Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bert Blyleven and Superficial Thinking

Photo: Ed Walsh's T206 Baseball Card

For this post, I'm going to beg for your indulgence, especially if you're not a baseball fan.  There's a big-picture here, which mostly speaks to the power of the intelligent swaying the masses with intelligent writing, and it's also a little about the unfortunate and maddening need to have to do so.  It would not be a sin to skip the numbers a little, if you have to.  This will be long, so if you absolutely cannot bear numbers, or stats, or baseball talk, I'll understand if you scroll down to the last 4 paragraphs.  You'll miss the build-up, but you'll still get the overall point, I think.  (If you don't, scroll up a little and skim if you have to.)

I'm glad Blyleven was elected to the HOF for many reasons, but mostly because he's the poster child for sabermetrics.  (The importance of sabermetrics will be the subject of another entry.)  His stats, superficially below the Hall's standards for so long, now show why those standards were superficial to begin with.

Were the writers put off by his 287 wins--13 wins shy of the magical 300?  Were the writers that stickly?  300 wins, or else?  Even without the knowledge of WAR and other newer sabermetric standards (some of which I am honestly ignorant of myself), these writers knew what ERA was, right?  And WHIPs?  (That's walks + hits divided by innings pitched.  Essentially this shows you the number of runners allowed on base by the pitcher per inning.  Statistically, this absolves good pitchers who work for bad defensive teams.  It also shows you the occasional pitcher who has high WHIPs but low ERAs.  How can that be?  Answer: He pitches well in the clutch, when he has to.  Think Dice-K from a few years ago.)  I don't doubt that this was actually an issue early on in the voting.  But how could it have been as the years went by?  287 wins means he probably should have had 300, so why didn't he?

Look at his stats from 1971 to 1974.  In order, his won/lost records were 16-15, 17-17, 20-17, 17-17.  His ERAs were 2.81, 2.73, 2.52 and 2.66.  Here you have the definitive "problem" of his career.  In those 4 years, he was among the league leaders in wins and ERA each year; yet, all told, he won only 4 more games than he lost, and was also amongst the league leaders in losses.  How can a pitcher win so many games while losing so many games, and have good ERAs?  Simple: He pitched for teams who did not score for him, or did not field well for him.  This is odd, because (I'll have to research this) but the Twins at the time had Killebrew, Oliva and Carew and Olivo, didn't they?  They should've scored well, and often.  Maybe they just didn't for him, or they dropped the ball.  (sorry.)  That's odd, too, because Blyleven was a strikeout/flyball pitcher.  Hmmm...I'll have to come back to this.  The point is, though, that with a swing of 3 games a year--easily possible with his ERAs--then he's got a 19-win season and three consecutive 20-win seasons.  And 299 wins.  Pick up one more in all the years he pitched, you got your 300 wins, and your established peak value.  With those, there would not be a HOF discussion about him.

This also points out that win totals are often a lousy indicator of a pitcher's value.  With King Felix's Cy Young last year, this will be forever cemented in the minds of the voters.  He pitched for a lousy team that was one of the worst all-time scoring runs, and so he won just one more game than he lost.  But the voters, more savvy than in the past, correctly looked past that and gave him the Cy.  Imagine pitching for that team for most of your career--though not that bad a team--and you'd have a career much like Blyleven's.  Had Blyleven pitched for the A's or Yanks from 1971-1974, he would have easily won at least 22 games each year.  A quick glance at a Bill James Abstract shows that his teams were well below .500 teams in those years.  In 1973, he went 20-17 for a winning % of .541.  Not great on the surface, but spectacular when you see that his team played .488 without him.  In 1984, while with Cleveland, he went 19-7, for a .731 winning %, and the team played .412 ball without him.  That's an extreme example, of course, but it shows you what we're dealing with.  By the end of the 1986 season, he had 21.4 more wins above the rest of his team, according to James's Abstract published in 1988.  In other words, as mediocre as his .534 winning percentage is, it is far better than the combined winning % of the teams he played for.  In short, he played really well for some really bad teams.  (A quick glance at Nolan Ryan's stats shows you that, had he pitched for the Yanks for most of his career, rather than some very bad California and Texas teams, he would have won close to 400 games.)

To further prove this point, a few quick things I learned while gleaning other people's articles and blogs:

Joe Posnanski, a sportswriter for SI, points out that Blyleven won more 1-0 games than anyone else in the last 90 years.  Why?  Because he had to.  Blyleven, I mean.  At a guess, you'd have to imagine that he also lost more close games--or gotten a no-decision--than any pitcher in the last 90 years.

He's 13th all-time amongst pitchers in WAR.  This means that if you removed him from the roster, and replaced him with an average pitcher, that pitcher wouldn't be able to win as many games for that particular team than Blyleven did.  It takes a special pitcher to win for bad teams, and essentially Blyleven was the 13th best pitcher at doing that, all-time.  As a point of reference, Steve Carlton won 27 games and a Cy Young for a last-place team one year.  Blyleven (without pitching exactly as well as Carlton, in one year or for a career) did that almost every year of his career.

The obvious stats:

His 287 wins are 27th best, all-time.

His 3,701 Ks are 5th, all-time.

His 60 shutouts are 9th, all-time.  Since 1966, only Ryan and Seaver had more.  These last two things highlight another essential aspect of a HOF career: dominance.  If you strike 'em out, and you shut 'em out, you're dominating them.  If they can't hit you at all, and they can't score off you at all, you're dominating.  He was the 5th best and the 9th best at doing that.  Ever.

His 241 complete games is 91st all-time.  Not so hot on the surface, but from 1970 to the present, that'll be in the top ten.

He's a ROY winner, a two-time World Series winner, and he threw a no-hitter.

In 1985, he went 17-16 but led the league in games started, complete games, innings pitched, shutouts and strikeouts.  Again, if you finish what you start, and pitch more than anyone else, and they can't hit you or score off you, that's dominance.  He completed 24 games that year.  No one since 2000 has finished more than 10.  In 1985, when no one but Bill James was aware of these other benchmarks we've discussed, the Cy Young voters still looked past his won/lost record and he finished 3rd in the voting.

I could go on, but we've both probably had enough.  Why am I taking this so seriously?  First, it's very clear to me, and has been for a long time, before I ever knew anything about these other sabermetric benchmarks, that if you've pitched more innings than most, and you've struck out more than most, and you've shut down opposing teams more than most, then you're better than most.  And, if you're better than most, you should be in the HOF.  I knew this 14 years ago.  This is simple logic, and you don't have to be a sabermetrician to very clearly see this.

It is frustrating when people, in baseball and in real life, have a certain bias towards what they're looking for to the exclusion of everything else.  It is true that he doesn't have 300 wins.  It is true that he won 20 games just once.  It is true that he doesn't have a very obvious showing of peak value.  It is true that his peak years, statistically, may have come early, and since they came for a bad team, the stats they created don't look great on the surface.

But I hate on-the-surface thinking.  It annoys me--and often angers me--that sometimes that's the best that most people can do.  There's a lack of long-term, big-picture thinking here, of seeing the forest through the trees.  Blyleven wasn't the beautiful woman you can easily pick out of a crowd.  He's the beautiful woman who wears baggy sweatshirts who slips through the cracks of the minds of superficial thinkers.  He's the actually-attractive woman at the end of an 80s or 90s movie who the lunkheaded guy finally sees for who she is.  He's the guy who pitched for mediocre teams in the 70s and 80s that were not in NY or CA and therefore not on television most of the time for everyone to see.

He's the person you actually have to think about to appreciate.  And it took baseball's best 14 years to be able to do it.  And without a rabid fan base of sabermetricians and internet supporters, they wouldn't have.  He's not Pedro; he might not transcend eras like Pedro did.  But I tire of the articles and blogs today that make it seem like you have to be an expert in theoretical quantum physics to understand the numbers well enough to appreciate him.  It isn't so.  You just have to think.  A little.  Why is that so hard?

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