Why I’d Vote “No” on Bert Blyleven

Here’s the latest article from regular contributor Joe Guzzardi. One thing I like about Joe is that he is unafraid to take on unpopular ideas. We’re kind of kindred spirits in that regard. Here’s an idea that may have been accepted truth 10 years ago but places Joe in a distinct minority now.

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Bert Blyleven just finished first on this Web site’s list of the 50 Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame. The 287-game winner is the favorite among baseball writers to be enshrined in 2011. Blyleven is even his own personal choice. A few years ago, he established a Web site to sell autographs but, more importantly, to lay out his case for Cooperstown.

Blyleven has steadily gained support in his 13 years on the Hall of Fame ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, starting out at less than 20 percent of the vote his first three years, then improving almost annually, rising to a peak of 74.2 percent last year.

But if I were a BBWAA member, I wouldn’t vote for Blyleven. Here’s why. In his 22-year career, Blyleven finished with an under .500 record five times; .500 twice and one game over .500 three times. Sorry, spending roughly half a career without a winning record doesn’t cut it for me.

Another thing: Blyleven never finished higher than third on the Cy Young Award ballot and in 18 of his 22 seasons never ended among the top candidates. How can a pitcher who at no time in his nearly quarter of a century long career was never deemed to be the best pitcher in baseball for a single year be included among the best of all-time? My answer: He can’t.

The Hall of Fame simply cannot have pitchers as disparate in their talent as Tom Seaver and Blyleven as part of the same institution. I compare it to establishing a Millionaire’s Club, then giving membership to someone who only has $500,000.

I can hear the excuses now. Blyleven pitched on lousy teams, had terrible run support, and was injured, blah, blah, blah. Or Blyleven’s strike outs (3,701) and shutouts (60) rank fifth and ninth all-time. That’s impressive—just not impressive enough when included in his total body of work.

The other argument that always comes up in defense of marginal candidates: If so and so is in, then this guy has to be in, too.

Again, I’m apologizing. I evaluate each candidate against my own standards. If ESPN’s Buster Olney chooses to elect Blyleven or, frighteningly, Barry Bonds as he has promised to do that’s his business. You wouldn’t catch me doing it, though.

Would I want Blyleven in my starting rotation? Yes, I would. Is Blyleven a good guy? Yes, he is. His Web site also promotes finding a cure for Parkinson’s Disease and he’s an affable Minnesota Twins’ announcer. Is Blyleven Hall material? No, he’s not.

When it comes to the Hall of Fame, I’m an avowed, unapologetic restrictionist. In July, I proposed on this site that Cooperstown should permanently cap membership at 300 players, removing lesser enshrined players each year as new, better ones become eligible. Click here to see my presentation of this idea to the Forbes Field Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.

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Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research, as well as the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

0 thoughts on “Why I’d Vote “No” on Bert Blyleven”

  1. I completely disagree. Yes, Cy Young voting does matter. But it is possible that in Blyleven’s day the voters were not very sabermetric savvy. They could have made mistakes.

    Saying he pitched on lousy teams is not an excuse. It is an explanation of the context he pitched in. Bill James said something like “sabermetrics is the search for better evidence.” I believe that search has led us to the conclusion that a pitcher’s won-loss record can be very misleading. Saying blah, blah, blah is not an argument.

    Branch Rickey did not think won-loss record was important. In his famous LIFE magazine article, he did not use wins or losses to measure pitching greatness. See

    http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/btf/pages/essays/rickey/goodby_to_old_idea.htm

    To me, a player or pitcher definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame if he had significant peak value and significant career accomplishments. His 3700 strikeouts and 287 wins fulfill the latter criterion. Below I show how he had significant peak value.

    In strikeouts per 9 IP might Blyleven finished in the top 5 in his league 9 times.

    He led his league in shutouts 3 thimes and had 9 top 5 finishes and is 9th all-time.

    He had 13 top 5 finishes in strikeout-to-walk ratio and 3 1st places. He was in the top 3 every year from 1970-74.

    He led all AL pitchers in WAR in the period of 1971-77 and only Tom Seaver was higher for all of baseball. He is 13th in career WAR.

    For more of what I have written on Blyleven, go to

    http://cybermetric.blogspot.com/2010/01/bert-blylevens-amazing-strikeout-to.html

    Blyleven’s 1973-77 might have been as dominant as Koufax’s 1962-66. See

    http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/story/2007/1/31/8555/76382

    I also found the pitchers since 1900 who had the most seasons in the top 5 in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Here are the leaders:

    Walter Johnson 16
    Bert Blyleven 13
    Mike Mussina 13
    Robin Roberts 13
    Carl Hubbell 12
    Christy Mathewson 12
    Greg Maddux 12
    Lefty Grove 12
    Don Sutton 11
    Jim Bunning 11
    Randy Johnson 11

  2. The Hall of Fame simply cannot have pitchers as disparate in their talent as Tom Seaver and Blyleven as part of the same institution.

    But pitchers as disparate as Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard, as disparate as Lefty Grove and Jesse Haines already occupy the same Hall of Fame. Not that two wrongs make a right, just that Blyleven’s enshrinement, in and of itself, will not
    irretrievably lower the standards for Cooperstown.

  3. Blyleven simply does not pass the “smell” test. Anybody who watched him play knows perfectly well that while a very good pitcher, he was not one of the greats of his era. The lack of Cy Young votes indicate that he was not considered to be a top pitcher while he was active, and the fact that he received less than 30% of the vote in each of his first six years on the ballot indicates that most of the writers who actually saw him pitch didn’t think he was HOF worthy either.

    The only reason that he is on the verge of election is because he has been the best remaining starter on the ballot ever since Nolan Ryan got elected in 1999. He has also benefited tremendously from being on the ballot in between the two recent “waves” of top-level starters (after the Seaver, Carlton, Palmer, Ryan wave got elected and before the Clemens, Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Glavine, Smoltz, Schilling wave became eligible), which has meant that for the better part of ten years he, along with Jack Morris, have been the only half-decent starters on the ballot. Put him on the same ballot with guys like Carlton, Seaver, and Ryan, and he’d be lucky to break 50%.

  4. It seems that Blyleven is being compared to Seaver and that Blyleven falls way short of Seaver. This is probably a good comparison to make since they both basically pitched in the same era. I am going to compare the two using the pitcher controlled stats of strikeouts, walks and HRs.

    According to the Lee Sinins Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, Blyleven allowed 430 HRs in his career compared to a league average of 444. Seaver allowed 380 with a league average of 390. So both were just a bit better than average.

    Blyleven had 6.7 strikeouts per 9 IP while Seaver had 6.85. But remember that Blyleven faced the DH alot more than Seaver. Blyleven was 27.86% better than the league average while Seaver was 26.6% better.

    Blyleven walked 2.39 per 9 IP with a league average of 3.28 while Seaver had 2.62, league average of 3.24.

    Blyleven’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was 75% better than the league average while Seaver’s was 57% better.

    I also played around with the numbers, taking out IBBs (Seaver had 45 more) and putting HBP in (Blyleven had 79 more). But once this was done, Blyleven was 68.69% better than the league average in strikeout-to-walk ratio and Seaver was 59.6% better. So Blyleven still has the edge.

    If we look at strikeout%, that is strikeouts divided by batters faced, Blyleven had 18.1% while Seaver had 18.9% (I took out IBBs from BFP). But again, Blyleven faced the DH more. The league average strikeouts per 9 IP was about 3% higher for Seaver. If we assume that the strikeout% was also 3% higher and we raise Blyleven’s 18.1% by 3%, we get 18.7%. That is just a hair below Seaver.

    Blyleven walked 6.89% of the batters he faced (again, IBBs out, HBP in). Seaver had 7.01%. And that is without any adjustment for the league average. Blyleven was better in preventing walks.

    Blyleven pitched 4,970 innings while Seaver had 4,872.2.

    So very similar numbers in IP, HRs, SOs and BBs.

  5. I think a lot of this comes down to people who’d vote based on stats versus people who’d vote on enshrining only iconic players. Blyleven may come up short on the latter count, though in many different statistical areas (wins, strikeouts, shutouts, CG, career innings, WAR, K/9, WHIP, and probably many other obscure metrics I don’t yet know) he’s worthy of Cooperstown.)

  6. So I guess you wouldn’t vote for Nolan Ryan either, since his career win percentage was 8 points LOWER than Blyleven and more than half of his 27 seasons were no more than 1 game abouve .500.

    As for your CY Young argument, why does it matter whether a pitcher finishes in the top 3? Cal Ripken only finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting 3 times in his long career. Would you not vote for him either?

    Your Seaver argument is very lame. I could use the same logic to say that Seaver doesn’t belong because his stats are inferior to Grover Alexander and Walter Johnson. Or I could say that Willie McCovey doesn’t belong because he wasn’t as good as Lou Gehrig.

    You’re obviously proud of your narrow view of HOF qualifications. I’m just glad you don’t get to vote.

  7. MFW13, you said a couple of things that don’t pass the smell test yourself. First, “Anybody who watched him play knows perfectly well that while a very good pitcher, he was not one of the greats of his era.”. What do you base that on? Did you take a poll? Did the grandstands just happen to be empty for each of his 60 shutouts?

    And I think you defeat your own position when you point out that he has been the best pitcher on the ballot for a FULL DECADE.

    He struck out 200 batters EIGHT times, threw 60 shutouts, and was 5-1 in postseason games with a 2.47 ERA. True, he never had the peaks of a Koufax or a Marichal, but there’s something to be said for being a “very good” pitcher for over 20 years. Like it or not, there are plenty of players in the HOF who got there more on longevity as much as by performance, such as Yaz, Ozzie Smith, Phil Niekro, CAl Ripken, and Brooks Robinson.

  8. Stratobill,

    Ripken may only have finished in the top 3 of the MVP voting 3 times, but two of those times he won the MVP, and he was a 19-time All-Star, clearly indicating that he was a the best player of his era at his position, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record notwithstanding. A no-brainer 1st ballot HOFer in my book.

    With regards to Blyleven, you are right in that there is something to be said for being a very good pitcher for over 20 years. I just happen to think that the HOF should be reserved for players who were, at some point in their career, considered to be the best in the game at their position.

    The bottom line is this…numbers can be made to say pretty much anything you want them to. But the evidence is pretty clear that Blyleven was not considered to be HOF material either during his career or the ten years immediately after it. Only fifteen years after he threw his last pitch, during a period when there have been no other good starters on the HOF ballot to compete with him, has he suddenly started to garner significant HOF support.

  9. Thanks to everybody who took the time to write about my blog. I’m not much of a SABRmetrician but the mention of it reminds me about a big issue in Pittsburgh early this summer. Charlie Morton, who the Pirates acquired in 2009 for Nate McClouth got off poorly, getting shelled in his first five or six starts. Pirate management was anxious to keep Morton in the rotation for several reasons. First, the team had little quality starting pitching, second, it wanted to justify trading one of its all time most popular players (McClouth) and hoped that Morton would soon improve. As Morton continued to lose, the Pirates’ brass started to quote various obscure (to me) pitching statistics and ratios that I had never heard of, all supposed evidence that Morton was pitching in bad luck. Finally, when Morton’s record reached 1-9 with a 9.50 ERA, he was demoted. Pirates’ protestations aside, the only logic that was clear was that when Morton pitched, the Pirates lost. I’m not comparing Morton to Blyleven but I am suggesting (again) that, with baseball, cases for and cases against are easily made. And that’s what makes the whole exercise fun.

  10. MFW13, there’s a problem with your belief that ” the HOF should be reserved for players who were, at some point in their career, considered to be the best in the game at their position.”

    Let’s take Jayson Heyward and Mike Stanton, two rookies from 2010. Let’s say that over the next 18 years Heyward hits 603 HRs, bats .327 and is generally considered the best right fielder in the game. During the same 18 seasons, Stanton hits 549 HRs, bats .305 and is generally considered the 2nd or 3rd best right fielder in the game.

    Your philosophy would prevent you from voting for Mike Stanton for the HOF under this scenario.

    Now lets change it slightly and say that Heyward misses two whole seasons in his prime and Stanton is regarded as the best right fielder in the game for those two seasons.

    Under this scenario, I assume you WOULD vote for both Heyward and Stanton, even though Stanton’s stats were identical in both scenarios. Does that make sense?

    By the way, in 1984 Blyleven was voted the top starting pitcher in the American League CY Young balloting, thus meeting your criteria of being considered “best at his position at some point in his career”. Although he placed 3rd in the Cy Young
    voting in 1984, the two pitchers who finished higher were both relievers, not starters, so Blyleven WAS the best starter in the league that year, based on the voting.

  11. Stratobill, you appear to mistunderstand my philosophy. The fact that they both play RF is irrelevant. Not only is the outfield a big place, but they are both likely to play more than one OF position over the course of their careers as well as potentially 1B and DH. Nothing related to what position they play would prevent me from voting for both of them if warranted.

    Likewise, their career numbers would be of less interest to me than how they measured up against their peers. If they each win an MVP or two, finish in the top five a few other times, and are perennial All-Stars, then in my book they would almost certainly be HOF-worthy. If fifteen other players of their era have 500 HR and a .300 BA, and neither of them ever comes close to winning the MVP, then probably not.

    My problem with Blyleven is that he is, at best, the fifth best starter of his era, after Ryan, Seaver, Carlton, and Palmer. Even then, many wouldn’t even rank him that high, given that Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Tommy John, and Jim Kaat (none of whom I would have voted for) could each be argued to have been as good if not better than Blyleven.

    For me, a starter who only received Cy Young votes in four years out of twenty-two, had a mere .534 career winning percentage, only a 118 ERA+, and only one season with a pitching WAR over 7.5 just isn’t good enough to be considered among the all-time greats.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree…

  12. Career WAR
    Blyleven 90.1 (13th best all-time)
    Palmer 63.1 (131st)

    Best 3 consecutive seasons in WAR
    Blyleven 22.2
    Palmer 21.9

    Best 4 consecutive seasons in WAR
    Blyleven 28.9
    Palmer 28

    Seasons with 6+ WAR
    Blyleven 6
    Palmer 6

    Seasons with 5+ WAR
    Blyleven 10
    Palmer 6

  13. Cyril,
    I would add one more Palmer/Blyleven comparison: In Palmer’s three CYA seasons (’73, ’75, and ’76) Blyleven had a higher WAR (21.7 to 20.1), yet he was practically ignored in the voting (7th in ’73).
    At the beginning of this discussion, you made the following point.
    “Cy Young voting does matter. But it is possible that in Blyleven’s day the voters were not very sabermetric savvy.”
    I say much more than “possible.” It’s clear that times have changed. Remember, we’re only a few weeks removed from Felix Hernandez having won the CYA.

  14. Cyril,

    The problem is that you can twist numbers to reach pretty much any conclusion you want, which is why I tend to favor subjective voting data over pure numbers in my analysis.

    For example, you mention that Blyleven had the same number of 6+ WAR seasons as Palmer and more 5+ WAR seasons. Both true. But on the other hand, Palmer, Ryan, Carlton, and Seaver all had more 7.5+ WAR seasons than Blyleven.

    Blyleven (as well as Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry)had a higher career WAR than Christy Mathewson, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, and Carl Hubbell. However, I doubt you’d find too many people who would argue that he was a better pitcher than them.

    Numbers are meaningless without context, which is why I tend to give more weight to the subjective opinions of the people who actually saw Blyelven pitch (i.e. Cy Young voters in this case) than you do.

  15. I saw Blyleven pitch, as a fan born in 1964 and watching closely since 1972, which includes the bulk of Blyleven’s career. I consider him a Hall of Famer. During his career he was considered to have the best curveball in the game. Just because the voters didn’t give him the 1973 AL Cy Young Award doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have won it.

  16. The win loss argument and the Cy Young argument in this article — really the only reasons cited against voting for Blyleven — are only one point, not two. Cy Young voting is closely tied to win-loss records, particularly in that era.

    Blyleven, though not an iconic pitcher then or now, was one of the greats as the statistical arguments above show.

  17. Ryan and Blyleven pitched in the same league in 8 seasons. In those 8 years, BLYLEVEN HAD THE BETTER ERA 6 OUT OF 8 TIMES. So, when comparing apples to apples, Blyleven was a better pitcher than Ryan 75% of the time, even with Blyleven pitching in more hitters’ parks.

    1973 is a great example that debunks the Ryan “dominance” myth. Most Ryan fans remember from that year Ryan’s all-time record 383 strikeouts. However, Blyleven was better than Ryan in Ryan’s most “dominant” season. Despite setting the record in Ks, Ryan had a far worse ERA than Blyeven (2.87 to 2.52). Why? Ryan fans don’t mention his 162 walks (4 per start!) compared to 67 for Blyleven. Walks kill. So although it looked like Ryan dominated, Blyleven actually dominated more in what matters: giving up fewer runs. The same thing happened the next year. Ryan led in Ks but also he also led in BBs with 202! (that’s 5 walks a start!), and thus again gave up more runs than Blyleven. In fact, year after year, Ryan struck out more than Blyleven, and gave up fewer hits than Blyleven, but gave up more runs than Blyleven. Why? WAY MORE WALKS. So, while Ryan “should have been” one of the best pitchers ever, he was NOT even one of the top 10 in his own league in ERA in most years. Walks kill.
    Because Ryan walked tons of batters, while Blyleven was a control artist, Blyleven outpitched Ryan year after year.

  18. What about Juan Marichal? He never won the Cy.

    What about John Smoltz? He did win the Cy in 1996, but that was his lone 20-win season (he won 24), as well as his lone season of 5+ WAR (6.1), and he received votes in “only” 4 other seasons.

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