Baseball BeatJanuary 17, 2007
Blyleven: As Dominant as His Hall of Fame Contemporaries
By Rich Lederer

The results of the Hall of Fame balloting were announced last Tuesday. As expected, Cal Ripken Jr. (98.5%)and Tony Gwynn (97.6%) were near-unanimous choices. Congrats go out to these first-time candidates for their well-deserved honors.

Ripken and Gwynn were the only players who received the necessary 75% of the vote to qualify for Cooperstown. Except for Goose Gossage and Dave Concepcion, all of the other holdover candidates lost ground. Among those who suffered a setback was none other than Bert Blyleven. Only the Lonely saw his vote total fall from 277 to 260 and his percentage retreat from 53.3% to 47.7%.

Blyleven's loss of momentum and lack of overall support are disappointing and surprising in the face of the evidence that he is Hall worthy. Unfortunately, there are not enough voters who are willing to take the time to study the facts. Although Blyleven's record speaks for itself, too many writers seem to be looking for reasons not to vote for him. The most common objection to his candidacy is that he wasn't one of the dominant pitchers of his era. To that, I say nonsense.

Despite claims to the contrary, dominance is not measured solely by 20-win seasons, All-Star games, or Cy Young Awards. Wins are dependent on run support, while All-Star appearances and Cy Young votes are heavily influenced by W-L records. The circular logic (or illogic) also extends to the Hall of Fame voting. Wins = All-Star games and Cy Youngs = Cooperstown.

The whole thing is rather silly. It's really all about wins (and little else). A pitcher is deemed dominant because he won games, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Sorry, but a pitcher should be deemed dominant because he prevented the other team from scoring runs. If a pitcher works deep into games and keeps runs off the board, he has performed his job. It's no more complicated than that.

Shutouts may not be as meaningful of a gauge in today's era when complete games are a rarity, but they were a great measure of pitching prowess prior to the 1990s. More than anything else, dominant pitchers threw shutouts.

Let's take a look at how Blyleven compared in this category with the 11 starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame who overlapped his career by at least five years.

                  SHO     GS      PCT
Tom Seaver        61      647     9.43%
Nolan Ryan        61      773     7.89
Bert Blyleven     60      685     8.76
Don Sutton        58      756     7.67
Bob Gibson        56      482    11.62
Steve Carlton     55      709     7.76
Jim Palmer        53      521    10.17
Gaylord Perry     53      690     7.68
Juan Marichal     52      457    11.38
Fergie Jenkins    49      594     8.25
Phil Niekro       45      716     6.28
Catfish Hunter    42      476     8.82

Blyleven, who ranks ninth in career shutouts, is third among his HoF contemporaries in blanking the opposition, one behind the leaders (Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver). He ranks sixth in shutouts as a percentage of games started. As such, you can see that Blyleven's success was not just about longevity. He had more white washes and notched them at a greater rate than Don Sutton, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, and Phil Niekro.

Blyleven won 15 1-0 games - more than of any of these pitchers. He ranks third all time in the number of 1-0 victories, trailing only Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. On the other hand, Blyleven lost nine 1-0 games - also more than any of these pitchers. That's not a negative. If anything, it is indicative of his poor run support over the years (which, according to Chris Jaffe's Run Support Index or Pete Palmer's SUP, ran about 3-4% below average for Blyleven's career).

Strikeouts are another indicator of dominance. An out may be an out but a strikeout, unlike a batted ball, isn't dependent on team defense. As such, I would argue that strikeouts are one of the most basic measures of dominance at the pitcher-batter level. Let's see how Blyleven fares in this area.

                  SO      BF       PCT	
Nolan Ryan        5714    22575    25.31%
Steve Carlton     4136    21683    19.07
Bert Blyleven     3701    20491    18.06
Tom Seaver        3640    19369    18.79
Don Sutton        3574    21631    16.52
Gaylord Perry     3534    21953    16.10
Phil Niekro       3342    22677    14.74
Fergie Jenkins    3192    18400    17.35
Bob Gibson        3117    16068    19.40
Juan Marichal     2303    14236    16.18
Jim Palmer        2212    16112    13.73
Catfish Hunter    2012    14032    14.34

Blyleven, who ranks fifth in career strikeouts, is third in Ks among these distinguished pitchers. He ranks fifth in K/BF. Once again, you can see that Blyleven's success was about the quantity and quality of his career numbers. He struck out more batters in total and at a greater rate than Sutton, Perry, Niekro, Jenkins, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, and Catfish Hunter.

In addition to strikeouts and shutouts, the number of low-hit complete games is a useful measure of dominance. Thanks to Retrosheet and's Play Index (the best $29 one can spend when it comes to baseball subscriptions), we can now see how Blyleven compares to these same 11 pitchers (listed in the order of their major league debuts).

                0-Hit    1-Hit    2-Hit    3-Hit    4-Hit    Total
Bob Gibson        1        2        8       24       31       66
Juan Marichal     1        3        6       13       32       55
Gaylord Perry     1        1       13       21       43       79
Phil Niekro       1        2       13       14       27       57
Steve Carlton     0        6        9       21       34       70
Jim Palmer        1        5       11       19       25       61
Catfish Hunter    1        1        6       20       19       47
Fergie Jenkins    0        3       10       20       30       63
Don Sutton        0        5       10       14       25       54
Nolan Ryan        7       12       18       32       29       98
Tom Seaver        1        5       10       27       31       74
Bert Blyleven     1        5        9       13       41       69

Blyleven is tied for second with the most no-hitters, tied for third in one-hitters, tied for eighth in two-hitters, tied for last in three-hitters, and is second in four-hitters. He ranks fifth in the number of four-hit or better games (although with a greater percentage of four-hitters than any other pitcher in the group). As shown below, Blyleven had more low-hit games (LH) and at a superior rate than Niekro, Sutton, and Hunter.

                  LH      GS      PCT
Nolan Ryan        98      773    12.68%
Gaylord Perry     79      690    11.45
Tom Seaver        74      647    11.44
Steve Carlton     70      709     9.87
Bert Blyleven     69      685    10.07
Bob Gibson        66      482    13.69
Fergie Jenkins    63      594    10.61
Jim Palmer        61      521    11.71
Phil Niekro       57      716     7.96
Juan Marichal     55      457    12.04
Don Sutton        54      756     7.14
Catfish Hunter    47      476     9.87

The win-loss record in these games isn't particularly meaningful in my judgment, but I decided to include this information to counter those who might suggest that Blyleven pitched well but didn't win such battles.

                  W-L      PCT
Nolan Ryan        87-11   .888
Gaylord Perry     72-7    .911
Tom Seaver        68-6    .919
Steve Carlton     67-3    .957
Bert Blyleven     65-4    .942
Jim Palmer        60-1    .984
Fergie Jenkins    60-3    .952
Bob Gibson        58-8    .879
Juan Marichal     54-1    .982
Don Sutton        52-2    .963
Phil Niekro       51-6    .895
Catfish Hunter    44-3    .936

Blyleven ranks fifth in the number of wins with four or fewer hits allowed. He ranks sixth in winning percentage. Carlton is the only pitcher in the group with more wins and a better winning percentage than Blyleven when it comes to low-hit games.

Interestingly, three of Blyleven's four losses occurred in 1975 when he pitched for a Minnesota team that went 76-83 and placed fourth in the AL West. He allowed seven runs (five earned) in those three games but the Twins only scored once. His other loss took place in 1986 after Bert had returned to MIN (71-91, 6th in the AL West), and he was on the short end of a 3-0 defeat.

Let's further refine these pitching gems to low-hit games with no more than one walk.

                  Total    W-L     GS     PCT
Fergie Jenkins      42     41-1    594    7.07%
Bert Blyleven       33     33-0    685    4.82
Gaylord Perry       33     31-2    690    4.78
Tom Seaver          31     30-1    647    4.79
Juan Marichal       29     29-0    457    6.34
Jim Palmer          23     23-0    521    4.41
Don Sutton          23     22-1    756    3.04
Catfish Hunter      22     22-0    476    4.62
Steve Carlton       21     21-0    709    2.96
Phil Niekro         20     19-1    716    2.79
Bob Gibson          18     16-2    482    3.73
Nolan Ryan           9      8-1    773    1.16

Blyleven is tied for second in the number of games with four or fewer hits and one or no walks. He ranks second in wins and is tied for first in winning percentage. Blyleven also ranks third in low-hit, low-walk games as a percentage of games started.

I also examined the number of low-hit, low-walk games each pitcher tossed as a percentage of the number of low-hit, low-walk games thrown by all major leaguers during each hurler's respective career to adjust for the slight differences in eras. (Incidentally, Blyleven is the only pitcher among the 12 who did not pitch a single inning during the 1960s and is one of just two who performed beyond 1988.)

                   PCT      LG AVG     RATIO
Fergie Jenkins     7.07%     2.34%     3.02
Bert Blyleven      4.82      1.94      2.49
Juan Marichal      6.34      2.64      2.40
Tom Seaver         4.79      2.17      2.21
Gaylord Perry      4.78      2.40      1.99
Jim Palmer         4.41      2.30      1.91
Catfish Hunter     4.62      2.46      1.88
Bob Gibson         3.73      2.63      1.42
Don Sutton         3.04      2.19      1.39
Steve Carlton      2.96      2.22      1.33
Phil Niekro        2.79      2.24      1.25
Nolan Ryan         1.16      2.04      0.57

Blyleven has the second-best ratio of games with four or fewer hits and one or no walks compared to the major league average. In other words, aside from Jenkins, he was the most proficient of the bunch at throwing such gems.

Shutouts. Strikeouts. Low-hit, low-walk complete games. Those are generally under the control of the pitcher and are much better ways of evaluating dominance than 20-win seasons, All-Star appearances, and Cy Young votes.

If Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Juan Marichal, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Don Sutton were dominant pitchers, then Bert Blyleven was dominant, too. If these pitchers are Hall of Famers, then Blyleven is a Hall of Famer as well. How they can all have plaques in Cooperstown while Blyleven continues to sit on the outside looking in is incomprehensible and a wrong that should be righted.


As I mentioned on the other Blyleven thread, I think these career stats miss one of BB's problems with the voters, which is the failure to lead the league in key categories in any given season. The black/grey ink categories tell the story:
Blyleven 16/239
Avg HOF 40/185
Blyleven was in the top 10 more often than the average HOFer, but finished #1 much less frequently. Here are the #s (black/grey) for the 11 HOF contemporaries you cite:
Ryan 84
Carlton 66
Seaver 57
Niekro 43
Palmer 41
Fergie 36
Marichal 34
Perry 29
Gibson 20
Hunter 20
Blyleven 16
Sutton 8

Only Sutton did worse than BB in the black ink category, and many would argue he doesn't belong in the Hall. Same for Catfish Hunter (20 black, and just 151 grey). Only Bob Gibson is close to BB and yet a strong HOF candidate, and Gibson has a significantly better career ERA+, 8 GGs, the alltime season ERA mark, and of course his tremendous WS performances all going for him.

Again, I'm not saying that this SHOULD keep BB out of the Hall. But I think it's one of the reasons he isn't there yet.

Another excellent article, Rich. Evaluating Blyleven's career using simpler statistics also shows that his career numbers are dominant not merely as a result of longevity. If anything, his longevity should add to his credential i.e. he was dominant for so long.

This article should put to rest all the naysayers' argument that he was merely good to very good for a long period of time. As for those who voted only based on wins/season, All-Star votes, and Cy Young...let's hope this will shed new lights on their POV.

guy, pardon my bluntness, but while it may be a reason, it's a dumb reason. or wholly insufficient, if you prefer.

In many cases, HOF voters look for reasons and rationalizations to vote for someone. Jim Rice is a prime beneficiary.

When it comes to Blyleven, it's like the same people actively seek excuses not to vote for him.
I'm tellin' ya, Bert Dangerfield Blyleven don't get no repsect.

"pardon my bluntness, but while it may be a reason, it's a dumb reason. or wholly insufficient, if you prefer."

You may not agree that this should be given a lot of weight (and neither do I), but it's not "dumb." Being #1 is traditionally considered to be rather important in sports, whether it's a batting championship or ERA title, or leading the NFL in rushing yards or the NBA in points scored. If given the choice of having your favorite team have 10 2nd place finishes over the next decade, or 2 world championships, 8 last-place finishes, and far fewer total wins, many would choose door #1. Who's to say they're wrong?

And as a practical matter, I would make the observation that to the extent pro-Blyleven commentary increasingly takes on this tone (as seems to be the case), the chances of his election decline.

being #1 in an individual statistical category in a team game isn't all that meaningful, no. derek jeter this season hit .344, but didn't "lead the league" in batting average because joe mauer hit .347. does that make jeter's performance any worse?? no. is jeter competing against mauer? no, except when the yankees are playing against the twins on the field. each player produces as well as he can in the hopes his team can use that performance, and the individual stats are a reflection of that effort, and a way to measure it. if pujols didn't win any MVPs for a few years because he was in the same league with barry bonds, that doesn't mean pujols' seasons weren't the level of production that, if kept up, should make him hall-of-fame worthy. see where i'm going with this? and the fact that things such as you mention keep getting brought up with a little careful examination reveals a pretty slam-dunk hall case does seem dumb to me. and if you have a problem with my tone, then i'm sorry you feel that way, but i think the indignation is justified. besides, you'll notice i did beg your pardon beforehand.

sorry, that post lost coherence at the end.. i was supposed to read, "the fact that things such as you mention (black ink, and subjective notions of "dominance", and what have you) keep getting brought up when a little careful examination reveals a pretty slam-dunk hall case for blyleven, well, it does seem dumb to me."

Excellent analysis...what's most frustrating is that if Bert (one of the really nice guys in the game!) had won, what, 13 more games?, these discussions would be moot...he'd be an automatic, regardless of longevity...this is my barometer...look at old footage of Bert pitching...he made ALOT of really good hitters (including HOFers) look really bad w/ his 3 pitch mix...and that "frisby" breaking ball he threw was as good as anyone...EVER!

"and if you have a problem with my tone, then i'm sorry you feel that way, but i think the indignation is justified"

My view of your tone is irrelevant, because I don't have a vote. What you need to worry about is the reaction of the voters. I'm making a strategic point that Rich and other Blyleven supporters need to understand. You need to convince about 140 journalists who voted no this time to vote yes. Most of them have voted no on Blyleven many times. If the message from BB supporters is "only an idiot could fail to see that BB belongs in the Hall," you are telling these 140 people they are idiots. I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict this won't be effective.

I understand the frustration that comes from having to deal with a lot of, yes, idiotic objections to BB's candidacy. But if his supporters want him to prevail, they're going to have to swallow their pride, lose the indignation, and tell the world that "We understand why people vote no. Blyleven's contributions aren't as obvious or clear as many other HOFer's. They are obscured by poor run support, tough ball parks, etc. Let us explain why we have concluded he belongs." And try to find a couple of journalists who have switched from "no" to "yes" to lead the charge.

Though the pro-Blyleven lobby are often labled as "cybergeeks" and "statheads," Berts case goes beyond statitistics. I recently heard Pat Capputo of the Oakland Press and WXYT Detroit that he voted for Blyleven because he established the gold standard for the curveball.

Guy makes a very good point. Being #1 or consistently #2 is very important to the general watching public. I think BB should be in the hall, but then again I read this site almost daily which pretty much tells you what type of fan I am.
Vishal, your point about Pujols being #2 doesn't really wash here as its a bit like Gehrig being #2 to Ruth. Pujols numbers are outrageous every year on their own, its just that Bonds was Ruthian(and assisted?) at the same time.

Mr. Lederer went to a lot of trouble to post the above numbers and I would like to thank him, but I would also like to point out that it is the big number of 4-hits-allowed games that gets BB in the middle, so to speak. Take those games away, and he is tied for last in the sheer number of low-hit games. If someone has the time and patience, it would be great if they could take whatever low-hit games they wish and find out the % of such in the league that year for the particular amount of hits allowed, and calculate accordingly to get a figure that could then be all added together to get one figure. I hope this makes sense....sorry. as to whether BB belongs, I saw him pitch throughout his career, and anyone that thinks he wasn't a dominating pitcher is out of their minds. I saw a lot of Bob Gibson in his best years, and a lot of the umps gave him a few inches benefit. BB never seemed to catch a break from the umps. Of course, one reason is that he seemed to always be bitching at them. I also have say something to all those who think BB is "one of the really nice guys in the game": This type of "event" occurred so much that I can't recall most of them, but here is a typical early-career BB-Oakland A's crowd "exchange": Fan:"Mr. Blyleven, can I have your autograph?". BB: "#%&# +@%!" In all my years of attending games at the Oakland Coloseum and Candlestick Park, I have rarely heard anyone use such a wide repretoire of "colorful language" that BB did. Something really minor would set him off. This certainly won't help BB with the voting, unfortunately.

We had a lively debate at Batter's Box a couple of years ago about whether Blyleven slotted in among the lower or middle rung of Hall of Fame starters. None of our writers or readers argued that he did not fit at all, and the overwhelming consensus after the discussion was that he fit in the middle rung.

One thing that is not regularly mentioned is how many innings Blyleven threw in his career- almost 5000, which ranks him 7th among post-deadball pitchers. Every other pitcher who threw roughly that amount is in the Hall of Fame. Longevity in itself is a mark of greatness.

This was a very good article, and there have been some interesting comments as well.

I wanted to draw your attention to Buster Olney's blog posting (either yesterday or today) at ESPN. In it he addresses Rich's earlier Blyleven article explicitly (and still disagrees with BB's HOF candidacy).

While I disagree with Olney's reasoning, it's a definite sign of class to take the time to read and address others' material that is directly critical of you.

He's one of the best baseball writers out there (and his daily notes and compendium of links is a must-read during the season) and this is another sign of his quality.

Now if only he'd vote for Blyleven next time around...

i'll concede to Bert being in the bottom third of HoF pitchers, but i will not concede to Bert being the pitcher that lowers the entrance standards.

keep hope alive Rich!

I think Bert belongs. Always have and always will. My suspicion is a lot of ballots list only one or two names. If true, this might account for Bert's reduced strength in a year like this one with two position players (Gwynn and Ripken) having a lock. Bert's numbers may also suffer future comparisons with pitchers coming up. If Johnson, Clemens and Maddux continue their careers, thereby postponing their HOF eligibility, Bert still has a chance. He could turn out to be the Enos Slaughter of pitchers.