The Bert Blyleven Series, Part Three: Bert Blyleven and Nolan Ryan
Obviously and unfortunately, there is still a segment of the BBWAA that needs convincing.
However, has this point been attacked fully in the first two parts?
Comparing Blyleven to Jack Morris is nice, but Morris is an extremely borderline candidate. One can easily argue Frank Viola's superiority over Morris, which of course does not make Viola anything more than a very good player.
No, the point of the Hall of Fame is to reward the excellent of our national pastime. Thus, it only makes sense to measure Blyleven against those we unanimously consider great.
So allow me to lead off with the conclusion first:
Bert Blyleven was better than Nolan Ryan.
A bridge too far? Before we say that, let us compare the similarities between these pitchers:
Both broke in at 19 years old.
Both obtained significant legacies with multiple teams.
Both pitched for the Angels and Rangers.
Both threw a lot of innings in their career (4,970 for Blyleven, 5,386 for Ryan).
Both never won a Cy Young award and were likely robbed of the award due to playing for a bad team (Blyleven in 1973, Ryan in 1987).
Nolan Ryan was an incredible player, a player I unfortunately never got the privilege to see in person. His 5,714 career strikeouts is possibly the most untouchable record in baseball (and a career 9.55 career K/9 while playing in an era where strikeouts are far harder to come by than now).
Ryan also had a very low career batting average on balls in play against, as well as a stunningly low 0.54 HR/9, which indicates that Ryan was not only good at missing bats, but also at causing bad contact when contact was actually made.
His career hits per nine innings against rate of 6.555 clobbers the competition, as no one with at least 1,000 innings pitched except Sandy Koufax is within .25 hits of that mark (and almost a full half-hit ahead of Mariano Rivera, a pitcher heralded for his ability to cause weak contact).
Ryan, as impressive (and oftentimes incredible) as he was, however, had a weakness: He gave up a lot of walks.
Nolan Ryan is the all-time leader in walks with 2,795, giving him a BB/9 rate of 4.67. This walk rate caused him to give up a lot more baserunners than one with his "stuff" would normally expect, and because of this, his K/BB ratio is buried at 236th of all time among those with 1,000-plus IP, and his WHIP is a fairly pedestrian 1.247. For a single season, that would have put Ryan behind pitchers such as Ross Ohlendorf in 2009.
Nothing to be ashamed of (since as stated before, he gave up mostly one-baggers), but nothing overly spectacular.
Blyleven, on the other hand, made up a big gap between himself and Ryan with much better command of the zone, as highlighted by his career 2.80 K/BB (putting him 51st of all time for pitchers with 1,000-plus IP). Blyleven did not strike out as many, gave up a few more homers, and allowed a few more hits, but he issued nowhere near as many walks (only around half of Ryan's walk rate, or 2.39 BB/9).
A better walk rate is not enough to bridge this gap, however; it is only a piece of the puzzle.
A simple look at ERA and innings pitched (3.19/5,386 for Ryan, 3.31/4,970 for Blyleven) seems to indicate that Ryan was better.
That, however, is a poor indicator. For one, Ryan spent 43.9 percent of his career in the National League, without the designated hitter. Blyleven only enjoyed that luxury for a little over 14 percent of his career.
Does that explain a difference of .12 earned runs per nine innings? Probably not, but we are just getting started.
Ryan played most of the 1980s in the Astrodome, which saw run production decrease by approximately five percent. On the other hand, Blyleven spent many of his good years in the Metrodome, Three Rivers Stadium, and Cleveland Stadium, which often saw increases of run output by approximately three percent.
If, for example, we divide Blyleven's Minnesota ERA by 1.03 and Ryan's Houston ERA by .95 to do a very raw analysis of their time in the two destinations, Blyleven comes out better, 3.18 to 3.29.
Once again, this is not enough. Fortunately, the real analysis has already been pained over for me, in the form of ERA+. It provides a very strong case for Rik Aalbert:
Ryan does have a large edge in FIP, 2.97 to 3.19. How much of that, however, was a product of his home parks suppressing home run totals? A difference of merely .1 HR/9 can skew FIP over .144 runs. Also, over such long careers, should we not expect some normalization between the ERAs of the two men?
Baseball Prospectus also provides two very useful statistics on their DT cards, Pitching Runs Above Replacement (PRAR) and Average (PRAA), as well as Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP, or WARP-3 for an era adjustment). How do both of these men stack up in these categories?
That even surprised me. A full 18.4 marginal wins better? For a more in-depth look, I consulted their translated pitching statistics (explained here ).
Blyleven: 313-220, 3.83 ERA, 1.155 WHIP, 3.44 K/BB
Ryan: 331-272, 4.15 ERA, 1.285 WHIP, 1.97 K/BB
Looking at these numbers, it does not even look like a competition: Blyleven is a slam dunk better pick. Sean Smith's more in-depth historical WAR database , while not as extreme in its Blyleven love, comes to the same conclusion: Blyleven and his career 90.1 marginal wins was better than Ryan and his 84.8.
One may agree with this analysis and assessment, or one may not. However, there are two ultimate truths that cannot be denied after reading through these numbers:
1. Nolan Ryan is still an all-time great, and well deserving of his place in history.
2. Any pitcher that has a legitimate argument for being the superior to an all-time great like Nolan Ryan should, logically, be among the all-time greats himself.
Any way you cut it, it is impossible to deny: Bert Blyleven is an all-time great. He did it for a long time, in big spots, and accumulated a track record that rivals one of the most revered greats of all time. Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame.
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