Baseball BeatJanuary 16, 2007
Listen, Buster
By Rich Lederer

Buster Olney wrote a column last Tuesday, entitled "On Blyleven's Candidacy" (ESPN Insider subscription required). Olney, who has never voted for Blyleven in the past, gives his reasons as to why he didn't support him again this year.

I have highlighted excerpts of Olney's comments below followed by my responses.

I've looked for a way around the strong belief that Blyleven is the pitcher's version of Harold Baines -- a very steady, reliable player during a long career, but never a dominant presence for a period of at least a few years.

Bert Blyleven has now been reduced to a "pitcher's version of Harold Baines?" You've got to be kidding me, right? I mean, how can Olney make such a comment while keeping a straight face?

I will grant you, Harold Baines was a good hitter. Maybe even a very good hitter. However, as a player who spent the vast majority of his time as a designated hitter, I'm not sure you can say he was much more than that. But I will concede that he was a good, solid hitter.

Blyleven, on the other hand, was a great pitcher. I would even argue (and will in tomorrow's article) that his record is no worse than right smack in the middle of the pack with 11 Hall of Fame pitchers who overlapped his career by five or more years.

I'm not talking perception here. Instead, I'm talking about facts. Blyleven was one of the best pitchers in the league in 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1989. I won't go through all the details here but will point you to this article instead.


SO:   13x (including 6 consecutive years from 1971-76)
K/BB: 13x (including 7 straight from 1970-76)
SHO:   9x (led the league 3x)
ERA:   7x
ERA+:  7x (led league in 1973)
WHIP:  7x

Blyleven also placed in the top five multiple times in many other categories, including W, H/9, BB/9, K/9, IP, GS, and CG.

Baines, on the other hand, was rarely among the top hitters in the league. Given that there are about twice as many batters in the starting lineup as there are pitchers in the starting rotation, I'll expand the rankings to ten in order to be fair to Baines.


AVG:   3x (with a high of 6th in 1985)
OBP:   1x (7th in 1989)
SLG:   1x (led league in 1984)
OPS:   3x (high of 6th in 1984)
OPS+:  4x (high of 5th in 1989)
TB:    2x (high of 5th in 1984)
HR:    1x (9th in 1984)
RBI:   2x

Baines also ranked in the Top 10 at least twice in 3B, G, and AB.

We can also compare Blyleven and Baines by looking at their Black Ink, Gray Ink, HOF Standards, and HOF Monitor. There is some double counting with the top five and ten rankings above, but these tallies are instructive nonetheless. The overall ranks are in parentheses.


Black Ink: Pitching - 16 (129) (Average HOFer ~ 40)
Gray Ink: Pitching - 239 (24) (Average HOFer ~ 185)
HOF Standards: Pitching - 50.0 (36) (Average HOFer ~ 50)
HOF Monitor: Pitching - 120.5 (68) (Likely HOFer > 100)


Black Ink: Batting - 3 (499) (Average HOFer ~ 27)
Gray Ink: Batting - 40 (595) (Average HOFer ~ 144)
HOF Standards: Batting - 43.5 (116) (Average HOFer ~ 50)
HOF Monitor: Batting - 66.5 (267) (Likely HOFer > 100)

Baines was good but Blyleven was great.

With almost all of the current Hall of Famers, there is a period in their careers in which they had a turn as The Man. Blyleven was clearly a very good pitcher for a long time, but did he dominate his league the way other current and future Hall of Famers have -- Seaver, Gibson, Carlton, Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, Martinez?

I didn't realize that those seven pitchers were the standards. I mean, one could easily argue that Olney's talking about six of the top dozen pitchers in the history of baseball and another who certainly belongs in the top 20. Why does a pitcher have to "dominate his league" in the manner of these inner circle Hall of Famers in order to get elected as well?

I can't find another Hall of Famer voted in by writers with less than three All-Star appearances; Blyleven had two. Blyleven never finished first or second in Cy Young balloting and was never the most coveted free-agent pitcher or the object of a huge bidding war in trade talk, the way that Tom Seaver and even Vida Blue were.

"Never the most coveted free-agent pitcher or the object of a huge bidding war in trade talk." When did either become criterion for the Hall of Fame? I mean, Buster is groping here. It sounds to me like he might be looking for a reason to vote for Mike Hampton when he becomes eligible down the road. With respect to All-Star appearances, I say "big deal." I addressed this matter last month in response to naysayers like Olney.

During the course of Steve Carlton's career, he finished in the top three in his league in ERA, strikeouts, victories or Cy Young voting 23 times. Tom Glavine has done that 14 times; Roger Clemens 38. Nolan Ryan did this 23 times; Fergie Jenkins 18; Don Sutton 6, Ron Guidry 11, Randy Johnson 35; Blyleven, 12 times.

Notice the three-card monte trick Buster is pulling here? He switches from "first or second in Cy Young balloting" a couple of excerpts above to "top three" in the latest. Besides, combining rankings of stats with vote totals doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Be that as it may, let's run this same exercise using "top five" rather than "top three" and see what we come up with here. Why he picked these pitchers, who knows? But let's give it a go, huh?

                  ERA     SO     W    CYA    TOT
Blyleven            7     13     2      3     25
Carlton             5     12     8      6     31
Glavine             5      1     8      6     20
Clemens            12     16    11     10     49
Ryan                5     18     3      6     32
Jenkins             0      8     7      5     20
Sutton              4      3     4      5     16
Guidry              3      5     4      4     16
Johnson             8     13    10      9     40

Hmmmph. Blyleven doesn't look so bad now. Funny how that works. Instead of placing seventh out of nine under Olney's methodology, Blyleven now ranks in the center, trailing only Clemens, Johnson, Ryan, and Carlton while beating out two Hall of Famers in Jenkins and Sutton and one HOFer-to-be in Glavine (as well as Guidry). Looks like an argument on behalf of Blyleven rather than against.

In his second year on the Hall of Fame ballot, in 1999, Blyleven got 14.08 percent of the vote. I can find only one example since 1969 in which a player ever polled that low among writers and was subsequently elected -- Luis Aparicio, who got 11.97 percent of the vote in 1981 and was elected in 1984.

What does this have to do with anything? The writers got the vote wrong. What else is new?

What I wanted to hear from his peers, the guys who faced him, was this: He was easily among the most dominant pitchers of our generation; he wasn't Seaver or Carlton, but he was right there behind them. If I had heard that from even half of those I talked to, I would've reconsidered my vote. What I heard from almost all of them was this: He had a great curveball and he could be really tough. I wanted to vote "yes" for Blyleven; I did not.

Whom did he poll? Obviously not George Brett. "He was as good as there was for a long time. Bert is up there with the toughest four or five guys I faced in my career. Hopefully, he will get in. I'd think he'd be a perfect fit."

"Was as good as there was for a long time." Sounds pretty dominant to me. And coming from one of the best hitters of his generation to boot, a player who happened to face Blyleven more than any other batter this side of Reggie Jackson.

"Bert is up there with the toughest four or five guys I faced in my career." I would imagine so. Brett went 27-for-117 vs. Blyleven with only 2 HR, good for a batting line of .231/.281/.342. Boy, that Blyleven guy must have been lucky to do so well against a three-time batting average champ and first-ballot Hall of Famer like Brett.

"Hopefully, he will get in. I'd think he'd be a perfect fit."


[Additional reader comments and retorts at The Baseball Think Factory.]


Harold had a hall of fame afro/sideburn combo.

Him and Greg Luzinsk were two of my childhood heroes. Id put him in the hall if I was going on my gut feeling(like Olney apparently prefers to do).


typo- Luzinski, forgot the i

I don't disagree with your conclusion, Rich, but I do think some of these numbers point to a real barrier for Blyleven, separate from the W/L issue, which is that he didn't put up the kind of dominant SEASONS that most HOF pitchers have. That's best illustrated by his 16 black ink figure vs. 40 for the average HOFer, and also by the fact he was never #1 or #2 in CYA voting. He was often one of the best 5, but rarely the best in any category. And SEASONS are a critical unit in terms of how fans think about and remember great players. (If Tony Gwynn had somehow managed to hit .338 over his career without ever winning a batting title, he wouldn't have been a 98% candidate.)

I don't know that it should really matter that Blyleven was consistently one of the 5-10 best pitchers in his league, yet rarely or never number 1 or 2. But this isn't a crazy standard to apply (unlike most of the objections to Blyleven). And as an empirical matter, I think this clearly has hurt his vote totals.

Maybe Blyleven shouldn't have won "only" 287 games with below average run support. If he was a steroid junkie or repeatedly placed baseball bets with bookies on the clubhouse phone, he would have some people screaming about how he belongs in Cooperstown.


I was so hoping to have Rich's talents on the Tim Raines' case full time next year.


Best Regards


Jeez, this is ridiculous. As a ten year old flipping through the baseball encyclopedia in 1989 it was obvious Blyleven was a HOFer. Sure, his won-loss didnt blow me away, but his other stats made his case so obvious, i never thought i'd be 26 and he still wouldnt be in.

I was sure this was finally his year, and like John i was looking forward to Rich pumping up the second best leadoff man of our time next year. I cant wait for the writers to blow Raines' slam dunk election.

The other problem with Baines was he was a DH, which Buster conveniently ignores. And why he starts out comparing apples with oranges, instead of with other pitcherrs, I have no idea.

Unfortunately, Cy Young votes are too easily swayed by not just the pitcher's wins, but also the overall success of the team. Does anyone really think that Bartolo Colon was a better pitcher than Johan Santana in '05? Only one year removed from that debacle, you'd think that writers of Buster Olney's caliber would realize this and avoid compounding one injustice with another. However, it appears to me that Olney's not voting for Bert because he didn't reach 300 wins and he's trying to justify his vote.

"I don't know that it should really matter that Blyleven was consistently one of the 5-10 best pitchers in his league, yet rarely or never number 1 or 2. But this isn't a crazy standard to apply."

But that logic ignores context. It shouldn't matter how many other great pitchers there were at the time Blyleven pitched - as long as Blyleven himself was a great pitcher.

To put it another way - throughout the 1950s, the consistently (ie, not "rarely or never") 1 or 2 best hitting OFs were Mays, Mantle, and Williams. Should all other OFs who played in the 50s suffer as a result?

Or how about this? In the 1990s/2000s, the consistently (ie, not "rarely or never") best pitchers were Clemens, Pedro, Maddux, and Randy Johnson. Does this mean Tom Glavine isn't a Hall of Famer, because he might have been the number 1 or 2 pitcher rarely or never?

I think the answer to both questions is of course not. So why does this make sense applied to Bert Blyleven?

Another part of the perception of Blyleven is that there were years when he was the #1 pitcher in the league, yet didn't receive the votes come Cy Young time. I know Rich has covered this before, but for instance:

1973 AL: 2nd in ERA and 1st in ERA+, 2nd in WHIP, 3rd in K/9 and 1st in K/BB, 3rd in IP and CG, and 1st in SO. He went 20-17, and received ONE Cy Young vote.

1977 AL: Blyleven was 2nd in ERA and ERA+, 1st in WHIP, 5th in K/9 and 8th in K/BB, and tied for 2nd in SO. His record? 14-12. He didn't receive a single Cy Young vote.

This goes on throughout his career, but I just choose a couple of his peak seasons. I suppose it's a sad irony that the BBWAA are no better informed today than they were 30 years ago.

"Does this mean Tom Glavine isn't a Hall of Famer, because he might have been the number 1 or 2 pitcher rarely or never?"

The question isn't whether he was one of the two best pitchers in the game (too high a standard, I agree), but did he have seasons in which he delivered one of the two best performances? Glavine has finished 1st or 2nd in CYA voting four times; Blyleven none.

Maybe the CYA voters got it wrong a few times, but it's still not clear BB was one of the two best. To take 1973, Blyleven's ERA was great but only because he allowed a ton of unearned runs; he allowed 3.02 R/G compared to Palmer's 2.63 -- not really close. And yes, he was 3rd in K/9, but the guy who finished first, and 2nd in CYA voting (Ryan), happened to put up 383 Ks, the alltime single-season record.

A related issue is whether Blyleven had seasons in which he was the very best in an important category (W, K, ERA)? His category crowns are:
W: zero
K: one
ERA: zero
I wonder how many HOFers led the league just once in these three categories? I'm guessing the number is small.

guy, i think rich has demonstrated (click the link) that there's a good case to be made for bert to have gotten either 1st or 2nd in the cy young voting not just once, but 3 times: 1973, 1977, and 1984. the fact that he didn't get them was not due to bert's numbers, but due to idiot sportswriters. even if Blyleven isn't one of the best because he's led the league so few times in important categories, most of the other that claimed the league leads in most of those years are in the Hall of Fame. Is Blyleven not a Hall of Famer because he could never top pitchers like Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, or Catfish Hunter? I think where you draw the line is important, and unfortunately, most voters are drawing the line right above Blyleven. :/

Yeah... It's too bad too, Olney's a decent analyst. That's the problem with statistics. The statistics themselves don't have a problem, it's how they are used. You can usually find stuff that supports your argument, the problem is, you need to ask the question and use statistics to FIND your answer not support a conclusion you already had - which is what Olney did in this instance.


The point is that the voters are getting it wrong now, and they're basing that on voting that was faulty to begin with. Blyleven was better than Ryan in '73, and arguably better than Palmer as well. As for the unearned runs, Palmer allowed 7 to Blyleven's 18--the Orioles also won 4 GG that year. I dare to say that 11 run difference is due more to the efforts of Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belangier, and Bobby Grich than to any difference in the performance of Palmer and Blyleven.

He failed to top in ERA and W's because he pitched consistently for poor teams in offensive ballparks. He failed to lead in K because his career crossed directly over with that of Ryan, the greatest K artist of all time (and one of the more overrated HoFs of all time). Blyleven finished 2nd in K in '73 and '74 to Ryan, he finished 2nd in '75 to Frank Tanana, and in '76 he was 3rd to Ryan/Tanana. Not that K's are all that important in determining the past value of a pitcher, but this kind of trend goes on. He was consistently among the five best pitchers in the league and there were years when he was the best pitcher in the league--he just wasn't recognized for it. Now writers point back at this injustice as "evidence" of their flawed conclusion. It's a shame these articles are still needed after all these years on the ballot.

There are lots of reasons you can cite, but you can't change the fact that BB rarely led the league in any category that fans pay attention to. I think the black/grey ink categories tell the story:
Blyleven 16/239
Avg HOF 40/185 (Palmer: 41/206)
Blyleven was in the top 10 more often than the average HOFer, but finished #1 much less frequently. Modern pitchers are at a disadvantage in black ink because there are more players, but Palmer was a contemporary and met the Hall standard.

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

Olney said of Blylenen:

"never a dominant presence for a period of at least a few years."

This is flat wrong because Olney is not considering what really matters. A pitcher's job is to prevent the other team from scoring and some of that is affected by fielders. So we need to look at some measure of performance which tries to factor out the effect of fielders. This is called defense independent pitching (DIPS, invented by Voros McCracken) or fielding independent pitching (FIP-I think invented by tangotiger or Tom Tango).

I calculated an FIP ERA over a 5 year period for all pitchers from 1920-2005. I factored out the effect of fielders. I adjusted HRs allowed for park effects. So only a pitcher's HRs, strikeouts and walks mattered. ERA was also adjusted for league average. Blyleven had the 39th best 5 year period at an ERA of 2.46 (I adjusted every guy's ERA to a league average of 3.70). 39th best might not sound great. But it is better than any 5 year period that Carl Hubbell, Tom Seaver, or Steve Carlton ever had.

Then I figured out how many wins above average each pitcher had for 5 years. Blyleven had the 22nd best 5 year period ever. My article on all of this is at

I would say that he had a pretty good 5 year stretch. Definitely means he was a dominant pitcher.

Just in case you think FIP ERA is too involved, let's just look at runs allowed simply adjusted for park effects and league average. I found the best 5 year periods in terms of runs saved relative to the league average and adjusted for park effects. My article on this is at

In terms of runs saved, Blyleven had the 53rd best 5 year period ever. That may not sound like a great rank. But it is higher than the best 5 year period of Juan Marichal, Dizzy Dean, or Jim Palmer. Blyleven saved 181 runs over the 1973-1977 period.

I also found a win value for those 5 year periods based on the average runs per game in each year (all explained at the above site). Blyleven had the 44th best 5 year period at 18.55 wins above average. Again, that may not seem like a high rank. But it is better than the best 5 year win total of Robin Roberts, Dazzy Vance or Jim Palmer.

This list shows the top 10 in runs saved above average from the Lee Sinin's Complete Baseball Encyclopedia from 1973-77

1 Bert Blyleven 181
2 Jim Palmer 159
3 Tom Seaver 145
4 Phil Niekro 123
5 Gaylord Perry 108
6 Andy Messersmith 107
7 John Hiller 99
8 Frank Tanana 96
9 Luis Tiant 91
10 Steve Carlton 81

Blyleven clearly dominated at a time when Palmer (3 Cy Young awards in this period), Seaver (2 Cys) and Carlton (1 Cy) were at or near their prime.

The next list shows the top 10 in strikeout to walk ratio relative to the league average from 1973-77 with 810+ IP

1 Ferguson Jenkins 221
2 Frank Tanana 214
3 Bert Blyleven 202
4 Tom Seaver 198
5 Gaylord Perry 172
6 Mickey Lolich 165
7 Jon Matlack 163
8 Don Sutton 161
9 Luis Tiant 150
10 Rick Reuschel 148

Blyleven's strikeout to walk ratio of 3.02 was 2.02 times the league average 1.50 (that 2.02 gets multiplied by 100 to get 202). Noticed that only 2 guys are ahead of Blyeven, and one is in the Hall of Fame. Notice that Blyleven is ahead of 3 hall of famers (Perry, Sutton and Seaver) all of whom were at or near their prime

From 1973-77, only 1 pitcher had both a lower ERA (minimum 810 IP) and more IP than Blyeven. Jim Palmer. Below are the 10 lowest ERAs

1 Tom Seaver 2.54
2 Jim Palmer 2.58
3 Frank Tanana 2.69
4 Bert Blyleven 2.75
5 Andy Messersmith 2.77
6 Don Sutton 2.95
7 Jim Rooker 3.00
8 Nolan Ryan 3.03
9 Gaylord Perry 3.13
10 Vida Blue 3.13

Now the leaders in IP

1 Gaylord Perry 1460.1
2 Nolan Ryan 1440
3 Jim Palmer 1432
4 Phil Niekro 1424
5 Bert Blyleven 1414
6 Vida Blue 1402
7 Steve Carlton 1375.1
8 Catfish Hunter 1344
9 Tom Seaver 1338.2
10 Luis Tiant 1311

One advantage that Palmer had over Blyleven were some great fielders behind him: Paul Blair (CF), Brooks Robinson (3B), Mark Belanger (SS), and Bobby Grich (2B). How did Blyleven's fielders compare? I looked at the leaders in fielding win shares from 1973-77 using the electronic version of the Win Shares book. Below I list Orioles who made the leaders and their ranks

Grich 2B-1
Belanger SS-3
Robinson 3B-5
Blair CF-1

Grich 2B-1
Belanger SS-2
Robinson 3B-2
Blair CF-2
Powell 1B-4

Grich 2B-1
Belanger SS-2
Blair CF-5
Powell 1B-5

Grich 2B-1
Belanger SS-1

Belanger SS-2
DeCinces 3B-5

Now for the fielders behind Blyleven. I use MIN for 1973-75 and TX for 1976-77

Mitterwald C-5
Carew 2B-3

Borgman C-1
Carew 2B-3

Borgman C-2

Sundberg C-1
Harrah SS-5
Beniquez OF-3

Sundberg C-1
Wills 2B-1
Campaneris SS-3
Hargrove 1B-4

17 for Palmer and 12 for Blyleven.

I also looked at how Palmer's teams and Blyleven's team's did in fielding wins using Pete Palmer's linear weights methods. Below are the number of fielding wins for Palmer's teams each year and where they ranked

1973 1.3 (2)
1974 1 (2)
1975 2.6 (1)
1976 1.5 (1)
1977 2 (1)

A total of 7.4 fielding wins. That means that the fielders on the Orioles saved 75 runs compared to what average fielders would have allowed.

For Blyleven

1973 .2 (9)
1974 -.3 (11)
1975 -.9 (12)
1976 -1 (12)
1977 1.2 (2)

A total of -.8. That means Blyleven's fielders allowed about 8 more runs than an average team. So Palmer has an edge of 83 runs. Suppose that each guy pitched about 20% of his team's innings (fairly close, actually). So divide that 83 by 5 and you get 16.6 runs. I estimate that that saved Palmer about .10 in ERA, more than half the gap between him and Blyleven.

I just stumbled upon this site. Is it owned by Blyleven? I can't believe the nonsense I've just read. Blyleven was a great pitcher, but the HOF is reserved for the elite, the best of the best. Blyleven is not there. No matter how many "real" stats you want to throw out there. The fact that you have to dig so hard to support his HOF candidacy is the true indication he doesn't deserve to be in.

The fact that you have to dig so hard to support his HOF candidacy is the true indication he doesn't deserve to be in.

No digging needed. The Hall of Fame case for Bert Blyleven is very simple:

Since 1900, Bert Blyleven ranks 5th in career strikeouts, 8th in shutouts, and 17th in wins. There are only eight pitchers who rank in the top 20 in wins, shutouts, and strikeouts. All of them are in the HOF except Blyleven.

Simple. Straightforward. The reason for the additional "digging" is to counter the naysayers who have developed their own reasons as to why Blyleven is not a Hall of Famer.

Rich, you generally make good points, but your last post is a clear example of a grouping fallacy noted by James in the Politics of Glory. That is, noting that "X is one of Y players who is top Z in A, B, and C categories. Every other player is a hall of famer."

In other words, cherry picking three statistics to make a point very quickly. Wins I can see, but why are shutouts so important? And as for strikeouts, yeah, they're important, but it's another example of only using statistics when they help a cause. Tommy John is one of the pitchers who has the most support for induction outside of Blyleven. A huge part of Blyleven's candidacy rests on Ks, yet trying to make a case for TJ based on Ks would create an impotent argument that would garner absolutely no support. Yet both are underrated starting pitchers from the same era who are trying to get into the Hall.

Oh, and the George Brett comment is a weak argument. If Mike Schmidt hit .100/.180/270 off of Orel Hershiser lifetime, would that be a significant piece of his HoF argument? If Lou Gehrig said "The pitcher I most feared in my career was Wes Ferrell," would that cement his enshrinement?

Steve: Your points are well taken. I gave the quick and dirty Blyleven for HOF in response to a claim by a reader that posting more sophisticated stats was a clear indicator as to why he was NOT a Hall of Famer. I would never vote for someone based solely on the "X is one of Y players who is top Z in A, B, and C categories. Every other player is a hall of famer." However, I think it is instructive to note that Blyleven stands out as the exception in all three stats.

With respect to the Brett comment, I wouldn't hang my hat on what a single player had to say about a teammate or competitor. By itself, such a comment doesn't (and shouldn't) mean much. I chose to include it to counter Olney's approach by showing there are players who believe Blyleven was "dominant" and worthy of the HOF.

When voting for or against candidates for Cooperstown, I believe one needs to look at the entire portfolio of a player's career, including peak and career value. I am confident that I have made a very strong case for Blyleven over the years and am now in a mode of responding to the naysayers who appear to be looking for reasons not to vote for him (which is fine as long as the rationale holds water).