03 January 2008

Bert "Be in the Hall By Eleven" Blyleven?

I mentioned Bert Blyleven, mostly in passing, in a column I wrote a few days ago. I originally wrote the following almost four years ago, and of course it's still true:

Bert “Be Home” Blyleven. Besides having one of the best Bermanisms ever, this guy was a heck of a good pitcher. Blyleven’s ERA was better than the league and park-adjusted average in 16 of the 18 seasons in which he pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title. The man started pitching in the majors at 19, and was 37 years old before his adjusted ERA for a full season dropped more than 5% below the league average, and it had done that only once before. His adjusted career ERA (118) is better than that of Hall of Famers Robin Roberts, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Early Wynn, and others, I’m sure.

Only twelve guys faced more batters in their careers, and they’re all in the Hall. Only four have ever struck out more of them, and they will all be in the Hall. In the 20th century, only Tommy John, who had the benefit of good teams and pitchers’ parks, has more wins and is not or will not likely be in the Hall, and he’s only got one more.

However, it occurs to me now, that this is Blyleven's eleventh year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and wouldn't it be a neat coincidence if Bert "Be Home" Blyleven, could, well, be Hall by Eleventh. OK, so it's not perfect, but it's interesting, right?

So maybe I'll make a little more of a case for him, or at least shoot down some of the faulty logic that's keeping him out of Cooperstown, even though everyone's ballots have actually already been submitted.

Over on ESPN.com, they've been doing a series of debates between their writers about the various candidates. They pick two writers with ostensibly opposed views on a player, have them email each other back and forth arguing their opinions, and if they happen to have some, the reasons for them. Jayson Stark managed to somehow convince Peter Gammons that Tim Raines belongs in the Hall, which is good. However, Larry Stone convinced Phil Rogers to vote for Jim Rice, and Rogers looked like a mental midget in the course of the so-called debate. And in the debate over Goose Gossage, Rogers and Sean McAdam, essentially both agreed. I guess they couldn't find someone on staff who thought that Goose didn't belong in the Hall, so the best they could do was ot bring in Rogers, who was a fairly recent convert to the Gossage Gospel.

But the debate on Blyleven, waged between McAdam and Bob Klapisch, sadly, remained a draw. McAdam's reasons against voting for Blyleven are as follows:

1) Only one 20-win season.
2) Only four mentions in the Cy Young voting in 22 years
3) An unimpressive 287-250 record and .534 winning percentage
4) No ERA titles
5) The strikeouts aren't that impressive
6) "...too many years where Blyleven wasn't even the best pitcher on his own staff."

I would like to take these one at a time, but the first three are so interrelated that I can't.

1) Only one 20-win season

He's right about this, of course, but in the last 20 years or so it has become obvious to anyone with an open mind that win totals for pitchers simply do not have the meaning they once did. A hundred and thirty years ago, when pitchers started almost every game and pitched almost every inning for their teams, it made sense to assign wins and losses to them individually, and those were likely a good measure of their effectiveness. Eventally, though, the schedule got to be longer, and there was more travel, and the quality of the players increased to the point that more pitchers were needed.

With multiple starters, most of whom still pitched every inning of the games they started, Wins and Losses still made sense as a measure of their worth to a team. But over time, more and more pitchers were used. Starters pitched less often and for shorter times, and relievers picked up the slack. Wins and Losses can be assigned to a pitcher who pitches the whole game or to one who pitched only one inning, or gets only one out. A pitcher who tosses 8.2 innings of shutout ball but leaves in a scoreless tie in the 9th, with a batter he walked on first base, can get assigned a "Loss" if the relief pitcher who replaces him allows that runner to score. He did just about everything he could, but his bullpen and his teammates, the hitters, did not do their jobs, so he gets hung with a black mark on his record, and people like Sean McAdam think that makes him a bad pitcher.

McAdam complains, rhetorically,

What? All of a sudden, won-loss record isn't a fair measuring stick for pitchers? If we're not going to take records into account, what's the new standard?

Well, honestly, Sean, it sure isn't "all of a sudden". Where have you been for the last 15 or 20 years? Nobody's saying that we shouldn't take W-L records into account (well, Lee Sinins is, but he's kind of a saber-snob), just that it shouldn't be the only thing or even the first thing we examine.

Sure, Wins and Losses are one measure of a pitcher's quality, but those are so significantly affected by the runs scored by his teammates and the effectiveness of the bullpen that they are probably only the 5th or 6th best measure, at most. Heck, Rick Helling won 20 in 1998 with the Rangers, despite giving up almost 4.5 earned runs per game. A 20-win season isn't all that impressive.

Looked at a different way, Greg Maddux and Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martinez only have two 20-win seasons apiece, one more than Blyleven, but Ryan is already in the Hall, and Pedro and Maddux will certianly join him when their times come. The fact that Dave Sewart and Wilbur Wood and Mel Stottlemyre and Dennis Leonard and Dave McNally and (God help us) Jack Morris all have three or more 20-win seasons does not make them Hall of Famers, just like Blyleven's having only one should not exclude him.

Blyleven only won 20 games one time, but that was mostly because he got lousy run support, even when he played for good teams, which was not often. If you adjust his numbers for average parks and average run support, he comes out with four 20+ Win seasons, and a 325-227 record (thanks, Baseball-reference.com).

2) Only four mentions in the Cy Young voting in 22 years

This is, as I mentioned, directly related to the lack of 20-win seasons. The BBWAA voters who get to vote for the seasonal awards are among the same ones who vote for the Hall of fame, and these people are rarely interested in looking much beyond the W-L records of the pitchers they consider. Bartolo Colon got the AL Cy Young in 2005, despite being a demonstrably inferior pitcher to Johan Santana, because his team scored more runs for him, so he won 21 games instead of Johan's 16. In 1993, Jack McDowell won the award, though Randy Johnson was a slightly better and Kevin Appier was a MUCH better pitcher, because he won 22 games and each of them notched only 18 Wins.

So the fact that Blyleven only got any CYA votes 4 times in 22 seasons has a lot more to do with the fact that his teammates did not score enough runs when he pitched to allow him to rack up 20+ wins, and the fact that the Cy Young Voters don't have the imagination to look beyond the Win totals.

3) An unimpressive 287-250 record and .534 winning percentage

Again, the Wins and Losses are a function, to a large extent, of the run support and bullpen help a pitcher gets. Those 250 losses don't look so great, and the .534 winning percentage is nothing to write home about, but when you consider that the teams for which Blyleven pitched combined for a .499 winning percentage in the games for which he did not get a decision, he suddenly looks a lot better. Again, if you adjust for parks and if you give him even average offensive support for his whole career, suddenly he's at 325-227, and a lock for the first ballot.

4) No ERA titles

Well, no, he never led the league in ERA, which is probably the best measure of a pitcher's effectiveness. However, ERA can be affected by the ballparks in which the pitcher plays, and Blyleven had the misfortune to play for Minnesota, Texas, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, all places where the ballpark favored hitters, not pitchers, and especially not fly-ball pitchers like Bert. He finished second in ERA to Jim Palmer in 1973, though he actually pitched about 30 more innings than Cakes, and therefore saved more runs. He also finished second to Frank Tanana in 1977.
On the other hand, such immortals as Freddy Garcia, Steve Ontiveros, Allan Anderson and Atlee Hammaker do have at least one ERA title, so that in and of itself probably doesn't mean much.

But when you adjust for ballparks, Blyleven actually did lead his league in Adjusted ERA (ERA+) once, in 1973, when his 158 mark was just slightly better than the 156 that Hall of Famer Jim Palmer put up. He also finished a very close 2nd in ERA+ several times:

#1) Gaylord Perry, 144 (another Hall of Famer)
#2) Blyleven, 142

#1) Frank Tanana 154
#2) Blyleven 151

#1) Dave Stieb 145
#2) Blyleven 144

What we want out of a Hall of Fame player is excellence, and consistent excellence at that. Blyleven may have never led his league in ERA, but he was in the top 10 ten different times. The only players who have done that more are all in the Hall of Fame, or will be when their time comes:

Cy Young (16 times),
Roger Clemens, Walter Johnson, and Warren Spahn (14 each),
Lefty Grove and Tom Seaver (13 each),
Pete Alexander, Christy Mathewson and Gaylord Perry (12 each),
Whitey Ford, Tim Keefe and Greg Maddux (11 each).

When you look at adjusted ERA, it's

Cy Young (17 times),
Old Pete and the Rocket (15 each),
Big Train (14),
Lefty Grove and Tom Terrific (13 each),
Mad Dog, Big Six, Spahn and Kid Nichols, 12 times each

Oh, and Bert Blyleven, 12 times.

Did you get that? The only pitchers in history who have been in the Top Ten in their league in ERA or adjusted ERA+ more often than Bert Blyleven are all obvious, no-brainer Hall of Famers. So no, he does not havre an ERA title to his credit, but a bloop single here or there could have changed that at least three times. The fact remains that he was one of the ten best a dozen times in 22 seasons, and everyone else who meets that criterion is a no-doubt Hall of Famer.

5) The strikeouts aren't that impressive.

Bob Klapisch cites the fact that Blyleven had 3,701 strikeouts in his career, 5th most all-time, and that he struck out more than 18% of the batters he faced. McAdam plays this down, saying that "outs are outs" and "strikeouts are fascist" which of course is true but that doesn't mean they're not useful. The goal of baseball is not to be diplomatic, but to win. The best way a pitcher can help with that goal is to prevent runs, and the best way to prevent runs is to prevent baserunners. The most reliable way to prevent baserunners is to strike them out. If they don't hit the ball in play, then there's no chance that the defense screws up and allows them to remain safe at first, right? And Blyleven, having done that more than all but four pitchers in history, did his own dirty work more than all but four pitchers in history. He deserves extra credit for that.

6) "...too many years where Blyleven wasn't even the best pitcher on his own staff."

Well, this is just preposterous, and fairly easy to refute. I could go through year by year, but that would bore you more than you already have been. Let's do it this way:

During his 22-year MLB career, Bert Blyleven led (or, occasionally, co-led) the teams for which he pitched in...

ERA...13 times
Innings...14 times
Games Started...10 times
Complete Games...12 times
Shutouts...12 times
Strikeouts...13 times

...and just to keep Sean McAdam and the Old School happy, hea also led his team in Wins 9 times

Obviously, lots of these overlap with each other, but combining everything, it looks to me like Blyleven was in fact the best pitcher on his own staff every year from 1971 to 1978, plus 1981, 1984, 1986 and 1989, and maybe the 1979 Pirates as well.

That's at least 12 or 13 years as the ace of his staff, in 22 seasons. How much more do you want? It's also worth noting that Blyleven was traded during the season twice, in 1976 and 1985, and that he better than any pitcher on either team both of those years.


Of course, Sean McAdam does not read my blog. Heck, almost no one does. I do think that during these kinds of arguments, the onus should be on the proponent to say why a player should be in the Hall of fame, rather than on the voter who excludes him to have to justify his lack of a vote. A writer who leaves someone off his ballot can always say, "I just don't think he was good enough, even if he is better than some of the players already in the Hall. They should't be there either." That's my argument with Jim Rice and Dale Murphy, anyway.

But having admitted that Blyleven has some good qualities and citing the reasons that he does not think Blyleven belongs in Cooperstown opens up guys like Sean McAdam to criticism, and I just don't think his arguments hold water.

On a more general note, I think it's odd how players will gain support over time, but they never really loss support once they have it. You hear often how people who once did not vote for Goose or Rice or Blyleven have come over, but you almost never hear of anyone who once did vote for a guy and now does not any longer, at least not for more than one year, if there happen to be two or three big, new names on the ballot. I think this is because the voters are human and therefore not perfect. they're proud and near-sighted and don't want to be bothered with a lot of research.

It's easier (and more easily justifiable, as I mentioned above) to leave someone off the ballot than to put someone on, and they're willing to admit that they had simply not considered someone enough or not realized something about them that makes them turn out to be better than originally thought. But admitting that they had just looked at a player's reputation or career stats and took them at face value, and only later realized that those numbers or that reputation were inflated by this factor or that effect? Well, that's a more bitter pill to swallow, and almost nobody, especially someone who gets paid to pontificate, like a sportwriter, particularly likes the taste of humble pie.

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