Thursday, January 7, 2010

Hang In There, Bert

Yesterday's announcement of the BBWAA's Hall of Fame election brought a few surprises in a field full of "borderline" candidates. There were probably eight or nine very fine players on this year's ballot who will eventually be enshrined in Cooperstown, but only one made it past the daunting 75% mark to win election.

One tricky thing about the BBWAA balloting is that some writers focus on negative stats, as if seeking reasons not to vote for a particular player. So the critics of Andre Dawson point to his not-so-special .279 career batting average and his mediocre on-base percentage as indications of how short he fell of immortality. In the long run, the positive stats won out, and Dawson won recognition as an all-around player. Look at it this way: Dawson had over 400 career home runs and over 300 stolen bases, something only Willie Mays and Barry Bonds also accomplished, and he won eight Gold Gloves. What more do you want from the guy? Put him in the Hall of Fame!

The voting was significant for the two players who just missed election. One was first-year candidate Roberto Alomar, whose stats place him in the top handful of second basemen in baseball history. However, just enough writers decided to punish him for one ugly incident--spitting in the face of umpire Mark Hirschbeck--to keep him from first-ballot election with just 73.7% of the votes. That must be a relief to Doug Harvey, elected to the Hall of Fame this year by the Veterans Committee. Harvey, the consummate umpire who demanded respect from everyone on the field, is going to share the podium at the July induction ceremony with Whitey Herzog, a manager who disliked him so much that he once requested the league office not to assign Harvey's crew to any more of his team's games. To be sandwiched between Herzog and the player who spat in an umpire's face would have been a severe test of Harvey's dignity. Alomar, who has long since made peace with Hirschbeck, will get elected, but Harvey will be able to witness his induction from a safer distance.

Then there is Bert Blyleven, who should have been elected years ago but fell agonizingly short this time with 74.2%, five votes shy of election. His comments yesterday were very gracious, and his time will also come. Nobody has received that high a percentage of votes without subsequently getting elected, and Blyleven has two more years on the BBWAA ballot. There has been growing support for Blyleven in recent years; as recently as 2007, he was named on fewer than half of the ballots, but he jumped from around 62% last year to near-election this year.

The skeptics still point to Blyleven's negative stats as reasons for keeping him out of the Hall of Fame, and perhaps the most telling of these is that he only made the All-Star team twice (Dawson was an eight-time All-Star). He received Cy Young Award votes in only four seasons, and was never higher than third (Dawson won the Rookie of the Year Award and later a Most Valuable Player Award). So how could a pitcher who was rarely recognized as one of the top pitchers in his own league be immortalized as one of the all-time greats? He lost 250 games, only 16 fewer than Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez combined. How can that qualify you for the Hall of Fame?

Here's how. For one thing, Blyleven's positive stats are far more impressive than his negative stats are damning. He currently stands fifth on the all-time strikeout list. When he retired in 1992, he was third, trailing only Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton. Since 1992, strikeouts have proliferated as more hitters swing for the fences and increasingly accept strikeouts as a reasonable price to pay for the occasional home run. Despite this, only Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens have passed Blyleven's 3,701 total. As starting pitchers continue to work fewer innings, it becomes more likely that Blyleven will remain in the top five.

Even more remarkable is Blyleven's 60 career shutouts, ninth all-time. He is one shutout behind Ryan and Tom Seaver and three behind Warren Spahn; the top five all pitched before 1930. That's very exclusive company, and he won't be losing his standing any time soon. Take the top four starting pitchers likely to be active in 2010--Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Roy Halladay, and Chris Carpenter--and their aggregate shutout total is 61. Twenty years from now, maybe even a hundred years from now, Blyleven will still be in the top ten in two marquee pitching categories--strikeouts and shutouts. Is there a player eligible for the Hall of Fame with that much going for him who hasn't been elected? Nope.

The positive stats don't stop there. Blyleven is 14th in career innings pitched--more than Seaver, Clemens, and Christy Mathewson, to name a few. He is 11th in games starter, and though his 242 complete games is only 91st all-time, it is still more than all but four of the post-1960 Hall of Fame pitchers (Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro). He was a workhorse who topped 275 innings in seven seasons while finishing in the top five in ERA seven times.

I did a study of the 20 winningest pitchers since 1960, and Blyleven had the most complete-game losses--72. What does this mean? It means his team could count on him to pitch well even if he didn't get a lot of support. In those 72 losses, his team was shut out 21 times and gave him only one run 19 times. He lost 1-0 nine times when going the distance, 2-1 nine times, and 3-2 fourteen times. Throw in non-complete games, and his teams scored one or no runs in 87 of his 250 losses. Blyleven's boosters often point to the fact that he pitched for a lot of mediocre teams, much like Ryan, whose career winning percentage is slightly lower than Blyleven's.

Another measure of weak support is the main reason why Blyleven wasn't elected years ago. There were 47 times when he was leading when he was removed from the game, only to see his bullpen blow the victory. If his relievers had saved even one-third of those blown wins, Blyleven would have over 300 wins instead of his actual 287, and the voters would not have denied him this long. Critics note that he won 20 games only once, 19 games once, and never more than 17 in any other season. But look at it this way. In 1984, when he went 19-7 for the Indians after a four-season mid-career lull, the bullpen blew two wins. One of those would've made a big difference in his career profile. In 1986, at age 35, he led the AL in innings and went 17-14 for the Twins, whose bullpen blew three leads that would've gotten to 20 wins again. Same thing in 1989, when the 38-year-old had his last great season, a 17-5 record for the Angels with a 2.73 ERA and a league-leading five shutouts, but lost three potential wins when his bullpen failed.

The 1974 season is a good illlustration of why Blyleven's career record isn't gaudy. He was second in the AL in strikeouts and fourth in ERA (with a career-low 2.66), completed more than half his starts, but put together a so-so 17-17 record for a Twins team that finished 82-80. The bullpen blew two potential wins; moreover, in both cases Blyleven left runners on base who subsequently scored, pinning the loss on him. Reverse those two outcomes and he'd go 19-15, much more respectable. Among his other losses were a pair of 1-0 games, three 2-1 ordeals, and three other complete-game losses. You get the idea. A mediocre 17-17 season should have been more like 21-13.

So it was for a number of Bert Blyleven's seasons. Sure he got lit up plenty of times and is also in the top dozen all-time in losses, earned runs, and home runs allowed. But he was a horse who threw hard and long and featured the most wicked curveball of his generation. I sat behind the plate in Anaheim when he pitched there late in his career (1987), and the curve was marvelous to behold at close range, starting out above the batter's head and plummeting below his knees. There was no doubt I was in the presence of greatness. He went the distance that day--and lost 2-1.

When he was on--remember, 60 shutouts!--nobody was tougher. It has taken the members of the BBWAA more than a dozen elections to bring him to the precipice of election. Soon he'll have his deserved place on the plaque-gallery wall about fifty yards from where I sit.

Hang in there, Bert! See you next year.

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