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.
* two guys who are a yes on their accomplishments but proven steroid users)