Debate: Is Bert Blyleven a Hall of Famer?

Originally Published: December 28, 2007
ESPN.com

Blyleven
Blyleven
Bert Blyleven has 287 wins and is fifth all time with 3,701 strikeouts. But so far those numbers haven't gotten Blyleven elected to the Hall of Fame.

In this, his 11th year on the ballot, will Blyleven get enough votes to become part of the Class of 2008?

ESPN.com correspondents Bob Klapisch and Sean McAdam discuss Blyleven's Hall of Fame candidacy.

FROM: Bob Klapisch

TO: Sean McAdam

SUBJECT: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

Here we are, Sean, ready for the starter's gun on the annual hot stove debate: does Bert Blyleven belong in Cooperstown? I used to be part of the unthinking majority, convinced that anyone who was barely over .500 didn't deserve serious consideration. But I've since become enlightened. You don't have to dig very deep to realize Blyleven was among the best in keeping opponents from scoring. It's a powerful argument in his favor. What say you?

FROM: Sean McAdam

TO: Bob Klapisch

SUBJECT: RE: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

Klap, I could swear you're taking a shot at me somewhere in there -- the unthinking majority??? -- but I'm willing to overlook that in the spirit of the holiday season.

MOST STRIKEOUTS (All Time)
Nolan Ryan 5,714
Roger Clemens 4,672
Randy Johnson 4,616
Steve Carlton 4,136
Bert Blyleven 3,701
Blyleven was a very good pitcher for a number of years and the numbers support that. But in my mind, "very good" doesn't get you a piece of baseball immortality. Let's start with the number of 20-win seasons, or more accurately, lack of 20-win seasons. In 22 seasons, Blyleven had exactly one 20-win season. And remember, he pitched mostly in the era of four-man rotations. I could give you a list of many, many players who had a 20-win season and I assure you, you wouldn't be campaigning for any of them.

FROM: Bob Klapisch

TO: Sean McAdam

SUBJECT: RE: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

Who said anything about taking a shot? Must be your guilty conscience, Sean. I concede the absence of multiple 20-win seasons, obviously. But you realize that Blyleven spent most of his career pitching for mediocre (or awful) teams, and his won-loss records were chronically sabotaged by a lack of run support. Given what Blyleven had to work with, he had a Cooperstown-worthy career: he won 15 1-0 games, (more than Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Bob Sutton, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, to name a few). Only Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson did better. And Blyleven was sixth all time in shutouts.

Should I keep going? I'm only getting started …

FROM: Sean McAdam

TO: Bob Klapisch

SUBJECT: RE: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

Sorry, Klap, but I can't be giving out votes like gift certificates here. It's true that Blyleven pitched for some mediocre teams in the course of his career, but he also pitched for some pretty good ones -- like the Pirates in the late '70s and the Twins in the mid-to-late '80s.

MOST SHUTOUTS (Since 1961)
Nolan Ryan 61
Tom Seaver 61
Bert Blyleven 60
Don Sutton 58
Steve Carlton 55
Bob Gibson 55
And not only did he win 20 only once, but he didn't come real close in other years. He had one 19-win season ('84, with the Indians) and then a whole bunch of 17-win seasons (five). Does that sound like an ace's resume?

Let's move off the numbers and on to the awards. For a guy who pitched 22 seasons, he received Cy Young votes in four years. Put another way, only once every five years, Blyleven was considered one of his league's 10 best pitchers. Sorry, but that doesn't exactly scream "all-time great" to me.

FROM: Bob Klapisch

TO: Sean McAdam

SUBJECT: RE: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

Come on, Sean, you and I both know Cy Young votes (as well as All-Star appearances) are heavily influenced by won-loss records. In this regard, Blyleven was at a distinct disadvantage. His value was better measured in how he fared against opposing hitters, not necessarily in the games' final outcomes. How can anyone dismiss his 3,701 strikeouts? Blyleven fanned 18.06 percent of the batters he faced; he registered more strikeouts and at a better rate than Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro and Jim Palmer, among others. That's fairly great, if you ask me.

FROM: Sean McAdam

TO: Bob Klapisch

SUBJECT: RE: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

Bert Blyleven
AllsportBert Blyleven tossed 242 complete games in 22 seasons in the majors.
What? All of a sudden, won-loss record isn't a fair measuring stick for pitchers? If we're not going to take records into account, what's the new standard? I'm not expecting six or sevenseasons -- though that's been accomplished. But more than one isn't too much to ask, either.

I figured you'd push the strikeouts, Klap; they're a big part of Bert's candidacy. One problem: They're not, in and of themselves, evidence of a great career. Sure, strikeouts are impressive. But outs are out.

And while we're at it, two of the four comparables you introduced -- Suttonand Niekro -- were themselves borderline cases and waited several years before being inducted.

Sorry, but you're going to have to bring more than "percentage of batters fanned" to support your argument. And remember, as we learned in "Bull Durham," strikeouts are fascist.

FROM: Bob Klapisch

TO: Sean McAdam

SUBJECT: RE: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

I'm sure there are hundreds (thousands) of pitchers who wouldn't mind flaunting a little strikeout fascism of their own. Face it, Blyleven could deal. His stuff and performance ranks up there with many pitchers already in the Hall. If Sutton and Niekro are in, it's impossible to keep arguing against Blyleven. Look, the guy threw 60 career shutouts. He won 287 games. He has two World Series rings. His ERA was as good or lower than the league average in 17 of his first 18 seasons. Blyleven didn't just slog along, he made life miserable for hitters. And he left a unique mark on the game, too, throwing what had to be the best curveball of his generation. Blyleven's hook was even better than Dwight Gooden's.

FROM: Sean McAdam

TO: Bob Klapisch

SUBJECT: RE: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

I'll grant you that Blyleven had one hellacious -- as Dennis Eckersley used to say -- yakker. But this isn't about quality of stuff or signature pitches -- it's about dominance, excellence and all-time status. To me, there were too many years where Blyleven wasn't even the best pitcher on his own staff.

MOST WINS (Since 1970)
Roger Clemens 354
Greg Maddux 347
Nolan Ryan 312
Tom Glavine 303
Bert Blyleven 287
Randy Johnson 284
Steve Carlton 282
One 20-win season, no Cy Young Awards, no ERA titles -- that doesn't meet the standard for baseball immortality. Irecognize that he accomplished a great deal and wasn't very fun for hitters to face. Still, I don't think that qualifies him for Cooperstown. Certainly, his career was far, far better than most -- the shutouts, the strikeouts, the 287 wins all speak to that. It's just that I don't consider him among the very best pitchers of his generation. I think we're going to have to agree to disagree here, Klap.

FROM: Bob Klapisch

TO: Sean McAdam

SUBJECT: RE: Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Famer or not?

Put Blyleven on a different team, and you and I would be having a different conversation. Blyleven only got to pitch in six postseason games in a 22-year career. He can't be held responsible for that (although he made the most of those opportunities, going 4-1 with a 2.83 ERA).

I was hoping you'd see the light on some alternative logic, Sean. Maybe we'll do this again next year -- although if justice is served on the voting, maybe not.

ALSO SEE