About a year ago, I got into a heated, long-running argument with a bunch of people over whether or not Bert Blyleven should be in the Hall of Fame. This literally went on for weeks. It got really testy with all kinds of frothing at the mouth posts and e-mails with all kinds of stats being flung like monkey shit.
I remember Blyleven as a real schmoe when I was a kid. Was a guy who ate up innings and gave up a shitload of gopher balls and a really sick 12-to-6 curveball. In fact, he has the MLB record for most home runs given up in a year — 50 — and he gave up 46 the following year. Hall of Famer? For what? Hanging around forever and never getting hurt? Give me a break. You might as well put Vinnie Testaverde in the NFL Hall of Fame.
I trotted out all these stats — went to two All Star games in 22 years, never finished higher than third in Cy Young voting, only had a winning percentage over .600 four times in his career, gave up 96 home runs in two years, lost 15 or more games seven times, had a career winning percent of .534, never led the league in ERA or strikeouts. Yup, yup, yup, it all smacked of mediocrity. A mediocre guy who hung around forever and thus built up a lot of stats. Baseball’s Vinnie Testaverde. Oh, I had all these convincing stats to back up my case. Then my buddies trotted out their stats. And I was surprised.
5th all time in strikeouts
8th all time in shutouts
11th all time in games started
14th all time in innings pitched
9 shutouts in one season
Career ERA 3.31 — very solid.
242 complete games!
There is only ONE pitcher in the modern era those numbers stack up against. One. Nolan Ryan. 242 complete games. Jamie Moyer has pitched 25 seasons and has *33* complete games. Randy Johnson, a certain Hall of Famer, pitched 22 years and had exactly 100 complete games.
Blyleven put up some utterly sick numbers for the Minnesota Twins early in his career before I ever heard of him (I think the first I heard of him was when he pitched for the Pirates in ’79). In seven years in Minnesota, he averaged 272 innings a year, 220 strikeouts a year, had an ERA under 2.80 over that span, he had 30 shutouts and 115 complete games. The guy literally put up FREAK numbers during this stretch. And he went a whopping 108-101, a winning percentage of only .517. If he had been pitching for the Reds, he would’ve won 150 games. After he left the Twins, he was somewhat up-and-down. He would have a good year, followed by a bad year, followed by a good yer and so on. But, he continued to rack up tons of stats, even in his off years. He was a freak. His career had to generate the strangest numbers in baseball history. Jaw-dropping career stats, jaw-dropping durability with a lukewarm winning percentage.
A lot of people use “He pitched for a lot of bad teams” in their pro-Blyleven arguments. Actually, that’s not true. He was on two World Series winners and pitched in another World Series. The Twins were not a bad team when he was there. They had Carew and Lyman Bostok and Tony Oliva. They were mediocre, not bad. But, for whatever reason, they simply didn’t score many runs for Blyleven. Maybe he went up against other teams’ top pitchers too many times.
So, I started looking at these numbers and realized the guy was a BEAST. He just didn’t WIN. And pitchers have limited control over their win totals. Sportswriters have finally begun to figure that out. Lincecum won a Cy Young winning 15 games. Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young with 13 wins.
And I realized I was wrong. This guy deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. He had two strikes against him — he never had a genuinely GREAT season, not even one, and he didn’t have a high winning percentage. He was essentially a very solid, durable pitcher who had a lot of bad luck. But, top 14 all time in four major categories more than made up for that. I found myself joining all kinds of “Bert Blyleven Should Be in the Hall of Fame” Facebook pages.
And how great it was to be convinced I was wrong, then see my changed mind vindicated by his selection into the Hall of Fame.
Last week, the news came out that Twin great Harmon Killebrew has esophageal cancer. This is a tough one. Esophogeal cancer killed Humphrey Bogart.
Killebrew hit a staggering 573 home runs for the Twins. He was a bit before my time. By the time I started paying attention to baseball, he was in his late 30s and his career was winding down. He averaged 39.6 home runs a year over 12 seasons … staggering. Well before the days of steriods. The only thing this guy had helping him was coffee and greenies. And he was a true old-fashioned swing from the heels slugger. His career batting average was only .256, though that is misleading because he also walked more than 90 times in nine seasons. Make no mistake, this guy was feared. A lot.
I didn’t know if Killebrew smoked or chewed. So many of the old time ballplayers chewed. So I looked it up. I found out Killebrew had given motivational speeches on the dangers of smoking and how difficult it is to quit. So, he did smoke. Does it make any difference? Not really. But, I still feel it’s important to point out that he is yet another victim of smoking and nicotine. These speeches were apparently sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline.
I mean it when I say that I strongly resist the urge to blame well known people are/were smokers when I read they have cancer. That’s an attitude I despise. That’s NOT the reason I look these things up. I feel compelled to track down whether they were a smoker, because I do see them as victims of the tobacco industry. And I do feel it’s important to point out they were victims of the industry and its lies.
I wish him well in his battle.