|Sunday, July 28
By any measure, Blyleven should be in
By Michael Wolverton
Special to ESPN.com
Why isn't Bert Blyleven in the Hall of Fame?
It's not just that he hasn't been elected; he hasn't gotten close to being elected. The best level of support he's gotten from the BBWAA in his five years of eligibility has been 26 percent -- about a third of the number of votes he needs to get into Cooperstown. How can a pitcher with such impressive career numbers, not to mention the best curveball of his generation, be generating so little support?
It can't be because he wasn't good enough at preventing runs -- the entire job of a starting pitcher. The "classic" run prevention stats -- ERA and innings pitched -- make a decent Hall of Fame case for Blyleven. His career ERA of 3.31 is better than one-fifth of the Hall's starting pitcher inductees. He put up that ERA over 4,970 innings, better than four-fifths of the Hall's starters.
Of course, looking at raw ERA is doing Blyleven a big disservice, because it ignores the inflated run-scoring environment in which he pitched. The vast majority of his innings were thrown in the post-DH American League. Most of his home parks were hitter-friendly. And unlike many of the contemporaries to whom he is frequently compared -- Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Ferguson Jenkins, etc. -- Blyleven did not spend any of his career in the shutout-happy 1960s.
In order to compare Blyleven and other pitchers on a level playing field, accounting for the run-scoring environments in which they pitched, we'll use an estimate of Wins Above Replacement: How many wins the pitcher added to his teams beyond what a replacement-level pitcher would have done. Anyone who wants the details can find them in this Randy Johnson article, but the basic idea is pretty simple: Figure out how many runs the pitcher prevented over what a replacement-level pitcher would have allowed in the same number of innings, the same league, and the same park, and then convert the resulting number to wins to account for the changing value of runs over time.
Here are the top 10 non-Hall pitchers since 1900. Only Hall-eligible pitchers are considered, so we're excluding active pitchers, along with the blacklisted Eddie Cicotte.
Pitcher WAR BERT BLYLEVEN 92 Billy Pierce 66 Tommy John 65 Luis Tiant 62 Tommy Bridges 61 Wilbur Cooper 59 Babe Adams 59 Rick Reuschel 58 Jerry Koosman 58 Dave Stieb 58
Blyleven isn't just the top pitcher outside the Hall by this measure of run prevention; he blows everyone else out of the water. He's often been lumped together with Tommy John in Hall discussions because the two have very similar raw numbers. But John pitched for better teams, and in pitcher-friendly Dodger and Yankee Stadiums. John was a fine pitcher who has a decent Hall of Fame case in his own right, but when it comes to preventing runs, Blyleven was in another league.
Since Blyleven towers above the other pitchers who've been excluded from the Hall, it's no surprise that he fits in better with the Cooperstown set. For example, here's Blyleven along with his Hall of Fame contemporaries:
Pitcher WAR Tom Seaver 105 BERT BLYLEVEN 92 Gaylord Perry 89 Steve Carlton 85 Phil Niekro 84 Jim Palmer 83 Don Sutton 80 Nolan Ryan 79 Fergie Jenkins 79 Catfish Hunter 46
I don't claim this is the one definitive ranking of the 70's pitchers. Other analysts measure run prevention in slightly different ways, and they'll come up with slightly different lists. But all of them, at least all the ones I know of, show Blyleven right at home among Hall of Famers.
If Blyleven's career totals are Hall-worthy, perhaps it's a lack of big individual seasons that's keeping him out. It's true that he never had a season the caliber of, say, Steve Carlton's 1972, but the Hall would be practically empty if that were the standard. Blyleven did have more than his share of years in which he was one of the league's elite pitchers. He finished in the top five in ERA six times; of the 1970s pitchers in the list above, only Seaver and Palmer can claim as many or more top-five finishes. Blyleven generally put up his good ERAs in hitters' parks.
Did Blyleven wreck his Hall candidacy by melting down in the postseason? On the contrary, he was an outstanding October pitcher, putting up a 2.47 ERA in 47 1/3 postseason innings, and a 2.35 ERA in 23 World Series innings. His postseason performances played a big role in the "We Are Family" Pirates' championship in 1979 and the improbable Twins championship in 1987.
Maybe the explanation is Blyleven's career won/loss record -- 287-250, a .534 winning percentage. I hesitate to even give this much attention, because a pitcher's won/loss record is as much a reflection of his teammates' performance as it is his. Pitchers don't win games, teams do. Some work I did for a previous article suggested that Blyleven's won/loss record is the seventh unluckiest in major-league history, and that his "deserved" career record is around 312-225.
For the sake of argument, let's imagine that pitchers' career won/loss records are good measures of their performance. Is Blyleven's 287-250 bad enough to keep him out? Well, other than Blyleven, there are six pitchers since 1900 who had 250 to 300 wins and a winning percentage below .550. Five of those six are enshrined in Cooperstown, including the two with winning percentages worse than Blyleven's:
Pitcher W L Pct HOF? Eppa Rixey 266 251 .515 Y Ted Lyons 260 230 .531 Y BERT BLYLEVEN 287 250 .534 N Robin Roberts 286 245 .539 Y Red Faber 254 213 .544 Y Jim Kaat 283 237 .544 N Red Ruffing 273 225 .548 Y
Bert Blyleven will be in the Hall of Fame someday. There is simply no precedent for keeping a player who produced this well and for this long out of Cooperstown forever. It's ridiculous to make him wait any longer. The complete lack of support for a player with such clear qualifications makes Bert Blyleven the Hall's greatest oversight.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus (tm) at their web site at baseballprospectus.com. Michael Wolverton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.