Why it took Bert so long
- Blog Post by: Howard Sinker
- January 6, 2011 - 9:34 AM
Bert Blyleven has been voted into the Hall of Fame -- and that's as it should be.
Bert needed 14 tries to be voted in -- and I understand why. Sometimes the lens that we use to judge a person's accomplishments changes over time, and the subject being viewed through the lens can change too -- giving them a different appearance than they would have had years back. I can make a list of those people in entertainment, politics and sports without thinking too hard.
The 2011 Hall of Fame-sanctioned version of Bert Blyleven is the feisty competitor with an affable personality who -- by virtue of his position in the Twins broadcast booth -- is a link between the current Twins and an era gone by. Blyleven has become a cheerful press-box presence who is easily the most popular member of the team's broadcasting posse.
During his second stint with the Twins, when I was covering the team, Bert was among the last guys you would have imagined behind a microphone at the end of his career. He was a talk-if-we-win, leave-me-alone-if-we-don't clubhouse presence, which stood in contrast to most of his teammates during the mid-1980s. (Frank Viola once tried not to talk after a tough loss and couldn't hold out for more than about 20 minutes.) Some players are like that, and they have that right. But Bert's behavior did not garner him love among some of the baseball writers who would later serve as judge and jury when it came time for Hall of Fame voting.
That Bert wasn't perceived in the same way as, say, Kirby Puckett, shouldn't have mattered at all. (I put that in bold lest anyone think I'm justifying a vote against Bert because he wouldn't talk to writers after a loss. The phrase "Blyleven had nothing to say" probably said more than anything Bert would have said, anyway.)
But there were unfortunate moments that did stand in the way of his Hall of Fame case: The flipping off of booing fans at Met Stadium before he was traded for the Twins to Texas in 1976... His decision to walk out on the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1980 because of his feud with the manager... The night in Boston in 1981 when he got so upset with the home plate umpire's unwillingness to call his curve for strikes that he admitted to throwing fastball after fastball down the middle and gave up seven straight hits before being taken out.
Two of the four trades in his career -- from the Twins to Texas and from Pittsburgh to Cleveland -- came after behavior that drew attention to Bert in a negative light. And, again, that should not have meant as much as the calculation that -- if Blyleven had Jack Morris' run support -- Bert's record would have been 331-206 instead of 287-250. And removing statistics from the discussion, Bert makes the Hall of Fame many years ago if he'd played for one or two teams in his career instead of five. Or if he'd played in New York or Boston.
During the first few years of his Hall of Fame eligibility, the unfortunate incidents gave ammunition to voters that went beyond "I didn't like him and he didn't like me." Keep in mind that among the "election requirements" for Hall of Fame voting is this stipulation: "Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
In addition, Bert also suffered because the numbers during the second half of his career didn't match up to the numbers in the first half. Bert's ERA+ for the first half of his career (1970-80) was one point worse than the great Bob Gibson's; his second-half ERA+ (1981-92) was the same as Charlie Leibrandt's and Jarrod Washburn's. And while he had incredible seasons in 1984 and 1989, you're just as likely to remember the league-record 50 home runs he gave up in 1986 (or the 46 he yielded in '87).
In 1984, he was 19-7, 2.87 for a lousy Cleveland team. In '89, he was 17-5, 2.73 for the Angels. I'll spare you the secondary statistics, but they were in line with a pitcher having a great year. The '84 season was one of two times when Blyleven finished third in Cy Young voting, and it was notable that he finished behind two closers -- Guillermo Hernandez of Detroit and Dan Quisenberry of Kansas City. In '85, when he was 17-16, 3.17 (with 24 complete games) for bad Cleveland and Twins teams, he finished third behind 20-game winners Bret Saberhagen and Ron Guidry.
For those who have come of baseball age in an era of statistical abundance, you need to understand that the secondary stats many of us have come to value were still years from being invented, and further away from mass distribution.
Still, I don't think the '84 Cy Young results would have been kinder to Bert. The left-handed Hernandez had such a dominant season that he won both the AL Cy Young and Most Valuable Player award. In fact, the hottest argument that season was about whether a reliever should be considered for the MVP award -- and it was especially loud in the Twin Cities because the player who finished second behind Hernandez was Kent Hrbek.
But the outcome of the 1985 Cy Young voting would have been interesting if contested under 2010 "statistical conditions" that helped Seattle's Felix Hernandez win the Cy Young over bigger-winners CC Sabathia and David Price despite a 13-12 record.
In 1973, by the way, Bert's numbers with the Twins compared favorably to the pitchers who finished 1-2-3 even though he barely made a dent in the balloting, with only one third-place vote. Rich Lederer of The Baseball Analysts calls 1973 Blyleven's "forgotten season." He had a 20-17 record, while throwing nine shutouts and 325 innings for a .500 team. He had a career high of 25 complete games, too. His WHIP was 1.11, his ERA+ was 158, his K:BB ratio was 3.85:1, his WARP was 9.2 (Have I lost you?) You can again draw some comparisons to this season's AL Cy Young voting.
If nothing else. those seasons should have poked holes in the argument that Blyleven wasn't worthy because he never won the Cy Young. (By the way, Cy Young's career ERA+ was 138.)
Passage of time, attitude adjustment, perception and contemporary statistics have all served Blyleven well. Bert acknowledged the latter several times on Wednesday when he talked about why he was finally elected. The totality of his work -- not just his longevity -- finally reached the point where four out of every five Hall of Fame voters made the right choice.
It was a few years too long in coming. But Bert will find out that the outcome will be remembered much more than the battles that were fought for it to be achieved.
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