By NICK LECO
August 6, 2008
If I were to tell you that a man born in Zeist, The Netherlands, named Rik Aalbert was going to be the subject of this week’s “Cooperstown Bound?” column, I’m sure you would think I’m nuts. Well, that is precisely what I am going to do. After 10 years on the ballot, Rik Aalbert “Bert” Blyleven has yet to garner the requisite 75 percent of the vote for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, after only getting a little over 17 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility, his total has increased steadily and in 2008 he got almost 62 percent of the vote. This week, National Pastime takes a look at Blyleven’s Hall of Fame resume:
BERT BLYLEVEN -
Hits Allowed: 4,632
Walks Allowed: 1,322
Complete Games: 242
Teams: Twins (1970-1976, 1985-1988), Rangers (1977), Pirates (1978-1980), Indians (1981-1985), Angels (1989-1992)
For about two decades, Blyleven was a feared competitor - one that few hitters enjoyed going up against. Known for his devastating curveball, Blyleven amassed 3,701 career strikeouts, which is good for fifth all-time. Despite playing for many bad teams over the course of his career, and thus often getting victimized by poor run support, Blyleven amassed 287 victories, which ranks 27th all-time. His 15 victories in 1-0 games is the most for any pitcher. In fact, Blyleven was often was counted on to carry the load. He had an amazing 242 complete games, including a whopping 24 in 1985, and his 60 shutouts rank ninth all-time. Since 1900, no pitcher other than Nolan Ryan can top Blyleven in all three of the following categories: wins, strikeouts, and shutouts.
Blyleven was a key contributor on two World Series championship teams: the 1979 Pirates and the 1987 Twins. In the postseason, Blyleven posted a 5-1 record and a sparkling 2.47 ERA in 47 1/3 innings. He stepped up his game in World Series play, posting a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings of work. Blyleven pitched in the All-Star Game in 1973 and 1985 and was the American League Comeback Player of the Year in 1989. He finished in the top five in his league’s Cy Young balloting three times, including top-three showings in 1984 and 1985. In 1977, his only season with the Rangers, Blyleven threw a no-hitter against the Angels.
From a statistical standpoint, Blyleven compares very favorably to many current Hall of Famers, and he is considered by many to be the best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame among those eligible. The following pitchers - all of whom already have plaques in Cooperstown - are rated as similar to Blyleven by statistics guru Bill James: Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Early Wynn, Gaylord Perry, Robin Roberts, Don Sutton and Fergie Jenkins. Here are their statistical career averages compared to Blyleven’s career stats:
IP H ER BB SO HR ERA
Blyleven: 4970 4632 1830 1322 3701 430 3.31
Group Avg.: 4974 4541 1800 1429 3263 434 3.26
Even when compared to Ryan, who received more than 98 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility, Blyleven measures up well. Blyleven had a better winning percentage (.534 to .524), K-to-walk ratio (2.8 to 2.04) and WHIP (1.20 to 1.25) than Ryan. Ryan had 61 career shutouts, while Blyleven had 60.
Blyleven’s case for Cooperstown is hurt by the view, held by many, that his was merely a very good career that lasted a long time. He won more than 20 games only once in his 22 seasons despite pitching in an era of four-man rotations, allowing him to make more than 30 starts 16 times, topping out with 40 starts in 1973. He also failed to win a single Cy Young Award and received votes in only four different seasons. While Blyleven’s career ERA of 3.31 is more than respectable, he never won a ERA title. He also gave up 430 career home runs, the eighth most in history.
Blyleven often flew under the radar in an era that featured Ryan, Carlton, Seaver, Niekro, Sutton, Jim Palmer and Catfish Hunter, among others, and it can be argued that he wasn’t even considered one of the top 10 pitchers during his prime. In many cases, Blyleven wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own team. He played second fiddle on both of the World Series winners he played on; John Candaleria was the ace of the 1979 Pirates, and Frank Viola was the 1987 Twins’ No. 1 starter.
Blyleven was also known to be volatile and abrasive at times. His outspoken nature prompted the Twins to trade him to Rangers in 1976. After winning a title with Pirates in 1979, Blyleven became unhappy with the way he was being used and displayed his displeasure by threatening to retire unless he was traded. He was shipped to Clevland the following year. A couple years ago, Blyleven cursed on the air while doing color commentary, believing the cameras were off. While this incident - and his past behavior in general - probably won’t hurt his Hall of Fame chances all that much, it won’t help, either.
Blyleven may be the most underrated player of all-time. Though not all his stats indicate greatness, in part because of the poor teams he played for, his strikeout, complete game and shutout totals all suggest Blyleven was a dominant, Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher. Had he played for just one team during the course of his career, or perhaps in a better market, he would have gotten a lot more attention than he did, and it’s possible we would not be having this debate 10 years after Blyleven’s name first appeared on the ballot.
However, there is a distinction between sure-fire Hall of Famers and borderline Hall of Famers. Among Blyleven’s contemporaries, I put Ryan, Carlton, Seaver and Palmer in the sure-fire category because they were far and away the best pitchers of their era during their peak years, while Blyleven falls into the borderline category alongside Sutton and Niekro. That being said, I think he should get in, and will get in. 2009 will belong to Rickey Henderson and the momentum is on Jim Rice’s side for next year as well. Look for Blyleven to get in before his standard eligibiltiy ends in 2012; he will not have to wait on the Veterans Committee.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.
Photo by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous Cooperstown Bound? columns: Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Omar Vizquel, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling, Andre Dawson, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire.