Monday, January 12, 2009

A Final Word On Blyleven...

Until next year, when these same arguments will be passed around.

I have been in discussion with a number of people on the "comments" page on concerning this. If I may, I'd like to break down the pro-Blyleven arguments to a simple few statements, then analyze each of them.

1. "Blyleven was better than x".
2. "Blyleven's record doesn't reflect his effectiveness as a pitcher - he pitched for horrible teams and received very little run support."
3 "Blyleven was in the top 10 in x and y for z years, who shows the quality of pitcher he really was."
4. "Blyleven is in the top x in these categories for a career, making him one of the best pitchers ever."

Before I break down each of these comments, I think it's important to note that even with Bill James and the sabrematicians doing their best to quantify and objectify baseball statistics, it is still a subjective evaluation. In my opinion, I don't feel Blyleven qualifies.

Statement #1: I believe that a person getting elected to the HOF should be better than at least one-third of the players currently in it, if not higher. Throughout the years of election, mistakes have been made: Rizzuto, Mazeroski, Hunter. I don't think it's fair to point out one pitcher that Blyleven is better than, and say therefore, "If Hunter's a Hall of Famer, then Blyleven should be as well." That's a slippery slope, and before you know it thousands of players will be giving their speeches in Cooperstown.

For the record, Blyleven was a better pitcher than Hunter. I think he was better than Sutton...but we'll get to that argument in a second.

Statement #2: Bill James made an effort to balance inequalities between pitchers and their offensive support, and Blyleven supporters use this to say he deserves somewhere between 314-323 wins.

But he didn't win that many. He was 287. And while I love what Bill James has done with and for statistics, he fails to take into account one simple thing: a starting pitcher's job (at least in Blyleven's time) was to win ballgames.

Some argue Blyleven played on some horrible teams. Without him pitching, his teams would've gone 79-82. With him pitching, they went 81-80. Blyleven was only 37 games over .500 in his career. His teams were...average. He played on two World Series Champions, four teams that won 90+ games, and only 1 team that lost 100.

Some argue he didn't get enough run support, and won the most 1-0 games since Walter Johnson, or lost the most, something. Let's break this argument down.

Run Support, Career

Morris – 4.82
Palmer – 4.38
Carlton – 4.37
Hunter – 4.30
Niekro – 4.22
Blyleven – 4.19
Sutton – 4.14
Seaver – 3.94
Perry – 3.92
Ryan – 3.80

Blyleven in his career got more run support than Sutton, Seaver, Perry and Ryan. What do those four have in common? They all managed to get to 300 wins, the "El Dorado" of pitching statistics, much like 3000 hits is for batters. Some look at Ryan's record and K's, and group Blyleven with him. One can't - Ryan received 10% less run support than Blyleven, won more games, and struck out almost double what Blyleven did in his career.

Fine - let's look at this another way. Suppose Blyleven was a great pitcher, and he did his best given the meagre run support he had to work with. How does he match up with pitchers of his generation when they received 2 or less runs to work with? 3 or less?

Winning percentage, less than 2 runs in an outing.

Seaver .500
Palmer .407
Niekro .405
Carlton .382
Hunter .380
Perry .344
Sutton .329
Ryan .319
Blyleven .293

Winning pct., less than 3 runs in an outing.

Palmer .635
Sutton .612
Seaver .560
Ryan .543
Perry .542
Hunter .475
Carlton .473
Niekro .387
Blyleven .377

So, he doesn't match up with the pitchers of his generation in being able to win tight, low-scoring games, which in my opinion is an important measure of a great pitcher. As for Seaver, the fact that he won half of his team's starts when they scored less than two runs gives credence to the argument of being the Greatest Pitcher Ever.

Statement #3: The strongest argument of the four, by a wide margin. Blyleven is 5th all-time in K's, finished top 10 in ERA 10 times, top five 7 times, and does better when it's adjusted for ballpark factors (Top 10 - 12, Top 5 - 7). His curveball is among the best ever. Is this enough to get him in?

For his career, his ERA is 3.31. Of the starting pitchers from his generation, he trails Palmer, Seaver, Don Gullett, Gaylord Perry, Mike Cuellar, Ryan, Carlton, Dave McNally, Wilbur Wood, Hunter, Sutton, Ron Guidry, and Luis Tiant.

For adjusted ERA, taking into account the era each lived in (eliminating the advantage of the dead-ball for that era's pitchers), Blyleven is in a tie for 134th. Of the eighteen people tied there, three are HOFers: Warren Spahn (363 wins), Ted Lyons (who pitched during the Offensive Era of the 1920s and 30s), and Vic Willis, a pitcher around the turn of the century. Glavine will join them, but again, Glavine has 300+ wins. It isn't until one ascended to 43rd on that list when over one-third of them are in the HOF.

Statement #4: If Blyleven was one of the top winning pitchers of his generation, I'd give it to him, even given everything else. If he was ever considered the best a couple of years he pitched, I'd go see his acceptance speech. Unfortunately for him, he pitched at a time when there were four-man rotations, and pitchers were expected to finish what they started. He did that, and very well, but not great. He is 27th all-time in wins...but trails seven others he regularly played against. The 1970s and 80s saw the greatest number of pitchers gain 300 wins than any other period of equal time. It almost devalued it...there was a huge debate over whether Sutton should make it to the HOF - which I still believe was a bad decision. But 300 wins is 300 wins...and 287 is not.

So what are we left with? A very good pitcher, who pitched on average teams, with an outstanding curveball and a very lengthy career. He was a strikeout pitcher who pitched in the shadow of the greatest of all-time. He made it to two All-Star Games (NOT a popular poll for pitchers, as some assume), finished third in Cy Young voting twice. He was a strikeout pitcher with a propensity for the home run. He was a good pitcher on some good teams, and a good pitcher on some bad teams. He was at times the number one starter...but not a dominant one. A pitcher who bettered career numbers of some pitchers who were better than him over a shorter period of time, but didn't reach the career numbers of some pitchers who were his peers.

A person once said, "The Hall of Fame should not be judged by who is in it, but rather by who is left out of it." With that in mind, I am very comfortable not having Bert Blyleven in the Hall of Fame.

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