10 things I didn’t know about Bert Blyleven

He’s going in. This weekend the Hall of Fame will have its annual induction ceremony, and sabermetric darling Bert Blyleven will finally get his well-earned plaque put on display.

In honor of Blyleven, I’d like to rip off the column format pioneered here at THT by Bossman Studes, who used to run a regular “Ten things I didn’t know last week” feature. These aren’t items I learned in the last week, but they are things I found out during the course of Blyleven’s seemingly never-ending Cooperstown candidacy.

image
Blyleven: ready for his close-up.

1. Blyleven had a bad personal reputation when he played

As a player, Blyleven did not have the best reputation. In his last game with the Twins in 1976 before being traded, he made an obscene gesture to the crowd while walking off the mound. Nearly a decade later while an Indian, he flipped the bird to fans in Baltimore. In between, while a Pirate in 1980, Blyleven jumped the team in midseason, flying to his home in California and demanding a trade. He eventually came back after nearly two weeks. While down with an arm injury in 1982, Blyleven coached a Little League team, and gave the kids chewing tobacco so they’d look more like real pros.

People in and out the game lauded Blyleven for having the game’s best curveball, but he was also temperamental. This likely hurt him in the early Cooperstown voting.

2. He was the last in a great wave in starting pitchers

Blyleven debuted in major league baseball in 1970, right at the end of a great run of workhorse pitchers. Just take a look at who emerged in baseball from 1959 to 1970.

You have a half-dozen 300 game winners—Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver.

Then there’s the guy with six straight 20-win seasons (Fergie Jenkins) and the pitcher with eight 20-win seasons (Jim Palmer).

Then there are three guys over 280 wins—Tommy John, Jim Kaat, and Blyleven himself.

Add in assorted aces Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Catfish Hunter, Mickey Lolich, Luis Tiant, and that’s some list.

After Blyleven, the only 200-game winners to appear in the next five years were Rick Reuschel and Frank Tanana. Fine pitchers, but a definite step down from what had come before.

Normally a guy entering the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot with 287 wins is pretty impressive. But Blyleven debuted on a ballot near the end of a stretch of 11 consecutive years with at least one 300-game winner up for nomination. But since no one close to 280 wins showed up after Blyleven, it helped him rise up over the years

3. Blyleven only made two All-Star squads

That’s surprising. Here he is, a workhorse with superlative ERAs and a world-renown curveball, but he only made the All-Star team twice, in 1973 and 1985. That’s it?

Heck, Matt Lawton made two All-Star games. Esteban Loaiza made two. So did Steve Busby, Jeff Conine, Bill Singer, John Smiley, and Ron Fairly. Heck, Manny Trillo made four.

Why did Blyleven only make it twice? He generally did better in the second half of the year. Before the All-Star break, he was 150-140 with a 3.47 ERA, but after it he was 137-110 with a 3.12 ERA.

This was especially pronounced in his first seven full seasons, 1971-77, when he was in his prime. In those years he was 59-66 (.472) at the break and 53-38 (.582) afterwards. Especially back in those days, a pitcher’s win-loss record really mattered.

4. His run support cost him 11 wins

From 1970-77, Blyleven went 122-113 despite an ERA+ of 134. When I first discovered Retrosheet eons ago, the first thing I wanted to do was look at Blyleven’s run support.

Take his 1974 season, when he went 17-17 despite a tremendous ERA+ of 142. He must have had terrible run support. Looking it up, in his 37 starts, the Twins scored 151 runs, 4.1/game. That’s doesn’t sould too bad.

Actually, given that the park factor was 104, Blyleven’s run support was nearly league average; 96% of league average to be precise. That’s a lot better than I would’ve expected. His run support wasn’t that good every year, but by and large it was better than I would’ve guessed.

The question arose: Is there any way to adjust his W-L record by his run support? You can’t do a simplistic, reductionistic system. Look at Blyleven in that 1974 campaign. If you just take his actual RA/9IP and pythag it with league-average, park-adjusted run support, it comes out that he should have gone 21-13 over 34 decisions. Now, does that really seem like an answer to the question of run support? Does it really seem that if you give him a slight increase in run support his wins will shoot up?

No. If you’re going to try to adjust Blyleven’s record by his run support, you actually have to focus on his run support. That means isolating it. Now, in the previous paragraph there are three things going on: 1) Blyleven’s RA/9IP, 2) his run support, and 3) well, a third factor that’s hard to define. Many (especially in THT-land) will call it luck. Others will call it pitching to the score. Call it sunspots for all I care, it ain’t run support.

How to separate run support from that murky third factor? We’ve already figured out what Blyleven’s record should be based on pythaging his RA/9IP and league-average run support. OK, now let’s figure out what Blyleven’s record should be based on pythaging his actual RA/9IP and his actual run support.

The difference between the two projections should be what his run support cost him. (And the difference between Blyleven’s actual record and the second projection quantifies that murky third factor, but we’ll get back to that in a second).

So how many wins did Blyleven lose solely due to his run support? The answer is 11. If you go through the above, he comes out to 298-239 for his career, ever so incredibly shy of 300. So close he might hang for No. 300, a la Early Wynn. Here’s the chart showing how he shakes out year-by-year by this system:

Year	W	 L
1970	10	 9
1971	18	13
1972	17	17
1973	22	15
1974	17	17
1975	14	11
1976	18	11
1977	13	13
1978	14	10
1979	12	 5
1980	10	11
1981	11	 7
1982	 1	 3
1983	 8	 9
1984	17	 9
1985	19	14
1986	18	13
1987	15	12
1988	11	16
1989	16	 6
1990	 7	 8
1992	10	10
All    298     239

5. He won 17 fewer games than expected from 1970-77

Looking at it above, how come he didn’t win more games when pitching so great in the early part of his career?

Well, it’s that murky third factor—the luck/pitch-to-the-score/sunspots one. How much did this cost him? That’s easy to figure: Take the difference between his actual win-loss record and what he should have had based on a pythaging of his actual run support and his actual RA/9IP.

By this approach, Blyleven comes out nine wins behind. Only nine? Yeah, over his career. When you divide his career into sections, it veers wildly. For instance, in the middle of his career—the Pirate/Indian years—he comes out even with the murky third element. In the last part of his career—his second go-around in Minnesota and his final seasons in California—he came out eight games ahead.

That just leaves the years in his apparent prime, from 1970-77, when he won 17 fewer games than you’d expect. Here’s how it looks year-by-year, and again, this is based on his real run support and RA/9IP:

Year	 W	L
1970	 10	 9
1971	 17	14
1972	 20	14
1973	 23	14
1974	 21	13
1975	 16	 9
1976	 13	16
1977	 18	 8
Total	138	97

Recording 17 fewer wins than expected is historically bad. Many years ago, I figured this out for the careers of nearly 200 pitchers, and only three did this bad (Tim Keefe and Curt Simmons both at –18, and Dizzy Trout the champion at –22). But those were entire careers.

No other prominent pitcher in his prime had such a lousy divergence from his expected W-L record based on his real-life run support as Blyleven did.

So why did this happen to Blyleven? Many out there in THT’s readerland believe it’s all just luck and random variation, and we may as well do away with W-L records. I have some sympathy for that approach, but ultimately remain agnostic. I’d say 95 percent of that mysterious third element is luck, but does that mean it’s never anything else? That’s the question. After all, 17 wins in eight years is a lot.

6. Blyleven was at his best when it mattered most

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, it looks like it really was just luck, because Blyleven was at his best when it counted the most. Let’s back up for a second. He won fewer games than he should have, right? Well, if it’s not luck, you’re saying in so many words that the guy choked or lacked mental toughness.

Now look at Blyleven’s career—pitching in tough spots wasn’t his problem. He pitched in eight postseason games and went 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA. Nice.

There’s a better factoid, though: Blyleven won 15 different 1-0 complete games, more than anyone else since Walter Johnson. Normally that would be a random fact, but here it goes to the heart of things. If he underachieved because of his own personal failings, then why was he so successful when things entirely depended on him? A dozen of his 1-0 complete game shutouts came from 1970-77.

If anyone’s curious, here’s a list of the most 1-0 CG SHO for post-Walter Johnson pitchers:

Pitcher	    1-0 CG
Bert Blyleven	15
Dean Chance	13
Gaylord Perry	12
Steve Carlton	12
Greg Maddux	11
Warren Spahn	10
Sandy Koufax	10
Virgil Trucks	10
Paul Derringer	10
Bob Gibson	 9
Jim Palmer 	 9
Don Sutton	 9
Don Drysdale	 9
Jerry Koosman	 9
Bill Lee(1930s)	 9
Early Wynn	 8
Bucky Walters	 8
Tommy John	 8
Tom Seaver 	 8
Billy Pierce	 8
Mike Cuellar	 8
Carl Hubbell	 8
Lefty Grove 	 8
Lon Warneke	 8

Nice lead for Blyleven. (Also, Dean Chance? Uh, okay, Dean Chance).

From a Cooperstown point of view, the debate is semantics. The in/out line for the Hall has never been 300 wins. If you had to pick one starting pitcher to serve as in/out line for induction, I’d go with Stan Coveleski. The ones better than him who are not in would make legitimate candidates. The ones worse than him who are in are generally mistakes.

Blyleven is well above the Coveleski line, regardless of how you slice his record.

7. He still won a tremendous amount when young

Despite winning 17 fewer games than he “should have” in his pre-Pittsburgh years, Blyleven can still claim to be one of only 16 men in the liveball era to win 150 games before turning 30. Here’s a list, with how much they’d won before the big 3-0:

Pitcher	       Wins
Hal Newhouser	188
Catfish Hunter	184
Robin Roberts	179
Bob Feller	177
Wes Ferrell	175
Don Drysdale	170
Waite Hoyt	161
Mel Harder	159
Dwight Gooden	157
Bert Blyleven	156
Lefty Gomez	153
Milt Pappas	152
Jim Palmer	152
Ken Holtzman	151
Greg Maddux	151
Vida Blue	150

It’s easy to forget how young Blyleven debuted, just two months past his 19th birthday. And once he came up, he stuck around. When you’re constantly winning 15 or more games a year, you don’t need too many 20-win seasons to make this list.

8. Blyleven was a tremendous workhorse

Blyleven also won so many games because he was a great workhorse. Though his age-28 season, Blyleven tossed 2,624 innings, more than anyone since Pete Alexander. Nice.

Look again at that list of young big winners. There are 16 names, but only one 300-game winner. Half of them blew their arms out right after turning 30. That’s especially the case for the guys who finished near the top of the list (and where Blyleven would be if he didn’t weirdly have those 17 missing wins).

Hal Newhouser barely won 200 games. Don Drysdale was done two weeks after his 33rd birthday. Catfish Hunter lasted only a few months more. Wes Ferrell won three games after his age-30 season.

Even the guys who didn’t completely implode aged poorly. Robin Roberts hung on a long time but was a shell of himself for many years. Only two of them won 30 games after their age 30 season—Jim Palmer and Bob Feller—and none did it after age 32.

Then there’s Blyleven. Even though he put more miles on his arm in his 20s then nearly all of them, he kept on going. Blyleven had his problems from 1982 to early 1984, but he recovered, aging better than anyone not named Maddux on that list. From 1984-89, he went 95-71 with a 115 ERA+. And he was still a workhorse, completing 24 games in 1985, the last AL pitcher to top 20. It’s that second wind that makes his career numbers impressive.

9. He had only two huge years for allowing home runs

If you grew up in the 1980s, you likely have a major memory of Blyleven—the guy who gave up all those homers. Blyleven set the record that still stands with 50 gopher balls in 1986, and then topped the league again with 46 in 1987.

Aside from that, he never led the league. In fact, he never came close. He didn’t allowed more than 24 in any other season. Go figure.

10. Blyleven and Rich Lederer combined to defy recent trends

About 10 years ago, there was a debate at the late, great Rob Neyer Message Board about Blyleven’s Hall of Fame chances. At that time only 15 to 20 percent of the electorate supported him.

To answer the question, I went to my usual modus operandi: I looked at recent historical trends. It showed that of the last 20 guys elected to Cooperstown by the BBWAA (as of then), none had ever received 20 percent or lower of the vote in any election they were up for. None had ever fallen below 30 percent. Or 40 percent. The worst election by any of 20 guys who had gone on to election was one time Tony Perez finished exactly one vote shy of 50 percent.

If you went back further, you could find guys who’d risen up: Billy Williams, Luis Aparicio, Bob Lemon. But that’s the problem, you had to go way back. Many new voters had entered the mix, and old ones passed on. I assumed Blyleven had no chance with the current BBWAA.

But he did. Thanks in no small amount to a campaign led by Rich Lederer to get Bert Blyleven into the Hall of Fame, Blyleven saw his vote total gradually rise up, election after election, until he got in. With the power of the internet, Lederer’s persistence—and, oh yeah, Blyleven’s own solid case—he’ll have a nice weekend in upstate New York this year.

Note that since the Neyer Board discussion ten years ago, things have already shifted. Gary Carter, Rich Gossage, Jim Rice, and Bruce Sutter have all gotten in, after initially finishing under 50 percent. But Gossage and Sutter are relievers, and the Hall is still trying to figure them out. Carter only had one really low year, and it was never as low as Blyleven. Rice benefited from an orchestrated movement by the Boston press corps.

None spent as many years as low on BBWAA ballots as Blyleven. If you’re a fan of sabermetrics, and of internet-based populism, this weekend’s induction ceremony is thus a double victory—one for Blyleven and one for Lederer.

References & Resources
I checked Paper of Record for some of the items in No. 1. The Baseball Hall of Shame II first clued me in to some of those stories. A Pirate fan friend named Mike Emeigh told me about Blyleven’s early-1980 walkout.

Baseball-Reference.com provided the stats. The list of 1-0 CG SHO, required the Play Index. I checked all pitchers with at least 25 SHO from 1920-2011. The bullpen page for Hal Newhouser lists the 16 liveballers who won 150 games before turning 30 years old, but I feel a bit odd citing that, since I’m the guy that put that info there in the first place.

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Comments

  1. CarterHayes said...

    Given his temperamental behaviour and (more happily) reputation as a practical jokester as a player, which have carried over somewhat into an occasionally prickly demeanor as a broadcaster, I wonder if Blyleven’s early debut in the majors is partially to blame for his personality’s lack of leavening.

    Of course, that might be half-baked psychoanalysis, but it does make one wonder.

  2. Chris J> said...

    Carter,

    Could be.  Makes some sense. 

    Thanks for the link at WGOM, by the way.  So you know: later this week as induction day nears, I’ll have a “Bert Blyleven career highlights” piece up at THT Live.

  3. charles said...

    He really helped the 1976 Rangers make a run for the pennant.  And those TWENTY no-decisions on the WORLD CHAMPION Pittsburgh Pirates are probably a record of sorts.

    At least his induction might open the door for more worthy candidates, certainly Jimm Kaat is this man’s superior as an MLB pitcher.

  4. CarterHayes said...

    I’ll be looking for it, Chris, and will pass the link on; you’ve got more than a few fans over at the WGOM.

  5. Chris Jaffe said...

    Brian – yeah, if you look at pre-1920 guys its really nuts.

    Kid Nichols is the all-time champ. Around (over?) 300.

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