% of his starts. Plus, he posted a nearly 3-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

It still amazes me that baseball writers have yet to vote Bert Blyleven into the Hall of Fame. Good luck Bert - you deserve to be in the Hall!

I saw him pitch a bunch of times, the last in 1989 when he resurrected himself. The curve ball was something to behold, but the argument that a guy belongs because of the aesthetics of a pitch's arc is simply ridiculous. Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall Of Fame because he pitched nearly 5000 innings, struck out 3700 batters, threw 60 shutouts, and compiled a career 3.31 ERA which was 18 percent better than the league average over the same period. He's not in because (a) he didn't win 300 games, (b) pitched mostly in small market Minnesota, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, (c) pitched for bad teams in those cities, (d) was cursed with some of the worst run support ever as documented by Bill James, and (e) was obscured by three pitchers whose careers (Seaver, Carlton, Palmer) overlapped his, and truth be told WERE better pitchers. Unfortunately neither Mr. Blyleven nor any other pitcher can control (a), (b), (c), or (d) above, no matter what the old-timers think, and as for (e) it's like saying that a Rolls Royce isn't as nice as a Bentley.

I'm glad that Mr. Klapisch has come around. A pitcher's job is to prevent the other team from scoring, and only a precious few have ever done that as successfully as Blyleven. It's been a long time coming that he is recognized for what he was - a first ballot Hall Of Fame pitcher.

I agree that Blyleven is a HOFer, but the problem with these kinds of arguments is that they select numbers without establishing criteria. I realize that criteria shift depending on the player being considered, but there should nonetheless be some discussion of what sorts of criteria are being applied prior to listing the stats.
For example, we know that wins/losses make little sense in selecting pitchers to the Hall. So what stats or factors are most significant? Is it some combination of era+ and strikeouts? Is it contemporary opinion as reflected in honors won or status on his teams? (e.g. how often was he the "ace"?) Is it anecdotal evidence? (e.g. was his curve better than Stieb's?) Is it aesthetic?
Without some sort of preliminary discussion of the criteria and why they are conclusive, the stats are unconvincing. It is like the trick of selecting some arbitrary number and noting how unique your choice is: you know, Pitcher A is the only one ever to win 10+ games for 18 straight years while also hitting fewer than 2 batters/year and coming in the top 14 in Cy Young voting 12 times and also getting at least 137 strikeouts each year. Of the 7 pitchers who have accomplished 3 of these feats, all but one are in the Hall of Fame.
I am writing this after reading the 3 articles on Blyleven: This one. Perry's and Neyer's. As I said, I agree that Bert belongs, but think people would find the argument more convincing with a clearer discussion of the criteria.

Mr. Klapisch, Iam right up there with you. Bert does belong in the Hall of fame. Here's the kicker. I know very little about baseball, but I do know both Bert, and Gayle are two great people, and I am blessed to have them as friends. I love the both of them. Bert needs alittle exposure, not that he isn't already somewhat known, no I mean more T.V exposure. Remember when O.J. ran through the airport for Hertz, the whole world watched. I was having dinner with Bert; Gayle, and her mom, and stepdad, when Bert did something, using a world known product that would make him as exposed on T.V. as Hertz did for O.J. This could be a way to keep his face in plain view for all to see and remember where he needs to be, which is in the Hall of fame. The more people who see him thats the more pressure we can generate for our crusade. GAIL ANN SAMPSON