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January 7, 2011

On the Beat

The Stat Geek Heads to Cooperstown

by John Perrotto

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When you think of Bert Blyleven the pitcher, you think of someone who won 287 games, struck out 3,701, threw 60 shutouts and had a curveball that nearly defied gravity. You don't think of a guy who memorized the career innings pitched totals of such greats as Cy Young and Walter Johnson.

When you think of Bert Blyleven the television broadcaster, you think of a guy with a keen sense of humor and a better grasp of using a telestrator than any other baseball analyst. You don't think of a guy who spends significant time each day doing preparation work for his broadcasts by perusing the advanced metrics at this very website, among others.

Yet one of two newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame is, in his words, "a stat geek." So if people like Bill James and Nate Silver haven't already made it cool for numbers nerds to embrace stats like VORP and WARP, perhaps Blyleven's admission that he is a stat geek validates that objective analysis in baseball is cool.

Blyleven and Roberto Alomar were elected to the Hall of Fame this week by the 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. And Blyleven is the first player to gain entry to Cooperstown in part because of sabermetrics.

According to the traditional way of thinking, in which wins and winning percentage are paramount to any other pitching statistic, Blyleven did not stack up as Hall-worthy in some voters' eyes. They pointed to the fact that his career record was just 37 games over .500 at 287-250.

However, analysts such as our own Jay Jaffe and, to an even greater extent, Rich Lederer of baseballanalysts.com, championed Blyleven's cause. They used various metrics to show that Blyleven stacked up with many of the top pitchers in the game's history. Though it took 14 years of being on the ballot, he is finally headed for enshrinement, and he is quick to point out the work of Lederer and others.

"They've educated people about pitching and showed that there is more to being a good pitcher than just wins and losses," Blyleven said. "As a pitcher, you can't control wins and you can't control losses. You can control innings pitched and keeping yourself in the game. Rich Lederer and others brought a lot of that out into open and there is a much better understanding of that than there was, say, even 10 years ago."

Blyleven's cause was likely strengthened in recent Cy Young elections. In 2009, the Royals' Zack Greinke won the American League Cy Young with 16 victories and the Giants' Tim Lincecum took National League honors with 15 wins. Those were the two lowest victory totals ever for a Cy Young winner until the Mariners' Felix Hernandez won the AL award last season with just 13 wins as voters looked past that stat and saw he led the league with 8.7 SNLVAR and .646 SNWP.

"I think King Felix winning the Cy Young only helped me," Blyleven said. "It showed that the writers now truly understand that a mark of a good pitcher isn't just how many games he's won."

Blyleven, though, was an old-school stat guy when he debuted in the major leagues as a 19-year-old with the 1970 Twins. In addition to his pie-in-the-sky goal of breaking Young's all-time record of 7,356 innings pitched, he believed that wins and losses defined a starter. Ironically, his adherence to those old ideals helped mold him into a pitcher that is now Hall of Famer.

"I lost a lot of close games early in my career and I thought it was my fault because I gave up a run or two," Blyleven said. "I worked even harder after that. Those losses made me a better pitcher. I knew I had to find a way to win those 2-1 and 1-0 ballgames. I decided I couldn't give up any runs and that's a big part of the reason why I finished my career with 60 shutouts."

Eventually, though, Blyleven learned that he could only control so much, including injuries. His plan was to stick around long enough to win 300 games, but he fell 13 short when he was forced to retire during spring training in 1993 with the Angels because of arm injuries. For a long time, it seemed the lack of 300 wins would keep Blyleven from Cooperstown, but he instead became the first non-300 game winner elected by the BBWAA since Fergie Jenkins in 1991.

"I'm proud of all my wins but I’m also proud of all my losses," Blyleven said. "I'm proud that I was able to be among the elite who had the opportunity to play in the major leagues. Now, I couldn't be prouder to be going into the Hall of Fame and joining the most elite group of players there is."

---

Jeff Bagwell never failed a drug test. In fact, he was never implicated as a user of performance-enhancing drugs during his 15-year career, spent entirely with the Astros from 1991-2005.

Yet Bagwell's career achievements were clearly discounted by the voters for playing in the Steroid Era during his first time on the Hall of Fame ballot. He received just 41.7 percent of the vote despite hitting .297/.408./.540 with 449 home runs.

"I can't change people's opinions on how they see my career," Bagwell said. "I'm OK with that. Whatever. People are going to think what they want to think, and if they don't think anybody was good in this era, that's fine. I'm one of the first players that have come up (for election) in that era. I'm OK with that. It's not going to change my life."

Meanwhile, Blyleven has no problem with hitters from the Steroid Era getting little support from the voters. In fact, he sounds like a man who would prefer they not join him in Cooperstown.

"The writers have kind of made their point," Blyleven said. "Guys cheated. They cheated themselves and their teammates. The game of baseball is to be played clean. I think we went through a Steroid Era and I think it's up to the writers to decide when and who should go in through that era."

Mark McGwire, who admitted to using steroids last winter, received just 19.8 percent of the vote, and Rafael Palmeiro, who was suspended for 10 games in 2005 for testing positive for steroids, got just 11.0 percent.

---

Athletics manager Bob Geren watched with interest last fall as the Giants, the team across the bay from Oakland, made a run to their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco in 1958.

"I couldn't help but be interested in the World Series, especially because of the two teams that were there," Geren said, referring to the Giants, who the Athletics play twice a year in interleague series, and the Rangers, a fellow AL West club.

Geren admits he couldn't help but wonder if his Athletics might be able to follow suit in 2011. The Athletics are similar to the Giants in that they are built around talented, young starting rotations.

Right-hander Trevor Cahill and left-hander Brett Anderson front a rotation that also includes lefties Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden. Many scouts feel that foursome could wind up being equal to the Giants' quartet of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner.

The Athletics played the Giants last season in May then again a month later. The Giants called up catcher Buster Posey and signed veteran left fielder Pat Burrell as a free agent between the two series.

"It's just goes to show you that if you have good pitching, adding a couple of good bats can make you a championship club," Geren said. "You saw that happen with the Giants."

The Athletics have tried to follow the same formula this winter by trading for outfielders David DeJesus and Josh Willingham and signing free agent designated hitter Hideki Matsui. The Athletics were 11th in the AL and 23rd in the majors in runs scored last season, averaging 4.09 a game, which somewhat mitigated the fact that they led the league in runs allowed with a 3.86 mark.

---

The Red Sox' coaching staff is becoming a popular place for teams to find their next managers.

Brad Mills made his major-league managerial debut with the Astros last season after six years as the Red Sox' bench coach. John Farrell will get his first crack at managing this year with the Blue Jays following four seasons as the Red Sox' pitching coach. Furthermore, bench coach DeMarlo Hale interviewed for the Mets' manager vacancy this offseason, though he lost out to Terry Collins.

Mills believes working for Red Sox manager Terry Francona in the high-pressured crucible of baseball in Boston is the perfect laboratory for future skippers.

"Well, No. 1, it's got to be Terry," Mills said. "He does such a good job of including his coaching staff and including the bench coach and pitching coach in every decision of how he goes about things, and he communicates so well with the coaches. The second thing is, what an environment to go to work in every day and see the pressure that the manager is under, and because Terry is so open with the rest of his coaches, you are able to kind of get a sense of what he's going through. And then of course, add to that, the type of player that it takes to play to do well there, and you see that and how you work with players. So all of those things added together really make it a good place to learn."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

12 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

bozarowski

Regarding your comment on Felix Hernandez's win - I don't think the voters had a clue about his SNLVAR or SNWP. I think, by and large, they saw he led the league in ERA, IP, H/9 and complete games and that he was 2nd in WHIP and K. It helps that in recent years the value of the 'win' and the 'RBI' has been somewhat devalued, but Hernandez won because he dominated in every old school stat except wins.

Jan 07, 2011 08:15 AM
rating: 15
 
jedjethro

+1

Jan 07, 2011 08:30 AM
rating: 0
 
RedsManRick

And yet, Blyleven had comparable years where he dominated in those non-win old school stats and didn't sniff a Cy Young. I agree with you that the voters aren't using the truly advanced metrics. But even moving them off wins and to things more within the pitcher's control was a big step.

Jan 07, 2011 10:32 AM
rating: 6
 
bozarowski

I don't mean to say that there hasn't been any progress - there certainly has been. There's even an entire bloc of voters that bring advanced metrics to the table in their analysis these days. I'm more arguing, not dissimilar from you, that Hernandez's win was more a factor of slightly devaluing wins relative to other old school stats than of voters embracing advanced metrics.

Jan 07, 2011 11:36 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

W-L record doesn't count for everything, especially in the context of a limited sample of one year considering how bad Seattle was this year, and how good Felix was as a pitcher.

In Blyleven's case, however, he managed to be a .534 pitcher for teams that were essentially .500 over 22 seasons.

His teams were not bad at all ... just average. And he was just a little better than average.

For each year if you multiply his decisions by his team's winning percentage, he should have been 269-268 ... essentially .500.

Blyleven won exactly 18 more games over 22 seasons than an average pitcher with as many decisions as himself. In only 4 years did he win 5 games more than he lost.

So winning games wasn't just a one year anomaly with Bert, it was a life-long problem.

A better BP article would be to examine how someone with such stuff could be such an under achiever in terms of winning games.

Just be sure that the reason isn't that he played for bad teams ... just average ones.

Jan 07, 2011 10:33 AM
rating: -3
 
fairacres

If Blyleven were a .534 every day player on a .500 team, I think he would be viewed as pretty valuable.

To parse 270 wins, or 285 wins, or 300 wins is missing the point.

What percentage of MLB pitchers ever get to 100 wins?

How about 200 wins?

250?

288, however accumulated, regardless of team winning percentage, is in the hunt among the best pitchers of all time, which I assume is the whole idea of the Hall of Fame.

It is pretty obvious that Blyleven's win total, over which he had less control than his other metrics, was not consistent with his pitching effectiveness; his effectiveness should certainly places him in the top 50 starting pitchers of all time.

Over 125 years and thousands of MLB pitchers, I think those that didn't vote for him have some explaining to do.

Amen on the lightning in a bottle comment. The Giants were fun to watch if you didn't care if they won or lost, clearly torture if you liked them, but if the Giants had been in the AL, they may have been the 4th or 5th best team in the league. Maybe. Good for them to win, but they don't strike me as a team that is well built for consistent success.


Jan 07, 2011 15:32 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Regarding your last point - it's true, but so what? How many teams build the "right way" and fail year after year? As long as their front four stay sharp, the Giants will continue to be competitive within the context of their division, and as they, and many others have shown, once you get to the postseason, it's a bit of a crap shoot.

Jan 07, 2011 16:09 PM
rating: 0
 
fairacres

I think the "so what" is that in order to be eligible FOR the crap shoot, you have to GET to the crap shoot, and my take is that hard to do consistently is you are banking on marginal players all having career years at the same time.

The Giants do have a big leg up because their core pitchers look to be really good for a while, so maybe their odds of being a 90 win team consistently are higher than that of some of the other NL teams.

Jan 11, 2011 11:09 AM
rating: 0
 
drmorris

I have to chuckle at teams modeling themselves after the Giants. The Giants needed the Padres to drop 10 games in a row in September and then needed a win over those Padres in the final game of the regular season to avoid a play-in. The Giants eked out a postseason berth, and got hot in October. They're not a championship template...particularly considering the $30 million in combined Zito/Rowand salaries that essentially sat and chewed sunflower seeds for the entire playoff run.

Jan 07, 2011 10:47 AM
rating: 8
 
Schere

Yeah, I think it's become an excuse for some really bad decisions, like trading away some pretty good talent for a pretty good pitcher to move yourself from 5th place to 3rd place in the NL's worst division.

"Hey, look at what the Giants accomplished last year with a bunch of cast-offs and re-treads and great starting pitching! We've got some cast-offs and re-treads, let's go get some starters!

Jan 10, 2011 06:02 AM
rating: 0
 
thedaves

drmorris very well may be right in his overall point, but illustrating the 10 game losing streak and the margin of divisional victory are irrelevant. Both of these points speak more to how the Padres performed in 2010. The 10-game losing streak is part of their cumulative season in which they won 90 games. It is only magnified because it happened at the end of the year. Also, what day the Giants clinched on is off point. They finished with the NL's 2nd best record and it is illogical to discount their success because the 2nd place team in their division won 90 games. Is Texas a better team than SF simply because they finished with a 9 game division lead? That speaks more about the A's/Angels/M's than the Rangers.

I think you'd be better off saying that the Giants' template is flawed because you cannot successfully count on journeymen to perform the way the Giants' signings did. Huff, Uribe, Renteria, and Ross all came through just enough to win a championship. I think that would commonly be referred to as "catching lightning in a bottle".

Nothing personal, obviously. I'm a Giants fan and I've listened to and read a lot of material over the past couple months. I'm sure there's a better forum to post this in, but your points have always irked me when I've heard them coming from other. Just getting it off my chest. Thanks.

Jan 07, 2011 13:36 PM
rating: 7
 
scottlong

Putting Nate Silver in the same sentence as Bill James is a little much. Liked the rest of the piece, though.

Jan 10, 2011 07:40 AM
rating: 0
 
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