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Bert Blyleven a deserving Hall of Famer

7/22/2011
Bert Blyleven won 287 games and ranks fifth all time in strikeouts, ninth in shutouts. Getty Images

When I was a kid in Seattle, we usually sat in the bleachers or the upper deck at Mariners games, which is why I have distinct memories of a game in September 1984. My dad dropped my younger sister and I off at the Kingdome, probably gave us $10 to buy tickets and said we'd meet him after the game. It was a Monday night (was there no school the next day?) and we walked up to the ticket booth and purchased two box seats behind home plate. You could do that in those days. The Mariners weren't exactly packing them in; in fact, I see now the attendance was fewer than 5,000 that night. I'm not sure what the price of the tickets was, maybe $5.50. Maybe I used some money I had made from umpiring; maybe dad gave us $20. But I remember those box seats.

Bert Blyleven was pitching for Cleveland that night.

I don't remember Phil Bradley going 4-for-4 for the Mariners or Danny Tartabull playing shortstop or somebody named Jeff Moronko playing third base for Cleveland. But I remember sitting five or six rows behind home plate, the best seats I'd ever had, offering a perfect view of Blyleven's famous curveball.

He pitched nine innings that night, gave up two runs, but left with a no-decision. The Mariners won 3-2 in 11 innings, the winning run scoring on a play recorded as a 7-4 force at second base.

It was one of Blyleven's best years. In fact, if the Indians had scored one more run for him that night, Blyleven would have won 20 games; instead he finished 19-7 with a 2.87 ERA, finishing third in the Cy Young vote behind relievers Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry. Who knows, with 20 wins instead of 19, Blyleven may have picked up a few more first-place votes and won the award.

And maybe he wouldn't have had to wait 14 years on the Hall of Fame ballot before finally getting elected.

* * * *

The thing about Bert Blyleven's Hall of Fame case was that there was no precedent for leaving out a pitcher of his caliber. It just took baseball writers a long time to figure this out, thanks in no small part to the efforts of blogger Rich Lederer, who tirelessly campaigned for Blyleven's case (click here for Rich's writings on Blyleven).

Blyleven ranks 27th all time in wins, fifth in strikeouts, 14th in innings pitched, 11th in games started and ninth in shutouts. He went 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA in the postseason, helping his teams win two World Series. If you like advanced metrics, he ranks 13th all time in Baseball-Reference's WAR (wins above replacement level), with a total higher than Christy Mathewson, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins and many other top-tier Hall of Famers.

The writers held three things against Blyleven:

1. He finished 287-250, so he fell short of the magical 300-win barrier.

2. He never a won a Cy Young Award.

3. He made only two All-Star Games.

Let's take a quick look at those objections.

He didn't win 300 games.

Blyleven suffered from the fact several of his contemporaries won 300-plus games: Tom Seaver, Carlton, Ryan, Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro. Of course, hanging on to win 13 more games wouldn't have changed his actual value, but it took writers a long time to realize that -- along with, of course, the understanding that wins are heavily team influenced.

This, of course, was part of the Blyleven story. His best season came in 1973, when he went 20-17, with a 2.52 ERA in 40 starts. He pitched 325 innings and tossed nine shutouts. But in 10 starts in which he allowed one run or two runs, he went just 5-4 -- even though he pitched at least 8 1/3 innings in all of those games. The next season he went 17-17 with a 2.66 ERA. He threw four shutouts, but in 15 games in which he allowed one or two runs, he went just 9-5. In 1977, he finished second in the AL in ERA, first in WHIP, threw 15 complete games and averaged nearly eight innings per start, but went just 14-12. The luck never evened out for Blyleven, so he never had that glossy 24-9 campaign that he could have.

It all led to a certain cloudiness over how good he was. In a 1974 article in Sports Illustrated, Pat Jordan wrote,

    "Bert has a better curveball than Seaver," says [Randy] Hundley, "and his fastball may be a bit quicker, too." But Blyleven is a copy without the original's shades and textures; without his classical foundation. "Bert's a thrower," says Hundley. "Seaver's a pitcher."

Later, Jordan added:

    But Seaver possesses a fiercely passionate desire and the intelligence to profitably channel it. He may be "dull," as he once described himself, but he is purposely so. His "dullness" frees him from public pressures and allows him to cultivate his craft more freely than would otherwise be possible. Blyleven has the same freedom, but whether he has the passion and intelligence to put it to its best use is not yet clear. His pitching coach, Bob Rodgers, says Blyleven is the hardest worker he has ever met. Whether Blyleven will remain only a solidly successful pitcher or become a superstar is problematical. Unquestionably he has the raw ability.

Well, geez ... so maybe he wasn't quite as good as Tom Seaver?

Jordan wrote again about Blyleven in 1976, again mentioning that his win totals didn't match up to his stuff: "So far Blyleven has won 20 only once, in 1973, when he lost 17. He has always hovered around .500: 10-9, 16-15, 17-17 twice. This year he is 4-6, with a 2.97 ERA. Being close to his 100th win is an unusual accomplishment for a 25-year-old, but less than satisfactory for this 218-pounder, considering his stuff."

From 1970 to 1976, Blyleven ranked fifth in the majors in ERA (ahead of much more heralded pitchers like Catfish Hunter, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton), third in park-adjusted ERA and third in strikeouts and shutouts. But he was only 14th in wins. He was a superstar; it's that nobody realized it at the time.

He never won a Cy Young Award.

Take the 1973 season mentioned above. By wins above replacement, he was easily the most valuable pitcher in the AL, but finished just seventh in the voting. Jim Palmer won. Check out their records:

Palmer: 22-9, 2.40 ERA, 296.1 IP, 225 H, 113 BB, 158 SO, 19 CG

Blyleven: 20-17, 2.52 ERA, 325 IP, 296 H, 67 BB, 258 SO, 25 CG

They appear close in value, except Blyleven pitched 30 more innings in a tougher park for pitchers. But Palmer scored 14 first-place votes while Blyleven picked up one third-place vote. Palmer played for a team that won 97 games, Blyleven for a team that won 81.

Hall of Fame voters like two types of starting pitchers: 300-game winners and guys who were "famous." Blyleven didn't win 300 games and he wasn't as famous as guys like Palmer, Hunter or Don Drysdale, though certainly the equal of Palmer (if not better) and certainly the superior pitcher to Hunter or Drysdale.

He made only two All-Star teams.

This one is pretty easy. Blyleven was often a better pitcher in the second half. Here are some first-/second-half breakdowns for some of his best seasons:

1971: 7-11, 3.13 (9-4, 2.46)

1972: 9-12, 2.85 (8-5, 2.55)

1973: All-Star

1974: 10-10, 3.10 (7-7, 2.00)

1975: 7-4, 3.47 (8-6, 2.60)

1976: 5-8, 2.64 (8-8, 3.10)

1977: 8-9, 2.61 (6-3, 2.95)

1978: 9-5, 3.26 (5-5, 2.75)

1984: 7-3, 3.54 (12-4, 2.34)

1985: All-Star

1989: 8-2, 2.15 (9-3, 3.36)

Anyway, it took a long time for Blyleven's greatness to get honored, but he'll finally be in Cooperstown this weekend. Let's hope he pulls off a hotfoot or two.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.