Blyleven: As Dominant as His Hall of Fame Contemporaries
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.
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 Baseball-Reference.com'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.