Bert Blyleven and the Hall of Fame

Baseball’s Hall of Fame is what you’d call a “self-defining club” at this point. A new HOF candidate’s stats and legend are compared to players already in the HOF, and that determines for the most part whether or not the player gets in. It would be nice if actual on field value mattered more, and if people who had an ounce of logic voted, but we can’t change that.

On that note, Blyleven’s recent induction into Cooperstown seems justified. He was voted in this past year with a career ERA of 3.31, a 287-250 record, and 3701 strikeouts in 4970 innings. The counting stats, along with ERA, seem to be important to the voters (despite their relative worthlessness without also including rate stats). According to Baseball-Reference, his four best comparisons are Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins and Tommy John–three Hall of Famers and one four-time all-star with his very own surgery.  Based on precedent, Blyleven finds himself in “qualified” company.

Going a step further, while ERA fluctuates over a single season, in an entire career it’s more useful as a barometer of run prevention. Once adjusted for home ballpark and the era(s) he played in, Blyleven’s ERA is actually better than all four of his top comps. If we use Fangraphs Fielding Independent Pitching measure (FIP), Blyleven was 19% better than the average pitcher of his day, topping Sutton (7% better), Perry (14%) and Jenkins (13%).

In other words, matched up against his best statistical comparisons, it’s not too hard to argue Blyleven was at least as good if not better. Unfortunately what may have kept him out of the HOF for a few years was a win total of 287,  just south of the magic number 300. But with Jenkins already inducted in 1991 with 284 wins, and nothing else decidedly more impressive, I’m not sure why it took Blyleven so long.

But he was finally voted to the HOF in his 11th year of eligibility, so that’s great for him. However, the other night I had to listen to the Mariner’s radio announcer tell me incorrectly why he was elected in. No, it wasn’t that his stats are just as good if not better than others in the Hall. That would have been too logical. Blyleven, according to Dave Henderson, pitched well in the first few innings, and then in games where he got a big lead, he coasted. Basically, according to Sims (and others) Blyleven could turn it on when he wanted. That’s incredibly false.

To the stats!

I should probably explain that OPS+ in this case compares the OPS of Blyleven’s opposing hitters to his own career average. Lower numbers = better pitching in general. If Blyleven pitched better when the game was close early on, and worse with big leads in “low-leverage” (low-pressure) situations, then explain this:

Low Leverage: 94 OPS+ (best)

Medium Leverage: 102 OPS+

High Leverage: 106 OPS+ (worst)

By Run Support:

0-2 Runs: 3.34 ERA, 102 OPS+ (worst)

3-5 Runs: 3.28 ERA, 101 OPS+

6+ Runs: 3.31 ERA, 94 OPS+ (arguably best)

In fact, Blyleven was at his best when the scoring margin was more than four runs, a stat supported by his improved performance in low-leverage situations. Not surprisingly, Don Sutton was the same way, pitching better when the game was not on the line. And Mark Redman, too! If there was a Mendoza line for pitchers, Redman might have been under it (in a bad way). Yet even he exhibited similar splits to Blyleven.

Conclusion: Blyleven deserved the HOF induction (if I accept that the HOF is self-defining). His ERA was not artificially inflated by “coasting,” and announcers are never going to be held accountable for the endless stream of vomit projected out of the holes on their faces.


One Response to Bert Blyleven and the Hall of Fame

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