Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hall of Fame Postmortem: Bert Blyleven

It's been quite some time since I put a post up, nearly a month. I'm going to go ahead and blame the holidays for most of that, but the fact is that this is the slowest time of the year for baseball. In fact, the only interesting thing going on has been the Hall of Fame voting. I suppose I've missed the boat on that one too, but since I can't argue about it before the vote, I'm going share some thoughts now that the votes have been counted. I'm going to start with Bert Blyleven.

Bert has had a lot of digital ink devoted to his cause over the last few years. In fact, my little blurb here can hardly do justice to the efforts of his other online advocates, most notably Rich Lederer. Rich's work can be found here, here, and here, as well as many other places I'm sure. Rather than replicate all of Rich's work, I instead want to focus on one specific argument.

When people are giving reasons for not voting for Bert, they usually focus on his win-loss record, or his Cy Young voting record, or the fact that he just doesn't feel like a Hall of Famer. I can't do anything about that latter point, and even though I don't really like the first two arguments, I'm going to accept them for the purpose of this discussion.

My question to these voters is this: how can you elect Nolan Ryan on his first ballot and not vote for Bert Blyleven?

Let's take a look at their careers.

Nolan Ryan pitched from 1966 through 1993. During that time he won 324 games (14th all time), struck out 5714 batters (1st all time, more than 1100 more than 2nd place), and threw 61 shutouts (tied for 7th all-time). On the other hand, Ryan lost 292 games (3rd all time), walked 2795 batters (1st all-time, more than 900 more than 2nd place), and gave up 321 home runs (tied for 33rd all-time). In 1999, Ryan received 98.8% of the Hall of Fame vote in his first appearance on the ballot.

Bert Blyleven pitched from 1970 through 1992, missing 1991. During that time he won 287 games (26th all-time), struck out 3701 batters (5th all-time), and threw 60 shutouts (9th all-time). On the other hand, Blyleven lost 250 games (10th all-time), walked 1322 batters (29th all-time) and gave up 430 home runs (8th all-time). Blyleven has been lingering on the ballot since 1998, peaking at 61.9% in 2008.

On the surface, they appear to be very close. So why the disparate vote totals?

As I see it, Ryan breezed into the Hall of Fame for five key reasons:
  1. He crossed the magical 300 win mark.
  2. He struck out approximately 100,000,000,000 batters.
  3. He threw seven no-hitters.
  4. He was viewed as a freakish and legendary physical specimen, capable of pitching until he was 46 years old.
  5. He felt like a Hall of Famer, probably for the above four reasons.
On the other hand, Blyleven is not in the Hall of Fame for five key reasons:
  1. He did not cross the magical 300 win mark.
  2. He never did well in awards voting, as evidenced by his lack of a Cy Young award.
  3. He never threw a no-hitter. (See the edit at the end of the post.)
  4. He is viewed as a "compiler": some one who has really big numbers only because he played so long.
  5. He does not feel like a Hall of Famer, probably for the above four reasons.
Allow me to address these points.

Win Totals

With respect to their win totals, Ryan's supporters have always cried that he pitched for a lot of bad teams. It was hard for Ryan to win games, but he did the best he could and won 300 anyway. Blyleven, his detractors say, pitched just well enough to lose. He didn't pitch to the score. If the other team allowed one run, he would allow two. Yeah, he played for bad teams, but a pitcher's job is to get wins.

You all know that I don't buy that for one minute, but let's say that I do. To that I say this: Ryan's winning percentage is 52.6%. Blyleven's winning percentage is 53.4%. Yes, Blyleven won a higher percentage of his decisions than Ryan did. The only reason that he doesn't have Ryan's win-loss record is that he pitched for five fewer years. If wins and losses are your metric of choice, Blyleven is superior to Ryan.

Cy Young Voting

With respect to Blyleven's poor showing in Cy Young voting, his detractors have always used this as evidence that Blyleven was not thought of as a dominant pitcher. Leaving aside the circular logic for a second, what then can you say about Ryan's performance in Cy Young voting? Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young. Ever. How is it that this is a point against Blyleven, but not Ryan? You say that Blyleven was never considered the best pitcher in the league? Neither was Ryan.

Yes, Ryan did finish in the top ten more often than Blyleven, but did he deserve to? Let's look at their careers season by season. Here are their careers, sorted by ERA+ (ERA relative to the league; 100 is average, higher is better):

Blyleven: Ryan:
Year Starts Innings ERA+ Year Starts Innings ERA+
1 1973 40 325.0 158 1981 21 149.0 194
2 1977 30 234.7 151 1987 34 211.7 142
3 1984 32 245.0 144 1977 37 299.0 141
4 1974 37 281.0 142 1991 27 173.0 139
5 1989 33 241.0 140 1972 39 284.0 128
6 1985 37 293.7 134 1989 32 239.3 124
7 1975 35 275.7 129 1973 39 326.0 122
8 1981 20 159.3 127 1974 41 332.7 118
9 1971 38 278.3 126 1970 19 131.7 117
10 1976 36 297.7 125 1990 30 204.0 115
11 1978 34 243.7 123 1983 29 196.3 114
12 1970 25 164.0 119 1979 34 222.7 113
13 1972 38 287.3 118 1984 30 183.7 109
14 1987 37 267.0 115 1986 30 178.0 107
15 1979 37 237.3 109 1982 35 250.3 105
16 1983 24 156.3 109 1992 27 157.3 103
17 1986 36 271.7 107 1969 10 89.3 103
18 1980 32 216.7 96 1975 28 198.0 102
19 1982 4 20.3 85 1976 39 284.3 99
20 1992 24 133.0 84 1978 31 234.7 98
21 1988 33 207.3 75 1980 35 233.7 98
22 1990 23 134.0 73 1968 18 134.0 98
23 1988 33 220.0 94
24 1985 35 232.0 91
25 1971 26 152.0 86
26 1993 13 66.3 85
27 1966 1 3.0 24
By my count, Blyleven has fully nine seasons in which he had both a better ERA+ and a better innings pitched total than Ryan's equivalent on this list. It isn't until you get down towards the bottom where both pitchers are pitching at or below league average that Ryan has clearly better years. In fact, this transitions well to my next point.

Compiling Statistics

How is it that Blyleven is a "compiler" and Ryan is not? Ryan started 88 more games in his career, and as the above table shows, he had a lot of years where he was a below average pitcher. Blyleven's peak is higher than Ryan's and his career, though very long, is shorter. Sorry, there's just no way to smear Blyleven with this label and not also smear Ryan. Both men contributed quite a few seasons where they were basically average or below average pitchers. Ryan contributed more than Blyleven did. He hung around longer. That's a fact.

The No-Hitters

A large part of why Ryan is perceived as dominant is that he threw seven no-hitters. How much of an edge should this give him over Blyleven? Let's start with a rhetorical question: which event contributes the most to a team's chance of winning a ball game: a perfect game, a no-hitter, or a shutout?

The answer to this trick question is that they all contribute the exact same amount. In fact, while the perfect game is obviously the most impressive accomplishment, a no-hitter is not necessarily more dominant than a shutout. Just ask anyone who saw Pedro in the late 90's: he never threw a no-hitter, but when he threw a shutout, he dominated you. Ask anyone who saw Mike Mussina's near-perfect game if it was less dominating than some of the multi-walk no-hitters that have been thrown.

Yes, Ryan threw seven no-hitters, but that was largely because his philosophy was that he would rather walk you than give you a hit. Look at Ryan's career walk total again. Like his strikeout total, it's almost incomprehensibly massive. Ryan was going to throw the perfect strike or he wasn't going to throw a strike. The price he paid is that he walked an astronomical number of batters and many of them scored. Yes, it got him those no-hitters, but how many shutouts did it cost him?

Bert Blyleven started 88 fewer games than Ryan did. He threw only one fewer shutout. No, he never achieved that odd statistical quirk that is the no-hitter (See edit at the end of the post), but he was even more effective at single-handedly shutting down the opposition. If you have one game to win, and you need your pitcher to throw a shutout to win it, you're going to choose Blyleven over Ryan every time.

Summary

Look, I believe that Nolan Ryan is a surefire Hall of Famer. The man contributed a lot to his teams over a very long period of time. He was a unique pitcher, and he deserves the honor of being a member of the Hall of Fame.

All that being said, Bert Blyleven was better than Ryan. He had a higher peak and he had a very long career. He contributed more excellent seasons than Ryan and fewer below average seasons. That Ryan is perceived as one of the greatest pitchers of all time and Blyleven is not is due only to the fact that Ryan has some nice, large, shiny numbers and Bert Blyleven does not.

No, he wasn't Jim Palmer or Steve Carlton or Tom Seaver. You don't need to be as good as them to be a Hall of Famer. Blyleven is better than many pitchers currently enshrined, and, in my humble opinion, better than Nolan Ryan.

If you're a better pitcher than a guy who gets 98.8% of the Hall of Fame vote, what percentage should you get?

If you're Bert Blyleven, the answer is apparently 61.9%. There just isn't a universe out there where that makes sense.

**EDIT** I am dumb. Blyleven has, in fact, thrown a no hitter, as Bill notes in the comments section. It occurred after he was traded to the Texas Rangers from the Minnesota Twins during the 1977 season, September 22 to be precise. He only walked one man, with two outs in the ninth. This did not break up a perfect game, as a batter had reached on an error in the 3rd. Blyleven eliminated him on a double play. He faced only one more batter than the minimum, while striking out seven. Nonetheless, the general point still stands: Ryan's no hitters are his legacy. Blyleven's no hitter is apparently not part of his. Again, Blyleven was a dominant pitcher. That he is not perceived this way is a problem with our perception of him, not an indication that he was not dominant.

7 comments:

die Amerikanerin said...

I saw Mussina's near-perfect game. I probably cried when he didn't get it, but I don't remember.

rklllama said...

Every time I get up in the morning I look in the mirror and read tattooed across my chest:

"Carl E. raped and murdered your favorite pitcher."

John Lynch said...

Dude, I hope someday you aren't implicated in some violent crime, because if so, the investigators are going to have a lot of really weird quotes from you to use as evidence.

Bill said...

Bert Blyleven pitched a no hitter while a member of the Texas Rangers on September 22, 1977 against the California Angels.

John Lynch said...

I'll be damned! Retrosheet confirms Blyleven did throw a no hitter as you assert. Now how did I miss that? I mean, I've read nearly 1,000,000,000 words about Blyleven in the last three or four years. You think that fact might've stuck with me.

I can see only two reasons why I would have overlooked this.
1. The common stand that Bert was never a "dominant" pitcher made me assume that he never threw a no hitter.
2. My prowling around baseball-reference.com failed to turn that information up, and I didn't bother to look any further.

Anyways, that's embarrassing. I shall have no edit the post.

Mike said...

I was at the game when Blyleven no-hitted the Angels. As a long-time Angels fan, I have many fond memories of games I attended and I rank this game as good as any of them. We Angel fans started rooting for Bert in the 7th inning. By the 8th inning everyone had joined in cheering him. We cheered Bert during the ninth inning on our feet. As I recall, he tipped his hat around in appreciation for our support. For us, his individual achievement was far more important than rooting for our home team on that night.

Mike said...

By the way, I was also priviledged to watch Nolan Ryan from a couple of rows back dead-center behind the catcher on two occasions. My friend was playing high school baseball and had a keen interest in watching the 100+ mph fastball up close. Back in those days, you could find seats like those and pay face value. Matter of fact, I often used to go to the game after the third inning and get in free. The outside ticket booths would be shut down by then and they would direct me to go buy my ticket inside the stadium at the advance ticket purchase office. Well, since I was already inside I just couldn't justify making that turn down the hall to the ticket sales while missing even more of the game. So it always ended up I just kept walking to the best empty seat I could find. Funny thing is, the nearest empty seats were always field level inside the bases.