The Case For Bert Blyleven

by Warren Menzer

Bert Blyleven is not your prototypical Hall of Fame pitcher - his career record of 287-250, while certainly prolific, is not outstanding. He reached 20 wins only once in a 23 year career. He never won a Cy Young award - in fact, only four times in his career did he receive any Cy Young votes. He's perhaps most famous for surrending 50 home runs in one season, a record unmatched even in this home run era.

And he is unquestionably Hall of Fame material.

First, let's discuss the merits of using only wins and losses to assess a pitcher's value. One of the most easily misinterpreted statistics in baseball is pitcher wins. The reason is obvious - the name for the most important team measure, the quantity of victories, lends its name to a statistic that judges only one position of nine in each game. There's no common statisitic for hitters called a "Win" - that's why there are so many systems used to judge hitting profenciency. But pitching, certainly, is much simpler, isn't it? After all, we have a statistic that captures the essence of what teams try to do - win ballgames.

Well, not exactly. While it's true that winning ballgames is the highest goal of a team, the win statistic for pitchers is not a great measure of a pitcher's success. Unfortunately, many people - sportswriters included - don't seem to understand this. Let's use an example:

Player A915
Player B155

Player B is the better pitcher, isn't he? Well, maybe we should include a couple of more statistics, ERA and run support:

Player A9153.973.53
Player B1554.059.00

Player A has a better ERA, but his team is providing him with more than 5 runs a game FEWER than Player B. The fact that Player A pitches in the American League (and faces the DH), while Pitcher B works the NL only makes the difference more striking.

You could come up with a million reasons why Player A is 9-15 - "he doesn't know how to win ballgames", "he can't handle the pressure", and so on - but the fact of the matter is that no one is going to win many games with only three and a half runs a game of run support. Well, maybe Pedro Martinez could...

The other reason that the theory that Player A doesn't know how to win ballgames isn't really valid? Player A is Mike Mussina, who even with this season's stats has a career record of 145-81. Somehow I don't think that Mussina "forgot how to win ballgames". And Player B, Shawn Estes, is certainly pitching well, but 9 runs a game would make anyone look good.

My point is not that wins are completely meaningless - certainly good pitchers will tend to win more than bad pitchers - but rather that wins can be greatly tainted by the run scoring ability of your teammates, a factor completely out of your control, and completely irrelavent to how good a pitcher you are and whether you deserve to go to the Hall of Fame.

Bert Blyleven didn't have a great winning percentage because his teammates couldn't hit, not because he wasn't a great pitcher. To see that, you need to step away from wins and losses and look at his ERA. And if you do that, you see that he deserves enshrinement.

Let's compare Blyleven to some comparable, yet more recognized players:

Steve Carlton329244
Nolan Ryan324292
Don Sutton324256
Phil Niekro318274
Gaylord Perry314265
Fergie Jenkins284226
Bert Blyleven287250

All of these pitchers, other than Blyleven, are in the Hall of Fame. And these pitchers are not the minimum Hall of Fame standard - these men constitute a very solid group. Any player who could compare favorably with this group deserves enshrinement.

Let's add ERA to the mix - wins and losses don't tell the whole picture.

Steve Carlton3292443.22
Nolan Ryan3242923.19
Don Sutton3242563.26
Phil Niekro3182743.35
Gaylord Perry3142653.11
Fergie Jenkins2842263.34
Bert Blyleven2872503.31

Blyleven is at the very least in the same league (figuratively) as the other pitchers, but still falls short. However, looking at ERA without the context of the pitcher's league and home park can be misleading. Under what scoring conditions did each of these pitchers operate? (PF is the park factor for each player's career - for example, Blyleven pitched in parks that, over his career, inflated his ERA by 2%.)

Steve Carlton3292443.223.63+2%
Nolan Ryan3242923.193.72-6%
Don Sutton3242563.263.71-5%
Phil Niekro3182743.353.68+5%
Gaylord Perry3142653.113.63even
Fergie Jenkins2842263.343.66+5%
Bert Blyleven2872503.313.81+2%

Looking at this new information, Blyleven looks much better - he played in leagues with higher scoring than all the other pitchers, and in parks that inflated his ERA. It isn't fair to penalize Blyleven for conditions that were out of his control. The best thing we can do is adjust for those conditions - what would our Hall of Fame pitchers' ERAs have looked like had they played in the same leagues and parks as Blyleven?

PitcherWLERALgERAPFBert-like ERA
Steve Carlton3292443.223.63+2%3.39
Nolan Ryan3242923.193.72-6%3.50
Don Sutton3242563.263.71-5%3.62
Phil Niekro3182743.353.68+5%3.39
Gaylord Perry3142653.113.63even3.34
Fergie Jenkins2842263.343.66+5%3.38
Bert Blyleven2872503.313.81+2%3.31

Well, that does it for me. After correctly adjusting for league and park, Blyleven's ERA is better than all of these Hall of Famers, at the key statistic of any pitcher: preventing runs. Does this prove that he is greater than Carlton and Ryan? No, but it certainly puts him in their class, and that alone is enough to make him an easy choice for the Hall of Fame.

Send Warren your opinions, comments or verbal abuse at warren@JBaseball.

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