Today, Bert Blyleven finally got recognized for being the great pitcher he was. It took fourteen years, but it’s always better late than never. Congratulations, Bert.
In the long, traditional and tainted history of baseball, you will find few players who were as good as Bert Blyleven. A pitcher who spent 86% of his career in the AL, Blyleven was not only one of the most durable pitchers ever to play the game (14th all time in innings pitched), but he also played each and every one of those innings, up until the last few years of his career, remarkably well and consistently. Blyleven was not just “good” at baseball, he was nothing short of great, and unlike Javier Vazquez, he did not underperform his stellar peripherals.
In terms of the topical, traditional statistics, Blyleven’s career 3.31 ERA puts him in company with current/future Hall of Famers Randy Johnson (career 3.29 ERA), Fergie Jenkins (3.34), Phil Niekro (3.35), and Robin Roberts (3.41). His ERA is also lower than that of Tom Glavine (3.54).
You like wins? His 287 wins give him one more than Robin Roberts and place him 27th all time. Only six other players in the history of baseball who have more wins than Blyleven—Tommy John (288), Bobby Mathews (297), Johnson (303), Glavine (305), Roger Clemens (354), and Greg Maddux (355)—are not currently in the Hall of Fame, and five years from now, that number will dwindle down to two.
Many pitchers with fewer wins are already in. Furthermore, Blyleven was never known as a jerk or cheater or drug user during his career, unlike Albert Belle, Ron Santo (God rest his soul), Tim Raines, Kenny Rogers, Barry Bonds, Clemens, et al. To the contrary, Blyleven has a great sense of humor. But wins don’t really matter, at least not in measuring a pitchers talent, and attitude has nothing to do with his talent and production on the field.
While Blyleven performed remarkably well in the surface stats that most Hall of Fame voters obsessively ogle, his underlying skill sets are equally impressive. Blyleven ended his career with a 3.19 FIP over almost 5,000 innings pitched, making him top-50 all time amongst starting pitchers who threw 2500+ innings. That FIP mark puts Blyleven in company with such current and future Hall Of Famers as Steve Carlton (career 3.15 FIP) and Jim Bunning (3.22) and ahead of such guys as Don Sutton (3.24), Maddux (3.26), Fergie Jenkins (3.28), Dennis Eckersley (3.40), and Phil Niekro (3.60).
In fact, Blyleven’s FIP was only above 3.00 twice during his first nine major league seasons (one of which was his rookie year). Over those first nine years of his career, his career-high FIP was 3.27. In his career, his FIP was above 4.00 only three times.
His BB/9 was only three times above 3.00 in a season and only once above 3.50. Blyleven’s K/9 (6.70 career) was also above average each season until his final three in the majors. With the exception of his final three seasons—over which Blyleven’s K/BB was 2.98, 2.76, and 2.41—his K/9 was never below 6.0.
Blyleven’s numbers are so good because his control was superb. It was not Greg Maddux-like, but a career 2.39 BB/9 is none the less fantastic. Blyleven posted a career 2.80 K/BB mark, which is top-35 amongst all pitchers who threw 2000+ innings (top-25 amongst all pitchers with 2500+ innings). And just in case Blyleven’s career 2.80 K/BB does not sound sweet enough, between 1970 and 1992, the league average K/BB was only above 1.75 once (1988).
Fangraphs does not have any groundball data available for any season prior to 2002, but it is well known that Blyleven had a fantastic curveball, and he kept the ball in the yard plenty with a 0.78 HR/9.
In sum, we have the portrait of a pitcher with great peripherals and quality surface stats. Blyleven was an almost entirely AL pitcher with a good reputation, a lot of wins, great control (in terms of both BB/9 and K/BB), and a very quality FIP and ERA. His 3,701 career strikeouts are fifth all time and he’s better than many of the pitchers who are already honored (some of whom should not be…but that post is for another time) in the halls of history in Cooperstown, New York.
Blyleven was one of baseball’s true greats, and I am glad he is finally being recognized as such. With luck, Blyleven’s entry will pave the way for Mike Mussina.
Some talk has surrounded Jeff Bagwell as a steroid taker. He’s never been named as one, never tested positive, and there’s no solid evidence or even evasive statements before Congress linking him to steroids. But he might be dinged by the power of gossip and innuendo.
Rather than extol upon how unfair tainting innuendo is in our
guilty until proven innocent-until-proven-guilty society and rehash a long-winded argument in favor of Jeff Bagwell, I will instead let the numbers visually stand for themselves. Below, courtesy of Fangraphs’s WAR graphs, is a visual representation of the career of Jeff Bagwell in comparison to the careers of the three most recently elected Hall of Fame hitters — Roberto Alomar (congratulations!), Andre Dawson, and Jim Rice.
Like I said, I think the image speaks for itself.