The Bert Blyleven problem, simply stated, is that Blyleven’s won-lost record does not jibe with his innings pitched and ERA. Blyleven pitched just short of 5,000 innings in his career, with a 3.31 ERA. Other pitchers with comparable combinations won 300 games, 310, 320. Blyleven didn’t.
This shortfall is well known, and Bert Blyleven has been left out of the Hall of Fame because of it. Life isn’t always fair. Other pitchers with 280 wins, and some with 220 wins, and some with less, have made the Hall of Fame—and with the same ERA. Alright; life’s a bitch.
Bert Blyleven is an intriguing figure because he is the most conspicuous victim of what most of us regard as a malicious fiction. You ask any baseball writer from Blyleven’s era why Bert hasn’t been bronzed, and the guy will tell you “He wasn’t a winner. His team scored 3 runs, he gave up 4. They scored 1, he gave up 2. He had good numbers, but he didn’t win the tough games.”
Most of us don’t believe that this ability to win the close games really exists, and many of us kind of resent Blyleven being discriminated against because he fails a bullshit test. Still, in theory, Bert’s detractors could be on to something. Suppose that you have two pitchers. One, whom we will call Ferguson Winner, loses a game 6-0, but wins six others 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, 4-3, 5-4 and 6-5. The other, whom we will call Bert Loser, wins a game 6-0, but loses six others by the same scores (1-0, 2-1, etc.)
The run support for both pitchers is exactly the same: 21 runs in 7 games. Their runs allowed are exactly the same: 21 runs in 7 games. But Ferguson has gone 6-1 and Bert has gone 1-6, because Ferguson has matched his effort to the runs he has to work with. My point is, there could be something there that isn’t measured by run support and isn’t measured by runs allowed. We’ll call it the ability to match.
If Blyleven in fact had an inability to match the effort needed, it must be possible to document this by examining his career log game-by-game alongside that of comparable pitchers. Beyond that, it must possible to place a value on it, or to measure the cost of it. The Sabermetric Encyclopedia estimates that Blyleven was 344 runs better than an average pitcher over the course of his career. How many of those 344 runs should be offset because of this inability to match the effort needed?
As a rule of thumb, a pitcher can be expected to be about one game over .500 for each three to five runs that he saves. Luis Tiant was 57 games over .500 (229-172) and saved 172 runs. Carl Hubbell saved 355 runs—about the same number as Blyleven—and was 99 games over .500 (253-154). Roger Clemens through 2006 has saved 727 runs and is 170 games over .500. Pedro Martinez through 2004 has saved 506 runs and is 114 games over .500. Bret Saberhagen saved 241 runs and was 50 games over .500. These are normal ratios.
Blyleven, however, saved 344 runs but was only 37 games over .500. Among the 25 other pitchers in major league history who were at least 300 runs better than league in ERA, most (15 of the 25) were more than 100 games over .500, and all were at least 44 games over .500. Phil Niekro was only 44 games over, but the reasons for that are fairly obvious; Niekro pitched most of his career for bad teams, and also allowed more than 300 un-earned runs, many of them because of Passed Knuckleballs. Blyleven did neither of those things. He pitched for as many good teams as bad teams, and he allowed less than 200 un-earned runs.
If Blyleven were one game over .500 for each four runs saved, he would have finished with about 311 career wins (311-226). The Sabermetric Encyclopedia credits Blyleven with 313 “Neutral Wins” (313-224). He’s actually 287-250.
Blyleven’s won-lost record is about 196 runs worse than his ERA. He is 37 games over .500; that’s equivalent to 148 runs. He should be 344 runs better than average. That’s a 196-run discrepancy. These odd ratios create a prima facie case that Blyleven was guilty of the failure to match the effort needed. I’m skeptical, but. . .we’ll never know unless we how to look.