Hall Of Fame Talk II

added 12/10/2008 by Bob Hulsey

Earlier this week, Scott Barzilla penned an analysis of Jim Rice's career and why he thought Rice should not be in the Hall of Fame. In so doing, he took a few swipes at those who aren't part of the sabermetric crowd for what he sees as their faulty logic in promoting Rice.

Today, I am going to turn the tables and pour cold reality on one of the darlings of the sabermetric crowd in the Hall debate, pitcher Bert Blyleven. The Dutch-born righthander had an outstanding career that started at the tender age of 19 in 1970 and lasted until he was 41. During that career, he piled up an impressive 287 wins and 3,701 strikeouts with a 3.31 ERA.

Rather than talk about somebody I've never seen pitch, I can tell you that Blyleven's career came at a time when my interest in baseball was at its peak so I've watched him many times although I can't recall having watched him in person. I know enough to know that his colleagues marveled not at his above-average fastball but his devastating curveball that froze batters in their tracks. And I saw enough of Blyleven on the tube to know they were right about that.

But let's look at the downside of Blyleven's stats and the reason some Hall of Fame voters reject the notion that he belongs in Cooperstown.

Let's first look at his lack of achievements. He never won a Cy Young Award. He never finished second in Cy Young voting. In a 22-year career, he was named to just two All-Star teams. He never won an ERA title, although he finished second twice. He never led the league in wins, although he finished second once. He did win a strikeout title late in his career (1985) but it was with a meager 206 as the four-man pitching rotation was beginning to be phased out. He can hang his hat on leading his league in shutouts three times.

On the other hand, Blyleven has led his circuit in losses, earned runs allowed and home runs allowed.

Blyleven's long career has distorted some of his counting stats. 287 victories over 22 years comes out to 13 wins a season. With a 287-250 won-loss record, Bert's career winning percentage is a mere .534. While he is fifth in career strikeouts, he averaged 168 K's per year.

You can throw stats into the sabermetric cuisinart and find some impressive numbers but Blyleven lacks the milestone events and awards that Hall voters need to put someone in with the elite. No 300 wins. No Cy Youngs. Only one 20-win season. One of the current buzzphrases among Hall voters is whether a player was "dominant in his era". No evidence suggests Blyleven was.

I've had a few arguments with statheads about Blyleven and once you tell them you aren't impressed with some nouveau stat like "Adjusted ERA Plus with park effects in months that end with 'r'", they fall back on some rather unsabermetric arguments. Among some of the more compelling ones by his advocates:

He was just short of 300 wins.

True that. So was Bobby Mathews (297), Tommy John (288) and Jim Kaat (283). None of them are in the Hall or likely to be voted in by the Veterans Committee. In some ways, John and Kaat are very relevant in that they were very good pitchers with very long careers who got into the fringe of the Hall of Fame debate by hanging around for a long time. So the voters are at least showing some consistency. I'm not sure how you argue for Blyleven's inclusion without also championing the bids of Kaat and John.

When you look at the career comparisons, Blyleven is not only in the company of Kaat and John, he's also compared to former Astro and Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton. Indeed, Sutton's numbers are very similar. But Sutton hung around for 324 wins. Fair or not, that helped Sutton get voted in when the others did not.

He's in the Top Five in career strikeouts.

Also true. I do have a problem, though, with the newfound worship of strikeouts. The strikeout and the measurement of them is an important tool for scouting and determining who will succeed at the next level. They may also have some predictive value in major league performance. But a strikeout is ultimately a strikeout. It's just an out, one of three a pitcher needs to get every inning.

I can hear some of you now. Strikeouts are like the ultimate out because nothing good happens for the offense when a strikeout is pitched. Yes, a strikeout helps a pitcher get out of a jam but so will a pop up or a ground ball double play. You don't see people make the Hall because they are skilled at inducing pop ups or GIDPs but, somehow for strikeouts, we're supposed to bow down and worship. I enjoyed watching the likes of J.R. Richard or Billy Wagner blow away batters as much as anyone. But neither one is getting into Cooperstown without a ticket.

There are some who complain that the "win" stat shouldn't be important and that it is practically random. Maybe so. But if strikeouts were equivalent to wins, Nolan Ryan should be baseball's winningest pitcher. You can strike out 15 batters and still lose the game. It's impossible to get the win and still lose the game.

This is where Blyleven's apologists get desperate:

He only made the All-Star Game twice because he was a second-half pitcher.

Fine then. When they open a Hall Of Second-Half Fame, I'll put him in. Last I checked, the first half counts just as much.

He pitched for a lot of bad teams.

Not always. He made the playoffs three times in three different eras (1970, 1979, 1987). He appeared in the World Series - and pitched well - twice (as a Pirate in 1979 and with the Twins in 1987). Remember, this was before three-division baseball and wild cards so only four teams made the post-season every year.

Blyleven made more LCS and World Series appearances than Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn and Craig Biggio to name a few. Steve Carlton served up 27 wins once for a last-place team.

Pitching on bad teams is just not a valid excuse. Even worse, the excuse flies in the face of the previous excuse. We all know All-Star teams have to have a representative from every team. Somebody on every crappy team gets to go to the Midseason Classic. Some like Harold Baines and Mike Sweeney practically made a career of doing this. So, if Blyleven wasn't the best player on even the bad teams, why is he Hall-worthy?

Some Hall of Fame voters will find their reliance on 300 wins as a benchmark will have to soon evolve to a new standard. With five-man rotations, the dependence on bullpens, the near-extinction of one-pitcher shutouts and 100-pitch counts now the norm, fewer pitchers post 20-win seasons and the doors to the 300-win club are likely to close soon. It may come that the "automatic" bar will be lowered to 280 or even 250 wins which may cause some pitching careers to be re-examined.

To be clear, just as Scott has no personal axe to grind about Jim Rice, I have no personal axe about Blyleven. Blyleven deserves much credit for a fine career. It's that long career that has moved him into any Hall of Fame debate, lacking the dominance of a few peak years like a Pedro Martinez or a Ron Guidry fan could argue. It's also a bad break that Blyleven spent most of his career in small media markets where his feats - what there were of them - were often ignored.

Just as Scott is offering his rebuttal to those who think only fools would not put Rice in the Hall, I'm offering mine to those who think only fools would not put Blyleven in. Basically, there's no one compelling reason to vote for Bert Blyleven. When they open a Hall Of The Good For A Very Long Time, he should go in on the first ballot.

Bob Hulsey feels that whether or not Tommy John gets inducted into Cooperstown, his left elbow ligament definitely needs to be.