Bert Blyleven and the Hall of Fame

I purposely haven’t said much about the Hall of Fame yet this year because I’ve found the whole discussion surrounding it pretty frustrating. On one had, I do understand where many of the sabermetric arguments come from, but on the other I understand that the Hall of Fame voting will always be somewhat subjective and I think that’s the way it should be and so I understand why the writers with votes can get upset with the sabermetric contingent. Put succinctly, I understand why someone might feel that it’s stupid if someone voted for, say, Lee Smith and not Bert Blyleven, but I also hate it when bloggers post about a writer’s ballot and say something like, “Well, this guy obviously got it right” because if “right” was so obvious, we’d never need to vote and I do think that some kind of ballot is necessary. 

That said, I can’t let the election of Blyleven to the Hall go without some kind of mention, though. He was a Pirate, after all, and even though he’s not primarily associated with the Pirates, he was a big part of the last Pirate world champion and that in itself is worth mentioning. What makes his election particularly worth noting to me, though, is that I think the saga of his candidacy a wonderful illustration of why the BBWAA and the Hall do things they way they do them. 

One of the critiques of his election that you’ve likely seen in the last 24 hours goes along these lines: “How does it take 15 years for someone to get elected to the Hall of Fame? He’s not any better than he was the day he retired or the first time he showed up on the ballot!” I myself spent a lot of years wondering why the five year waiting period exists and why, after that waiting period is up, players can stay on the ballot for 15 years. But Blyleven shows that sometimes we need time and discussion to understand just how good a player was. Sometimes it happens because stats give us a better appreciation of things. Sometimes it’s just because a guy spent most of his career pitching for lousy teams. No one outside of Pittsburgh has any clue how good Brian Giles was between 1999 and 2002, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. 

Evaluate the following two statements: 

1.) Roberto Clemente was one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball history.
2.) Over the entire course of his career, Roberto Clemente’s defense contributed more wins to the Pirates than all but 11 pitchers did over their entire Pirate careers. His defense alone (22 Wins Above Replacement by itself, using Baseball-Reference’s scale) was approximately as valuable to the Pirates as Jay Bell’s entire 1106-game Pirate career. 

They’re both true statements, but the second one really gives a great picture of just how important Clemente’s defense was. It wouldn’t have been possible to measure his defense that was when he died, but we can do it now and it gives a whole new level of appreciation to just how great of a defensive player he was, even though his defense isn’t technically any better now than it was when he was playing. 

And that’s what’s great about Blyleven getting elected; not many people recognized what made him a great pitcher when he retired 20 years ago, but with time there were people noticed and when non-voters made the case for the guy to the voters, the voters came around and gave Blyleven an honor he deserves. That’s why players stay on the ballot for so long. That’s why some voters change their votes after 14 years. Sometimes, it’s just easier to see the truth when we’re further removed from it. 

Finally, congratulations to Bert Blyleven on his induction to the Hall of Fame. Without him, we’d probably be celebrating the the 40 year anniversary of last Pirate World Series win in 2011. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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