Baseball BeatDecember 14, 2009
Bert Be Home By Eleven?
By Rich Lederer

Despite ranking fifth in career strikeouts, ninth in shutouts and 27th in wins, Bert Blyleven inexplicably remains on the outside of Cooperstown looking in.

DSCN0185_3.jpgI have been knocking on the doors of the Hall of Fame since December 2003. Blyleven's voting percentage has climbed from 29% that year to 41% in 2005, 48% in 2007, and 63% in 2009. He is trending well but still needs to get to the 75% threshold to receive his just due.

According to Sky Andrecheck, "No player in the last 25 years has seen his vote totals rise so sharply and not been enshrined in the Hall. I wouldn't bet on Blyleven being the first."

Let's hope Sky is right. In the meantime, the two most widely heard arguments against Blyleven's qualifications for the Hall of Fame involve his lack of All-Star Game appearances and poor showings in the Cy Young Award balloting. While I have refuted both of these concerns many times in the past (see multiple links to the Bert Blyleven Series in the sidebar to the left), I am going to take another shot at it today, asking questions and providing answers (including an excerpt from what I wrote in December 2006).

How many times did the All-Star Game manager pick nine or ten *starting* pitchers during Blyleven's career? I might be wrong, but I would be surprised if ten starters (without double counting injured and replacements) were ever selected for a single ASG during his career. A few nines but mostly six, seven, or eight by my count.

Of those six, seven, or eight, how many pitchers did those managers select from their own teams? Do you think that is an objective measure? How many times did they pick a starting pitcher as the lone representative from that player's team? When your teammates are named Killebrew, Oliva, Carew, Stargell, and Parker, you're never going to be selected as the lone player from your club.

Was Blyleven ever passed over because he had pitched the weekend before the All-Star game? Moreover, don't you think managers were as "guilty" as the writers when making these selections by focusing on win-loss records as much or more than other stats that a pitcher has more control over? If so, can we agree that W-L records are not the best measure of a pitcher's performance?

For example, in 1972, Blyleven's ERA was 2.85 over, get this, 170.2 innings at the All-Star break. He wasn't selected because his W-L record was 9-12. He pitched like an All-Star but was penalized because his W-L record was under .500. Manager Earl Weaver went with Blyleven's teammate Jim Perry, who was 8-9 with a 3.21 ERA at the break, rather than with Bert. Think the fact that Perry was a 14-year veteran and Blyleven was in his second full season had anything to do with that injustice? How about Weaver choosing Marty Pattin (8-8, 3.75 ERA) over Blyleven?

In 1977, Blyleven had an ERA of 2.61 with outstanding peripherals at the All-Star break. Why do you suppose he wasn't named to the All-Star team? Do you think the fact that his W-L record was 8-9 had anything to do with it? Instead of selecting Blyleven as one of the seven starting pitchers, Billy Martin chose Bert Campaneris to represent the Texas Rangers. Campaneris was hitting .256/.317/.352 with 13 SB and 15 CS at the break.

In 1989, Blyleven was 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA in 125.2 IP, yet once again was passed over as one of the six pitchers Tony La Russa chose, two of whom were from his own A's team, including Dave Stewart, who "earned" the right to start the game due to his 13-4 record despite posting an ERA of 3.24 (more than a full run higher than Blyleven) while allowing more hits than innings and producing a K/BB ratio of less than 2.

Re the All-Star Game, here is what I wrote (along with breaking out his first and second half career stats) in Answering the Naysayers (Part Two) in December 2006:

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.

Importantly, the above breakdown also works just as well, if not even better, with respect to how Blyleven should have ranked in the CYA voting.

Speaking of which, I can't help but wonder if Blyleven's candidacy wouldn't be viewed more favorably today had the Baseball Writers Association of America implemented its new policy by expanding the Cy Young ballot from three to five spots 40 years ago?

Moreover, if the voters back then evaluated pitching performance more like today, perhaps Blyleven would have won the Cy Young Award in 1973? While Blyleven may not have quite put up a season equal to the likes of Zack Greinke or Tim Lincecum in 2009, it was a lot closer than what he was given credit for in the balloting that year. With more emphasis on K/BB, WHIP, FIP, and other measures besides wins and losses, Blyleven's dominance would be more notable today than how it has been perceived by many naysayers in the past.

There's plenty of room inside the Hall of Fame for Blyleven's plaque. The writers only have 2010, 2011, and 2012 to get it right as Bert drops off the ballot in three years. I anticipate further progress this year with an enshrinement date set for July 2011.


Rich, have you tried discussing any of the HOF arguments for Blyleven with Jon Heyman? This guy is one of those dudes who supports Morris but writes off Blyleven as a good "compiler" but not a HOF player. Aside from the typical lack of Cy support and ASG appearances, Heyman also usually uses the terrible "I know a HOF player when I see one...and nobody at the time thought Blyleven was a HOF player."

It is odd though. Heyman is a guy who, while he definitely prefers outdated stats like Wins and RBIs and doesn't use things like VORP, does occasionally sprinkle in some OPS and WHIP in his take on certain players. In other words, he is not completely like Murray Chass (who hates all things related to numbers and refuses to consider anything besides Wins). I think while he is very stubborn, that you could help Bert a great deal by working on getting Heyman to change his vote. Heyman is a popular voice for, and if he changes his vote perhaps other voters would see that as a big deal.

I know it is easier said then done with some of these voters, but I think he is a guy you should target and try to do what you can to get him to change his vote.

Of course this is assuming it is worth your time and energy. It should be obvious that Blyleven is a HOF player, and some of these voters pretend to be open-minded but show how false that idea is when they refuse to acknowledge the counterpoints to their arguments, and instead simply shrug their shoulders and stick to the "My gut instinct knows more than the numbers do" sort of garbage.

Yardwork, your comment is so terrific. You have no idea!

Perhaps it's time that the more objective and statistics-minded writers (and players and managers) start up a new MLB Objective Hall of Fame?

Don't knock gut instinct. That's just another way of saying "My brain has figured something out, but I haven't yet." For some people, if you were to take that away, what would be left?

The problem for Blyleven is pretty simple. He had a long career as a very good pitcher, but he was never really considered by his contemporaries as among the top pitchers.

His career splits are really irrelevant to the question on allstar votes. If he had been considered one of the elite pitchers, he pitched well enough to be chosen. He wasn't in that category. He only got votes in the Cy Young voting four times, never finished higher than 3rd and got a total of five first place votes in a 22 seasons.

As for his teammates blocking him. He didn't once have the best WHIP on those Pittsburgh teams. John Candelaria was probabaly as much the team's ace as Blyleven.

"If so, can we agree that W-L records are not the best measure of a pitcher's performance?"

Yes, but they are still one measure and mean a lot more over the course of a career. When a pitcher is on teams that are over .500, you would expect them to do fairly well in terms of wins and losses. Blyleven didn't. His teams also scored more runs than the average team.

It would certainly not be outrageous if Blyleven were elected to the HOF. He has some numbers to justify it. But it is not an outrage that he hasn't been elected either.

The problem with your comment, TT, is pretty simple. You don't know what you're talking about.

1. Who gives a damn if his contemporaries thought he was great? I don't. We know he was great. If someone else failed to see that, so what?

2. Awards voting, All-Stars... your point is silly. Blyleven certainly DID perform well enough to get more Cy votes and to make more all-star teams. Should we pretend not to know what we know because foolish 1970s people didn't know it?

3. You think it's evidence to mention that BB didn't lead a particular staff (PIT) in a particular stat (WHIP) in a particular three-year period. I mean, that's silly enough, but you also seem to claim that his 1.161 in 1978 is not good because Don Robinson had a 1.139. That's senseless.

4. Yes, W-L is still one measure. So is hat size. Use something that actually is reflective of a pitcher's ability. If you really want to use wins or winning percentage, take a moment with google. You'll find that, in games where Blyleven did not get the decision, his teams were BELOW .500.

5. Some numbers... Jeesh, you don't even know what to look at to judge the pitcher and not the context.

Yardwork, have you ever tried to have an email conversation with Heyman? He comes off as rambling, incoherant, and lazy. He ignores most of the argument to build a strawman. He thinks that its acceptable to view modern day players with our better, more advanced measures, its unfair to use them against players of past generations. So we can do things like knock any offensive player who played in Coors Field, but any RH hitter in Fenway in the 70s should have his numbers viewed in a context-neutral environment, because we didn't fully understand park factors then.

The best case you can make for a guy like Bert Blyleven might not come from comparing him to other pitchers like Sutton and Niekro, with whom his was arguably the more DOMINANT pitcher despite the W-L records, but rather to the position players who also supposedly "compiled" stats while never really being considered the best player in the league or on their team.

Take for instance, the example of Dave Winfield. Murray Chass would argue that Big Dave was a sure fire HOF'er because he achieved the milestone of 3,000 hits. But ask yourself the question, "Did Big Dave ever win an MVP award?". The answer would be no. In fact he only had 3 top 5 finishes in his illustrious career, topping out at 3rd in 1979. Compare this to Blyleven who also never won a Cy Young but had 3 top 5 finishes and 2 top 3 finishes.

Additionally, we could ask, "How many times did Big Dave lead the league in a major offensive category?". Surely he must have multiple individual in-season accomplishments. But the truth is (and many might be surprised to note) that he only led the league in a major individual offensive category once. Again in happened in 1979 (the year of his top 3 MVP finish) when he lead the league in RBI with 118. Again if we compare to Bert we note that Bert to didn't have overwhelming individual in season leader accomplishments but he lead the league in K's in 1985, Shutouts in 1973 and Innings Pitched in 85 and 86. Again comparable to a position player like Winfield.

As previously noted Big Dave did reach 3,000 hits and finished ranked 19th all time in the category. However, he did fall short of the magic 500 home runs that typically defined the great sluggers of all time.

When one compares that to Blyleven's pitching statistics why should we discount 3,700+ strikeouts which rank him 5th all time and the 287 wins which rank him 25th all time??? He is also in the top 10 all time in shutouts (a mark destimed to stand with todays new pitching restrictions).

Again, he missed 300 but he ranks favorably on the all time career list. Top 25 ALL TIME!!!

The last comparison I would make for Bert is to look at his postseason record. His world series performances were terrific, going 2-1 with a 2.35 ERA and both times his teams won. His career postseason mark of 5-1 and a 2.47 ERA is outstanding. If you compared those stats to a position player like Winfield who was a notoriously poor postseason performer, .208 BA, 2 HR's and 9 RBI in 26 games played and 101 AB's.

Again, I think Bert's merits as a pitcher match up to many of the guys on the HALL and certainly on the ballot but I think if some of the writers took a deeper look at how they judge certain offensive vs. Pitching statistics they might be surprised at how they vote.

Blyleven is a Cooperstown quality pitcher who has been denied an honor he deserves because a fair number of knuckleheads have HOF votes.

Note to Bert: When you are elected, you owe Rich a round-trip ticket to the ceremony. He is a tenacious and articulate campaigner.

In one part of the article you say this,

"can we agree that W-L records are not the best measure of a pitcher's performance?"

But in the first sentence you mention his wins.

So why do wins matter, but W-L record doesn't?

Blyleven was lucky to stay healthy and have a long career. He shouldn't go into the HOF because he was lucky.

"Blyleven was lucky to stay healthy and have a long career. He shouldn't go into the HOF because he was lucky."

I agree with the fact that nobody should get into the HOF because they were lucky, but if anything Bert Blyleven was not lucky. There were several years in his prime when he suffered from low run support. For example, in 1973 - Bert's best season - American League teams scored an average of 4.28 runs per game, and the Twins were one of the top teams with 4.56 runs / game, but they inexplicably scored 4.18 runs / game when Bert started, and that includes an offensive explosion when the Twins scored 14 runs. Or how about three years later, when he posted a 2.87 ERA (25% better than the league average) but went 13-16 because he only had 2.66 runs in support.

And even though he had a long career, he certainly had his share of decidedly unlucky injuries. He missed most of 1982 because of an elbow injury. He missed all of the 1991 season because of a rotator cuff injury. And he also missed three starts in 1984 because of a foot injury, one that could have cost him the chance at 20 wins that year. So even though Bert was durable enough to win a game at 19 and another at 41, he certainly wasn't lucky when he was doing it.

So we're not touting Bert's Hall of Fame candidacy because he was lucky. Rather, because he was durable and dominant.

"Blyleven was lucky to stay healthy and have a long career. He shouldn't go into the HOF because he was lucky."

Well, if Blyleven was 287-350 instead of 287-250, that would be a little different. I don't think anybody is arguing that any pitcher who wins 287 games should go in the hall automatically. Total wins are just one piece of the overall case.

Come on, now. Blyleven was one of the unluckiest pitchers ever. That's why the general perception of him is so grossly disproportionate with his actual level of performance.