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July 23, 2011
The Hallworthy Alomar and Blyleven
The Hall of Fame induction weekend is upon us, and while I've taken issue with the way the institution is treating this year's recipients of the Frick, Spink, and O'Neil awards, I'm particularly excited to see this year’s class of BBWAA and Expansion Era Committee choices—Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, and Pat Gillick—honored. Having watched both Alomar and Blyleven excel with multiple teams over the years, it was both a privilege and a labor of love to advocate their election to Cooperstown.
I first became aware of Blyleven in 1979 when he helped the Pirates win a world championship; with my own Dodgers fated to a sub-.500 season, my nine-year-old bubblegum card-collecting self was in search of a bandwagon, and the "We Are Family" Bucs led by Willie Stargell and Dave Parker were the best bandwagon around. Later, I would watch Blyleven help the 1987 Twins to an unlikely World Series victory as well, but I really had no idea how well he stacked up against the greats until I began my first Hall of Fame ballot examination project over at my own Futility Infielder site, which was in its first year of publication at the time.
All told, I spent 10 seasons campaigning for Blyleven's election, watching the electorate slowly come around as the pitcher's vote percentage rose from a paltry 23.5 percent to an over-the-top 79.7 percent in his 14th season on the ballot… but not without an agonizing stop at 74.2 percent—a mere five votes shy—the previous year. As I've said elsewhere, I'm elated for Blyleven (whom I've never met) and happy that I played a small role in convincing voters both directly and indirectly that Bert Belongs. Sabermetrics is the search for objective truth about baseball; those of us who backed Blyleven uncovered plenty of it over the last decade and turned what appeared to be a lost-cause candidacy into a successful one.
As for Alomar, he too fell just eight votes shy of induction last year—his first on the ballot. While his advanced defensive numbers didn't quite match the bulk of his library of highlight-worthy plays afield, he set the standard for second basemen for over a decade, combining slick and entertaining glovework with a potent bat that helped his teams in Toronto, Baltimore, and Cleveland make the playoffs seven times over an 11-season period in the middle of his career. He had barely hung up his spikes in 2005 when I began building his case for Cooperstown.
What follows is what I wrote about the cases of Blyleven and Alomar last December. For a refresher course on the pitching portion of JAWS, see the Blyleven piece; for the hitting portion, see here.
A power pitcher with a devastating curveball (or two), Blyleven spent the first part of his major league career (beginning at age 19!) toiling for a mostly mediocre Minnesota club, racking up innings and decisions galore. Despite middling won-loss records, he was dominant, posting ERAs 25 to 50 percent better than league average, striking out about 230 guys a year, and averaging a robust 5.8 WARP per year through his first six seasons. His top WARP (8.8) came in 1973 when he threw a whopping 325 innings of 2.52 ERA ball, striking out 258 and going 20-17 for his trouble. Contract issues hastened his exit from the Twin Cities as he was traded to Texas in 1976 and then dealt to the Pirates a year and a half later.
For the Pirates, he remained a front-line starter, albeit with a considerably lighter workload; manager Chuck Tanner loved his deep bullpen, and Blyleven didn't. Nonetheless, his stellar 1979 postseason (1.42 ERA in 19 innings) helped the Pirates win the title. Following the 1980 season, he was traded to Cleveland, and after a strong 1981, he lost nearly all of 1982 to an elbow injury. Upon coming back, he returned to his usual workhorse self and in 1984 put up one of his best seasons (6.6 WARP and 6.7 SNLVAR, the latter third in the league) by going 19-7 with a 2.87 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 245 innings. He put up a 6.9 WARP season in 1985 while being traded back to the Twins mid-season. It was like he never left: 17-16, 17-14, high strikeout totals, good ERAs, and homers by the bushel (a record 50 in 1986). In 1987, he helped the 85-win Twins to an unlikely World Championship, again shining in the playoffs. He left for California after 1988 and had another strong season (17-5, 2.73 ERA, 5.5 WARP), then sandwiched two mediocre years around one that was completely missed with rotator cuff surgery.
JAWS rates Blyleven as the best eligible pitcher not in the Hall of Fame and one of the top 20 pitchers of all time:
*Hall of Famer
Blyleven has the lowest peak of any pitcher above, though not by much, and he's actually ahead of peers Niekro, Carlton, Perry and Jenkins—as well as Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton and Catfish Hunter—in terms of PRAA.
Which brings us to the real issue: the BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with fewer than 300 wins since Jenkins in 1991, spoiled by the half-dozen members of that peer group (Carlton, Niekro, Perry, Ryan, Seaver, Sutton) who won 300 games from the mid-60s to the mid-80s when four-man rotations dominated. Still, Blyeven more than holds his own amid his Hall of Fame peers:
The last column above compares the run support of those contemporaries in a park- and league-adjusted index—similar to ERA+, where 100 is average; Blyleven got three percent less support than the average starter during his time, comparable to many of those contemporaries but nonetheless something which kept him from attaining the 300 wins which would have virtually guaranteed entry. Not that losing nearly two full seasons to injury didn't hurt that chase, too.
Still, his traditional credentials are strong enough that Hall of Fame voters must perform Olympic-level gymnastics to attempt justification of why Blyleven doesn't get their vote, most fixating on his relatively unimpressive winning percentage (.534), his 250 losses, and his failure to garner a Cy Young Award or reach 20 wins more than once—all of those related to the level of support he received from his teammates (not to mention unenlightened voters). His career totals place him in elite company: fifth all-time in strikeouts (only Ryan, Carlton, Clemens, and Randy Johnson are ahead), ninth in shutouts, 11th in games started, 14th in innings, and 27th in wins, with virtually everybody around him on those lists either in the Hall of Fame or headed there. He ranks 10th among pitchers in career WARP, 29th in peak, 11th in PRAR, and 10th in PRAA. He's well ahead of the average Hall of Fame pitcher according to JAWS, and that's enough for the vote here.
The first time I tackled the Hall of Fame ballot for BP, Blyleven polled at just 35.4 percent in his seventh year on the ballot. Thanks to an Internet blitz that's centered around Rich Lederer's campaign at The Baseball Analysts website (one that's even swayed actual BBWAA voters), he crossed the 50 percent threshold on the 2006 ballot, attaining 53.3 percent of the vote in his ninth go-round, and after polling above 60 percent in two years running, he landed just shy last year. This is next year.
The son of light-hitting former big-league second-baseman Sandy Alomar and the younger brother of catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., the Puerto Rican-born Roberto Alomar was signed by the Padres as soon as he turned 17 in 1985. He reached the majors three years later and spent 1988-1990 in the brown and orange with a performance that only hinted at things to come, hitting .283/.339/.379 across the period but taking his lumps in the field, showing excellent range but averaging 20 errors a year. Still, not many players can hold their own at age 20, and the ones that do often go on to greatness.
Sent to Toronto along with Joe Carter in a December 1990 mega-deal which sent Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez to San Diego, Alomar blossomed north of the border and helped the Jays become the division's powerhouse. They won the AL East in his first season in Toronto, and in the two years following brought new meaning to the term World Champions. Alomar averaged 7.2 WARP over that three-year span and put up a Joe Morgan-esque line of .326/.408/.492 with 17 homers and 55 steals in 1993. But the Jays fell below .500 during the two strike-torn seasons, and Alomar departed as a free agent for the Baltimore Orioles, forming a well-decorated double-play tandem with Cal Ripken Jr. His 1996 stats were in the Morgan mold as well (.328/.411/.527) as he led the O's with a career-high 8.2 WARP and helped them to their first postseason berth since 1983.
Alas, Alomar's season lost luster when a late-September ejection for arguing balls and strikes culminated in him spitting in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck, a situation which turned him into Public Enemy Number One when he added insult to injury by telling reporters that the ump had become "real bitter" since the death of his eight-year-old son due to a rare brain disease in 1993. When he was allowed to play in the postseason by appealing his five-game suspension, it took a court order to avert an umpire strike. Alomar spent October under a dark cloud as the Orioles advanced to the ALCS before losing to the Jeffrey Maier-aided Yankees, serving his suspension at the start the 1997 season and making high-profile amends with Hirschbeck, shaking his hand on the field and donating money to aid research on the disease which claimed the ump's son. Public sentiment remained mixed; he drew boos on the road even as he was voted to start the All-Star Game. Hampered by a shoulder injury which limited him to 112 games and to batting left-handed for the season's last four months, he still hit .333/.390/.500. The Orioles returned to the LCS but lost to the Indians, his brother's team. Shortly after the loss, the O's took the express route to total irrelevance when skipper Davey Johnson fell out with owner Peter Angelos, culminating in the surreal sequence of Johnson resigning mere hours before winning Manager of the Year honors. They haven't seen .500 since.
Following a desultory 1998 that featured the ludicrous accusation from Angelos that Alomar hadn't been the same since the spitting incident, the second baseman joined his brother in Cleveland via free agency. Teaming with shortstop Omar Vizquel to form one of the slickest double-play combos in memory, he enjoyed his best three-year run as a hitter, batting a combined .323/.405/.515 and averaging 5.9 WARP. Despite accolades which included the last three of his 10 Gold Gloves—not to mention a seemingly endless stream of Web Gems—his defense was slipping, dropping from +13 runs in 1999 to -9 and -6 in the next two seasons.
At that point, through his age 33 season, Alomar had amassed 2,389 hits at a .306/.378/.455 clip and looked to have a strong shot at reaching 3,000 hits. Alas, the wheels quickly fell off once he was sent to the Mets as the centerpiece of an eight-player deal in December 2001. He struggled (.266/.331/.376) in 2002 as the Mets slid below .500, and when his decline didn't reverse, he was pawned off to the White Sox halfway through the next season. He lasted just one more year in the majors and met an ignominious end, making two errors in one inning of a spring training game as a Devil Ray, then hanging up his spikes the next day.
Though he never won an MVP award, Alomar placed in the top five twice (1999 and 2001) and finished sixth in his first three years in Toronto. He was otherwise well-decorated, as no other second baseman won the Gold Glove more often. He was worth at least 10 runs in the field in three of the seasons in which he won the award and the one year amid that 11-year stretch in which he didn't (1997). He excelled in October, outdoing his career line with a .331/.381/.448 showing in 260 postseason plate appearances across seven trips. He won the 1992 ALCS MVP award en route to the first of his two rings with the Blue Jays.
Those are Hall of Fame credentials, and his JAWS numbers back up that assertion:
*Hall of Famer
While his defensive reputation falls surprisingly shy of the average Hall second baseman—dropping his peak 0.3 wins below the standard (but still about four wins above the average Hall hitter)—his career mark is safely above the line even given his early end. Only four second basemen (Collins, Hornsby, Morgan, and Lajoie—all Hall of Famers) outrank him on the JAWS scale, though they all leave him in the dust with scores above 93.0. Alomar does outdistance BBWAA-sanctioned keystoners Charlie Gehringer, Frisch, Sandberg, Robinson (whose JAWS mark is obviously just the tip of the iceberg) and Carew, as well as the unduly snubbed Grich (who ranks right behind him, JAWS-wise). Neither the spitting incident nor the allegations concerning his personal life are grounds for keeping him out of Cooperstown. Enough writers bore him a grudge over Spitgate to prevent his first-ballot election, but he should get over the top this time.