Answering the Naysayers (Part Two)
Two years ago, I wrote a column Answering the Naysayers that was designed to counter three general beliefs held by the dissenting crowd as to why Bert Blyleven wasn't a worthy Hall of Fame selection. The notions that Blyleven (1) didn't win a Cy Young Award or finish in the top ten often enough, (2) wasn't a "dominant" pitcher in his era, and/or (3) was no better than Tommy John or Jim Kaat were pretty much dispelled with facts rather than opinions in that particular article.
Today, I'm responding to two more arguments against Blyleven that come up from time to time when discussing his candidacy. Many naysayers contend that Blyleven made only two All-Star teams and found a way to lose too many close games. The first point is true - Blyleven was named to All-Star teams in 1973 and 1985 - but it is hardly valid. And I will show you why. The second point has been researched by a few analysts, including most recently by Bill James in The Hardball Times Annual 2006. My goal in this matter is to add a different perspective, suggesting that he was really no different than most of his peers.
Thanks to Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference, we can examine these issues more closely today than when Blyleven's name first appeared on the ballot in 1998.
As it relates to the number of All-Star Game appearances, Blyleven generally pitched better in the second half of the season than in the first half. Unfortunately, All-Star selections are based on how players perform during April, May, and June rather than July, August, and September.
W L PCT ERA IP H R ER HR BB SO
1st Half 150 140 .517 3.47 2738 2620 1167 1056 258 726 2046
2nd Half 137 110 .555 3.12 2232 2012 862 774 172 596 1655
Given that W-L records and ERAs are the stats most heavily considered by managers when it comes to picking All-Star starting pitchers, it follows that Blyleven would have been viewed more favorably had this honor taken place at the end of the season rather than in the middle.
If anything, Blyleven's splits should be viewed in a positive light. He did his best work in August and September (and in the postseason).
W L ERA IP H R ER HR BB SO
April/Mar. 30 36 3.61 680.2 661 301 273 69 199 487
May 50 41 3.40 858.1 800 360 324 72 220 689
June 49 46 3.37 803 773 337 301 78 212 596
July 48 44 3.70 873 831 390 359 88 240 613
August 59 36 2.89 863 770 313 277 62 222 645
Sept./Oct. 51 47 2.99 892 797 328 296 61 229 671
Postseason 5 1 2.47 47.1 43 15 13 5 8 36
Blyleven performed like an All-Star in 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1989. For example, in his first full season in 1971, Bert led the league in strikeouts-to-walks (3.80), ranked third in Runs Saved Against Average (26), fourth in strikeouts (224) and adjusted ERA+ (127), fifth in ERA (2.81) and shutouts (5), eighth in complete games (17), and ninth in innings pitched (278 1/3), yet he wasn't an All-Star. Blyleven rightfully made the team in 1973 when he was arguably the best pitcher in the AL.
In 1974, Blyleven was 2nd in K (249), K/BB (3.23), and ERA+ (142); 4th in ERA (2.66), WHIP (1.14), and RSAA (32); and 10th in CG (19), yet failed to earn All-Star honors once again.
One year later, Bert ended up 2nd in K (233), 3rd in WHIP (1.10) and RSAA (34), 4th in K/BB (2.77), 5th in CG (20) and ERA+ (129), 6th in ERA (3.00), 7th in IP (275 2/3), and 9th in SHO (3) and, lo and behold, didn't make the All-Star team.
In 1976, Blyleven was 2nd in SHO (6), 3rd in K (219), 4th in IP (297 2/3), 5th in K/BB (2.70), 7th in RSAA (23), 8th in ERA+ (125), and 9th in ERA (2.87) and CG (18) but took another mini-vacation in July.
Bert may have been the best pitcher in the AL once again in 1977. He led the league in WHIP (1.07) and RSAA (39); was 2nd in ERA (2.72), ERA+ (151), and shutouts (5); 7th in K (182); 8th in K/BB (2.64); and 10th in CG (15), yet had nothing to show for it in terms of being an All-Star.
In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Blyleven ranked 3rd in K (107) and K/BB (2.67); 8th in WHIP (1.16) and ERA (2.88); 9th in ERA+ (126) and CG (9); and 10th in W (11). He watched the ASG from home.
In 1984, Bert led the league in RSAA (40); placed 2nd in W (19), WHIP (1.13), and ERA+ (142); 3rd in ERA (2.87) and SHO (4); 4th in K (170) and CG (12); and 8th in K/BB (2.30) despite playing for a team with a 75-87 record that ended up sixth in a seven-team division. He must have been an All-Star that year, right? Nope, he was left off the team again.
Blyleven made the All-Star team in 1985 for the second time in his career. However, he was ignored the following year when he led the league in IP (271 2/3) as well as in K/BB (3.71); placed 2nd in CG (16), 4th in K (215) and SHO (3), 6th in W (17), 7th in WHIP (1.18), and 10th in RSAA (19).
In 1989, the 38-year-old led the league in SHO (5); ranked 3rd in WHIP (1.12) and RSAA (28); 4th in ERA (2.73), ERA+ (140), and CG (8); 5th in K/BB (2.98); 6th in W (17); and 7th in IP (241), yet missed out on being an All-Star. Go figure.
As demonstrated, the fact that Blyleven was only named an All-Star twice is more a function of the system than a reflection on how well he pitched.
With regards to point number two ("Blyleven found a way to lose too many close games"), an examination of how he pitched when earning a "W" or "L" is instructive as well as his so-called clutch stats.
First things first. Blyleven had an ERA of 1.60 in games he won. He had an ERA of 5.40 in games he lost. Although the disparity between the two results seems wide, it is in-line with Blyleven's ten most comparable pitchers as determined by Bill James' similarity scores.
Bert Blyleven 1.60 5.40
Don Sutton 1.66 5.70
Gaylord Perry 1.54 5.26
Fergie Jenkins 1.85 5.27
Tommy John 1.57 5.72
Robin Roberts* 1.93 5.35
Tom Seaver 1.61 4.92
Jim Kaat 1.87 5.40
Early Wynn* 1.62 6.27
Phil Niekro 1.77 5.37
Steve Carlton 1.73 5.28
The average WERA is 1.72 and the average LERA is 5.45. The spread between the two is about the same for Blyleven and his peers. Bert actually outperformed the group in both winning and losing efforts, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that he fared materially better or worse than the others in either case.
If Blyleven didn't pitch well when the game was on the line, wouldn't this fact show up in his situational stats?
AVG OBP SLG OPS
2 outs, RISP .236 .325 .350 .675
Late & Close .260 .320 .368 .688
Tie Game .246 .304 .362 .666
Within 1 R .248 .304 .363 .667
Within 2 R .251 .306 .368 .674
Within 3 R .249 .304 .366 .670
Within 4 R .250 .304 .368 .672
Margin > 4 R .225 .269 .352 .621
Career .248 .301 .367 .668
Sure, Blyleven was at his best when the margin was over four runs but that is basically the case with all pitchers. In fact, nine of his top ten comps also pitched better in such situations (with only Kaat doing worse). Like Blyleven, seven of them were at their best when the margin was over four runs. It is simply the norm rather than the exception.
Perhaps the most damning evidence against those who claim Blyleven didn't win the close ones is the following fact:
Over the course of his career, Bert was 15-10 (.600) in 1-0 games. His 15 1-0 victories rank third on the all-time list behind Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.
None of these points alone should put Blyleven in the Hall of Fame. By the same token, none should keep him out. The bottom line is that his stats speak for themselves. To wit. . .
- Since 1900, Blyleven ranks 5th in career strikeouts, 8th in shutouts, and 18th in wins.
- Blyleven is one of only eight pitchers in the top 20 in strikeouts, shutouts, and wins. The other seven? Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Johnson, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Don Sutton. Four of these seven pitchers were first-ballot HOFers and the other three made it no later than the fifth year of eligibility.
- Blyleven is 12th in Runs Saved Against Average.
- Of Blyleven's top ten comps (see list above), eight are in the Hall of Fame. Here is how he stacks up with those HOFers:
IP H ER BB SO HR ERA ERA+ BB/9 SO/9 HR/9
Blyleven 4970 4632 1830 1322 3701 430 3.31 118 2.39 6.70 0.78
Group Avg 4974 4541 1800 1429 3263 434 3.26 115 2.59 5.90 0.79
Despite having numbers equal to or better than the group average, Blyleven remains on the outside looking in while two were elected in their first try and the other six waited no more than five years.
Let's face it, Blyleven is more than qualified for the Hall of Fame. He is not a "borderline candidate" as Buster Olney called him last year. Based on career value, one could easily make the case that he is one of the top 20 most productive pitchers in the history of modern baseball, yet 2007 marks the 10th year he has been on the ballot.
Sutton (1998) and Ryan (1999) are the only starting pitchers who have received 75% of the vote since Blyleven became eligible. That's right, no starter has been inducted in Cooperstown in the last seven years - a period in which the voters have seen fit to honor ten position players and two relievers. Amazingly, only four starting pitchers - Sutton, Ryan, Phil Niekro (1997), and Carlton (1994) - have been enshrined since Blyleven retired 14 years ago.
For whatever reason, voters seem to have a hard time pulling the trigger not just for Blyleven but starting pitchers in general. The fact that Bert won "only" 287 seems to be holding him back even though he ranks 18th in victories since 1900. EIGHTEENTH! I don't know what the equivalent stat is for hitters but Rod Carew ranks 18th in hits, Charlie Gehringer ranks 18th in runs, Cal Ripken Jr. ranks 18th in RBI, Eddie Mathews and Ernie Banks are tied for 17th in HR (Mel Ott is 19th), Reggie Jackson is 18th in extra-base hits, Wade Boggs is 18th in times on base, and Jimmie Foxx 18th in total bases since 1900.
Still not convinced? No problem. Blyleven ranks eighth in career shutouts. Hitters who also rank eighth in the categories above include Eddie Collins, Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Murray, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Tris Speaker, and Carl Yastrzemski.
Anyone who still needs more convincing shouldn't have a vote. But let's finish this little exercise anyway. Blyleven ranks fifth in career strikeouts. Hitters who rank fifth in the categories above include Speaker and Yaz, as well as Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth.
The hitting equivalents of Blyleven are all inner circle Hall of Famers. It follows that he is also a Hall of Famer. No more excuses. Vote for Bert Blyleven for the Hall of Fame. Now.