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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

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