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People were sour on Bert Blyleven 35 years ago

Dec 31, 2010, 10:36 AM EST

blyleven

A lot of the resistance to Bert Blyleven’s Hall of Fame candidacy is based on the notion that, while he was pitching, no one thought of him as a Hall of Famer. I think that’s definitely the case.  I wasn’t really aware of him as a player — as opposed to a random 1970s baseball card — until the early 80s, and no one at that time was calling him a lock for the Hall.  Steve Garvey? Oh yeah, but not Blyleven.

Today Wezen-Ball has a fantastic post, looking at what was being said and written about Bert Blyleven back when he was a young pup in the early-to-mid 70s.  lar quotes two old Sports Illustrated stories about Blyleven extensively, and the upshot is clear: everyone thought he was talented; few thought he could truly pitch.  lar rightly notes that this impression clearly stuck. Everyone who cared about sports was reading SI in those days and it likely led to the slog that has been Blyleven’s Hall of Fame campaign. A hurdle that, one assumes, is about to be overcome.

In those terms I understand the anti-Blyleven lobby. It’s not easy to change one’s long-held perceptions.  But when it comes to the Hall of Fame, it’s essential. Our perceptions of ballplayers are formed when they are young  and are based on a handful of games or early accomplishments.  Hall of Fame cases, in contrast, are meant to take in entire careers.  Because of that, the process rewards those who make an early splash and penalizes those whose greatness is based on a late bloom or sustained excellence.

If you came from another planet in 1965 and watched baseball for the first time, you’d never think Ernie Banks was a Hall of Famer. Same with Ken Griffey Jr. in 2001.  Likewise, if you stopped looking at Bert Blyleven objectively in the mid-70s, you could have easily missed out on what made him great.  But all three are Hall of Fame players.  And, hopefully, all three will be able to call themselves Hall of Famers soon.

  1. aburns77 - Dec 31, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    This is a really fascinating article about byleven which I think gives people like myself who never saw Bert pitch a better understanding of why there has been so much resistance against his hall of fame candidacy. That said, I find it infuriating that baseball writing which has come so far in the last several years in other regards, as evidenced by King Felix winning the Cy Young this yea,r and yet in some regards it is still so woefully behind statistical analysis. I never saw Byleven pitch so I don’t know if he “felt” like a hall of famer, but to me that is a prejudice that should have no bearing as to his worthiness in the hall. I hope for Bert’s sake he gets in this year so we can end this mindless diatribe because the numbers quite clearly show him to be among the game’s all-time greats, and that’s not an opinion.

    • JM Lattanzi - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:07 AM

      I am in a lot of agreement with you – I am in my late 20’s, so I didn’t get to watch him either. I did my own mock balloting and Blyleven simply cannot be kept out, but there is still the chance that those prejudices, especially of the old-guard, will rear their ugly heads once again.

      It strikes me as odd that the same folks who tend to be anti-Blyleven are so pro-Morris. One look at Morris’ numbers show a fairly overrated pitcher, and yet when it comes to the vocal minority, it’s Morris they are always screaming for, not Blyleven. I think the ever increasing percentage of the vote Blyleven gets each year is a testament that people are finally digging a little deeper.

  2. alexpoterack - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:11 AM

    I’m still mystified by the way people relied on W/L record back then. The second article Lar quotes is from June of 1976, with tons of theories for why Blyleven “struggled”, even with his stuff. Up to that point, he had an ERA at 3.00 or below every year except his rookie year, and his ERA+ was generally around 125, never lower than 116, and 158 one year. Sure, they weren’t looking at ERA+ back then, but still, it would’ve been clear that this is a guy who always gave up fewer runs than the average pitcher, and often gave up WAY fewer runs than the average pitcher, and yet for some reason people thought he didn’t utilize his stuff well enough? He didn’t concentrate well enough? It’s honestly just absurd.

  3. RickyB - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    I also think that the people that are so pro-Morris tend to think of Blyleven in terms of being the guy that gave up 50 homers in one season. How can a guy who gave up 50 homers in a season be a Hall of Famer? Just imagine if Roy Halladay continues on to a few more good seasons to lock up what should be a Hall of Fame career, and voters were to hold his one season of an ERA over 10 spanning 67 innings? How could that guy ever be a Hall of Famer? A Hall of Famer simply would never have that happen to him. Impressions are hard to get rid of for many people. Blyleven’s losses that disguised his great pitching and the homers he allowed in the HomerDome gave two very different sets of fans something to remember him by, which have clouded his case for the Hall.

  4. lessick - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:21 AM

    I’m old enough to remember Blyleven in the 1970s and I always thought of him as one of the best pitchers in baseball at the time. Maybe partly because Orioles radio broadcaster Chuck Thompson raved about him every time the Orioles faced the Twins, but I recall seeing a great curveball pitcher who was pretty dominant.

    • adenzeno - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:33 AM

      My post below is not intended to denigrate your post. I was just trying to state an opinion I and my friends had in that time.

  5. adenzeno - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    I was born in 1957 and was totally immersed in baseball during Blyleven’s career. While I actually skipped school one day to watch him on TV and see the legendary curveball, I never considered him to be one the BEST pitchers of his era. Very good yes but not among the ELITE. Granted, my teenage and early 20s were biased by the importance givento W-L records, but when I read Bill James the first time in 1982 I was hooked on sabremetrics. Yet I still am not sure about his HOF merit. Yes he has lots of excellent stats, but I do know as a kid and young man(older kid?) I never considered him in the same class as Carlton, Seaver, Gibson. I am sure that none of this contributes in any way, but I thought a viewpoint of an older guy might help some. Were he to get in I would not complain at all, but I do know that neither I nor my equally baseball obsessed buddies thought of him as one of the best

    • alexpoterack - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:36 AM

      I think this may be part of the issue; I’m a big Blyleven backer, but I will absolutely acknowledge he’s not in the same class of pitchers as Carlton, Seaver, and Gibson (well, he does have Gibson beat on longevity, but Gibson definitely had a better peak). However, he totally compares favorably to guys like Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, and even Nolan Ryan, who are all absolutely comparable (I’m basing this mainly on WAR, but if you don’t like advanced stats, just look at their ERAs; Bert absolutely holds up). Carlton and Seaver are probably among the five or so greatest of all time; Bert doesn’t measure up quite that high, but he’s still definitely Hall of Fame level.

    • schlom - Dec 31, 2010 at 1:05 PM

      But how many pitchers are in the class of Carlton, Seaver and Gibson? You’ve just named 3 of the top 15 starters of all-time! Is that the criteria now – you have to be an all-time great to make the HOF? Does that mean that Tom Glavine isn’t going to make it either as no one thinks of him on the level of Carlton plus he was never even the best starter on his team.

  6. schmedley69 - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:31 AM

    The Hall of Fame is filled with guys who didn’t “feel” like HOFers to me when I watched them play. Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry come to mind. I became a fan in 1979, so I missed the early parts of their careers, but to me, Jack Morris felt like more of an HOFer than Blyleven. Curt Schilling is another guy who people are on the fence about. To me, he was one of the greatest post season pitchers of all time, but some people think that his career stats don’t stack up. If you were playing game 7 of the World Series, who would you rather have on the mound (in their primes)? I’ll take Schilling and Morris over the other guys any day. Was Don Sutton truly great, or was he just a good pitcher who pitched forever and accumulated a lot of stats? I have no problem with Blyleven getting in, but guys like Schilling and Morris should be in too.

    • alexpoterack - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:45 AM

      Curt Schilling was a FAR better pitcher than Jack Morris; he put up an ERA almost half a run lower pitching in a era with WAY more offense. Statheads think he is, at WORST, a borderline Hall of Fame, if not an obvious one. Saying “guys like Schilling and Morris” is like saying “Guys like Ernie Banks and Steve Garvey”; they really aren’t the same category of player.

      The trope about having Morris on the mound for game 7 is a little bizarre because Morris’s postseason record was a fairly mixed bag. He performed well in 1984, and of course had the great game 7 in 1991, but he performed rather horribly for the Blue Jays in ’92, losing 3 games with a 7.43 ERA, and also lost the one game he started in the ’87 ALCS, giving up 6 runs and losing to…Bert Blyleven, of course.

      Blyleven, btw, had a lower ERA in the postseason, and in the World Series specifically.

      Sorry if I’m coming down too hard; I’m not trying to pick on anyone, but I think it’s worth pointing out how memory and impressions can lead us astray.

      • schmedley69 - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:31 PM

        Good points, but Jack Morris won 2 World Series titles in which he played a huge role. To me, that is greatness. Do the ’84 Tigers or ’91 Twins win the World Series without him? The answer is no. Schilling won 3 titles, and it would have been 4 if not for Mitch Williams. How he can be on the fence at all is beyond me. He was great when it counted the most.

      • alexpoterack - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:36 PM

        If I had a vote, I’d put Schilling in without thinking twice about it. That said, what tells you more about his ability–the 569 regular season games he played, or the 19 postseason games. I think the 569 regular season games are more informative–and I think he performed well enough in those to warrant a HoF nod, although some think he’s right on the borderline. The 19 post season games are icing on top.

        And, yes, you can say the ’84 Tigers or ’91 Twins don’t win the World Series without him, but the real question is how many starters could they have replaced him with and still won? Frankly, I think the answer is quite a few.

    • JM Lattanzi - Dec 31, 2010 at 11:47 AM

      I would put Schilling in over Morris, but I would still have to think long and hard about Schilling. Someone like Sutton had some similar stats (108 ERA+) to Morris (105 ERA+), but had the longevity to get 300 wins and 3,500 strikeouts that put him over the top. Fair or not, the 300 win threshold for pitchers, like 3,000 hits for batters will almost automatically put one over the hump, although we shall see with Rafael Palmeiro.

      • schmedley69 - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:35 PM

        Jamie Moyer is planning to come back and pitch, and if he plays a few more seasons, he will probably reach 300 wins. Is he a Hall of Famer? Not in my book. I don’t think he was ever even the ace on his own staff. I will take the guys who were truly great (even for short bursts) over the guys who were never truly great, but just played forever and accumulated stats. In my book, Schilling was great when it counted. I only saw Sutton pitch from ’79 and beyond, and he was never great. Not sure if he was before then, but I don’t think so.

      • JM Lattanzi - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:46 PM

        Oh, absolutely, Moyer is not a Hall of Famer, even if he gets to 300. I should have been clearer that I don’t think Sutton belongs in just because of that either, although 300 wins will continue to be a benchmark that is used. Tom Glavine will actually be the next test-case of the 300 win milestone, because while he had some very good years (1991-93, 1998), he got to 300 because of longevity.

      • kenbuddha - Dec 31, 2010 at 5:10 PM

        300 wins is certainly a milestone but even you mention a couple players that shouldn’t be HOFers even though they have or may reach 300 wins (Moyer for instance). So, if 300 isn’t automatic and you feel the need to look at other numbers to make your argument on, say Moyer, then why not just take those non-team based numbers into account and look at wins as a secondary stat. After all, it’s the player being voted on not his teams. If you do that, you should come away with Blyleven as a HOFer.

  7. apbaguy - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    I’ll add another geezer perspective here. The pitching bar was really high in the ’70’s as a carryover from the ’60’s with Koufax, Seaver and Gibson, and the Orioles great staffs. Back then there was no 24 hour sports programming, except on radio. So fans like me relied on box scores in the printed paper, radio, and televised games of the hometown team on fuzzy UHF, plus the occasional in-person treat.

    That said, Blyleven was also denigrated because his feature pitch was his curve. There was a tendency among sportswriters to “deduct points” if you will for any pitcher who lacked the big fastball. Thing is, as was pointed out above, while he was not as dominant (k/9 IP) as the best of the era, he was comparable to other HOF’s of the time, like Sutton, or Gaylord Perry.

    When you look at the mentality of those times, Blyleven had a lot to overcome: small market, curve baller, SI’s initial writing, etc..

    But in the second decade of the 21’st century, none of that matters anymore. His numbers and body of work warrant his inclusion.

    • adenzeno - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:09 PM

      I found his curveball phenomenal-as I said, I skipped school one day to watch him on TV vs the White Sox and Dick Allen(we had school on a Sat to make up a snow day-only time I ever skipped school or a class until college)-We never thought him a lesser pitcher due to his reliance on the curve, and I recall he was pretty dominant in our Strat O Matic leagues, we just didint view him as in the elite class.

    • BC - Jan 3, 2011 at 11:48 AM

      Only guy I saw with as dominant a curveball as Blyleven – albeit for only 5 or 6 years – was Dwight Gooden. Blyleven could be unhittable at times. But hey, you throw the curve all the time, you’re bound to hang a few and give up some dingers.

      • adenzeno - Jan 3, 2011 at 11:52 AM

        Doc’s first two years are unimaginable…

  8. paul621 - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    This has nothing to do with Blyleven, but just wondering why you always spell the author’s name with a lowercase “L”? One day you actually referred to him as “Larry,” and the light finally went on for me that it’s a lowercase “l” and not a capital “I.” I spent many hours trying to figure out if his name was “EEE-are” or “EYE-are” and why someone would be named that. Now I know it’s “Lar,” with a long “a.” Again, I figured this out a while ago, but this seemed like a nice time to bring it up.

    Oh, and go Blyleven.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:18 PM

      Because he does. Or at least he did.

  9. jdm5000 - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:27 PM

    I’m in my 40s and watched most of Blyleven’s career, he’s just not a HOF’er, claim to fame is his longevity but he wasn’t even the best pitcher on his team (Viola). In the end you don’t elect consistent #2 starters into the HOF no matter how long he hung around for, or how many 14-12 seasons he put in.

    • alexpoterack - Dec 31, 2010 at 12:33 PM

      Blyleven had been playing for 12 years before Viola debuted, and Bert has a lower ERA for his career (sorry if I’m relying too much on ERA in my comments, but it’s a quick and easy statistic that no one will reject as too advanced). Blyelven played with him for 3.5 years out of a 23 year career, and two of them happened to be the best two years of Viola’s career, and in the twilight of Bert’s. Again, relying on memory and impressions doesn’t work–go back and look at the record of what happened, and you’ll see that Blyleven more than measures up.

    • ThatGuy - Dec 31, 2010 at 1:03 PM

      That is the worst logic I have ever seen. They played together in late 85-88. So you are comparing 35-37 year old Bert, with 26-28 year old Viola. A player in his last years with a player in his prime. And Bert was actually better then Viola in 86′, Bert was still good in 87′(115 ERA+, well above average but Viola has a 159 ERA+ that year)) but the wheels fell off in 88′. Also Bert was far better in 85′, the year he got trade to the Twins and first became teamates.

    • ThatGuy - Dec 31, 2010 at 1:17 PM

      Also you say you are in your 40’s, which makes you around 9ish at most(possibly as young as 1 if you are in your young 40’s) when Bert started his career in 1970. Which makes you at most around 12 or 13(again as young as 3) in 73′ when Bert was the best pitcher in the league. My point is, do you really trust your judgement as a young teen(or even not even a teen yet) during Bert’s best years to say with confidence, yep I saw him then. I remember him not being a HOFer? Come on, thats just not practical. Im in my mid-20s and don’t put much stock into my judgments about players from that age.

  10. jdm5000 - Dec 31, 2010 at 1:28 PM

    Fine, look at Blyleven’s peak years, 13-16 at age 25, 14-12 age 26, 14-10 age 27, 12-5 age 28, 8-13 age 29, 11-7 age 30. All good numbers with decent low 3’s ERA (albeit in a pitchers era) so no argument that most would take that him as a solid #2 on your staff behind your ace (well maybe not the Sox, Phils or Yanks) but there is a reason he was only chosen for 2 all-star teams ahead of his peers in a very long career — he just didn’t stand out.

    • ThatGuy - Dec 31, 2010 at 1:50 PM

      You lost me when you bring in W-L records, becuase they don’t mean much. Take his age 26 season that you show as 14-12. Barely above .500, yet it makes no mention of the fact that he was 4th in WAR for pitchers that year, or 2nd ERA, 1st in WHIP, 2nd in H/9, 5th in SO/9, 2nd in Shutouts. If thats not enough about about his losing record season of 13-16 in his age 25 season, you see a losing record, must mean bad pitching. Ignores the fact that he was top 10 in most of the other stats.

      • blgros - Dec 31, 2010 at 5:05 PM

        1976, in 7 of Blylevens losses he posted a 1.80ERA and in all 7 of his no-decisions a 2.70ERA. Run support was 2.66….that’s tough stuff.

  11. dsmaxsucks - Dec 31, 2010 at 1:35 PM

    I guess I’m old, but I saw Bert pitch in his prime (lots of losses) and then in 87 for the Twins. And that was magical, but not East Coast magical like St. Curt. (Neither were the ace, remember).

    The part no one knows or remembers: Bert was an asshole. Not Carlton level, but pretty much he hated the press and vv. Someone should ask Reusse (Twins writer, still around) who plunked him during batting practice? Bert did.

    Bert ain’t like that anymore (I guess). But grudges are grudges, and writers are wusses (that the word now?) so let’s ask the older writers if they are as childish as history suggests they are.

  12. largebill - Dec 31, 2010 at 2:11 PM

    I’ve got a tough question for y’all. Which arguments are more nonsensical: the ones against Bert? or the ones in favor of Jack? Worse yet the one explaining voting for Morris and against Blyleven. You can be for a very exclusive Hall of Fame with no room for Bert.
    Or you could be for an extremely inclusive Hall with room Jack and a hundred other similar pitchers.
    However, one can not logically be for exclusive and inclusive at the same time.

    Funny thing is the pro-Morris crowd could actually hurt Morris’ case by not voting for Blyleven. If Blyleven does not get elected then he’ll be on the ballot again next year. Morris can not gain traction as long as there is a much, much better pitcher on the ballot. If Blyleven is on the ballot next year Morris will not get in at all as his last couple years will see many better players hit the ballot.

    • JM Lattanzi - Dec 31, 2010 at 2:23 PM

      I think you hit the nail on the head – the explanation for Morris but against Blyleven. All of that comes down to the ‘You Had to Be There’ argument, which is fuzzy at best.

      I wonder how many players have been voted in on the premise of ‘well, we put in X, so we have to put in Y’. It’s probably a greater number than we think, or want to acknowledge.

  13. jdm5000 - Dec 31, 2010 at 3:23 PM

    I’m pretty sure Blyleven will get in (unfortunately), Morris also shouldn’t although he was better than Blyleven, Morris was his team’s ace and feared during his time, typically getting the #1 call and ultimately winning 3 Championships, you can’t always pick your teams true but he received Cy Young votes 7 times, MVP votes 5 times and made 5 All-Star teams in his 14 year career. You can’t say the same about Blyleven, despite a much longer career he only made 2 All-Star teams in his 22 years, showing you how exactly little he stood out year upon year against his peers. I blame it all on Don Sutton, after him every uppity pitcher w/ longevity as his best statistic thinks he has a shot.

    • alexpoterack - Dec 31, 2010 at 3:45 PM

      Blyleven had a better record in the postseason than Morris. The one time they met in the postseason, Blyleven won. Citing Morris’s championships just doesn’t make any sense.

    • largebill - Dec 31, 2010 at 3:51 PM

      jdm5000,

      Not sure if you’re being intentionally funny or if it is just a by-product of you actually believing the tripe you typed.

      Not that there is anything wrong with longevity (I want my team’s pitcher healthy and ready to take the mound every five days), longevity is far from Blyleven’s best statistic. If I was ranking his strengths I’d start with 60 SHUTOUTS!, next I’d mention 5th all time in strike outs, then I’d laud his ERA and ERA+, his WAR etc.

      • professorperry - Dec 31, 2010 at 4:03 PM

        My guess, intentionally baiting.

    • blgros - Dec 31, 2010 at 4:53 PM

      Blyleven was usually better during the second half of the season, which was a cause for being overlooked during All Star selection. Somehow he was overlooked during the ’84 and ’89 seasons. Blyleven was also the opening day starter for his teams 12 times. See my post below relative to poor team support and how it affected his early career.

    • kenbuddha - Dec 31, 2010 at 5:00 PM

      The problem is that all of those accolades Morris received (AS, CYA, etc) were based on his W-L record because that was the standard back then. Unfortunately, your comments tend to revolve around the same thing, that Morris seemed better based on what others thought of him at the time – which was based on stats that have been picked apart and found to be team dependent.

  14. cdrydie - Dec 31, 2010 at 4:03 PM

    Seriously he should have been in a long time ago, no one has not made the Hall with either 300 wins or 3000 strike outs. Bert had 287 wins (would have been 350 if he had played on better teams), and 3701 strike outs. To me he should have been an automatic in, the numbers are there.

  15. blgros - Dec 31, 2010 at 4:48 PM

    An amazing Bert Blyleven statistic that I wouldn’t wish upon any major league pitcher:
    From his 1970 rookie season through 1977 I’ve accumulated his quality starts that I’ve defined as: 6innings, 2earned runs or less; 7,8,9innings, 3earned runs or less; and 9innings+ 4 earned runs or less in which he garnered a no decision or a loss only……

    The totals are:
    82 games
    658 innings
    583 hits
    185 runs
    160 earned runs
    184 base on balls
    540 strikeouts
    2.19 ERA
    His record: 0 wins and 53 LOSSES. I repeat 0 wins and 53 losses with a 2.19 ERA

    1970 0-3 2.09 9 games
    1971 0-6 1.90 9 games
    1972 0-9 2.35 13 games
    1973 0-8 2.55 9 games
    1974 0-8 1.80 10 games
    1975 0-6 2.00 10 games
    1976 0-8 2.29 15 games
    1977 0-5 2.45 7 games

    I understand that pitchers put up great games and get snakebit on occasion, but this accounted for almost 1 of every 3 starts, 82 of 279 to be exact or 29%. Show me a Hall of Famer that had to go through this year by year. Fortunately once Blyleven ended up in Pittsburgh and later some good Minnesota teams, this trend eased to what I would consider normal levels (I had researched this in the past but don’t have the numbers on hand)

    Imagine 1974, your 17-9 in 27 games, and in the other 10, all of which are essentially quality starts, you post a 1.80ERA and go 0-8. You end up 17-17. If you don’t know the facts, and your voting for the Cy Young award, and you see 17-17. Do you cast a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place vote? Probably not. This is what Blyleven faced in yesteryear, and the same writers, who I contend do not know the facts, are what Blyleven faces every year in the HOF vote.

    Go ahead, plug in a different year, or harken back to Baseball-reference and neutralize the stats, do it for every one of Blyleven’s contemporaries. The numbers don’t change much, but for Bert Blyleven, they do. The example given above is my attempt to show why. Teams that didn’t score runs and booted the ball around like it was a soccer match.

    • kenbuddha - Dec 31, 2010 at 5:22 PM

      Great comment. Great pitcher, garbage teams.

    • Adam - Jan 3, 2011 at 8:07 AM

      Thank you for defining a quality start that way. It infuriates me that a Quality Start is 6 innings of 3 runs. I have long thought that your definition is much more befitting of a Quality Start label.

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