Why Bert Blyleven Belongs in the Hall of Fame
Bert Blyleven toiled long and hard (4,970 innings worth) to produce a career of pitching excellence. It's time to give him his due, his Day in the Sun, by voting him into the Hall of Fame on this year's 2009 Hall of Fame ballot.
At first glance, it looks like Bert is just another pitcher who fell short of the magic 300-win plateau (287), pitched for a bunch of small market teams (Minnesota, Texas, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Minnesota again, and the California Angels), doesn't stand out with Cy Young awards, many All-Star game nominations, or 20 win seasons, and lost a bunch of games along the way (250).
It doesn't seem like he was a dominant pitcher. But let's take a closer look at Bert's place in baseball history.
Historically, wins have been the No. 1 measuring stick to a pitcher's greatness—they are the No. 1 factor in voting for Cy Young awards. 300 wins are considered a lock for the HOF (like 3000 hits).
287 is a lot of wins. It's 27th all-time, and only one eligible pitcher with more wins is not in the HOF—he pitched in the 1870s and 80s. There are atleast as many HOF starting pitchers with fewer wins as there are with more. Bert pitched a lot of low scoring games with poor run support. In 1971 he lost 15 games—the Twins scored a total of 18 runs in those 15 losses.
But what is a win? What does it mean to get a W? It means you pitched at least the first five innings of a game and you left with a lead and your team was not tied or did not lose the lead after you left.
We know in modern baseball that a starting pitcher may only pitch 6 innings and then the game is out of his control. The pitcher has no control over how many runs his team scores. A pitcher could surrender any number of runs and leave the game with a lead, and garner the W. It's certainly not an exact science when it comes to measuring a pitcher's career for the HOF!
One sabermetric stat has computed that with league average run support Bert would have 313 wins— Baseball Reference computes it to 325. But Bert unapologetically has 287, so let's look past the W at what kind of quality was Bert throwing up there, and what truly does make a dominant pitcher.
The first stat that probably jumps out of Bert's resume is his place on the all-time strikeout list. From 1970-1992 Bert amassed 3701 strikeouts, placing him 5th on the all-time list!
Although Bert was never what we term a strikeout pitcher today, his devastating curveball made getting a K a viable way for him to get an out. He totalled over 200 Ks several years in a row for the Twins in the 70s.
Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton totalled more Ks. In our generation, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens have passed his total. But several have not—Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Tom Glavine. Bert also surpassed many of his contemporaries deemed worthy of the HOF—Tom Seaver, Galyord Perry, Phil Niekro, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Catfish Hunter all finished HOF careers with fewer Ks than Bert's 3701.
It certainly isn't harder to strike out a batter today than it was in Bert's generation. 3000 Ks is becoming a measuring stick for greatness. Fewer pitchers have 3000 Ks than batters have 3000 hits. That said, is there a disparity in how we treat batting statistics as compared to those pitchers get? Would we keep a batter out of the HOF who was 5th on the all-time hits list?
No other eligible pitcher with more than 3000 Ks is not in the HOF.
Perhaps Bert's most impressive statistic is getting a little overlooked today because of the modern use of relievers. The complete game and complete game shutout are not easy to find during a typical season today.
During Bert's generation (1970-1990) the closer became a normal part of any successful baseball team. Bert threw more complete games (242) than Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver. But perhaps the single most indicative stat of a pitcher's greatness and dominance is the complete game shutout.
The all-time shutout list is a virtual who's who of the greatest pitchers of all-time. It's easy to see you don't get on this list by accident, a fluke or "accruing". The list is headed by Walter Johnson with an unbelievable 110 shutouts—probably the No. 1 reason he is considered the greatest pitcher of all-time. Next come Christy Mathewson, and Grover Alexander and a couple more greats form the dead-ball era.
However, since the live-ball era—circa 1921 to present, only 4 pitchers have 60 shutouts: Warren Spahn (63, sixth all-time), Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver with 61 (tied for seventh), and Bert Blyleven with 60 (ninth all-time, and fourth since 1921). No one on the all-time shutout list all the way down to 20th is not in the Hall of Fame.
This is indeed elite company!
To highlight his run support dilemma and show a little bit of his grit: Since 1925, Bert leads the way with the most shutouts of a 1-0 nature with 15.
Bert maintained a high quality of pitching throughout his career. He had great command of the strike zone. His career K/BB ratio of 2.80 is outstanding—especially for his generation. Among HOF pitchers circa 1970-1990 (Palmer, Perry, Niekro, Ryan, Seaver, Carlton, Hunter, Jenkins, Sutton, Gibson) it would place him second behind only Jenkins and ahead of Seaver and the rest.
I believe these are the stats that most highlight Bert's HOF worthiness. There is more—including a postseason record of excellence and his career ERA. But this is more than enough to place Bert with his contemporary greats in the Hall of Fame. No more years of toil in relative obscurity, being overlooked for awards and appointments without large market attention.
Tom Seaver's adjusted win total to league average run support (312), career Ks (3640), K/BB ratio (2.65), complete games (234), and shutouts (61) are eerily similar to Bert Blyleven's. He was voted into the HOF on the first ballot with the highest percentage to that date.
It's time to recognize Bert Blyleven's accomplishments by voting him into this year's 2009 Hall of Fame. It's time for Bert's Day in the Sun.
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