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Sunday, July 28
By any measure, Blyleven should be in

By Michael Wolverton
Special to

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
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
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 Michael Wolverton can be reached at

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