Rookie Blogger Stumps for Blyleven: January 2002

With the voting results for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011 scheduled to drop at 2 PM today, I dug deep into the Futility Infielder archives and found my first piece advocating for the election of Bert Blyleven to the Hall of Fame. It dates to January 6, 2002, a day short of nine years ago, and less than a year into this site’s existence. I hadn’t invented JAWS yet, hadn’t discovered the existence of WARP yet, hadn’t started writing for Baseball Prospectus, and was still taking wins and losses into consideration, just like Bill James was (and to an alarming extent still is). At that point, Win Shares was the total value metric du jour:

Win Shares is a promising new system, but until the methods behind it are published, all we have to go on is what’s in the new Abstract, which is why [Jack] Morris’s numbers aren’t included above – he didn’t rate in James’s top 100 pitchers, while Blyleven (39th), [Tommy] John (63rd) and [Jim] Kaat (65th) did. Using Win Shares right now is like calling up a hot prospect in the middle of a pennant race – maybe he can help you here or there, but he’s not ready for prime time. Until the methods see the light of day and can be picked apart from the master’s own idiosyncracies, they remain somewhat suspect. That said, I do think we should take a look at what he’s made available thus far. So… WS is the player’s career total in Win Shares; the Top 3 are his top 3 seasons, the Top 5 is a total of his five best consecutive seasons, and the AVG is projected to 43 starts per season (a high total given all of these pitchers spent most of their careers in 5-man rotations).

Of Blyleven, John, and Kaat, none are overwhelming on the basis of their career peaks; Kaat and John each had three 20-win seasons, Blyleven just one. But all had extremely long careers, John at 26 years, Kaat at 25, and Blyleven the baby of the bunch at 22. All of them come from a time period which is somewhat over-represented in the Hall; six 300-game winners (Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro, Perry, and Seaver), plus Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins (285-226, 115 ERA+, seven 20-win seasons in an eight-year span), Jim Palmer (268-152, 125 ERA+, eight 20-win seasons in a nine-year span), and Catfish Hunter (224-166, 104 ERA+, five straight 20-win seasons). Those three all had longer (and higher) sustained peaks than our three, not to mention hardware in the shape of Cy Young Awards (three for Palmer, one each for Jenkins and Hunter), while our fair trio won none.

So these three are not clearly better than the bottom ranks of the enshrined from their era. But each of them has their additional merits which I feel should be enough to vault them into the ranks of the Hall.

Blyleven ranks number four on the career strikeout list, having been passed by Roger Clemens near the end of the 2001 season. He is also in the top 10 in shutouts (#9, with 60). He came up big in the postseason (5-1, 2.47 ERA , with World Series wins for champions Pittsburgh in ‘79 and Minnesota in ‘87). And his curveball had the reputation as being the best in the game. He spent most of his career with some mediocre (but not horrible) Minnesota and Cleveland teams, and rarely outperformed them by significant margins in the Won-Loss columns–he was an inning-eating horse who stuck around for the decision most of the time. But his ERAs relative to the league were excellent, as was his consistency–outperforming the league average by 15 percent or more (that is, an ERA+ of 115 or better) for the first nine years of his career and fourteen times overall. He won in double figures seventeen times, and won 17 or more games seven times. He gets my vote.

Win Shares has long since been superseded as a value metric, but back then it was as good as the tools got. Strikeouts and ERA+ figured prominently in my discussion, as did some notion of the distinction between career and peak. I’ve come a long way from certain aspects of my evaluation, particularly the reliance on W-L records (read the article and you’ll see I was still open to the idea of Morris being a Hall of Famer), but as opening salvos go, I’m quite proud of this.


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