The Curious Case of Bert Blyleven

My first instinct is to open by saying “I’m tired of writing about Bert Blyleven.” That would be a lie, however. I do not believe I have ever written a word about Blyleven, much less an entire post. Yet it is my instinct because, to myself, I have said everything that needs to be said about the pitcher and his Hall of Fame candidacy. I have made and posted the forthcoming argument a thousand times in my head, so I have grown tired of it. You have probably grown tired of it too, and if you have not, you almost certainly will after reading this.

Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame. There is no logical argument against this, which is what makes his omission so curious. He is a Hall of Famer by traditional analysis. He is a Hall of Famer by advanced analysis. And yet, by virtue of some wicked double-standard, he continues to fall short of induction. Despite procuring 62.7% of the BBWAA‘s vote, some remain adamant and even offended that he would be deemed more worthy of induction than other contemporary starting pitchers (I’m looking at you, Jack Morris). These people are the impetus for this post, because I have grown tired of this argument, even if I have never had it with anyone but myself.

Last night, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon debated Blyleven’s candidacy on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption.” I use the term “debate” loosely, because both essentially said “eh, maybe” before making vehement cases for Jack Morris. Their mutual conclusion was that Blyleven would not be an outrageous selection, but if Morris is not in, then Blyleven should not be either. This was impetus number one.

Impetus number two was Baseball Prospectus’ interview with the BBWAA’s Chaz Scoggins. In addition to having a great name for a pirate, Scoggins has pretty firm beliefs about Blyleven’s shortcomings. When asked why he did not vote for Blyleven, Scoggins replied:

“I just feel that Bert Blyleven was a little better than a .500 pitcher. I just never felt that he had the fortitude that it takes to win big games. People say that he had the misfortune of playing on a lot of mediocre and even bad teams, but to me, if you’re a Hall of Fame pitcher you’re able to lift your team up; you can win the close games that bad teams need to win, and to me, he just never did that. I know that he lost an awful lot of 1-0 games, but I just felt that, despite all his terrific numbers, he just wasn’t quite good enough.”

In an earlier time, I would have freaked out about this asinine explanation. I have mellowed with age. I will, however, say a few things before factually showing that Blyleven is worthy of induction. Firstly, Scoggins really should not use the verb “to feel” in any way, shape, or form when explaining his reasoning. Baseball statistics exist for a reason: to conveniently track and record events so that we can look back upon them with clarity and objectivity. Perhaps “feeling” can come into play in the cases of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Pete Rose. Otherwise, voting based on “feel” and “fortitude” is ridiculous, unless that fortitude resulted in the fifth most strikeouts of all-time, as it did with Blyleven. But I digress. Secondly, Scoggins does not understand independent events. He is penalizing Blyleven for not “lifting his team up” and thus losing many close games, when reasonable people know that a starting pitcher has zero effect on his team’s offensive performance. How is Blyleven’s pitching supposed to make his team hit better? It is not, and it cannot. This is why pitching “wins” are useless. Lastly, I enjoy that Scoggins verbally recognized that Blyleven’s “terrific numbers” are not good enough. Because “feel” is better, of course.

Here is why Blyleven should be in the Hall of Fame. Yes, it involves lots of numbers and no, I could not make this argument any other way. I am sorry.

From 1970-1992, Bert Blyleven threw 4,970 innings. This is the 14th highest total of all-time, making sample size a non-issue. In this time, he struck out 3,701 hitters, good for fifth all-time. One could argue that this number alone makes Blyleven worthy of induction, but there is even more to his case. His career 3.31 ERA compares favorably to the league’s 3.90 ERA during his 22 years, giving him an ERA+ of 118. He allowed 8.2 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, and 2 BB/9. He struck out 7.4 per nine innings. For those interested, he had a Stuff score of 20, which is twice as good as league average. His career record was 287-250, good for a .534 winning percentage. As you know, I pay zero attention to pitcher wins, but these numbers will become important shortly. Finally, Blyleven’s 10 most similar pitchers per are Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Tommy John, Robin Roberts, Tom Seaver, Jim Kaat, Early Wynn, Phil Niekro, and Steve Carlton. Eight of them are Hall of Famers, and many believe the other two should be in as well. 

Now, to provide some context to those statistics. Blyleven’s raw ERA of 3.31 is better than Wynn’s, Jenkins’, Niekro’s, Roberts’, Dennis Eckersley’s (who pitched 1,500 fewer innings), Tom Glavine’s, Lefty Gomez’, and Mike Mussina’s. All are Hall of Famers, or will be (leap of faith on Mussina). He has a better ERA+ than Perry, Eckersley, Carlton, Jenkins, Niekro, Roberts, Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Red Ruffing, and Jim Bunning. All are Hall of Famers. Blyleven’s 287 wins are the most of any modern day player who is not in the Hall of Fame (I’m excluding Glavine from this because he has not yet retired.) His career 2.8 K/BB is better than Ryan’s, Sutton’s, Roberts’, Perry’s, Carlton’s, Seaver’s, Rollie Fingers’, Bob Gibson’s, Catfish Hunter’s, Hoyt Wilhelm’s, and Goose Gossage’s. All are Hall of Famers.

The most curious part of Blyleven’s omission relates to his wins and winning percentage. Again, I personally see no value in this statistic, but BBWAA voters do, and they are the ones who matter. As I mentioned, Blyleven’s 287 wins are the most of any modern day player that is not in the Hall of Fame. The knock on this, however, appears to be the 250 losses, which give him a .534 winning percentage. This would be understandable if not for the following facts. Nolan Ryan is in the Hall of Fame with a .526 winning percentage and a similarly inferior ERA+. Phil Niekro is in the Hall of Fame with a .537 winning percentage, and a worse raw ERA, ERA+, WHIP, Stuff, H/9, HR/9, BB/9, and K/9. Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame with a .542 winning percentage and worse ERA+. Of course, these three players all broke the magical 300 win plateau, which generally means automatic induction. Then there is Robin Roberts. Roberts has 286 wins, a .539 winning percentage, and an 113 ERA+. He is in the Hall of Fame. I would love for someone to explain to me the difference between Roberts and Blyleven.

A logical question to ask about Blyleven is “why did he win so few games relative to his outstanding performance?” Well, because we live in a wonderful age, one can look this up. Because I was curious and apparently more dutiful than Mr. Scoggins, I did just that. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that Blyleven spent the majority of his career on middling offensive teams. Middling offense means fewer runs scored in support of Blyleven, which means fewer leads for Blyleven, which means fewer wins for Blyleven. In his 22 years in Major League Baseball, Blyleven’s offense ranked 11th in the league in runs scored. Furthermore, his career bullpen support was slightly below average. I looked this up too. Using the Pen Support statistic, we learn that Blyleven’s bullpen typically allowed 0.238 inherited runners to score after he left the game. This is not terrible, but coupled with a middling offense, it is more than enough to explain why Blyleven’s winning percentage is low relative to his peripheral statistics. 

I cannot make a stronger case for Blyleven. There is not a single statistic – including wins – that suggests he should not be in the Hall of Fame. This is what makes his omission so curious. If the argument against him is based on too few wins, then why are Jenkins, Ruffing, Palmer, Bunning, and Bob Feller in the Hall of Fame? If the argument is his low winning percentage, then what about Ryan, Niekro, Perry, Roberts, and Ted Lyons? If the argument is his performance (what a concept!), then why are Perry, Eckersley, Carlton, Jenkins, Niekro, Bunning, Roberts, Ryan, Ruffing and Sutton in the Hall of Fame with worse ERA+’s? It is impossible to deny Blyleven entry based on these facts. 

And don’t even get me started on Tim Raines and his 22.6% of the vote.


One Response to The Curious Case of Bert Blyleven

  1. Keesup says:

    To add insult to injury, “The Curious Case of Bert Blyleven” will probably be overlooked in the Oscars nominations next week.

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