By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 68: Bert Blyleven

When I was entering high school, I moved from Cleveland to Charlotte and soon became good friends with Rob, who was the other biggest baseball fan at our high school. Rob collected baseball cards. I mean he REALLY collected baseball cards. I used to think I collected cards when I was young, but that mostly involved buying packs and complaining about how many Sixto Lezcanos there were and flipping those cards and ruining the good ones by leaving them in my jeans for the wash and shoving the other cards in shoeboxes.

Rob was a COLLECTOR, the first I’d ever known. Collecting, I found, involved notebooks filled with baseball cards protected by cool cellophane sheets. This involved special hard plastic displays for particularly important cards. And, more than anything, collecting required a detailed knowledge of what is known as the rookie card.

Before I met Rob, I had no idea what “rookie card” even meant. It is, of course, the first baseball card released for a baseball player. The whole rookie card concept has grown more complicated as the years have gone on and ten million different companies started producing baseball cards. But for many years, the one baseball card company was Topps, and the rookie card was the first Topps card ever issued.

Some of these could be odd cards. For instance, this is Dale Murphy’s Rookie Card.


I actually thought that the one that follows was Dale Murphy’s rookie card, but not surprisingly a brilliant reader (who undoubtedly collects baseball cards) noticed my blunder right away. The top card is a 1977. The following is a 1978.


As you can see, Murph only takes up one-fourth of the card. This IS (I think) Lance Parrish’s rookie card (he was an excellent catcher for years) and it’s ALSO Bo Diaz’s rookie card (he played in two All-Star Games) and it’s ALSO Ernie Whitt’s rookie card (he played in an All-Star game too). This is a complete fluke, by the way. Most of the time on these future stars cards there isn’t even one All-Star listed, much less four.

This card would be more representative of a typical future stars card.


Anyway, sometimes the rookie cards are broken up like this with multiple players on there Sometimes, though, they are full cards of the player. Whatever they look like rookie cards are, for some reason, more valuable than other cards. This was especially true in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was a baseball card bubble. Rob seemed to me like a Wall Street trader for baseball cards. He was always looking for players who looked like breakout stars and tried to buy a bunch of the players’ rookie cards — you know, as much as a 15-year-old boy without a job could buy.

Anyway, one day he showed me that he had page after page after page of 1971 Bert Blyleven cards. I think he had 63 of them.*


*Notice how that year Topps decided to spell players names without capitalization. Kind of the e e cummings of baseball card sets.

When I asked him why he had so many, Robert shocked me with something I’ll never forget. He was the first one to tell me that Bert Blyleven was going to the Hall of Fame.

This idea utterly befuddled me. I considered myself a pretty big baseball fan at the time, and Blyleven was pitching for my Cleveland Indians at the time. And while there weren’t many things I was sure about in my early teenage years, I was pretty confident that Styx was better than REO Speedwagon, that Justine Bateman would want to marry me if she ever met me and that Bert Blyleven was not a Hall of Fame pitcher.

But Rob showed me a simple formula that would, in kind of a weird way, change the way I saw baseball. Understand this was long before Baseball Reference or Retrosheet or, you know, the Internet. Baseball numbers were all but impossible to find unless you looked at baseball cards or (as I eventually did) unloaded 60 bucks or whatever for the enormous Baseball Encyclopedia. The year was 1982, and we were looking at 1981 baseball cards, you know, the ones with the little baseball caps in the corner.

Rob showed me: Blyleven was born in April 1951 which means he had would turn 31 around Opening Day.

He already had 2,357 strikeouts.

“He’s a guarantee for 3,000 strikeouts,” Rob said. “And that means he’s going to the Hall of Fame.

OK, Rob’s system of matching age and stats did not ALWAYS work. I remember he hoarded Rich Dotson rookie cards for a while. But, I would say, this was pretty advanced thinking for a 15-year-old. I didn’t hear ANYBODY referring to Blyleven as a future Hall of Famer then. It certainly made me look differently at Blyleven. Like I say, I think it made me look differently at baseball too.

Blyleven got his 3,000th strikeout when he was just 35. He looked like a sure 300 winner after his age 38 season. That year he was fantastic; he went 17-5, with a 2.73 ERA, a league-leading five shutouts. He was probably the second best starter in the American League behind Bret Saberhagen. At that point he had 271 victories — just 29 shy. But he was injured and he was ineffective and he ended up 13 wins short of 300. Those 13 wins probably meant a pointless extra decade of waiting for the Hall.

Why is it that some great players are not appreciated in their time? That’s really one of the great baseball questions. I have one theory. There are players — Steve Garvey is a good example — who are in tune with their time. In Garvey’s time, people cared about 200-hit seasons and playing every day and batting average. Garvey got 200 hits every year, played in a National League record 1,207 consecutive games and hit .300 in seven of eight seasons in his prime. His low on-base percentage (a lifetime .329 on-base percentage), his relative lack of power for a first baseman (he never slugged .500), his shaky advanced defensive numbers — these weren’t only irrelevant at the time, they were all-but nonexistent. The year Garvey ran away with the 1974 MVP, he finished 17th in WAR –the list ahead of him included three teammates. There was no WAR then.

Garvey fit his time so perfectly that I think people STILL keep jamming him back into the Hall of Fame discussion even though there are at least a half dozen, maybe a full dozen, non-Hall of Fame first basemen who are better candidates. It just doesn’t make sense/ How could we have thought he was so good then and look back and think he was not as good now?

Blyleven did not fit his time. In an era where a great pitcher meant a 20-game winner, Blyleven won 20 just once (and lost 17 that year). In a time when fastballs were honored, Blyleven threw curves. He was a flake too … not a fun flake like Mark Fidrych but a kind of goofball who lit stuff on fire as a gag and talked too much about being traded and griped a lot about his teams management. One player told me a story of a time when Blyleven, as a gag in front of a bunch of local fans, pretended to poop out a candy bar and then ate it. It wasn’t the best timed stunt. “Great pitcher,” the player told me. “But he’s kind of a jerk.”

Maybe he was a jerk, maybe not — there were a lot of teammates who found him hilarious and fun to be around too — but no matter he just wasn’t viewed as substantial. Seaver was substantial. Palmer was substantial. Hunter was substantial. And Blyleven? “Great curveball,” people said. They meant his pitch. They probably meant his personality too.

But Blyleven WAS a great pitcher. He should have won the Cy Young Award in 1973, when he threw 325 innings with a 2.52 ERA in a good hitters ballpark, pitched a league-leading nine shutouts and won 20 games for a mediocre Twins team. His 9.9 WAR that year was not only by far the best in the league that year, it was actually better than Ron Guidry’s amazing 25-3 season in 1978 and Vida Blue’s MVP season of 1971.

He finished seventh in the Cy voting instead because, well, WAR didn’t exist and that 20-17 record wasn’t too handsome. Catfish Hunter, whose threw 70 fewer innings with an ERA almost a full run higher and a 1.8 WAR finished third, way ahead of Blyleven. Why? He was pitching for the World Champion A’s. So he went 21-5.

Blyleven was almost as good the next year — second with a 7.9 WAR, fourth in ERA, fourth in WHIP, second in strikeouts, second in strikeouts to walk, 19 complete games — and he didn’t get a single Cy Young vote, not even a third place vote. I doubt anyone even considered voting for him. That record again: 17-17.

It was like that again and again for Blyleven. In 1981, the strike season, he again led all pitchers in WAR. Not a single Cy Young vote. In 1984, he went 19-7 — an impressive won-loss record — so the Cy Young voters gave him third place, behind two relievers. In 1985, he led the league in complete games, shutouts, innings, strikeouts — and finished third in the Cy voting again.

All the while he was piling up not just good career numbers, but unreal ones. He would throw more shutouts than Bob Gibson. He would strike out more batters than Tom Seaver or Walter Johnson. As he aged, the curveball had a tendency to hang a little bit more, and he set the major league record for most home runs allowed. People noticed that and maybe held it against him. But over his career, Blyleven really didn’t give up a lot of home runs (six times he actually finished Top 10 for FEWEST home runs allowed). He pitched for five different teams and people noticed that too, maybe held that against him too. Blyleven throughout his career, though, was actually at his best in August and September than the other months, and he went 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA in the postseason.

I’ve always liked the movie “Amadeus” … what I like about the story (and it is just a story, with only hints of truth in it) is how Salieri, the court composer who is so jealous of Mozart, is the only one who truly understands Mozart’s genius. He has been blessed or cursed with enough musical talent to understand Mozart’s brilliance but not enough to make music himself that will survive the years.

I think of this in baseball. Dwight Evans was a better player than most people realized during his time. So was Lou Whitaker and Rick Reuschel and Reggie Smith and Buddy Bell and a bunch of others. Bert Blyleven’s rather astounding career numbers ended up shocking a lot of people because few ever talked about him a great pitcher while he was active The temptation at the end is to think: “Well, the numbers are deceiving; he wasn’t that good.” In this case, I don’t think that’s right. I think Bert Blyleven really WAS a great pitcher. Most of us just didn’t have the gift to see it at the time.

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66 Responses to No. 68: Bert Blyleven

  1. Christopher says:

    REO Speedwagon, not Speedway. Otherwise you’re entirely correct.

  2. Triston says:

    The Amadeus reference now just has me picturing Steve Garvey looking at Blyleven’s stats with increasing despair as Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 plays, ala the film.

  3. Cuban X Senators says:

    The best part of that ’78 card is the horribly executed attempt to paint corrected logos on at least 3 of the 4 caps.

  4. Chad Meisgeier says:

    For my No. 68, I will attempt my first delve into the negro leagues and go with John Henry Lloyd.

  5. James says:

    I was at a game a few years back..Randy Johnson was pitching and the scoreboard listed the all time strikeout leaders. Blyleven was 4th at the time, (now 5th) and my friend, a baseball fan, was shocked. He had barely heard of him. He sailed under the radar. Played in small markets, moved around a bunch, and never got the recognition.

  6. Lou says:

    Did you ever meet Justine Bateman? Did you marry her? Inquiring minds want to know.

  7. Rick R says:

    Joe, when I saw how high you placed Nolan Ryan, I wondered if you were going to include Bert Blyleven ahead of him, and damned if you didn’t. Ryan’s teams were just as sucky as Blyleven’s, and so he too had a relatively low winning percentage—.526 to Blyleven’s .534. Otherwise, everything that Blyleven did, Ryan did better. He had 37 more wins, 1 more shutout, and 2000 more strikeouts. TWO THOUSAND. Plus he had 6 more no hitters. He gave up 109 fewer homers even though he pitched 400 more innings. The year Blyleven wowed you by pitching 325 innings, Ryan pitched 326. Ryan developed a change-up that helped keep him effective into his mid-forties, while Blyleven was washed up at 39. Ryan walked 55 more batters a season than Blyleven, it’s true, but he also averaged 63 more strikeouts a season and gave up 60 fewer hits. I’m not saying that Nolan Ryan was the best pitcher of all-time, but he was better than Bert Blyleven. His peaks were higher, his career was longer, and he had a WOW factor that few pitchers could ever match. Blyleven made 2 All-Star teams, while Ryan made 8, and these weren’t the fans that were voting, it was managers choosing their pitching staffs. Baseball experts like yourself might say that Ryan was overrated and Blyleven was underrated, which is fine, but let’s not carry it too far, ok?

    • Pat says:

      No, he really wasn’t and he really didn’t. Ryan walked a ton of batters, he also threw a bunch of wild pitches, was not very good at holding runners, and an indifferent fielder. Despite his strikeouts and his ability to limit hits, he allowed a bunch of baserunners and consequential a bunch more runs, generally, than Blyleven. He was a flashier, more notable perhaps, pitcher, but he was not better.

    • Carl says:

      Ryan’s career WHIP was 1.247 and Blyleven’s was 1.198. Ryan’s career ERA+ was 1.12 and Blyleven’s was 1.18.

      Chicks dig the longball, guys dig the K’s, but teammates dig effectiveness. Blyleven allowed fewer runners, and as a result had a better era.

    • buddaley says:

      I don’t think you can trust any of Nolan Ryan’s stats. He has the double whammy of suspicion clouding his career. Not only did he pitch throughout the height of the Amphetamine era, but he was also a pupil of Tom House who not only admitted his own steroid use in the 1960s-70s but asserted that 6-7 pitchers on every staff used them.

      (Incidentally, House was also on the Braves staff when Aaron hit #715.)

      Let’s make sure we append to every discussion of players from earlier eras the taint that besmirches them. Ryan was almost certainly a cheater-if only by association with the horde of cheaters who dominated his era. Maybe we need another Mitchell report to give the seal of imprimatur to our labels.

        • buddaley says:

          But you are not bored by the constant drumbeat of opprobrium leveled at Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod et al, the incessant discussion of their “cheating”. Even Joe Posnanski is not immune from doing it. Even Clubhouse Confidential spends whole episodes discussing it, giving airtime and tacit approval to those who keep it in the forefront of all discussion. It never stops.

          I understand the boredom. I feel it too. I try to ignore it but have it shoved in my face even when I seek to avoid it. Unless I stop following the game, and even then I may not be sheltered from it, it is there. Hell, I can avoid the Kardashians, Duck Dynasty, reality shows, almost anything I find boring or reprehensible, but so long as I want to follow baseball, I can’t avoid the hysteria, the irrationality, the stupidity, the hypocrisy, the dishonesty, the nastiness, the dumb jokes, the cliches, the nonsense that has become the assumptions.

          • Try avoiding this blog. Or take a Midol. BTW: Bonds, Clemens and ARod DID cheat. If you don’t want to hear about that stuff, then read Car & Driver. I hear the Letters to the Editor are still moderately funny.

          • buddaley says:

            I really think you are missing the point. Just as I doubt you like constantly hearing about the probability that Mays et al cheated, so I have had enough of such comments about recent players. WE AGREE. Don’t you see that?

            It has nothing to do with this blog, one of the best I know of, specifically. It has to do with the obsession everywhere about PEDs as if they are new or fundamentally different from everything that has happened before.

            On another thread, a while ago, I speculated about how fans would feel should someone append comments about PED use and cheating to every post about players from earlier generations. My projection was that some fans would be irritated by it. You have demonstrated the probable validity of my forecast, even though, I have not done it for every player and my comments have been both relatively mild and reasonable. Thank you.

            I reiterate. Every era has its stain. There was the “gambling/throwing games” era. The “carousing/playing out of shape era”. The “amphetamine/steroid/out of shape” era. The “PED” era. In each case, players, throngs of players, were definitely cheating or probably cheating or possibly cheating. In every era, so-called “clean” players were at a disadvantage. In my view, amphetamines were far worse than steroids as a form of “cheating”.

            But none of that is to the point. The point is that constant harping on the so-called cheating of one specific period is itself cheating. It is dishonest. All I ask for is some sense of fair play. If people are going to slime current players for their misdemeanors, or crimes if you are so inclined to call them so, then do it consistently for all players. My preference is not to ignore it, but to maintain some sense of proportion about it so while it may enter the discussion when appropriate, it should remain tangential most of the time

  8. Herb Smith says:


    Plus, as you said, Ryan lasted much longer, thus indicating that Blyleven accumulated his MUCH higher career WAR totals in far fewer years. he was simply a more valuable pitcher than Nolan Ryan.

    WAR total of 7 best prime years:
    Blyleven 50.7
    Ryan 43.3

    Ryan was freaking electrifying. One of my most stunning baseball memories was watching him warm up in the Angel’s pen before a game. You could actually HEAR the ball whip through space. And the pop from the catcher’s mitt after each pitch was like a gunshot. It was incredible.

    So don’t think i don’t appreciate Ryan. I loved him. But MLB isn’t ALL about aesthetics. Sure, Dick Allen and cecil Fielder hit FAR more impressive home runs than did Hank Aaron. They cleared stadiums.
    But Hank hit more of them. That counts. Blyleven wasn’t as thrilling as Ryan, but he got the job done better.

    • Rick R says:

      People talk of WAR like it was some kind of holy writ, when it has as many flaws and biases as any other stat. One thing about the advanced metrics is that they penalize Ryan and reward Blyleven in ways that aren’t completely fair. Take park effects. Ryan pitched in good pitcher’s parks, so he gets taken down a notch. Well, you couldn’t hit Ryan no matter where he pitched. Blyleven pitched in good hitters parks, so he gets rewarded for that, which helped his numbers, because when he wasn’t getting his curveball over, he was getting hit hard, whatever the park. Ryan was the bigger compiler of wins and Ks, that much is obvious, but he also led his league in ERA twice, something Blyleven never did. Taking park effects into account, Blyleven led the league in ERA+ once, at 156, but again, Ryan led it twice, topping out at 195. I’m not sure that Bert was so great a fielder or such a whiz at holding baserunners (he was no Gold Glover) that it makes up for Nolan’s overall dominance, and while Aaron hit more homers than Cecil Fielder, Ryan had more wins than Blyleven, and that counts too.

      • RPMcSweeney says:

        Agreed that, while illuminating, WAR isn’t perfect. But doesn’t it account for park factors? At least, I thought the bball-ref version did.

        • Ian R. says:

          I think that’s exactly Rick’s point. He’s saying that park effects underrate Ryan because he was unhittable no matter where he pitched, and overrate Blyleven.

          There’s a simple way to test that, though. Let’s look at home/away splits:

          Ryan, home: .191/.292/.278 (.570 OPS allowed), 2.25 K/BB
          Ryan, away: .219/.326/.323 (.649 OPS allowed), 1.82 K/BB

          Sure, Ryan was unhittable, but he was even MORE unhittable at home. This theory that Nolan Ryan was some sort of Bizarro World pitcher who was immune to park effects doesn’t hold water.

          • RPMcSweeney says:

            Ah, got it. I guess I was confused because I’ve never really encountered this argument before—that accounting for park effects is unfair because it views a pitcher’s performance in the context of park effects.

          • Rick R says:

            I actually think that strengthens my point. I’m not claiming zero home road splits, but lesser compared to other pitchers.Pick another pitcher whose home games were in the Astrodome, and his splits would be far more extreme than Ryan’s. Yet the park effect factor is the same for both pitchers. That’s unfair to Ryan. It doesn’t matter how well a ball travels if the hitter doesn’t make contact.

          • Ian R. says:

            Sure. I’ll pick Bob Knepper, Ryan’s teammate with the Astros from 1981 through 1988.

            At the Astrodome, Knepper’s tOPS+ (a stat that compares his OPS allowed there to his career OPS) is 86. That indicates that he was helped quite substantially by the Astrodome, as we’d expect.

            Ryan’s tOPS+ at the Astrodome over basically the same span is 88.

            That’s a difference, sure, but it’s not the huge split you expected to see. They’re pretty much equally extreme.

      • Spencer says:

        This park effects argument is absolutely bonkers…

        Come out with your own list Rick R. I’m sure it’ll be fascinating reading, if only for the hair brained arguments.

  9. JD says:

    I have to ask: How do you crank out such an incredible volume of blog posts day after day? Your productivity is mind boggling. This blog must take 40+ hours/week with all the research, let alone the other columns, books, soccer coaching, etc. that fill up your day. Truly impressive.

    As an aside, I always loved reading your columns growing up in KC, and then lost track of you for a few years after you left the KC Star. Really glad to have discovered this blog last year. I now read it religiously, checking in at least once a day for new posts. Feels like I’m back in KC again, rushing out to grab the morning paper to read your take on the latest events with the Chiefs or Royals before heading off to school. What a terrific sports page that was with you and Whitlock (even though Whitlock’s columns would often infuriate all of us). Anyway, this is just so much fun to be reading your stuff again. Thanks for a lifetime of great columns! And Go Royals!

  10. Willig says:

    I always had similar feelings about Mickey Lolich. His career is defined by seven games in 1968, but he had 2800 strikeouts as a lefthander and when he retired no one seemed to appreciate him. There was always someone sexier like Vida Blue to cop the awards.

  11. tombando says:

    See? “Garveyed”. The man will just not get his due from Joe Poz, ever. Overrated doesn’t mean Garvey sucked, ok? Burts the one being overrated here. 68th all time are you serious?! Fergie Jenkins>Burt Blyleven. Keep the Fire Burning indeed there uhh Joe.

    • Trent Phloog says:

      These complaints about “Garveying” are tiresome… He really just wasn’t that good. BR has him at 37.6 career WAR and lists his top comps as Garret Anderson, Al Oliver, John Olerud and Ruben Sierra. One of those guys might be a borderline HOF, but Olerud (career line of .295/.398/.465) was also significantly better than Garvey (.294/.329/.446), unless all you care about is batting average.

      Garvey is 179th all-time in Runs Created. He is 173rd in Times On Base, but 72nd in Outs Made, as well as 31st in Double Plays Grounded Into. He is 356th in Career WAR among position players only — if you include pitchers, he drops to 556th most valuable player of all time. The JAWS system has him as the 49th best first-baseman (accounting for both peak and career value).

      These are just not the characteristics of an all-time great, unless you think every single thing we know about baseball statistics is wrong… and if you think that, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. Yes, Garvey didn’t “suck,” but he wasn’t Lou Gehrig either. He wasn’t even Boog Powell.

      • Spencer says:

        tombando is definitely reading the wrong blog.

      • NevadaMark says:

        Hey Trent, I’ve never read anywhere that Garvey had the characteristics of an all time great. I don’t recall anyone on this blog saying he’s a Hall of Famer. But saying “He really just wasn’t that good”? That seems a bit harsh.

        Without doing any analysis at all, I would say a player who ranked 179th IN THE HISTORY OF BASEBALL in runs created is pretty good.

        As for the comps you mentioned, I think everyone would agree they were all good ballplayers, if not exactly certified immortals.

        Garvey was a good player. Not great, but good.

        • Trent Phloog says:

          I meant, not good enough to be the poster child for guys who are unappreciated or unfairly overlooked for the HOF… That does seem to be tombando’s position, as he is trying to make Garvey’s name a verb meaning “not getting his due.”

          Obviously Garvey was really good at baseball in the big picture, but since we are talking about the top 100 players ever, I think he is being quite fairly overlooked here. He might be in the top 500, which is still nothing to sneeze at.

    • Trent Phloog says:

      And regarding Fergie Jenkins vs. Bert Blyleven… Bert has a higher career WAR, lower ERA, 500 more strikeouts, more wins if you care about that kind of thing, pitched more innings and threw more shutouts.

      Fergie does have fewer walks, a lower WHIP, more complete games, aaaaand… that’s about it.

      One big knock on Bert is that he was very homer-prone late in his career; yet Fergie allowed many more homers overall, and is third all-time. Yes, he deserves a discount for pitching at Wrigley for so many years; but looking at park factors, Minnesota in ’86-’87 (when Bert led the league in homers allowed twice) had a PF of 1.03-1.04; Wrigley from ’67-’73 (when Fergie led the league five times) varied between 1.04 and 1.11. A difference, but it’s not like Bert was pitching in the Astrodome while Fergie was in 90s-era Coors Field, or whatever.

      Obviously these are two great pitchers, but the case seems lopsided to me. Blyleven was the more valuable pitcher overall, probably one of the 15-20 best pitchers ever, and thus entirely deserving of being in anyone’s top 100. I wouldn’t argue against including Jenkins either.

    • Spencer says:

      @Tombando, keep the fire burning for Jeff Kent! You made a vow!

  12. KHAZAD says:

    I love Fergie Jenkins, but Blyleven was better. Steve Garvey isn’t even one of the top 100 players I have seen play, and I only started watching in 1972.

  13. Lawhamel says:

    I am all for Blyleven as a Hall of Famer, but this is simply too high. There are going to be some odd omissions on this list, I fear. Not a criticism, because this is such a difficult task, and there are so many variables (so many more when you have the courage to include players from the Negro Leagues and Sadahara Oh) but I can’t find a way to include Blyleven in a top 100 list. I agree with the Jenkins’ fan above – Fergie was better – and I don’t think he’s a top 100, either.

    • largebill says:

      That is the thing with subjective lists. Everyone would do them differently. Personally, I would not include players from the Japanese leagues or from the Negro Leagues. Disgusting that black players were excluded, but I have no confidence in where to rank them and in some ways ranking them misses the real harm done to themas we will never know what their careers might have been. Anyways, on my list of Top 100 I would have Blyleven somewhere in this range maybe a little higher maybe a little lower depending on how I throw the list together. My guess is Joe in preparing this list also went back and forth with several players between 40 and 70. Top ten is probably easier to figure out than the middle guys.

  14. Lawhamel says:

    Garvey is an odd issue. Growing up in the late 70’s, he was ALWAYS thought of as a “future Hall of Famer”. There was no talk about OBP or WAR or JAWS or other metrics not yet considered. Garvey hit all the metrics then in vogue – Hits, BA, RBI. Set the NL record for consecutive games. 4 straight Gold Gloves. 5 times finished in the top 6 of the MVP voting. MVP winner in 1974 (deserved or not). Hit the series-winning homer in the 1984 NLCS. Played on winning teams, including a WS Champion, and excelled in post-season play.

    But then something happened. It started with his marital issues, and his pristine image as the All-American boy was shattered. Then the focus on advanced metrics began and the focus was on his .329 OBP and his lack of power. Everything else fell away. His fans are ridiculed – like those of Jim Rice and Andre Dawson – and Jack Morris – for continuing to think of him as they did when he was a player – as a great.

    He was one of the greats of his Era – he was a 10 time All Star – that is simply too much to ignore. Standards we use to measure greatness seem to have changed, but it seems so weird to me that the statistical measurements are used so definitively in hindsight to try and change the fact that Steve Garvey was one of the greats of his Era. He was. And so was Jim Rice and Andre Dawson and Jack Morris and Dave Parker . . . regardless of what the current metrics show. I am sure the list goes on.

    I do not mean to argue that Steve Garvey should be in the Hall of Fame. I think that argument is so layered and complex, because everyone has a different view of what that means. I just think people should lay off a bit.

    • johnq11 says:

      Well there’s a difference between someone who was perceived as “one of the greats of era” and a player who actually was a “one of the greats of his era.”

      I grew up during that time period so I know what you’re taking about. Garvey is easily one of the most overrated players of the last 50 years.

      There is no “fact” that Garvey was on of the greats of his era. He was a good/very good player with a limited skill set who was perceived as one of the top 5-10 position players in baseball. At his peak from 1974-1981 he was probably no better than one of the top 20-25 position players in baseball. He was really just as valuable as Cesar Cedeno, Ken Singleton, or Jose Cruz during that time period. The funny/sad part was that he wasn’t even the best player on the Dodgers, Ron Cey was. The irony is that Ron Cey was one of the top 5-10 position players in baseball from 1974-1981. Garvey was also worth about the same value as Davey Lopes during that time period.

      His skills started to erode by 1982 and then he went to San Diego. They went to the WS and Garvey had a big ’84 NLCS hitting a key HR. Truth be told Garvey wasn’t that good anymore but he still made the all star team in ’84-85. The truth came out about his personal life and the media felt betrayed and they threw him out like yesterday’s newspaper.

      Garvey didn’t even have a position in the early 70’s and then they moved him first base. Wes Parker used to publicly ridicule Garvey’s defense at first and deride his gold glove selections. I don’t think he was a bad first baseman, he was probably above average but he didn’t deserve those gold gloves, he should probably mail 2 of them to Keith Hernandez.

      Garvey’s first burst of fame came with the 1974 Dodgers which was really a team about 3 guys: Jimmy Wynn, Andy Messersmith and Mike Marshall. They won the N.L. that year and somehow Garvey won the MVP which was a joke. If a Dodger was going to win the MVP it should have Jimmy Wynn.

      Anyway that MVP was a great push for Garvey. Then the media went to work. He was this clean cut ex college football/baseball player from Michigan State. In an era of drugs and long hair and facial hair he was a clean cut alternative to show to your children. He was also a white guy and supposedly a christian and drank milk etc. which fueled the myth/story. This was also at time during the rise of the Moral Majority and the Conservative movement. He was handsome and had a hot blonde model wife. He played in Los Angeles so he would appear on game shows and television shows. There wasn’t a great 1B in the N.L. so Garvey filled the void.

      He was durable so he always put up good counting numbers but he use to average about 700 plate appearances per 162 games during the mid 70’s-early 80’s.

      Hernandez was the dominant 1b during that era and Garvey isn’t even really close.

      Among the players from the mid’s 70’s to the mid 80’s, Garvey probably ranks in the top 35.

      Among 1b all time he ranks about top 50. He has about the same career value as Kent Hrbek.

      • Cuban X Senators says:

        I recently watched a game from 1982 & a game from 1983. One was an ABC broadcast; one was NBC. Both broadcasts mentioned multiple players’ OBP ability. One had a fairly extensive (for a big national game) conversation about OBP’s merits.

        Just because many of us grew up outside the cognoscenti doesn’t mean the secret was just discovered, nor that the ideas we tout were not presented in the mainstream decades ago — even if they were yet to be fully incorporated.

    • ingres77 says:

      Except it’s not a fact that he was one of the greats of his era. It’s a fact that he was appreciated by contemporary fans, but that’s a different thing.

      Growing up, I absolutely loved Don Mattingly and Bo Jackson. I thought they were the absolute pinnacles of athletic achievement. Being a Yankee fan, Mattingly was the best player on the team – and, I felt, was the natural successor to the great Yankee players of the past. Bo Jackson, I felt, was a marvel, and would become one of the best players to ever live.

      In hindsight, I can see that Bo Jackson wasn’t a particularly great baseball player – regardless of how marvelous an athlete he was. Nor does Mattingly stand up with Ruth, Gehrig, and Mantle. Though I believed it at the time….I was wrong.

      Similarly, as a teen, I was sure Derek Jeter was a great shortstop. I watched countless games, and he looked superb. The advanced metrics said otherwise (were, in fact, diametrically opposed to my view), and I fought them. They had to be wrong. I SAW him play, and he looked amazing. The Game 4 cutoff against Oakland could only have been accomplished by an amazing defensive wizard.

      But the advanced metrics aren’t wrong. Derek Jeter isn’t a great defensive player – is in fact an inferior one.

      It’s okay to be wrong. It happens to everyone. The key is to not hold on to outdate modes of thought once presented with a better alternative. Steve Garvey was a good hitter – and it’s possible that WAR may be underrating him somehow – but I think it’s more likely our memories are more flawed than the numbers.

  15. johnq11 says:

    I think the thing the most frustrating about Blyleven is that supposedly “knowledgeable” baseball media/fans who followed baseball in the 1970’s-80’s simply refuse to accept and acknowledge how great he was. All they have to exert a smallest bit of effort and look closely at his numbers but they simply won’t do it. You don’t even have to look at any advanced metrics just look at those K numbers: 13 times top 5 in K’s, 15 times in the top 10 in K’s. 16 times in the top ten in K/BB, only Cy Young and Greg Maddux did it more often.

    It’s such a frustrating part of human nature. There’s just a large segment of society who make up their mind about a certain subject/topic at a certain age and refuses to change their mind or their perception regardless of the information. The only time they will change their mind is when the establishment, in this case mainstream baseball media acknowledge that a mistake was made.

    This to me is one of the really frustrating things following baseball especially following baseball pitchers. At least Blyleven was finally acknowledged as being great which probably will never happen to Rick Reuschel.

    So much is out the control of the pitcher yet baseball fans/media tend to just judge them by things like “wins” which is really a team concept.

    Blyleven is the classic case of an underrated pitcher. He had his best peak early in his career when he was playing in a small midwest market on mostly mediocre Twins teams. Then he was pitching in a pitcher’s park.

    Then he moved around quite a bit playing mostly in small markets like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Minnesota.

    Then plays most of his career pitching in hitter’s parks: Minnesota, Texas, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

    He finally gets to play in L.A. in a pitcher’s park at the end of his career. He has a great season in 1989 and people were looking at his all time win total and K total and saying, “How did that happen.” Then he gets injured and is old already so he can’t get to 300 wins.

    I never understood why his post season in 1979 and his WS in 1985 were completely forgotten by the main stream baseball media.

    Blyleven’s achilies heel was giving up the HR and he was in the worst possible situation playing in hitter’s parks, mostly in the A.L. with a DH and with mostly mediocre teams.

    Put Blyleven on a dozen other teams and he would have easily looked like one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Put him on the 1970’s Dodgers, Orioles, A’s or Reds and he probably wins 2-3 Cy Young awards. Heck, put him on a lousy team like the 1970’s Astros in the Astrodome and he wins 2-3 Cy Young awards and is a first ballot HOF. Put him on the 1970’s Mets, Angels, Giants, or Padres. He probably wins 2-3 Cy Youngs and is a first ballot HOF on those 1970’s Padres.

    • John Gale says:

      While I agree with much of this, I’m not sure what being on mediocre teams has to do with how many home runs he gave up. It seems like that’s one of the things (obviously with the caveat about different ballparks) a pitcher has quite a bit of control over. Were his catchers notoriously bad at calling games? Was he pressing because his lousy teammates weren’t giving him enough run support? Don’t get me wrong. He’s still a great pitcher. But still.

      I do think Joe makes a good case that all things considered, Blyleven’s home runs allowed isn’t quite as bad as it appears on paper. Really, it’s just two seasons–1986 and 1987–in which much of the damage was done, as he gave up an astonishing 96 homers. The 50 he gave up in 1986 still the most-ever for a pitcher to give up in a single season, and the 46 in 1987 is tied for the third-most (it was easily the second-highest ever at the time). He doesn’t have another season in the top 500 or so (Baseball Reference’s list stops at 29 homers allowed). His next-highest amount allowed is the 24 homers he gave up in 1975.

  16. Jason says:

    Great write-up, especially for a card collector. I wonder if WAR has taken the fun out of appreciation baseball, the stats and most importantly the history.

    • Andrew says:

      For me, if anything, stats like WAR have increased the fun of following baseball and learning its history. I’ve been a baseball nut since I was a kid, and always felt like there was wrong with stats like RBIs and Wins. I stumbled onto advanced stats while in college, and they immediately opened up baseball and its history like never before, because they just made more sense. I appreciate that that’s not the story for everyone though.

      • Jason says:

        True, but it seems like we put so much emphasis on WAR its as if its now WAR or nothing when judging a player. I’m not as analytical as some of you, but WAR seems to have just defined everything and is really the only way we talk these days about players.

        • Andrew says:

          Different stats tell different stories. WAR is a pretty good approximation of how much value a player gives his team when you take all factors of the game–hitting, defense, base running, pitching–into account, which I find helpful. But other stats can be used (and commonly are used by the stats community) to determine other things, with subtle nuances in the stories they tell. So if you want a stat that will provide context (e.g. differentiate between a home run to tie the game and a home run padding a blow out), WPA is a pretty good one. Stats like OPS+, wOBA, Runs Created, or raw OBP are commonly used to evaluate just offensive contributions, while stats like ERA+ or K/BB or DIPS or raw ERA can show pitching contributions. These are just a sampling of the stats I feel are commonly used to evaluate different aspects of players and their games; there are many more. So I don’t think its just WAR that’s being used.

          And there’s nothing wrong with marveling over a player’s batting average, or strikeouts, or home runs, or hits, or even pitching wins a player has managed to wrack up as cool feats. The trick is, to varying degrees these stats shouldn’t be relied on to judge how valuable or effective a player actually was. Pitching wins can tell a fun story, as long as you don’t extrapolate and claim that a pitcher with more wins (or a better W/L ratio) is the better pitcher.

        • ingres77 says:

          I think the majority of the disagreement over WAR stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of it’s usage.

          It’s a stat that is designed to place a value on the entirety of a player, and it’s really good at its job. Better than any other single stat that I’ve encountered. If you need something quick and simple that allows you to compare players from different eras, or leagues, or ballparks, WAR may not be the only option, but it’s the best.

          Does that mean it’s perfect? No. Why would anyone infer perfection from it’s usage? No metric is perfect.

          How do you measure a coastline? Get out a map, and trace the outline of whatever you’re measuring with a piece of string. Compare that length to the scale and calculate the coast’s length. But that’s not perfect. How good is your map? Is it a world atlas, or refined cartographers atlas of a specific landmass? One is going to be more accurate than the other. Still more accurate is physically going out into the world and tracing the actual outline of the coast – but you’re going to need a big piece of string. Even then, did you account for every rock? Every pebble? Every grain of sand? Every atom?

          Is WAR perfect? No. But neither is tracing the outline of a coast on a map. There’s always a margin of error. People who use WAR, people who understand it, have no problem distinguishing between what it can and can’t be used for: a quick and handy tool for measuring how good someone is. If you want a more refined measurement, there are ways to do it. But sometimes you don’t need to walk the coastline with a really long piece of string.

        • buddaley says:

          But there is nothing new in this, simply a change in which stat(s) are used to judge. When I was a boy, we judged pitchers by one stat essentially-wins. Ford was not considered quite an elite pitcher because until 1961 he never had a 20 win season.

          Maris was criticized in 1961 because he did not get the extra 18 hits that would have given him a .300 BA. I do not remember anyone mentioning his 94 BBs and .372 OBP as a plus. BA was the single stat for judging hitters. Others were certainly recognized-home runs, rbis-but the focus was BA.

          Of course, focusing entirely on WAR oversimplifies any evaluation. But let’s not be so naive as to think such oversimplification hasn’t always been the case. And surely we can agree that WAR has some advantages over BA or Wins.

  17. Rob says:

    The Amadeus reference reminds me of that scene in Good Will Hunting too…

    WILL: A little appreciation? Do you know how easy this is for me? Do you have any *** idea how easy this is? This is a *** joke. And I’m sorry you can’t do this. I really am because I wouldn’t have to *** sit here and watch you fumble around and *** it up.

    LAMBEAU: Then you’d have more time to sit around and get drunk instead, wouldn’t you?

    WILL: You’re right. This is probably a total waste of my time.

    Will burns the proof. Lambeau tries to save it.

    LAMBEAU: You’re right, Will. I can’t do this proof. But you can, and when it comes to that it’s only about … it’s just a handful of people in the world who can tell the difference between you and me. But I’m one of them.

    WILL: Sorry.

    LAMBEAU: Yeah, so am I. Most days I wish I never met you. Because then I could sleep at night, and I wouldn’t have to walk around with the knowledge that there’s someone like you out there … . And I didn’t have to watch you throw it all away

    • mrgjg says:

      I was about to write a similar comment. I watched Good Will Hunting last night and that was the first thing I thought of when Joe made the Mozart reference.

  18. Mark Daniel says:

    I may be wrong about this since I’m trying to remember back to my childhood, but I think Blyleven was considered by many as a malcontent and a jokester. The implication was that if he just did his job and took it seriously, he would win more games.

  19. Wilbur says:

    Ryan and Garvey are inner circle members of the Hall of Wow Factor.

    • ingres77 says:

      Ryan, yes. But Garvey? I get that he was appreciated, but what was so amazing about his “wow factor”?

      • johnq11 says:

        I think Garvey’s “wow” factor back then was that he was this clean cut former collegiate football player who worked hard and had a consecutive game streak. He was seen as Mr. Clean christian and he was drinking milk and eating apple pie, pledge allegiance during an era of long haired players with facial hair smoking pot. This “Mr. Clean” image really appealed to the WW2 era generation media members and fans. Garvey was this republican poster boy during the beginning of the conservative uprising in the mid-1970’s.

        He was seen as a role model that parents could hold up as an ideal. He played for the Dodgers in L.A. when the Dodgers were one of the best teams in baseball.

        He had this beautiful model caliber wife and they would show up on talk shows and game show etc.

        Then when he divorced his wife his image began to slip. The it was found out that Garvey had father two illegitimate children.

        Then Cyndy Garvey wrote a tell all book about Steve in which she portrayed him as cold and unfeeling and that he was apathetic towards his family. I think she also went to on to tell about Steve’s marital affairs etc. So basically the image of Garvey that was portrayed by the media was total BS.

        Then Cal Ripken came around which made Garvey’s attempts at breaking Gehrig’s record irrelevant.

  20. Willig says:

    So whatever happened to Joe’s friend Rob, anyway? That’s what I want to know.

  21. kenn2 says:

    The concept of a “rookie” card arose around 1979-80 with Pete Rose. At that time Rose was the most popular player, and collectors wanted all his cards. His first card is in the last series of the 1963 Topps set. Like most years, the last Topps series was printed in lower quantities because football was starting up and interest in baseball cards waning. Kids bought fewer cards so Topps printed fewer last series cards.
    It was also in the late 1970’s that Baby Boomers who collected bubble gum cards in the 50-60’s started getting back into the hobby which increased competition for the older cards of their youth. Since the first card of Pete Rose was so old and fewer were printed, his “rookie” card was in great demand, thus the price for it rose dramatically. It didn’t take dealers long to expand the rookie card concept to anyone who ever had a card (Bobby Knoop/Cito Gaston/Steve Renko/Woody Fryman et al) and charge more for their first one.
    I was also a big Steve Garvey fan back then and couldn’t understand why anyone would think that Mike Schmidt was a better player. After all, Schmidt never got 200 hits every year or hit .300 regularly. Sure he had more power, but so did Dave Kingman. Then in April, 1982, I purchased Bill James’ Baseball Abstract and started to get educated about the value of walks and that a great fielding 3rd baseman is much more valuable than an OK fielding 1st baseman. I didn’t stop rooting for Garvey, but I came to see him without the fanfare

  22. Adam says:

    Blyleven vs. Ryan is great example of the difference between greatness and famous.

    I have no doubt that Nolan Ryan is one of the 5 most famous starting pitchers, perhaps only behind Cy Young and Roger Clemens. I don’t think anyone would argue Blyleven is or ever was more famous than Ryan. And we do call our sports museums Hall of Fame not Hall of Greatness. As people I think we perceive those who are famous to be great, while those who are less famous aren’t given as much credit.

    Blyleven pitched in an ERA where fans (and writers) cared a lot about W-L record and his were routinely unimpressive 17-17 or 15-12 so he was never famous. As Joe noted he never fared well in Cy Young voting, which is 100% about writers’ perception.

    I think every generation has players like that. Adrian Beltre is probably the best example today. He’s an obvious Hall of Famer. One of the dozen best 3B ever and he still has a few years left. He might finish in the top 5. And yet he’s not really famous — except perhaps as a famous bust with the Mariners — and few talk about him as “future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre” they way they do about say Jeter.

    • Karyn says:

      The Hall does not value fame; it confers it.

    • mrgjg says:

      I’ve noticed of late that the narrative is changing for Beltre. I think people are discussing him as a future HOFer and although he’s probably not yet a “hit by a bus” guy, most knowledgeable fans see his induction as an inevitability, baring a complete collapse.
      I believe if he played in Blylevens day, prior to the advanced metrics, your comparison would be spot-on.

  23. DM says:

    Joe….Really enjoying the list. I always enjoy your posts…..your writing conveys a sense of objectivity and thoughtfulness. This is my first reply to any of your posts.

    I know when a list like this gets published, it’s natural for people to argue about it. In fact, that’s part of the fun of it. There is no right or wrong, just opinions and perspectives, hopefully some logic. Ultimately, it’s your list, based on whatever approach you took. With all due respect, however, I have to side with those that are expressing the opinion that Blyleven @ 68 seems a bit high.

    I am writing this as you have posted #100 through #66 (35 selections). Here are my thoughts…..9 of the first 35 entries on your list (about one-fourth) are pitchers. If that percentage holds up, I guess it means we can expect that of the remaining 65 selections somewhere around 16 pitchers are still to come (a bit of an assumption, of course, since it could end up being a different proportion in the picks to come). Let’s give a range…..maybe 15-20 pitchers still to come. I’m also assuming they would all be starters, as Rivera has already been listed, and I suspect you wouldn’t have any other relievers ahead of him. I’m inferring from this that Blyleven is ranked in your top 20 pitchers of all time, and maybe even as high as your top 15. I know he’s been terribly underrated, and he’s just now getting his due, culminating with his rightful place in the Hall of Fame. Still, I’d have to say that if he ends up in the top 15-20, that feels high to me.

    If that’s the case, if he’s top 15-20 material, I find myself wondering who gets left out. Obviously, you’re not going to spoil the surprise at this point, so I’ll have to speculate. I’m going to assume that several of baseball “royalty” will be present in the remaining picks. If I had to pick my top 20 Major League pitchers, I’d go with (no particular order):

    Walter Johnson
    Pete Alexander
    Christy Mathewson
    Cy Young
    Lefty Grove
    Tom Seaver
    Greg Maddux
    Roger Clemens
    Bob Gibson
    Sandy Koufax
    Randy Johnson
    Pedro Martinez
    Warren Spahn
    Kid Nichols
    Bob Feller
    Carl Hubbell
    Steve Carlton
    Jim Palmer
    Mordecai Brown
    Ed Walsh

    I’d also consider players like Gaylord Perry, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, Phil Niekro, Eddie Plank, and Juan Marichal as a notch below those listed above (you’ve already covered Perry and Roberts as being rated lower than Blyleven on your list). Also, since you’re including all leagues, I’d have to assume Satchel Paige is going to appear somewhere on your list. I would certainly have him on mine, maybe even in the top 10, although that’s a very crowded list!

    My dilemma with Blyleven is this: I know his WAR is very high (#11 on bb-ref with 96.5). He’s even higher on Fangraphs (#7 with 105.4, right between Ryan and Perry), and that he ranks very high in total strikeouts, shutouts, and innings pitched. An excellent career, no doubt. However, with pitchers, I tend to look first at their ERA+. That seems to me to be the fundamental task of a pitcher, to prevent runs. That seems to be the strongest argument that gets used against Jack Morris’ HOF case, that his basic ERA of 3.90 was too high, and that even his adjusted ERA was only 5% better than his league average. That’s the case we tend to make…..he wasn’t great at preventing runs.

    Blyleven’s ERA+ is 118, or 18% above the average. No doubt, a very good number. However, it’s only the 149th best figure in history. I’ll grant you that that absolute ranking is not entirely fair to Blyleven, as a lot of the players above him are either still active (Kershaw, Wainwright, F. Hernandez, Verlander, etc.), and therefore their figures could very well come down quite a bit by the time they’re through, relievers (Rivera, Wilhelm, Quiz, Hoffman, etc.), or had very short careers (Jim Devlin, Brandon Webb, Noodles Hahn, etc.). I went through and eliminated those types of cases, and got it down to starters that had 12 or more years (I probably could have gone with IP, but this was handier based on the list I had). That moved Blyleven up to 74th. Again, I wouldn’t conclude from this that he’s the 74th best pitcher, as it’s only a single metric….I certainly would prefer to consider other factors as well.

    By and large, the pitchers that I listed earlier when considering my top 20 all had excellent ERA+ figures, typically at least 25% better than league average. Pedro Martinez had the highest at 154. Here’s the list of the 27 pitchers mentioned so far, sorted descending:

    Pedro Martinez 154
    Lefty Grove 148
    Walter Johnson 147
    Ed Walsh 145
    Roger Clemens 143
    Kid Nichols 140
    Mordecai Brown 139
    Cy Young 138
    Pete Alexander 136
    Christy Mathewson 135
    Randy Johnson 135
    Whitey Ford 133
    Greg Maddux 132
    Sandy Koufax 131
    Carl Hubbell 130
    Tom Seaver 127
    Bob Gibson 127
    Jim Palmer 125
    Juan Marichal 123
    Bob Feller 122
    Eddie Plank 122
    Warren Spahn 119
    Bert Blyleven 118
    Gaylord Perry 117
    Steve Carlton 115
    Phil Niekro 115
    Robin Roberts 113

    Basically, they’re all over 120 except for Spahn, Blyleven, Perry, Carlton, Niekro, and Roberts, and I think consensus is that Spahn and Carlton have a lot of other markers that would put them in most people’s top 20 pitchers. This doesn’t even address other pitchers who were well above 120, such as Dizzy Dean, Rube Waddell, Roy Halladay, Curt Shilling, Hal Newhouser, Lefty Gomez, John Smoltz, and Mike Mussina, and many, many others that have cases for inclusion among the all-time greats. I know this is only one metric, but to me it’s a critical one, a basic one for evaluating pitchers.

    Wrapping up (finally), I find myself hard pressed to see who gets left out of your listing. I’m going to assume you have the following remaining on your list:
    Walter Johnson
    Pete Alexander
    Christy Mathewson
    Cy Young
    Satchel Paige
    Lefty Grove
    Tom Seaver
    Greg Maddux
    Roger Clemens
    Bob Gibson
    Sandy Koufax
    Randy Johnson
    Pedro Martinez
    Warren Spahn
    Bob Feller
    Steve Carlton

    That’s 16. In other words, I think it’s quite possible that the following wouldn’t make your cut:
    Kid Nichols
    Whitey Ford
    Carl Hubbell
    Jim Palmer
    Mordecai Brown
    Ed Walsh
    Juan Marichal
    Eddie Plank
    Phil Niekro

    On my personal list, I think I’d have all of these above Blyleven, although I wouldn’t argue too hard about Plank or Niekro. Of course, we’re talking about great players all the way around….no great shame if they don’t make it. I just consider Blyleven more as a top 25-30 pitcher. Guess I’ll have to look forward to publishing my own list someday 🙂

    Again, I appreciate the time and space, and I know you’ll take this in the spirit intended. The posts are a fascinating read. I’m looking forward to the rest of the list.

    • vivaelpujols says:

      I respect how considerate you were in advancing your opinion, but I think there are a lot of flaws in your logic. For one, ERA+ is only part of a pitchers value. Innings’ pitched also matters, no? Blyleven has the 14th most IP of all time. And if you limit the comparison to pitchers with at least 3000 IP (Blyleven has just under 5000), he is 40th in ERA-. Seems pretty reasonable that that combination could lead to a top 20 pitcher of all time – in fact that’s exactly what bWAR looks it. It’s not a black box formula, it’s basically just IP and ERA+ (with some defensive adjustments as well). I’m sorry, but listing 25 or so pitchers who you think are better than Blyleven isn’t very convincing to anyone else.

      • DM says:

        To Vivaelpujols – a few thoughts:

        1. First of all, is your name a tribute to Albert Pujols or Luis Pujols? Just curious.

        2. When you concluded by saying “I’m sorry, but listing 25 or so pitchers who you think are better than Blyleven isn’t very convincing to anyone else” – well, are you presuming to speak for everyone else? If you mean that it isn’t very convincing to YOU, that’s one thing. You can certainly state that something isn’t convincing to you. I would let others speak for themselves.

        3. You made the statement that innings pitched are important. I agree. They are important. Career length is one basic indicator of quality, with innings pitched being the primary indicator for pitchers, with I suppose plate appearances being the comparable indicator for hitters. Then again, the top 20 hitters in plate appearances include Biggio, Winfield, Palmeiro, Vizquel, and Brooks Robinson. I don’t think this should be a big factor in their overall position player rankings, and more than innings pitched for a pitcher. Among pitchers, you’ve got Ryan, Galvin, Sutton, and Keefe with even more IP than Blyleven. I don’t conclude from that fact that they should rank above him. I don’t have any of them in my top 20 either. Bobby Mathews and Mickey Welch are not far behind Blyleven. They may have a lot of innings, but I don’t think that makes any of them top 20 candiates.

        Here’s the thing. Innings pitched are important, yes. But, in developing a ranking of top pitchers, you seem to put more emphasis on pitching a lot rather than pitching exceptionally well. You seem to be choosing quantity over quality. That’s your choice. It’s not mine. You seem to value how much someone pitched. I prefer to consider how WELL he pitched.

        You made a big point of Blyleven accumulating nearly 5,000 innings, 14th all time. I suspect, based on your point, I’m gathering you would not rank Koufax or Pedro Martinez over Blyleven. After all, neither of them reached even 3,000 innings. In fact, if you add Pedro and Koufax together, they have about 5,100 innings pitched, or just barely more than Blyleven BY HIMSELF. That’s definitely an impressive point for Blyleven. But, I would definitely rank them both higher than Blyleven. Their careers were much shorter than Blyleven. No argument there. But, despite being shorter, they were much more brilliant and dominant during their peak. Blyleven was very good for a very long time. But in the basic evaluation of run prevention, there were many that were a lot better than Blyleven. That has to be a consideration.

        I think, with rankings, it does come down to the point that Bill James addressed in his first Historical Abstract when coming up with his player rankings, and that is the question of career value vs. peak value. I’m guessing you’re more of a career value guy. That’s certainly fine. I think we have to find a reasonable balance between the two.

        You also seem to put a lot of weight on WAR. WAR (both bb-ref and fangraphs) is a fine metric, certainly an ambitious one, and it certainly attempts to factor in a lot of different things into a single metric, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of metrics. Nolan Ryan has a greater fWAR than Blyleven. Does this make Ryan better? Jenkins and Sutton are both top 20 fWAR’s. Koufax is way down at 82 on bWAR, because his career was so short. Although WAR combines various factors, it is just one measure of value.

        I think a lot of people rely so heavily on WAR because it’s easy. It’s convenient. I understand its value, but, in my opinion, personal rankings have to incorporate a little more thought, balance, and consideration than that. Otherwise, why not just generate a list by WAR and be done with it? I suspect that Joe is blending WAR and other metrics along with a great deal of subjectivity. I think that’s a good approach. There should be a balance. The premise of my whole original post, that I felt that Blyleven appearing where he did on Joe’s post was a little too high. Not egregiously high…..just a little high. I think he’s more top 25-30 among pitchers rather than 15-20.

        You claim my listing “isn’t very convincing to anyone else”. Maybe not, but at least I tried to come up with one rather than just you just reaching a quick conclusion that Blyleven certainly seems reasonable as a top 20. If you’re so confident, let’s see your list. Who would you leave out? Koufax? Martinez? Paige? Who? It’s one thing to say, “yeah seems about right” without going through the exercise yourself.

        Again, not knocking on Blyleven at all. I just think there’s something going on with him, that over the past several years he’s been kind of the poster child for advanced metrics. He was extremely underrated when playing, no doubt at all. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I think it’s kind of similar to when I was a kid, and Joe Rudi was got a lot of notoriety for being underrated, and he got so much attention for being underrated, he eventually became overrated. Not comparing Blyleven’s quality to Rudi, mind you……Blyleven was much better than that. But what I am saying is that Blyleven’s case and the attention it received is maybe giving him a bit of a halo effect. It’s sort of like, if you’re not on board with Blyleven, there must be something wrong with you!

        Again, would love to see anyone else’s top 20 list of starting pitchers to see how/what you value in a pitcher and who you think doesn’t quite make the cut. Who would you leave out? What do you value? Is it brilliance? Is it stamina? Are you considering pitchers like Koufax and Martinez who had shorter but more brilliant careers? What exactly? I

  24. mrgjg says:

    You have to compare him to guys with a similar amount of IP. Blyleven had 4970 IP so if you compare him to guys using ~ 5000 IP he’s 5th among the 10.
    If we use 4000 IP, he’s 11th out of 28. Finally, if he ended his career after his 1985 season, he was at 127 ERA+ in 3716 IP.
    I think Bert is rated right about where he should be. He was one of the 20 greatest pitchers of all time.

    • DM says:

      To mrgig – A few thoughts:

      To state definitively that “he was one of the 20 greatest pitchers of all time” is an easy statement to make. Have you even attempted to come up with your own personal ranking? If so, we’d love to see it. Top 20 gets real crowded real quick.

      Next….I’m not interested what Blyleven’s ERA was if he ended his career after the 1985 season. That cuts off the last 6 years of his career. Yes, that elevates his ERA+ to 127, no question, but then that cuts him back to a 212-183 W-L record. I think it’s fair to say that not many would put him in the top 15-20 starters of all time based on that combination of accomplishments. Besides, if you start hacking off the last 25-30% of someone’s career just to help his rate stats, I think you would have to do that for everyone. I understand WHY you’re trying to evaluate it that way…..but the fact is that those last 6 years are in the books, and they are part of his overall record, and it’s on the basis of that that he deserves to be evaluated.

      Again, I’m trying to discuss where Blyelven rates, overall, for his career. He had a very long career, with a huge amount of innings, and that certainly counts in his favor. By claiming that I think that he’s more in the top 25-30 rather than 15-20, I’m not slamming him at all. Top 30 is tremendous. I’m just taking that stance that I don’t agree with promoting him another 10 slots above that.

      In Bill James’ historical abstract, which essentially was current through the 2000 season, he had Blyleven at #39 among starters. Now, in the past 14 years or so, there have certainly been some developments in metrics, and it’s quite likely that he would rank him higher now. I can understand the arguments made on Blyleven’s case. But top 20 is a tall order. I’m sure some would say that, since he’s 11th in WAR among pitchers, that’s good enough for them (Of course, he’s behind Niekro based on that metric). On Fangraphs’ WAR, he’s all the way up to 7th, in between a Ryan/Perry sandwich. I don’t take from that that he was the 7th best pitcher of all time. I think his ability to pitch pretty effectively for a very long time helps tremendously on these metrics, and tends to work on behalf of the long-career pitchers.

      In coming up with my top 20, though, I think there is a place for those with shorter careers as long as they had impressive peaks. Several pitchers named here did not reach 4,000 innings. Grove, Gibson, Koufax, P. Martinez, Marichal, Feller, for example. So, Blyleven pitched more than 1,000 innings more than any of these. However, I would not rank him above any of them. I would take any of those 6 above Blyleven.

      I believe that, as they used to say about Joe Rudi, it’s gotten to the point where Blyleven is so underrated that now he’s getting a little overrated. So, again, my premise was…..if Blyleven is top 15-20, who among the ones I mentioned would Joe rank below Blyleven? That’s all. You stated Blyleven is top 20. Who would you leave out?

      Again, here’s mine. There’s 26 names there. I’ve tried to be fair to all eras, to long careers, to shorter but brilliant careers, considering a variety of evidence. I would put Blyleven somewhere at the end. Again, that would put in in the 25-30 range. This is not in a particular order. What’s yours? Who would you leave out in favor of Blyleven?

      Walter Johnson
      Pete Alexander
      Christy Mathewson
      Cy Young
      Lefty Grove
      Tom Seaver
      Greg Maddux
      Roger Clemens
      Bob Gibson
      Sandy Koufax
      Randy Johnson
      Pedro Martinez
      Satchel Paige
      Warren Spahn
      Kid Nichols
      Bob Feller
      Carl Hubbell
      Steve Carlton
      Jim Palmer
      Mordecai Brown
      Ed Walsh
      Juan Marichal
      Gaylord Perry
      Robin Roberts
      Phil Niekro
      Eddie Plank

  25. 1) You DID NOT just say that Styx is better than REO. I doubt anybody got laid with Styx

    2) One of Bert’s manager I believe with Pittsburgh called him “Cry-leven”

    3) Bo is short from Baudilio which I see it’d be impossible to pronounce by English speakers. He was my very first baseball idol when playing in his home country of Venezuela. The first year I remember watching baseball he broke the single season record with 20 homers in 60 games in 1980 (Alex Cabrera just broke it, so he now has the single season record in two different countries with serious baseball leagues, THIS must be a record).

    The “Bo” thing got me thinking and I realized (as a 9 yo) that Americans had something for shortening names, so Baudilio became Bo, Antonio Armas became Tony, Jesus Marcano Trillo became Manny, Gustavo Polidor became Gus, among many others. Also, Atanasio Perez became Tany, which apparently some writers couldn’t understand and was later changed to the much more common Tony that really doesn’t fit. Tany (or Tony) now asks Latin writers to address him as Tony which is kind of a running joke; apparently his line is “I’m Tony, don’t call me Tany”

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