Friday, December 28, 2007

By Eric Notti - Feature Writer

Why isn’t one of the best pitchers of his era, and that spans 3 decades, Rik Aalbert Blyleven not in the Hall of Fame? Maybe, because the voting writers all know him as Bert, but don’t know a thing about him?

One of the digs is that he never made it to 300 wins and only recorded a .532 winning percentage. So how good could he be if he was just barely over even odds on the mound? He could just be one of the best.

He pitched for some truly miserable teams; the Twins organization that brought him to the majors were one only one of them. Only in 1970 (his rookie year), 1973 and 1988 did they have a better than .500 record when he pitched for them. In fact, let's look at the winning teams he pitched on and examine them closer.

As a rookie in 1970 Bert pitched in 27 games with a 10-9 record to go with a 3.18 ERA and 1.159 WHIP. He received no votes for ROY. The Twin however went on to win 96 games that year, finishing 1st in the AL West. The Rookie was just behind the veteran Jim Kaat for team lead in era, Katt posted a 3.04.

The Twins were swept in the playoffs by the Orioles; Blyleven only saw action as a stop gap in game 3 after Kaat had given up 5 in runs in 2 and 1/3 innings of work. Bert allowed only one unearned run (Kaats) and was replaced after 2 innings of work. The Twins second best pitcher never really had a chance to help them.

The next year Blyleven leads the team with a 2.81 era but ended up with a 16-15 record pitching 278 innings and striking out 224. Again, he received no award recognition, not one vote for the Cy Young. The Twins managed a paltry 89-82 record finishing 5th in the AL West.

The team didn’t get any better in 1972 putting up a 77-77 record with a 3rd place finish. Blyleven was 17-17 that year with a 2.73 era and again 287 inning pitched. In 1973 the Twins post an 86-76 record and still settle for third. Bert, as reliable as ever, posted his only 20 win season taking with him 17 losses. The team just cannot support his pitching, he ends the year pitching 325 innings and posting a 2.52 era with 258 strikeouts and one single vote for Cy Young.

In 1974 he drops back to a .500 pitcher, if you can possibly describe him as that, posting a 17-17 record with a 2.66 era. The Twins are a .500 team as well. The following year he posts his fewest wins since being a rookie with a 15-10 record and an era of 3.00.

In the 6 years since making the big leagues Bert Blyleven has pitched in 1,658 innings, has walked 403 and struck out 1,327 batters. His only year his ERA was above 3 was his Rookie year. He has pitched 115 complete games including 30 complete game shutouts.

He would be traded the next year to Texas, making him the best pitcher on their team with the worst record, posting a 9-11 win/loss in 24 games with a 2.76 ERA.

The following year 1977, the Texas Rangers record their first 90 win season with Blyleven again leading the team in ERA with a 2.72 and strikeouts with 182 but only recording a 14-12 record. The Rangers, then as now, never learned the value of pitching and sent Blyleven to Pittsburg in a 4 team deal which sent the Rangers back on the road to obscurity.

In Pittsburg it was more of the same for Blyleven, the best pitcher on the squad but only posting 14 wins his first year. In 1979 Blyleven has his worse statistical year of his career so far with a 12-5 record and a 6.60 record. For the first time in 7 years he does not lead his team in ERA and yet the Pirates provide enough punch to win 95 regular season games with no pitcher with a record better than 14 wins.

In the World Series Blyleven pitches 6 innings allowing the Orioles only 2 runs while uncharacteristically striking out only one batter, He does not get the win, it goes to the middle reliever Dave Robinson. The Pirates win 3-2 on 9th inning little ball. That would be Blyleven’s last World Series appearance for the next 8 years.

In 1980 Bert continues to struggle both in the win/loss category but also in ERA. Career lows and his first losing record, Blyleven’s ERA balloons to 3.82 and he only wins 7 while losing 10. His strike out totals drop to only 168 during the season and Pittsburg trades him after the season ends. His NL career consists of a steady decline in all statistical categories and a 34-28 record.

In 1981 it looks as though Blyleven was the same pitcher as the guy Pittsburg had traded, giving up 4 runs in the opener to lose to the Brewers 5-3. Then the young Blyleven appears in his second start and pitches a complete game shutout against the same Milwaukee team that roughed him up the first game. From there Blyleven goes on a 6 game winning streak but what is more impressive is that he pitches 6 complete games, one of them a 10 inning affair. He is again the best pitcher on a bad squad with a bad team surrounding him.

It looks as though Blyleven has transcended even being on a poor team and has become unstoppable, but all streaks end in baseball and sometimes have lasting effects. After starting 6-1, Blyleven takes a few losses in a row and never gets back that rhythm he started with. He ends the year missing all of July and a team leading record of 11-7 and a 2.88 ERA.

The innings, complete games and strikeout totals are taking its toll and 1982 sees him pitch in only 4 games, in 1983 only 24 with his ERA dangerously close to 4. He is 32 years old, has 12 years in the majors and looks to be done.

1984 starts with a rejuvenated Blyleven, he is able to go strong all year and racks up his second best career win/loss record at 19-7, returning also to an ERA under 3. His strikeout totals clearly not what he was capable of his first 7 years but still a respectable 170 in 245 innings pitched. He is by far the best pitcher on the staff but that is not saying much. No pitcher on the staff other than Bert has an ERA under 4.5. Again, his pitching is wasted on a team that finishes with a 75-87 record.

Mid season of 1985 Cleveland throws up the white flag and ships Blyleven back to Minnesota. The hapless Indians only mange 60 wins that year and even with a 3.16 era and 15 complete games including 4 complete game shutouts, Blyleven is only able to squeeze 9 wins out of Cleveland while being saddled with 11 losses. It is one of the most desperate stands since Custer at Little Bighorn, but this time it was too few Indians with any weapons. Mercifully he was traded to the Twins.

With an offense behind him Blyleven continued to pitch complete games but this time with a completely different result. In the final 14 games Bert completes 9 games including a complete game shutout and wins 9. He finishes the year 17-16, just barely above .500 but head and shoulders above nearly every other pitcher when it comes to innings pitched in lost causes.

In 1987 the Twins and Bert Blyleven return to the World Series. Blyleven’s beard has grown and so has his ERA to just over 4 but it still makes him the second best pitcher on the squad. His game 2 start is good enough to hold the Cardinals to 2 runs over 7 innings and leads the Twins to a 8-4 victory. Game 5 Blyleven would rather forget.

Cruising for 5 innings, the Cardinals leadoff the 6th with a single by Coleman. Ozzie Smith bunts Coleman to 2nd but Blyleven is unable to make the play from the mound and Smith is safe at 1st as well. Herr harmlessly flies out to left but then both Coleman and Smith take off and complete a double steal. From the dugout manager Tom Kelly calls for an intentional walk of Driessen. With bases leaded and 1 out Willie McGee stares at strike 3 and it looks like Blyleven and the Twins are out of trouble.

Curt Ford, with a totally unremarkable career, mainly a bench player, manages a single up the middle that scores Coleman and Smith. On the throw to home Driessen and Ford advanced putting them on 2nd and 3rd. Jose Oquendo, another player that is completely forgettable, haven driven in only 24 runners all season, manages to reach on an error by Shortstop Greg Gagne. The final insult to one of the worst luck pitchers in baseball. The Twins lose game 5 by the score of 4-2. When Blyleven left the mound the scoreboard still read zero for his run support. It would be the last World Series game he would pitch.

In 1988 again Blyleven looked as though his career was over. With the same Twins team behind him he had a miserable year with a 10-17 record and a career high 5.43 ERA. The Twins would come in second place to the A's for the American League West title. The following winter, 1989, the Angels trade for Blyleven. He is 38 years old, coming off his worst year, what could he provide the Angels?

After a disappointing loss in the playoffs to the Red Sox in 1986, the Angels shed most of the “Open Saddle Bag” players that had outlived their usefulness and contracts. By 1989 the Angels were a whole new team and with the rise of young arms from the minors, the Angels needed one veteran pitcher to solidify a very young pitching staff of Mike Witt, Kurt McCaskill, Jim Abbott and Chuck Finley.

Blyleven not only solidified the staff, he led them the only way he knew how by keeping his ERA totals the lowest on the team at 2.73, the most innings pitched at 241, throwing 8 complete games with 5 complete game shutouts, but this time placing second in strikeouts to the left hander Finley. Blyleven was able to win 17 games while only taking on 5 losses, the Angels looked like the team to beat.

However, winning 91 games was only good enough to place the Angels in 3rd place that year. They were 1 game behind the Royals but 9 games behind the Oakland A’s. What should have been a triumphant return to the playoffs turned out to be another waste of excellent pitching.

Blyleven would never have another good year in baseball. In 1990 he pitched in only 23 games going 8-7 with a 5.24 ERA. He missed all of 1991 and returned for his last year in 1992 where he went 8-12 with a 4.74 ERA, ranking him as the worst pitcher on the staff, with the fewest innings and strikeouts, Blyleven was finally done.

He played for far more losing teams than winners. He was almost always the best pitcher on the squad when healthy, racking up an amazing amount of innings pitched along with strikeouts considering his curveball, not an overpowering fastball, was his out pitch. In context of the pitchers of his time period He ranks No. 1 in complete games, No. 2 in shutouts (one behind Nolan Ryan), No. 2 in innings pitched (again trailing only Ryan), No. 5 in whiffs all time and No. 6 in wins.

Just to give you an idea of how luck has never been in his favor, Blyleven in 1984 was 3rd in balloting for the Cy Young Award. He had a record of 19-7, pitched 245 innings, and had 13 complete games, 8 in a row at the end of the season, with 4 shutouts, an ERA of 2.87 and a WHIP of 1.135. He lost out to Willie Hernandez, a relief pitcher.

In the end he was just a little better than a .500 pitcher and always better than just about anyone he was facing.
Love to hear what you think!


Eric Denton said...

It's funny that a lot of the criticisms of Blyleven are the same ones the media used against Nolan Ryan in regards to him never winning a Cy Young. "He's just a .500 pitcher".

Pitchers can't control their win totals and is a false argument IMO.

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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