Baseball's FEMA
January 10, 2006

I've lost count, but I think the Baseball Writer's Association of America is about on strike 37 by now.  Oh, we're way past strike 3 and you're out.  When it comes to voting for the Hall of Fame, the writers have accumulated at least a complete game's worth of striking out.  Look, it's nice that Bruce Sutter finally made it.  He was a great closer and the man who popularized the split-fingered fastball, a pitch that is more familiar in today's pitching repertoire's than the curveball.  Goose Gossage was probably more deserving as a reliever - more saves, more innings pitched, but both guys are probably deserving of enshrinement.  But the fact that the baseball writers failed to elect Bert Blyleven, a truly great pitcher, again proves without any question that the honor of voting for the Hall belongs with someone else.

How deserving is Blyleven?  Well, Jayson Stark finally came around and wrote a nice piece on as to why he belongs (although it is very puzzling why he only used six of his 10 eligible votes).  Some of the stats he used are a little unfamiliar with most fans, although they are quite relevant.  But among the points he made were that only eight pitchers in the live ball era (since 1920) have allowed fewer runs than the average pitcher of his era.  His 344 extra runs prevented fall behind only Roger Clemens, Lefty Grove, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Carl Hubbell and Bob Gibson. 

I'll use very familiar stats to make the case.  Blyleven is 5th in history is strikeouts behind Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton.  He's 9th in shutouts one behind Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, and three behind Warren Spahn.  No other pitchers in the last 50 years have as many shutouts.  Only eight pitchers in the last 55 years have thrown as many complete games as Blyleven.  Of those pitchers who are ahead of him on these various lists, all gained entry into the Hall within their first several years of eligibility.  Comparing Blyleven to a guy like Don Sutton, who was elected in his 5th year of eligibility, is like comparing a Corvette to a Ford Mustang.  The Mustang accelerates and handles nicely and looks sporty, but it is no match for the Corvette in any respect except for trunk space.  Blyleven has more complete games (242 to 178), more shutouts (60 to 58), more strikeouts (3701 to 3574), fewer walks (1322 to 1343), more times in the top 10 in ERA (10 to 8), the difference of which is even more telling when adjusted for the league and ballpark (11 to 7).  This despite pitching one fewer season and for many fewer good teams. 

Which brings us to why the writers continue to ignore Blyleven and the same reason why their ballots should be given to someone else: wins.  Blyleven finished with 287 wins, while Sutton finished with 324.  So how is it that a pitcher who was clearly better finished with so many fewer wins?  And why didn't the sportswriters not recognize this?  Well, he finished with fewer wins because he got far less run support because the Twins and Indians teams he played on were much worse than the Dodger teams Sutton pitched for.  Nine of the Minnesota and Cleveland teams for Blyleven finished at or below .500; only three of Sutton's teams finished at or below .500.  So essentially, as ridiculous as it is, the baseball writers are holding Blyleven accountable for his teams' failures to win.  

They also cite that he didn't make but two All-Star teams and was only in the top 10 in Cy Young voting four times.  OK, so if we're using All-Star appearances as a measure, then Bert Blyleven is only marginally better than Don Aase, Bill Dawley, Bob Stanley, Matt Young, Atlee Hammaker and Greg Minton?   Because each of those guys made the All-Star team.  Look, there are myriad reasons why players make or fail to make the All-Star roster and actual performance on the field is often not the deciding factor.  Yes, he should have made more All-Star games, but is that more his fault, or that of the managers and voters who composed those teams?  Was Danny Kolb really one of the nine or ten best pitchers in the NL in 2004?  How about Woody Williams and Russ Ortiz in 2003?  How about Mike Remlinger in 2002?  And that's just for one league.  The fact is you can look at just about every single year since the All-Star game began and find players on each roster that make you question the validity of the exercise.  The best players, or even the most deserving, are frequently left off All-Star rosters.

As for the Cy Young voting, the writers' voting pattern clearly demonstrates that wins is by far the most decisive factor in their minds.  And it has been proven beyond any shadow of doubt that that pitchers have less control over that stat than any other significant number.   For whatever reason, however, the voters continue to focus on the incredibly unreliable stat to make their decision.

And this is the part that galls me more than anything.  There has been literally tons of research done over the last two decades to uncover more reliable ways of measuring player performance.  And nearly all of it is readily available, either on the internet in places like and or in very inexpensive research tools like Lee Sinins Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia.  And from the end of October until January the writers have basically nothing to do with their time.  There are no games to write about... well, there are games in the winter leagues, but they rarely cover them.  There are a few transactions and a week of winter meetings to cover, but how much time does it take to write so and so signed with this team for x million dollars?   Two whole months they could spend looking at a wealth of information to better understand the game they chronicle.  In fact, few people on earth have both the resources, the time and the incentive to look at all this data so they can make the right decision.  Yet, there is very little evidence they do anything but consult their 1987 edition of the Who's Who in Baseball booklet and think about which games stood out in their memory. 

So despite every reason to do better, they, like Mike Brown, sit in their comfy chairs writing emails to colleagues about what they remember rather than getting their hands a little dirty on the ground and seeing the real story.  Mike Brown was forced to resign from his responsibilities for his lack of competence.  I realize were talking about two very different situations in terms of relevance in society.  But whether it's failure to look at the facts or to do the necessary research or to use all their votes, gross incompetence is gross incompetence and it's time the baseball writer's were shown the same back of the hand.