Bert Blyleven, Waiting in the Wings: New Perspectives

Jonathan StilwellCorrespondent IJuly 27, 2009


During the course of baseball history, from the very beginning in 1876 until now, only 29 major league pitchers have forged their way to what I call an epic career—one that has included 4500 or more innings of pitching. (This includes Eppa Rixey and Eddie Plank, whose careers only lacked five or so innings from making the milestone.)

These are the pitchers who have won the most games in history.  These are also the pitchers who have lost the most games in history. 

In general, these are not the pitchers with the highest winning percentages, but probably the pitchers with the most guts and determination.

On this list with 4970 innings pitched, 14th all-time, is Bert Blyleven.  He was second in votes (62 percent) among players receiving less than the required 75 percent this past January.  He is essentially waiting in the wings for his turn for induction.

A Hall of Fame career is one of dominance, endurance and quality.  If a player has enough of those ingredients in some combination, they earn their way into the HOF.

For a pitcher, domination is really a term we have coined in modern times.  It's what we witnessed in the raised mound era—the epitome of the term being expressed by the work of Sandy Koufax.

During the era, ERAs plummeted, strikeout totals reached new heights, and the K/BB ratio witnessed marks higher than any posted in history.  Pitching dominated and the writers loved it! 

The new levels of domination became the standard of what was considered great pitching even after the mound was lowered and the strike zone made smaller.  The judges of greatness had become distracted by the recent events and spoiled.

Historically, dominance was displayed by the great pitching peaks of all-time; Walter Johnson's 1913 - '15; Christy Mathewson's 1905 - '08; Grover Alexander's 1915 season; Lefty Grove's peak - 1928 - '31; Sandy Koufax' 1963 - '66.

What statistics made these pitchers dominant? Win totals, low ERAs and high ERA+ marks, strikeout totals, and shutouts.

Part of the equation for pitching greatness also comes with the endurance these pitchers displayed.  They had high innings pitched totals and a high number of complete games.  A third stat that shows evidence of endurance to a somewhat lesser degree is the win.

The quality stats show how a pitcher got to these totals.  The modern statistician looks at H/9, K/BB ratio, WHIP, and other ratios to gauge the quality of work a pitcher produces.

Maintaining good quality stats over the course of an epic career is difficult.  Arms wear down and fastballs lose their zip.  Most careers show a natural decline in stats like K/BB, and ERA+ between 3000 and 4500 innings. 

How do Bert Blylevens stats compare to the greats of the game that have set their standards to be measured against?

Well, we know some of the raw numbers: 287 wins, 3701 strikeouts, and 60 shutouts.  That is part of the picture. 

K/BB ratio is used to measure a pitcher's command and stuff.  Are they the master of the strike zone, or do the hitters have control?  It is a stat of dominance and quality.

Blyleven's career mark for K/BB ratio is 2.80 (3701 K/ 1322 BB).  This is historically a high mark, especially considering he kept at it for 4970 innings. 

Walter Johnson, the most dominant pitcher in history, has a career mark of 2.57 (3509K/ 1363 BB).

In fact, among the pitchers (13) who have a longer career than Blyleven, only Greg Maddux has a higher ratio (3.37). 

(Pitchers from our most recent era (1990 - 2009) have posted K/BB ratios off the charts historically.  Much of this is due to the pitcher being relieved of the responsibility to finish the game.  They can pitch all out until the relief specialists are brought into the game.)

There is also the use of PEDs we cannot definitively gauge.  (I leave Roger Clemens out of my accounting of epic careers even though his inning totals put him in this group.)

In fact, going all the way down to the top 65 pitchers in career length, the only pitchers with a better K/BB ratio than Bert Blyleven are Greg Maddux, Ferguson Jenkins, Christy Mathewson, and Randy Johnson. 

Between 1921, the advent of the live ball era, and 1990 Blyleven is second in K/BB ratio among this group!  This looks like he stacks up pretty well in this revealing stat among a group including almost 40 HOF pitchers!

Sometimes I hear the comment about Blyleven that he was never that dominant a pitcher.  He was never the best of his era.

These detractors say that Blyleven was just a very good pitcher for a long time.  That he just accrued his stats over a long, not so eventful career.

Forgetting what we just learned and know about how his total career numbers stack up in strikeouts, and shutouts, two important stats of domination, and the domination displayed by the K/BB ratio study we just did, let's force Blyleven to match up with one of the most dominant short careers on record, that of Sandy Koufax!

Let's take a look!

In Koufax career, he pitched 2324 innings generated by 314 games started.  After Blyleven's first nine years, he had pitched 2387 innings generated by starting 313 games started.

Koufax early on had also pitched in relief.  Blyleven had only pitched three games in relief at this point in his career, so Koufax total games (397) were more than Blyleven's (316).

So Blyleven had pitched in more innings but fewer games.  I will use this cut off point in Blyleven's career to compare their stats. 

First off we can see that Blyleven averaged more innings per start through his first nine years than Koufax did for his career. 

Among those 313 games started, Blyleven had 141 complete games, and Koufax had 137.  Among their complete games, Blyleven had 39 shutouts, and Koufax had 40.  So far they are very comparable in these endurance and dominance stats.

Koufax had more total strikeouts: 2396 to Blyleven's 1910 (well over 200 per season).  Now lets add the BBs and get the ratios - Koufax - 2396/ 817 = 2.93 ratio; Blyleven - 1910K/ 619 BB = 3.09 ratio.  Blyleven's ratio is actually a little better at a similar career length!

OK, Let's look at WHIP.  Koufax had an incredible career WHIP of 1.108.  Blyleven's was close at 1.138.  Not quite as good, but only .03 of a batter per inning different!

I'd like to do one last comparison using a category modern day statisticians love to use to point out dominance, ERA+.  Sandy Koufax' career ERA+ was +131.  It is one of the highest career marks of the live ball era.  Cumulatively through a matching period of Blyleven's career his ERA+ was +132!

Now factor in the advantage the pitchers had with the raised mound and the larger strike zone!  Blyleven was just a "very good" pitcher?

We have examined stats of dominance, endurance, and quality.  It is clear that Bert Blyleven's 1970 - 1978 were at a level similar in dominance, stamina and quality to one of the greatest shorter careers pitching has ever produced!

How did the writers miss it?  You know they did!! 

Here's a theory. 

There were lots of contributing factors—where he played—(the hub of baseball writers were on the east coast. They didn't have highlight reels or SportsCenter to watch the next day after Blyleven might have pitched into the ninth inning with a 1-1 tie in Anaheim or Oakland the night before!  They were most likely asleep when all of that happened.)

Lack of spotlight on the big stage of the post-season and world series was another contributing factor, plus lots of other hall of fame pitchers were near the peak of their careers (Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal) to distract attention elsewhere.

But the No. 1 reason was his W - L records masked his excellence. 

From his rookie season through his time with the Rangers in '76 and '77 his W - L records hovered near .500.  Why?  This is the time he was pitching lights out!  His ERA+ was +132!  How could they not see what he was accomplishing?

Here it is, game after game he had to leave when he pitched extremely well with the score tied or with his team behind.  It's not that his teams were so bad, it's that they didn't score when he was pitching!

Here's information a fellow writer, Bill Gros, ferreted out from studying the box scores from those years:

In games where he pitched a quality start: 6 innings, 2 runs or less; 7, 8, 9 innings, 3 runs or less, and 9+ innings, 4 runs or less, but left with the score tied or his team behind - Blyleven, from his rookie season in 1970 through 1977, finished with a record of 0 - 53 and an ERA of 2.19!

Here's the pitching line from those games: 82 games, 658 IP, 583 H, 160 ER, 184 BB, 540 K, and an ERA of 2.19.  Bill goes on to break it down season by season.  This amounted to almost one third of his games! - an 0 - 53 record.  What a weight to be carrying around for 8 years!

Can you imagine - in 1974 Blyleven went 17-9 in 27 of his games.  In the other 10, while pitching with an ERA of 1.80, he goes 0 - 8 and winds up a .500 pitcher at 17-17.  If you are a Cy Young voter, do you give a first, second or third place vote to a pitcher with a 17-17 record?

In 1971 Blyleven lost 15 games. The Twins scored a total of 18 runs in those 15 losses.  Unless he pitched a shutout, it would have been hard to win any of those games with 1.2 runs of support per game.

The writers missed it then, and some are refusing to see past the W - L record today.  If he had won even one third of those 82 games, it would have given him 27 more wins, he would have 314 for his career, and this HOF discussion would be a moot point!

Twenty-seven more wins scattered in the right places on his W - L records during those years could have yielded two or three more 20 game winning seasons, and a lot more of the attention he deserved.

It's all about perception.

Since the live ball era began in 1921 Bert Blyleven holds the record for most 1-0 shutouts - 15.  He is one of four pitchers with 60 shutouts since 1921; Warren Spahn (63), Nolan Ryan (61), Tom Seaver (61), and Blyleven (60).

The next few on the list since 1921 aren't too shabby either! - Don Sutton (58), Bob Gibson (56), Steve Carlton (55), Jim Palmer (53), Gaylord Perry (53), Juan Marichal (52), Don Dysdale (49), and Ferguson Jenkins (49). 

It doesn't look like being on this list is an accident, or fluke.  Blyleven is surrounded by HOF pitchers.  He's where he belongs on this list!  (If you look at the full list, it's a virtual who's who of all the greatest starting pitchers throughout baseball history!  Every other pitcher all the way down to 20th on the list from before 1921 is a HOF pitcher as well).

Fifty shutouts should be a HOF slam dunk!

We could study the list of pitchers with 3000 strikeouts, and draw the same conclusion.  Blyleven's 3701 is 5th all-time.  It's been two generations since Bob Gibson began to break the 3000 barrier and join Walter Johnson.  Today we have a nice body of evidence.

From the second generation Randy Johnson, Maddux, Schilling, Martinez and Smoltz are in.  Glavine and Mussina were left on the other side.  Nobody else is close.  There were no mistakes.

I challenge HOF voters to look at this material with an open mind, and put Bert Blyleven  with his contemporary greats, and with so many of the pitchers throughout the history of the game who have pitched epic careers; in the Hall of Fame.


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