Bert Blyleven's Hall of Fame case continues to be the most controversial and interesting one ever, certainly among those not tainted by the steroid issue. His candidacy has stirred more debate and arguments than any other player's, and it isn't even close.
This was the 14th straight year that I did not vote for Blyleven, and as a "no'' voter, I feel compelled to explain my decision, which has been met with criticism from a small but stout and increasingly effective Internet campaign. My guess is that campaign will finally prevail this year, as Blyleven finished only four votes shy of election last year, a total that isn't very hard to make up from one year to the next so my assumption is that Blyleven will make it this year.
Let me make one thing clear: If he goes into the Hall, I will not be the least bit upset. He had a terrific career and his case is very close, and he would not be the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame.
While I don't think Blyleven merits inclusion in a museum that honors the top one percent of players alltime, I think he is at worst in the top two percent, one of many borderline cases who just happens to fall on the wrong side of the border. But I do understand that it's all arguable. If someone thinks that Blyleven is a Hall of Famer, that's OK with me. At the very least, he has a solid case based on his career numbers, which include 287 wins, 242 complete games, 60 shutouts and 3,701 strikeouts.
The way I view this year's ballot, though, is that it has one candidate who is an obvious Hall of Famer, many borderline cases and an almost equal number that fall below the high standard that comprises the cusp. My full ballot is on the next page, but to me, the one obvious, slam-dunk Hall of Famer this year is Roberto Alomar, who was maybe the best defensive second baseman ever and for a time in the early 1990s in the running as baseball's top player. After Alomar, there are about a dozen players who are borderline Hall of Famers, and another dozen or so who ranged from average in one case to really good for most, but for whom no solid Cooperstown case can be made.
Blyleven's most vocal Cooperstown supporters don't see him as borderline. They sometimes call his case "indisputable'' or "undeniable.'' I appreciate their enthusiasm, but the reality is that over 14 years of elections, he has received slightly less than half the votes. His supporters may think it is indisputable, but the voters seem to have been torn for 13 years.
One Blyleven Internet supporter is such a zealot that he has guessed as to the motives for the non-support, and even on occasion taken to outing non-supporters or ridiculing them, perhaps in an attempt at persuasion. Let me just say that I have nothing against Blyleven, and have been consistent in my non-support of him. My "no'' vote has nothing to do with the Internet campaign, which has only become apparent in Blyleven's final few years on the ballot, and appears to be effective, as Blyleven's totals have risen precipitously.
It is interesting, though, that I have gone from being in the vast majority in my non-support of Blyleven (he received only 17 percent of the vote his first year and actually dipped to 14 in his second) to the vast minority (only 25.8 percent voted against him last year). I agree that there is room for a re-evaluation of a player's worth, but I still think Blyleven comes up a bit short.
There is nothing mystifying about my failure to vote for him. I simply think he was a terrific pitcher who falls just short of Hall of Fame standards. In filling out my ballot, I go more by impact than career numbers. Part of that is that I am old enough to have been around as long as every single player on the ballot by this point. And part of that is that I don't think numbers define a player's career. Some players, such as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Ozzie Smith, exceeded their numbers in my opinion. Others didn't quite measure up to them. Edgar Martinez, in my view, is one such player, and not just because he was a designated hitter for much of his career.
Bobby Abreu is another who fits into that category. I love Abreu, who is a great player but not a Hall of Famer. I've already seen hints from the numbers guys that they believe Abreu could have a strong Hall of Fame case based on his statistics, which currently include a .296 lifetime average, eight seasons of 100 RBIs and eight of 100 runs scored. I can imagine him becoming the next Blyleven, a very good player whose career numbers lead to an Internet campaign on his behalf. To me, both were excellent players who were consistent, durable and compiled impressive numbers. But they're not Hall of Famers.
If you put Blyleven's lifetime numbers through a computer, the computer would probably determine that he (and Abreu, for that matter) is a Hall of Famer. But the game is about human beings, not just numbers. It's about impact. The Hall of Fame is about fame, and Blyleven's greatest fame came not while he was pitching well for five teams over 22 seasons but instead through his extended candidacy and the controversy surrounding it after he had retired.
In attempting to explain why I didn't vote for Blyleven I will provide the reasons, and this shouldn't be construed in any way as a negative campaign. If he gets in, I will congratulate him and understand he is probably as deserving as a few pitchers already in the Hall. I just want to explain my vote. And as I've said, I don't begrudge anyone's "yes'' vote on Blyleven or ascribe motives to a majority of the electorate switching from "no'' to "yes.'' I myself have switch from a "no'' to a "yes'' vote in about a half-dozen other cases due to a re-evaluation of a player's borderline career.
First the case for Blyleven. He has terrific career totals, as stated above, which certainly make him a very worthy candidate for consideration. A re-evaluation of his career upward, after the fact, has helped him grow in stature. The scarcity of complete games in recent years has also shined a light on some his lifetime achievements.
I, however, would argue that he was very good but not quite great. He assuredly dominated batters and games but he never dominated even one season or certainly a series of seasons. He never finished higher than third in the Cy Young balloting and only four times finished in the top 10, meaning he was never considered among the two best pitchers in his league during his time.
While his supporters may try to claim the voting was wrong, this is how he was judged while he played, and it's hard to cite obvious cases of him being overlooked. Simply put, there were pitchers who had better seasons, from Jim Palmer in 1973 to Bret Saberhagen in 1985 and 1989, two pitchers who won Cy Young awards in in years Blyleven finished in the top 10 of the balloting.
Blyleven was never considered to be in the category of the game's best pitchers during his career. He simply outlasted almost everyone else and kept pitching effectively into his 40s. He never led the league in wins or ERA, though he did lead the league in home runs allowed twice and earned runs allowed once. He also led in innings twice, complete games, strikeouts and WHIP once apiece, which enhances his case but not quite enough in my estimation.
He only made two All-Star teams, which may be explained in part by the fact that he was a slightly better second-half pitcher, but two is an awfully low number for someone who pitched 22 seasons. In other words, he was an All-Star less than one of out of 10 seasons, or about average if players were picked randomly.
He only received MVP votes twice, finishing 26th in 1973 and 13th in 1989. According to baseball-reference.com, he ranks 936th alltime in MVP shares at 0.09.
His supporters will maintain that sportswriters shafted Blyleven. It is possible that the work of sabermetricians placing a greater emphasis on innings and strikeouts might be helping to give more weight to Blyleven's accomplishments. But it's hard to go back and look at his individual seasons and see a case where he should have ranked in the top 10 in MVP voting in any of his 22 years. He never dominated in any one season and was never among the very best.
His closest career comp over his last several years is Don Sutton who is in the Hall of Fame. Sutton, who was elected to Cooperstown in his fifth year on the ballot, wasn't all that dissimilar from Blyleven, but Sutton did win 37 more games. Blyleven's total of 287 wins is still impressive, but his career winning percentage of .536 isn't spectacular, and while he was hampered by often playing for non-contenders, the teams he pitched for were close to .500 overall, which isn't terrible.
Some of Blyleven's supporters will say that wins don't define a pitcher and aren't always a fair measure of a pitcher's worth, as they are dependent in large part on a pitcher's run support or lack thereof. I did promote Felix Hernandez for the Cy Young, but I still see winning as the ultimate goal in each game, and Blyleven didn't win all that many more games than he lost.
Blyleven's backers sometimes will also act astounded or even apoplectic over the fact that some, including myself, support Jack Morris over Blyleven. Morris' career totals generally aren't as good as Blyleven's. But with Morris, to some degree, you had to be there. And I don't mean just Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, which was indeed one of the more remarkable and important performances in baseball history, when Morris pitched all 10 innings to win 1-0 and deliver his hometown Twins a championship.
Morris was arguably the best pitcher in the 1980s. He was the ace of three World Series-winning franchises, and while Blyleven also pitched very well in the postseason, he was never the ace. So it wasn't just sportswriters, it was his own managers who didn't appear to see him as one of the greats of the game.
If you wanted to win a big game in that era, you wanted to give the ball to Morris. He received Cy Young votes seven times, MVP votes five times and made five All-Star teams. His impact was deemed greater than Blyleven's at the time, and those judgments I believe were correct or close enough to correct. Morris' percentage of "yes' votes has risen from 22 percent to 52 percent, but he doesn't have the Internet campaign going because his career stats don't tell his story.
Morris has a high lifetime ERA, 3.90. But some of that is due to the 6.19 and 5.60 marks he put up in his final two seasons. And part of it is due to him pitching to the scoreboard, which the very best pitchers could do.
In the end, the best are not defined by being consistently good and sticking around long enough to post totals beyond their actual impact. That's what Blyleven did.
My breakdown of the ballot is on the next page.
1. Roberto Alomar. There was no good reason he didn't make it as a first-ballot guy in 2010. He made 12 All-Star teams and won 10 Gold Glove awards and was a better player than fellow second baseman Ryne Sandberg, whose career overlapped with Alomar's and who is already in the Hall.
2. Morris. He finished with 254 wins and 175 complete games while leading the league at various times in wins (twice), starts (twice), complete games, shutouts and innings pitched.
3. Barry Larkin. The nine-time All-Star, nine-time Silver Slugger winner and three-time Gold Glove winner will get in eventually, despite receiving a surprisingly low 52 percent of the vote his first year, in 2010. If he rises to 60 percent or better this time, he's surely on his way to Cooperstown. He was an excellent two-way player who was the first shortstop to have a season in which he hit 30 home runs and stole 30 bases.
4. Dave Parker. One of the most under-supported players ever, he was Jim Rice with speed and possessed one of the greatest arms in baseball history. His brush with drugs may discourage some voters. Not me. This is his 15th and final year on the ballot, and I'll go down having marked "yes'' 15 times.
5. Tim Raines. After a re-evaluation I switched to a "yes'' this year because he was a dominating player for a while in Montreal, finished in the top 20 in MVP voting seven times and wound up with 808 career stolen bases and a .385 on-base percentage.
6. Don Mattingly. I switched to "yes'' a few years ago because because he 1) was one of the best players in the game for a five-year period (and presumably would have continued along those lines had it not been for a bad back), 2) has career stats very similar to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, who was a no-brainer for me, and 3) is one of the very best defensive first basemen of alltime.
7. Dale Murphy. A clean homer hitter who twice won the NL MVP award and was an iconic player for a while. A converted catcher, he turned himself into a Gold Glove defender in centerfield. He also brought a lot of honor to the game. I finally switched to a "yes'' vote this year.
8. Jeff Bagwell. The numbers were plenty good (449 home runs, .408 OBP, .540 slugging percentage) and he'll merit reconsideration next year. I won't argue if he gets in, but I'd prefer a chance to reconsider in future years.
9. Bert Blyleven. See above.
10. Alan Trammell. He has plenty of accomplishments -- six-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, three-time Silver Slugger winner -- and I do believe it's true the Tigers never would have traded him straight-up for shortstop contemporary Ozzie Smith, who was a clear Hall of Famer. I studied it hard this year and though I think it's very close, I ultimately voted "no" a 10th straight time.
11. Fred McGriff. The "Crime Dog'' was an outrageously consistent and presumably clean home run hitter in the steroid era who finished just short of the magic 500 homer mark with 493 and had a sparkling .509 slugging percentage. Finished in the top 10 in MVP voting six times.
12. Larry Walker. Had supreme talent as evidenced by a .565 career slugging percentage and .400 on-base percentage. Terrific defender also had a great arm and was named to five All-Star teams but benefited to some degree by Coors Field and didn't have quite enough memorable moments.
13. Edgar Martinez, DH. A superb hitter, he's hurt by being a DH and by getting a late start to his career (he was 27 before be became a regular) that diminish his career totals. By percentage (.418 OBP, .515 slugging), he is a worthy candidate. But only once did he finish in the top five in MVP voting (3rd in 1995). Terrific hitter, but if you're going to have career total numbers that are less than eye-popping (.312 average, 309 home runs, 1,261 RBIs), it's better to do it as a two-way player.
14. Lee Smith. With 13 consecutive seasons with 20-plus saves, he was among the sport's most consistent closers. He finished with 478 saves overall, third alltime. A case can be made for him, but he wasn't as impactful as Goose Gossage or Bruce Sutter, for example, the two most recent closers to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
15. Juan Gonzalez. On merit, he's pretty darned close, with two AL MVP awards and some other dominant years. Jose Canseco raised the steroid issue for Juan Gone, and I'd like to defer the vote, under the assumption there will be a chance later for him to respond. This is one of many messy cases where there's no failed test, admission or report from a reputable source (only Canseco), and voters have to make a judgment to exonerate, indict or defer. I decided to defer a "yes'' vote under the assumption he gets the requisite five percent to make next year's ballot.
16. Harold Baines. Terrifically consistent career with 2,866 hits and 384 home runs. He hit .300 eight times and had 20-plus home runs 11 times in a stellar career but was never among the top few players in the league and did a lot of his damage as a DH. His career isn't all that dissimilar to Bert Blyleven and Lee Smith in that they also compiled terrific career numbers but were not dominating players.
17. Tino Martinez. He hit 339 career home runs, many of them important as his teams advanced to the playoffs nine times in 16 years.
18. John Franco. His 424 career saves are the most ever by a left-hander. A consistent pitcher who had an excellent career for his hometown Mets but wasn't quite dominant enough to make it.
19. Marquis Grissom. He is one of only seven players with 2,000 hits, 200 home runs and 400 stolen bases. He has four Gold Gloves, not to mention a .390 career World Series average, fourth best ever for those with at least 50 at-bats. His career was better than you probably remember, but it was not quite good enough.
20. John Olerud. Terrific defender and a career .295 hitter was one of the game's most underrated players.
21. Kevin Brown. He will be recalled most for his $105-million contract, constant scowl and appearance in the Mitchell Report. Excellent pitcher in his heyday who led the NL in ERA twice and won 211 games but is no Hall of Famer.
22. Al Leiter. Bounced back from predictable arm trouble early in his career (he had some hellacious pitch counts, including 163 once at age 23) to have a tremendous career. Won only 162 games but had three World series titles and memorably allowed the game-winning hit of the Subway World Series in 2000 on his 142nd pitch of Game 5.
23. Carlos Baerga. He looked like he was on his way in the early '90s when he strung together three seasons with at least 20 home runs, 200 hits, 100 RBIs and a .300 batting average. But he slipped after that and though he hung around for a long while he peaked very early.
24. Benito Santiago. He hit 217 home runs in a fine career and is recalled for his terrific arm, even from a crouch position. The unanimous 1987 NL Rookie of the year wound up with a 20-year career but wasn't dominant enough for serious consideration.
25. Raul Mondesi. The talented right fielder is one of 10 players to have multiple 30-30 seasons. Also threw the ball well. Shouldn't top single digits in votes, though.
26. Charles Johnson. Excellent defensive catcher won four straight Gold Glove awards for his home-state Florida Marlins and eventually signed a $32 million, four-year with the Dodgers when he was heading downhill. Solid all-around player with no real case for the Hall.
27. Bret Boone. He suddenly buffed up and showed a lot of power, including in 2001, when he had 141 RBIs for the 116-victory Mariners. Not a factor here, though.
28. B.J. Surhoff. The most remarkable thing about him was that he was the No. 1 pick of the 1985 draft, and that he wasn't Barry Larkin, Will Clark or Barry Bonds, who all came a few picks later. Surhoff a nice, solid career, mostly after he left the Brewers, the team that blew it by taking him first.
29. Bobby Higginson. Often the best player on some atrocious Tigers teams, he had a nice arm and a little power and was memorably well paid for what he brought. Still, he's a strong candidate to receive zero votes.
30. Kirk Rueter. Was once seventh in Rookie of the Year voting, once ninth in ERA and once tied for 10th in wins. Nice pitcher who won more than he lost. Must have friends on the nominating committee.
31. Lenny Harris. Sure, he's the alltime leader in pinch hits. But that just points to the fact he usually wasn't good enough to start. His 804 pinch-hit at-bats are the most in history, too, and the hits were almost exclusively singles, and unmemorable ones at that. Lifetime .349 slugging percentage. If he gets a vote, it's from someone who really loves the pinch hit.
* two guys who are a yes on their accomplishments but proven steroid users)
32. Mark McGwire. His exploits -- especially the 70 home runs in 1998 -- are enough to elect him easily him had he been clean. To claim the accomplishments aren't enough is a copout. He and Sammy Sosa saved the game. But without the steroids, it's hard to imagine him hitting 70 home runs in his mid-30s the way he did. I like the man a lot, but I can't agree the steroids didn't help him as much as he thinks.
33. Rafael Palmeiro. He's 10th alltime in total bases, 12th in home runs and 15th in RBIs and is one of only four players with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. He had a career in some sense similar to Blyleven's but was good enough to hit some magic career numbers. Yet, his finger wagging performance in Congress followed by his failed steroid test dooms him.