Rikki Don't Lose That Number...

Which in this case is 79.7, or the percent of the BBWAA voters who checked off Rik Aalbert Blyleven's name on this year's Hall of Fame Ballot. However, there are plenty of other numbers associated with one of the Hall's two newest members, numbers like; 60, 50, 3701, 19, 41, 287 and 118. What do those numbers tell us about Bert Blyleven, about the Hall of Fame, or the voting patterns of the BBWAA?

Well, first, it now appears as if the BBWAA does not, I repeat, does not, have a prejudice against players named Rik Aalbert. Second, a long-standing dearth of Hall of Famers born in the Netherlands has been eliminated. (You were expecting maybe Rynie Wolters, Rick Vanden Hurk, Win Remmerswaal or Robert Eenhoorn to have made it to the Hall beforehand?) Third, as remarkable as it may seem, Blyleven's election actually DOES show a voting pattern for the BBWAA… it may not be a GOOD voting pattern, but there is a pattern, and, having identified same, maybe it can be fixed at some future date. 

Before discussing the long and winding road that Blyleven took to the Hall, the question of whether or not he belongs there should be investigated. Blyleven's career, and his statistics, have indeed not changed one iota since he gave up an attempt to make a third trip through Minnesota in 1993, at the age of almost 42 years. As to how those statistics may be interpreted, that's a different matter. Let's start with his age… 

While it is true that 41 year old major league pitchers are not exactly a rare species, what is unusual is a major league pitcher in his forties who was also a major league pitcher in his teens, as was Bert Blyleven. As noted in the previous discussion of Bob Feller, it is not unusual for teenage major league pitchers to burn out long before they reach their 40s. For example, take this list of Blyleven's closest 20th Century statistical comps from his age 19 and age 20 seasons; they are listed in order of the age wherein they threw their last major league pitch… 

Charles Bender, 41

Waite Hoyt, 38

Ray Sadecki, 36

Christy Mathewson, 35

Milt Pappas, 34

Don Drysdale, 32

Larry Dierker, 30

Gary Nolan, 29

Wally Bunker, 26

Ray Keating, 25

Maybe it's true that, as Billy Joel (as opposed to Steely Dan) once observed, only the good die young.

This list generates a couple of asterisks… one is that although Bender pitched a couple of innings for the White Sox when he was 41, he hadn't pitched in the majors since 1917, eight years earlier, when he was 33. Also, Keating, and another comp who isn't on this list, Frank Shellenback, did pitch in the minors into their late 30s. Keating lasted until he was 37 and won 174 games in the bushes. Shellenback, who made the bad career move of being a spitballer who wasn't grandfathered when said pitch was outlawed in the majors in 1920, went back to the Pacific Coast League, where he could throw the wet one, and ended up winning 316 games by the time he retired at the age of 39.

Or, if you wish, check out this additional list of the top major league pitchers at the age of 19 (as noted in Baseball-Reference's leaderboards for that age.) Same deal, the age listed is when they last threw a major league pitch…

Walter Johnson, 39

Curt Simmons, 38

Bob Feller, 37

Dwight Gooden, 35

Terry Forster, 34

Catfish Hunter, 33

Jack Bentley, 32

Mike McCormick, 32

Smoky Joe Wood, 30

Ralph Branca, 30

Don Gullett, 27

Rube Bressler, 25

Billy McCool, 25

Without having researched the subject completely, it may be that Blyleven is, if not the only, one of very, very few 20th Century pitchers who were effective, regular starters in the majors both before they turned 20 and after they turned 40. In fact, the only two other pitchers (outside of Bender's cameo) who even pitched in the 20th Century majors before 20 and after 40 seem to be Red Ruffing and Herb Pennock. Ruffing was in eight games (two starts) with a 6.65 ERA at the age of 19, and Pennock only started two games at the age of 40 (and just five at 18 and 19), although he did go 2-0 with a 3.05 ERA that season. And that looks to be the rest of this crew. That is, right there, a strong case for Cooperstown for Blyleven.

Blyleven's pitching stats, on the other hand, present a mixed bag, which need to be taken in the context of when his career took place. He was a very good 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA in the postseason, wherein his teams won four of five series, including both World Series (1979, 1987) that he appeared in. Then there's that number 60. That's the number of shutouts Blyleven threw, a number that is ninth all-time, and a cool 41 ahead of the active leader, Roy Halladay (who is himself six ahead of second place Chris Carpenter.) An impressive number, even though it's true that complete games and shutouts were a lot more common in Blyleven's era (1970 to 1992), so much so that he only led his league in shutouts three times. By comparison, Halladay just led his league in SHO for the fourth time.

Actually, Blyleven's counting stats, which are tied to his remarkable longevity, are pretty uniformly impressive... he also had 287 wins, 3701 strikeouts, 242 complete games, and a career Wins Above Replacement of 90 (13th all-time), all of which tend to valdiate at least the assertion that Blyleven was a very good (even if not great) pitcher for a very long time... and that must be seen as a Hall of Fame attribute by itself, even though, once again, the historical context of those stats is such that there are virtual asterisks attached. Take the win column; while it's not true that everybody and his brother was winning 300 during Blyleven's career, it is true that no fewer than 10 pitchers who would win 300 games were active at some point in Blyleven's career, meaning that, in some fashion, the voters had to have compared him to Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson. That's some tough competition at the ballot box. It's also true that the four pitchers ahead of Blyleven in strikeouts (Ryan, Johnson, Clemens and Carlton) were both contemporaries of Blyleven, and way ahead of him in Ks (Carlton is in fourth place with 4136.)

And, Blyleven had a few stats that weren't that impressive... like a single 20-win season (20-17 in 1973) and a career won-loss percentage of just .534. And a record 50 home runs allowed in a single season (1986... when he still won 17 games). Plus, his Adjusted ERA was a fairly pedestrian 118 -- just 151st all-time. He was chosen for just two All-Star Games, and made it into the top five of the Cy Young voting just three times. His Black Ink total is a modest 16. (Of course, his closest comp -- Sutton -- only had eight on the Black Ink.)

In all, as noted, his stats say he was a pitcher who was very good (his seasonal Adjusted ERA figures were above 100, or above the league average, for 17 of his 22 seasons, and 16 of his first 18 seasons) for a very long time, an historically long time. Still, recognition of historical notoriety hasn't exactly been a big factor in swaying the BBWAA over the years. So exactly how did Blyleven get elected on his 14th  (and next-to-last) try since, as many have pointed out, he hasn't won a game since 1992 and his stats didn't get any better over the past 14 years?

If not "the" answer, at least "an" answer comes next issue.

Feedback on Feller: Although Bob Feller was not generally thought of as a controversial figure, the last issue of 19 to 21 did generate a fair amount of comment… most of it on Feller's relationship, or lack thereof, with African-American players. Two long-time correspondents/readers, Dr. Susan Dellinger and Mark Van Hoose, both had stories to tell from personal experience regarding Feller and his feelings specifically regarding Jackie Robinson. Dellinger's came from her grandfather's Hall of Fame induction in 1962. In case you missed the 19 to 21 review of her excellent book "Red Legs and Black Sox," Dellinger's granddad was Edd Roush, who was inducted into the Hall at the same time as both Robinson and Feller. Van Hoose, whose father was the long-time sports editor of the Birmingham News, witnessed a Feller/Robinson dust-up at the dinner prior to the 1969 All-Star game in Washington . Suffice it to say that Feller and Robinson didn't get along…



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