Bert Blyleven: Pitching History and The Hall of Fame

Jonathan StilwellCorrespondent IDecember 29, 2010

Bert waving to fans in Minnesota
Bert waving to fans in MinnesotaMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

As we approach the voting results for the Hall of Fame this year, Bert Blyleven's case deserves one more look.  It has been a long and arduous path for Blyleven gaining votes almost yearly until last year he was but five votes short of induction to baseball's highest honor.  This path reminds me of his career — 4970 innings, twice fighting back from injury to reclaim excellence.

What makes a HOF pitcher?  In the sake of brevity, it is some combination of domination, excellence and endurance that puts a pitcher over the line for Cooperstown.  Historically, it has been measured in different ways. 

Some pitchers had brief brilliant careers, (Sandy Koufax, Addie Joss, Lefty Gomez, Dizzy Dean.)  Others have had careers of high quality — Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Carl Hubbell; and others have passed automatic milestones like 300 wins, or perhaps a more recent 3000 strikeouts. (Early Wynn, Bob Gibson)

The base minimum for wins to be considered for the HOF has been 200 wins — Hal Newhouser, Bob Lemon, Don Drysdale are examples of pitchers with win totals in the low 200s.  This is in contrast to 300 wins, which has been an automatic induction total.

So, Bert Blyleven's 287 should in no way prevent him from the HOF.  If anything it should strongly recommend him for the HOF.  His adjusted total of wins, called Neutral wins, is 313, and Baseball Reference had it figured to 325.  This is how many wins he would have had with even league average runs support throughout his career.  His losses would have been reduced to 227, and the whole debate over his qualifications and winning percentage would be a moot point.

Basically, the viewpoint of the writers from his era that he was just a good pitcher, but not great or dominant came from his W-L records over his first eight years of his career.  So, a year like 1973, when he led all players in WAR (not just pitchers!) with 9.1, he finished seventh in the Cy Young voting with a 20-17 record.  He deserved, or pitched well enough to win the award.

That year he was the best pitcher in baseball. Similarly, King Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young this year with a 13-12 record. So people that say he was never dominant are just basically wrong from the get go. The W-L records near .500 came from his poor run support during this time.

I personally can't think of three stats that demonstrate domination and quality like strikeouts, strikeout to walk ratio, and career complete game shutouts.

First, let's establish the quality of the work Blyleven produced during his 4970 inning career.  The great command stat is the K/BB ratio. The pitchers with the greatest "stuff" and command of the strike zone have put up the highest marks in this category.  These are the great command pitchers throughout history.

In the dead ball era it was Christy Mathewson leading the way with a mark of 2.96.  He did this over 4600 innings.  Right behind him were pitchers with shorter careers but great command, Ed Walsh, and Rube Waddell.  So the title from this period goes to Mathewson for the best ratio and the longest career.

In the live ball era, pitchers struggled to keep up with this stat.  The best were Carl Hubbell and Dazzy Vance.  Their ratios were at 2.46 and 2.30.

The legacy continues in the Golden Years with Robin Roberts, who led all comers with a 2.66 mark over a career around 4600 innings.

Then came the raised mound era with a larger strike zone.  Pitchers were given a boost, and results followed. Juan Marichal, a great command pitcher, and Sandy Koufax led the way with Marichal a bit over 3.00 and Koufax at 2.93.

In 1969 the mound was lowered and the strike zone was shrunk. But pitchers were still expected to put up great command figures along with strikeouts and complete games.  Among all the HOF pitchers of this era, Ferguson Jenkins (with several years during the raised mound under his belt), and HOF candidate Bert Blyleven lead the way. 

Blyleven's mark of 2.80 is one of the highest since the live ball era began, and he did it over 4970 innings!  Bert Blyleven is one of the great command pitchers in baseball history!

Most people familiar with Blyleven's case for the HOF know that he stands fifth all-time in strikeouts.  That was the first stat that struck me as important.  We set up a hit milestone of 3000 for automatic induction to the HOF. Walter Johnson broke the 3000 K barrier in the 1920s. Nobody came close to it again until Bob Gibson broke the barrier in the early 70s.

Since that time we have had two generations to see what kind of a milestone it is in modern baseball.  The pitchers who have passed the total have all been HOF worthy - Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Phil Neikro, Don Sutton, and more recently, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and John Smoltz. 

Now add Bert Blyleven to this list and put him not at the end, but fifth all-time with 3701 Ks.  This is a significant accomplishment, very strongly indicating HOF worthiness.

What I feel is Bert Blyleven's strongest calling card for the HOF are his 60 career shutouts.  Since 1921, the advent of the live ball era, and the end of the low scoring dead ball era, when shutouts were prevalent — (Walter Johnson 110, Pete Alexander 90, Christy Mathewson 78, Eddie Plank 69), there have been four pitchers who have totalled 60 career shutouts.  They are Warren Spahn (63), Nolan Ryan (61), Tom Seaver (61), and Bert Blyleven (60).

Career shutouts are one of the most accurate gauges of pitching greatness we have.  They are at least as accurate in the modern era of baseball — 1901-1992 as Wins or ERA+ to measure pitching greatness and domination.

Take a look at the career shutout list and you see the greatest pitchers in the game!  Bert Blyleven is ninth on this list.

Blyleven has 15 shutouts when he won the games 1-0.  That is more than any other pitcher since the advent of the live ball era!

There is one more very strong indicator for HOF greatness — career WAR, or wins over replacement.  This is a system that puts a value to each year a pitcher performed and gives it a score for the value of the season compared to the level of a replacement pitcher. 

(The era Blyleven pitched — 1970-1992 was one of the greatest in history for pitching — thus a very high level for the replacement pitcher, and a premium placed on the score a pitcher was able to get during this time.)

Bert Blyleven's career total WAR of 90.1 puts a value on his career.  He was 90.1 wins better than a replacement pitcher for his career.  There are pitchers with a higher score from his era, like Tom Seaver - 104-105.  But 90.1 places Blyleven 10th in the modern era since 1901!

His total is higher than Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, and Jim Palmer.  No pitcher in history has scored higher than 66 points and not made the HOF. Any cut off line for the HOF is passed easily by his 90.1 career WAR.  Whitey Ford (55), Tom Glavine (67), Bob Lemon (43) and Jack Morris (39.3). 

Here is one more strong and accurate measurement of career value that shows that Bert Blyleven belongs in the HOF. 

I think adding all this together you come up with an accurate picture of how Bert Blyleven fits in with the history of pitching in baseball, and fits in with the HOF.

There are more indications of strong performance, like his postseason record of 5-1 and a 2.47 ERA.  He has two World Series rings for his work with the '79 Pirates and the '87 Twins.  These were not his best years, but his record shows an ability to raise his game when he faced the best competition on the biggest stage.

I think high on this list also should be the impact of the curve ball he threw.  It was considered the best of his era, perhaps the best in baseball history, and has been used as a measuring stick for grading out curves from all comers since Blyleven.  This gives his career extra significance.

Was Bert Blyleven the best of his era — no, Tom Seaver was.  But he was one of the best in an era that had a great many great pitchers, more than any since the dead ball era.  A quick look comparing Seaver and Blyleven shows how close they truly were in important career categories:

Seaver - 312 neutral wins; Blyleven - 313

Seaver - 234 complete games; Blyleven 242

Seaver - 61 shutouts; Blyleven - 60

Seaver 3640 career Ks (6th); Blyleven 3701 (5th)

Seaver K/BB ratio - 2.65; Blyleven  - 2.80

Seaver was inducted into baseball's HOF on the first ballot with the highest % to date. 

Waiting all these years to elect Bert Blyleven to the HOF has given us the opportunity in the baseball world to truly study what makes a great pitcher, and appreciate Blyleven's place in the HOF!


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