Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Why I'm Happy for Bert Blyleven, and other Hall of Fame Musings

Well, it's finally happened. After 14 long years on the Hall of Fame ballot, Rik Aalbert "Bert" Blyleven has finally polled 75% of the vote and will be making his long overdue entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For many, this is a triumph of a new way of looking at pitchers that focuses less on wins and losses and more on factors that pitchers can control: preventing runs and the runners that can score them. And even though I'm way too big of a fan of pitching wins than I should be, I couldn't be more ecstatic. I've been pulling for Bert's election as far back as 1999. But why, you may ask, have I been rooting for a guy who retired before I was even aware of baseball; one who had less than 15% of the vote in the year I started hoping for his election? To find the answer, you'd have to go back to 1993, five years before Bert's ballot debut.

I was only eight years old back then. Prior to that, the only thing I knew about baseball was the fact that it existed, and that they made cards of baseball players, which were pretty cool. My first major dose came that summer. First of all, one of my father's friends took my dad, my sister, and me to see a Royals game.* The other was that my sister and I somehow came into possession of about 100 or so baseball cards from 1993.

*The only thing I remember about the game was that the Royals beat the Orioles 7-1, and that Royals legend George Brett, one of the few players that I knew, did not play that day. To this day, my sister still likes to point out the fact that I was rooting for the Orioles that day, even though right now the Royals are one of my favorite teams and the Orioles are one of my least favorite. Of course, back then I didn't know who the teams were. I just rooted for the Orioles because my sister was rooting for the Royals. It's what siblings do. Of course, now they both suck.

I really have no memory as to who gave them to me or when I got them. All I remember was that I absolutely adored those cards. There was one card in particular that left an impression on me. Several things really struck me about the player on the card. The first was that he was born in 1951, four years earlier than my dad. (As an eight year old kid, I thought everything of my dad, and found it inexplicable that anybody is older than he is.) The second thing was his birthplace of Zeist, Holland. Any place name that begins with a Z gets extra credit points for being cool: Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and of course Zeist. And Holland? Holland doesn't even exist anymore as an official entity! Finally, what struck me was small the stats were, but that was because he debuted in 1970, 23 years earlier and 15 years before I was born. This player was older and had been playing longer than any of the other players whose cards I had. AND, he was from an awesome-sounding exotic locale. The player on the card was so great I placed a red star sticker to denote his superiority. Who was the player in question? It was none other than Bert Blyleven*.

*I also had a 1993 Pinnacle Bert Blyleven card. I stuck a sticker where Garfield was playing baseball on that card. I later gave it to my sister after I stopped collecting non-Topps cards, but unfortunately she no longer collects baseball cards. Now I don't know where the card is anymore. That makes me sad.

Time went on, and even though I had acquired more cards (including a misadventure involving sneaking packs of 1994 Topps that really belonged to my sister), the impact of that first Bert Blyleven card never faded. It wasn't just Blyleven's age or the length of his career that impressed me. I quickly realized how marvelous Bert Blyleven's name was. Not only does he share his name with a character on Sesame Street, but the alliteration in his name adds to the allure. When I got the Baseball Encyclopedia in 1996 I found out that Blyleven's full name was even more magnificent: Rik Aalbert Blyleven. The name seems familiar, but at the same time it's got the extra touches that makes it wonderfully foreign: the Rick without the C and Albert with an extra A. Furthermore, in Christmas of 1997 I got a book for Christmas titled "The Best of Baseball," where it lists the best in baseball for several categories, from players to games to movies. One of the categories was the best breaking balls, and the first entry was Bert Blyleven's curveball. I didn't know much about the different pitches at the time (due to the fact I never played baseball), but it amazed me that he had one of the best pitches of all time. That showed that even though my admiration of him was based on crazy stuff like his age and his awesome name, Bert Blyleven was pretty darned good. At any rate, I had become a bona fide Bert Blyleven fan.

In early 1998 I was reading the sports section in the Kansas City Star when I saw a blurb about the Hall of Fame voting, which was being announced later that week. I knew about the Hall of Fame, but I didn't know much about it, least of all the voting process. Everything I knew I learned from that article: the voters were 10 year members of the BBWAA; a player becomes eligible five years after they retire if they played for at least ten seasons; a player needs 75% for election. The article only mentioned a select few players on the ballot: Don Sutton, the player most likely to be elected; Tony Perez, the player that deserved election; Gary Carter, the ballot newbie with the biggest profile, and Bob Boone, the Royals manager. It ended with the fact that Royals legend George Brett will be eligible for the first time a year later.

A few days later, the results were announced. Sutton was elected as everybody predicted, and Perez came close but fell short. I went down the list and saw players that I knew and a few that I didn't, and...HOLY MOLY! IS THAT BERT BLYLEVEN?? Despite all of my senseless adoration of Blyleven up to that point I had never taken much notice at his statistics, even though looked at the card with the red star sticker so often I knew most of them. At the time, my parents hid my cards because I was spending way too much time with them, so I went to the next best resource, Baseball Encyclopedia, to put them into context: 287 wins (22nd of all time when he retired), 3,701 strikeouts (3rd of all time at retirement), and 60 shutouts (9th of all time). After doing thatI decided that Bert Blyleven needs to be in the Hall of Fame!

The following year was the first year I was able to cast an imaginary ballot for Bert Blyleven, but I never really did it. It was George Brett's first year on the ballot, and the Kansas City Star dedicated pages upon pages of info to Brett, but through it all they never posted the entire ballot. Nevertheless, I knew that Blyleven would be on the ballot, and I had hoped that he would make it. But I also knew that was pretty unlikely. 1999 was a stacked ballot, with Brett, Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount*, Carlton Fisk, and Dale Murphy making their ballot debuts. With so many strong candidates it's inevitable that the holdovers would suffer a massive step backwards, and that was exactly what happened. Tony Perez dropped from 68% to 60%. Gary Carter fell from 42% to 34%. And Bert Blyleven? Poor Bert went from 17.5% (11th out of 26) to 14.1% (15th out of 28).

*Robin Yount was another player whose card I had in those early days. But he was younger than my dad, and he had only been playing since 1974, so I didn't revere him the way I did Blyleven. So I never really noticed he had crossed the 3,000-hit threshold in 1992, and I was legitimately surprised that he made the Hall of Fame on the first try. Shows how much I knew in 1999.

Thus began a long and winding road for poor Rik Aalbert Blyleven and for all of his supporters, including me. I discovered the internet later in 1999, and in 2000 I was able to cast an imaginary ballot for the first time. (I voted for Blyleven, Jim Rice, Goose Gossage, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Dave Parker, Luis Tiant, Ron Guidry, Willie Wilson, and Bob Welch. I was pretty oblivious back then.) Through the internet, I was also able to see the problems some people had with Blyleven's candidacy. He had 250 losses, and his winning pct of .534 was a bit low. ('So what?' I thought. 'Nolan Ryan had an even lower winning pct. and he waltzed in with 98% of the vote.) Bert only made two All-Star games. ('The All-Star game is bullcrap anyways, and it mostly rewards first half performance. Bert was probably a slow starter.') He only had Cy Young votes in three seasons. ('Yeah, but look at his competition: Hall of Famers Jim Palmer, Ryan, and Catfish Hunter. His low ERA meant that he pitched better than what his record indicate, but voters aren't going to look at that') So on an so forth.

Still, through 2003, Bert was getting only 29.2% of the vote. And then, in the day after Christmas 2003, the best thing that ever happened to Bert's candidacy occurred. An investment manager named Rich Lederer sat down and typed up an article about how Bert Blyleven ranks near the top in many pitching statistics both traditional (strikeouts, shutouts, wins) and Sabermetric (Runs Saved Above Average), and how many of the pitchers that are around him or even below him are already in the Hall of Fame. It was titled Only the Lonely. I read it halfway around the world in Taiwan while looking for discussions about the Hall of Fame, and it was one of the most articulate and well written articles in favor of Bert that had ever been written. He sent it to a group of Hall of Fame voters, and lo and behold, Bert's vote percentage increased by 6% to 40.9% in 2004.

Thus began a long battle between the pro-Bert and anti-Bert camps. For many, the battle was as much as about Bert as it was about the way we look at baseball in general. Baseball fans and writers have become settled with intuition. Some people just feel more dominant than others. Whenever they want to use stats to support their intuition, they refer to traditional stats like wins and winning pct., ERA, RBI, batting average etc. Those were easiest to calculate. Yet some have argued that not all of those stats are equal. Pitching wins and winning percentage are especially misleading because so much of it is dependent on the other players on the team. However, Hall of Fame voting is about judging individual performance. If one wants to fully analyze a player one needs to look past the effects of teammates and focus on not just one aspect of the player in question, but at all aspects. That's where things like wins above replacement player (WARP) and Runs Saved Above Average comes in. Bert Blyleven was lucky to be the first test case of this debate, but it can affect many other players that traditional measures underrate: Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich, Dan Quisenberry etc.

While all of this is just fine and dandy, for me it's all about seeing one of my favorite players elected into the Hall. After that 2004 vote, the Hall of Fame announcement became less about who gets in (which is mostly predictable) but about Blyleven's vote percentage. In 2005, Bert increased once again to 40.9%, and then he cracked 50% a year later with 53.3%. His percentage predictably fell in 2007 with the debut of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, but I told myself if he could crack 60% in 2008, he has a shot. He received 61.9% of the vote. After a 2009 vote where most of the candidates remained static (except for Jim Rice, who had a 4% jump to join Rickey Henderson in the Hall), there was a flurry of campaigning with the goal of trying to get Bert to 65% or even 70% in a weak debut class to prepare for possible election in his 15th and final year in 2012. It looked more than promising, with over 80% of the voters that revealed their ballot having voted for Bert. It seems like all of the pro-Bert people may finally pay off, but the baseball world was stunned when it was announced that Andre Dawson was the sole player elected...and that Bert Blyleven ended up with 74.2%, only five votes shy. It's one thing to barely crack 70%, but it's another to come so close and yet so far.

While it may seem like a given that Bert will get elected in 2011 and all we have to do is wait a year, it's not unprecedented for somebody to come as close as Bert did and miss out the next year. In 1988, Jim Bunning received 74.2% of the vote, falling four votes shy (mostly due to a smaller electorate). It was Bunning's 12th year on the ballot and it seemed likely that he'd be elected in 1989, but he ended up polling only 63.3%. The 1989 ballot was chock full of future Hall of Famers: Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski (both of whom polled over 94%), Gaylord Perry, and Ferguson Jenkins. Of those, Perry and Jenkins were the most harmful to Bunning's campaign. Bunning's 224-184 record with 2,855 strikeouts paled in comparison to Perry's 314 wins with 3,534 strikeouts and Jenkins's 284 wins and 3,192 strikeouts. The strongest new candidates in 2011 were Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, and Larry Walker, and the best new pitcher was Kevin Brown, who has 76 fewer wins and 1,304 fewer strikeouts. Nevertheless, everybody knew not to take election for granted and continued to campaign for Bert, trying to convince the last few voters and keep those that voted from dropping Bert off their ballots.

And then it happened. Bert Blyleven received 463 votes for a 79.7% percentage, comfortably above the 75% threshold. For Bert and his supporters, it was a culmination of 14 years of hard work, and I couldn't be happier.

Other musings about the Hall of Fame vote

-Roberto Alomar made it on his second try. Many people were shocked he finished with only 73% of the vote last year. The fact that he was only the 26th player to get 90% of the vote, an honor even more exclusive than getting elected on the first ballot (not even Mickey Mantle got 90%), shows that a lot of the voters were withholding their votes to punish Alomar for the spitting incident. I suppose that falls under character.

-Jack Morris got only 53.5% of the vote. There seems to be a lot of vitriol against Morris for his 3.90 ERA, only 5% better than the league average, and the arguments made by the pro-Morris camp about how he won the most game in the 1980s and just "felt like a Hall of Famer." It's like Morris is the anti-Bert. It's too bad, because Morris was a quality pitcher himself, and now that Bert's in the Hall of Fame, I can only hope Morris can follow. However, with only three more tries, it seems likely that Morris will fall short, unless voters give him brownie points for doing what he did clean, especially with Roger Clemens making his debut that year.

-Seems like nobody with the steroids taint will ever get in, with McGwire falling to 19.8% from 23.7% last year, and Palmeiro getting only 11% with Hall of Fame numbers. It's really too bad, because that will create a hole in the Hall of Fame. Of course, this will bring up a whole other debate as to the definition of the Hall of Fame. Is it to celebrate players for their accomplishments, or to preserve baseball history? Those that believe the former will never vote for players associated with steroids; they don't deserve to be celebrated for what they did. I personally believe the latter and I would vote for players associated with steroids if they stand out from their peers, but with the fact it's taken me 2 hours to write all this, I'll probably never get a vote.

-Dave Parker got only 15% in his 15th and final year on the ballot. He's been stuck at 15% for four straight years. Now it's up to the Veterans Committe to decide on him. Minnie Minoso is the last person to get 15% in his 15th time on the ballot. (It was only 14.7%, but that rounds to 15%)

-Juan Gonzalez got 5% and stays on the ballot for 2012. That means no player that ever won multiple MVPs have ever been one and done. Roger Maris and Dale Murphy are the only other eligible players to win multiple MVPs, but Maris lasted the full 15 years and Murphy is on his 13th ballot and counting. "Juan Gone" will probably fall off next year. Bret Saberhagen is the only two-time Cy Young award winner to be one and done, but his 1.3% voting pct. was higher than any of Denny McLain's three years on the ballot. Voting was so messed up in the late 1970s.

-Harold Baines fell off the ballot in his 5th year on the ballot, only a year after cracking 6% for the first time. Considering he was able to hang on between 5 and 6% for three straight years, I thought he'd have enough hard-core supporters to keep him on longer, but I guess 2,866 hits doesn't mean what it used to. At least it's better than Al Oliver and Bill Buckner, two other players with over 2,700 hits that were one and done.

-John Franco finished with 4.6%. Only 3 more votes and he could have stayed on the ballot for 2012. I guess voters are still unsure how to treat relievers. Still, it appears as though enough voters were impressed by his 400 saves that he came pretty close to 5%

-Meanwhile, Kevin Brown got less than half of the votes as John Franco. While it's true he got named on the Mitchell report, and his 211 wins with 2,397 strikeouts pale in comparison to Blyleven and Morris, the guy had an ERA 27% better than the league average and was the ace on two World Series teams. He should have at least gotten 5%, but then again, I thought that about Will Clark and Bret Saberhagen as well.

-John Olerud got less than 1% of the vote. I guess an OPS+ of 128 with over 2,000 hits isn't what it used to be. The last person to have an OPS+ over 128 and over with more than 2,000 hits to be one and done was Ken Singleton. The poor guy got zero votes.

-I got Carlos Baerga's autograph after a Nationals game in 2005. Unfortunately by then, he was a washed out player who never capitulated on his successes in the early and mid 1990s. He got zero votes. That's even less than David Segui, the only other player who gave me an autograph before appearing on the ballot.

Anyways, this year is probably a good year to be going to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, something I've never done before. (Heck, I've never even been to Cooperstown before!) But before I do that, I think I will splurge and have some Saltgrass to celebrate Bert's induction. Congratulations, Bert Blyleven! (and Roberto Alomar).

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