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Monday, January 4, 2010
Time is now for Blyleven to enter Hall

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

This isn't the first time I've pleaded the case for Bert Blyleven's election to the Hall of Fame, but I'm crossing my fingers it will be the last.

Bert Blyleven
Bert Blyleven is fifth all-time with 3,701 strikeouts.

Blyleven finished 67 votes shy of the 405 necessary for election last year. Convincing 67 stubborn baseball writers of anything beyond the value of the Marriott rewards program can be challenging, but the stats actually favor Blyleven. The 67 votes represented 12.3 percent of last year's total, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, 11 players jumped by at least that much from one year to the next over the past decade. Carlton Fisk, Ryne Sandberg, Goose Gossage and Tony Perez all jumped at least that much the year they were elected.

There are a couple of reasons Blyleven could make a similar leap this year or over the next two years. One, this is a relatively soft year for candidates, as is next year. Robbie Alomar is the only player who has the sort of numbers that scream "first-ballot" this year, but even he may not get the necessary 75 percent of the votes. (Jeff Bagwell looks like the only first-ballot guy next year.) That favors a player considered borderline by voters.

More important, attitudes toward statistics are gradually changing, as the Cy Young vote demonstrated this year when the award went to starters with 16 wins (Zack Greinke) and 15 wins (Tim Lincecum). That bodes well for Blyleven, who has been a victim of the Cy Young bias.

One reason writers cite in not voting for Blyleven is that he never won a Cy Young award and never really came close. If Blyleven never was considered the best pitcher in his league when he was playing, so goes this reasoning, why should we consider him among the best of all time?

This is faulty logic and unfair because the Cy Young is awarded by the vote of writers who may have undervalued a pitcher's performance in the first place. That means the writers initially punish a pitcher by not voting him an award he may deserve, then punish him again by withholding their Hall of Fame votes because they didn't vote him the earlier award.

Consider the 1973 season, when Blyleven led the league in WHIP, adjusted ERA and shutouts; was a close second in ERA, a very distant second in strikeouts (Nolan Ryan set the record that year) and fourth in innings pitched (325); and won 20 games. As analyst Richard Lederer argues, those numbers are comparable to the ones Greinke put up this year, but instead of winning the Cy Young, Blyleven finished a distant seventh. Only one writer even voted for Blyleven in 1973, and that writer marked him third on the ballot.

Had Blyleven put up those stats today, he may have won the Cy Young or at least come close to winning the award. Yet while our appreciation of statistics has changed, some people are still judging Blyleven by how writers viewed stats back then, even though that view is considered outdated.

Besides, what's so shameful about not winning a Cy Young when you're competing against the likes of Ryan, Jim Palmer, Roger Clemens and Catfish Hunter? Finishing behind Hall of Famers does not mean you shouldn't be a Hall of Famer yourself. Or as Blyleven says, quoting his wife, Gayle, "Cy Young didn't win the Cy Young, so what's the point?"

That 1973 season was the only year Blyleven won 20 games, which some voters also hold against his candidacy. But as the Lincecum and Greinke votes show, our standards have changed about win totals. If we no longer weigh wins as heavily as we did in determining the very best pitcher of the year, we should likewise adjust our thinking when determining the very best pitchers in history.

"One of the hardest things there is in baseball is to win a game," Blyleven said. "If you lose 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, you end up losing a lot." Blyleven knows this all too well, pointing out that he lost 99 quality starts (the fifth most since 1954) and that he had another 79 quality starts when he got a no-decision.

There was a time when I didn't vote for Blyleven, but I became a passionate convert after studying his case more and listening to other opinions. I'm not alone -- Blyleven's votes have risen from 14 percent in 1999 to 63 percent last year. Attitudes are changing, and rather than focus on what Blyleven did not do (win 300 games or a Cy Young), we are beginning to appreciate what he did do. Such as throw 60 shutouts -- nearly as many as Clemens and Pedro Martinez combined and more than all but eight pitchers in the Hall of Fame. And strike out 3,701 batters (fifth all-time). And throw 242 complete games (more than all but seven pitchers since 1955). And go 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA in the postseason. And throw the finest curveball most of us ever saw.

If you want more arguments for Blyleven, check out a few of the pieces I've written about him in the past: December 2005, December 2009, February 2008 and January 2003 (and this last one was when I wasn't yet convinced because I hadn't considered some aspects of his career).

I don't want to have to make this argument next year. The next story I want to write about Blyleven and Cooperstown is about the hotfoot (hotfeet?) he gives his fellow Hall of Famers during his induction speech.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.