The Case for Bert Blyleven

December 29, 2009

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In January, the Baseball Writers of America will announce the 2010 Hall of Fame class. For the thirteenth time, Bert Blyleven will be on the ballot. Twelve prior times, he has fallen short in his bid for enshrinement at Cooperstown. I truly hope that this is the year for Bert.

To make my case for Blyleven, I’ll compare him to another pitcher.

Pitcher A:

  • Over the course of 692 games, compiled a .534 winning percentage.
  • Compiled a career ERA of 3.31
  • Had an adjusted ERA+ of 118 (this is an advanced statistic that adjusts ERA for ballpark and the pitcher’s league. A higher number is better).
  • Had a career strikeout : walk ratio of 2.80
  • Compiled 15 or more wins in 10 different seasons
  • Compiled 15 or more losses in 7 seasons (5 of these seasons before he turned 26).
  • Never won a Cy Young award

Pitcher B:

  • Over the course of 807 games, compiled a .526 winning percentage.
  • Compiled a career ERA of 3.19.
  • Compiled a career ERA+ of 111 (remember, higher is better).
  • Had a career strikeout : walk ratio of 2.04
  • Compiled 15 or more wins in 8 different seasons
  • Compiled 15 or more losses in 6 seasons
  • Never won a Cy Young award

Based on those resumes, which pitcher would you give the nod to? I’d lean toward pitcher A. Although his actual ERA is higher, when adjusted to ERA+, it is better than pitcher B’s. His strikeout : walk ratio shows a better command of the strike zone.

It won’t surprise you that pitcher A is Bert Blyleven.

It may surprise you that pitcher B is first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.

Ryan is of course known for his strikeouts. He is the all-time leader with 5714 (Blyleven is 5th at 3701). Randy Johnson, at 4875 and counting, is in second place and will probably wind up slightly above 5000 (or roughly 87.5% of Ryan’s record). Are strikeouts really that important? (Hint: read this article for your answer.)

What’s not as well known is that Ryan is also the career leader for walks, with 2795. Steve Carlton is a very distant second at 1833 (65.6% of Ryan’s record).

While it is extremely unlikely that anyone will ever break Ryan’s strikeout record, it is a virtual certainty that nobody will break the walk record. A pitcher who walks batters at Ryan’s rate would quickly find himself on a bus back to AAA.

Ryan has 324 wins to Blyleven’s 287 (and also 292 losses to Bert’s 250). Wins are a problematic statistic because of the limited impact the pitcher has. Take a pitcher from the Nationals and put him on the staff of the Yankees, and his wins will skyrocket due to increased run support.

In this particular case, the fact that Ryan hung around until age 46 (while Blyleven retired at 41) is largely responsible for the difference. Ryan compiled a 51-39 record those final five years, pushing his career record from 273 – 253 to the end result of 324 – 292. Longevity is nice, but is that 51-39 record over those five years really the difference between a slam-dunk Hall of Famer and a guy at risk of never making it?

This brings us, naturally, to the no hitters. Ryan had seven while Blyleven had just one. A no hitter is great, and seven of them are a wonderful achievement. But this simply shows that on a particular night, the pitcher was dominant and/or lucky. It’s a nice footnote for a career, but it shouldn’t be the main credential for a hall of famer.  Seven nights accounts for 1% of the career starts from these guys.  The other 99% should have a bit more weight.

I’m not suggesting that we remove Nolan Ryan from the Hall of Fame – but if his credentials warranted votes from 98.8% of voters, surely Blyleven’s credential should be judged worthy by at last 75% of the voters.

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