Wednesday, January 6, 2010

If I start calling Jon Heyman’s cat a dog, will he try to take it for walks?

I said the other day that I would not bother explaining why “Wins” are meaningless. By “Wins” I mean the pitching statistic. Wins are super important. Accumulating wins is the entire point of sport like baseball, and players that help you win should be lauded for their abilities. Ironically, “Wins” don’t really tell you much about how much a player contributes to wins. This is confusing for many people who think that words can only have one meaning, like Jon Heyman. Poor Jon.

For Jon, a “Win” is a win. Playing a game of pool is a wet endeavor. He never turns left because that wouldn’t be right. He doesn’t care for anyone named Dick, and he’s disturbed by the number of people who have told him to his face that they have to go “use him” or “hit the him”. Selfish bastards.

He doesn’t understand how bats can have rabies, and if they do, how all MLB teams aren’t constantly infected. The plain truth must refer to information regarding the area west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. Nightmares are horses that only come out after sundown. The game of craps is disgusting. A Brat House is a place where Germans consume insubordinate children.

And “Wins” are wins.

Picking on Jon Heyman is easy because he probably deserves his Hall of Fame vote less than anyone else. He has a world of information available to him and he just can’t comprehend it no matter how many times it is slowly explained to him. And frankly, I don’t have time to dissect every idiotic part of this “defense” of his hall of fame votes. It’s just that his defense of voting for Jack Morris over Bert Blyleven isn’t just wrong, it’s super-wrong. Mega-wrong. You normally think of right and wrong as absolutes, but no longer.

So how can you be extra-special-super-wrong? Here’s how.

My vote also isn't about market size, as all the players on my ballot except Mattingly earned their vote in small- or mid-sized cities (I also never voted for Tommy John, who had a somewhat similar career to Blyleven's but played mostly in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago). And it's definitely not personal, despite what some have suggested. I don't know Blyleven well at all but did cover him when I was an Angels beat writer in 1989 and vaguely recall that I found him to be a fun-loving and decent man. He obviously enjoyed the game and was very pleasant, a lot more pleasant then Rice or Steve Carlton, both of whom received my vote.

Tommy John threw 4700 innings in his career, and Blyleven threw 4970, and they had similar “Win Loss” totals, but that’s where the similarity ends. Blyleven struck out 1456 more batter than did John while only walking 63 more batters than did John. Blyleven’s WHIP was almost a full point lower (1.198 v. 1.283). Blyleven’s SO/BB is 2.4, John’s is only 1.7. Blyleven threw 14 more shutouts than John. Blyleven’s ERA+ was 118 for his career, while John’s was 110.

They had some gross counting stats in common (IP, wins, losses), but they were not similar pitchers. Blyleven was much more likely to strike people out. He was what I would call a more dominant pitcher. But this is just the start.

My contention regarding Blyleven is that almost no one viewed him as a Hall of Famer during his playing career, and that is borne out by the 17 percent of the vote he received in his first year of eligibility in 1998, followed by 14 percent the next year. Blyleven obviously had an excellent and extremely lengthy career that looks a lot better to many with a decade to review it. And it doesn't hurt that he's the favorite of the Internet lobby.

It may well be true that Blyleven was not viewed as a Hall of Famer when he was playing, but look when he played. He started in 1970 and retired in 1992. When Blyleven played, the following things were true:

1. There was no internet. It was more difficult to follow players who were not on your team.

2. People were stupider about baseball.

3. People actually valued “Wins” as a real stat at the time, which made good pitchers on bad teams appear inferior to how they actually were.

Now that we know more, we can make better judgments about players.

Without throwing a single pitch, Blyleven has gone from 14 percent of the vote in his second year to 62 percent last year. I certainly can understand how a statistical re-evaluation can change minds, and Blyleven's career does look better on paper than it did when he was actually performing. Some of his support comes from folks who are relying solely on stats, and a few of them may not have seen any of his career. But I am in the group that believes a player's career goes beyond the numbers, and that there is value in watching a player's career as it is unfolding. For instance, while I may form an opinion on the Hall-of-Fame worthiness of the careers of Johnny Mize, Ralph Kiner, Phil Rizzuto (all of whom are in Cooperstown) and Ken Boyer (who is not), I concede there is something to having seen and followed their careers while they were happening. The same goes for Blyleven.

I have to confess that I do not remember seeing Blyleven pitch very much as a kid as I was pretty young during his prime. I remember a few seasons with the Twins, but not very well. And I do think that there is something to be gained from having actually watched players play, as the way that players accomplish their tasks can be entertaining in its own right. Hell, one of the reasons I like watching Adam Dunn is because he doesn’t just hit home runs, he hits monstrous home runs. I’m not above such things. I just find it hard to believe that Blyleven wasn’t super impressive. The guy struck out 3700 batters. In 1973 he threw 9 shutouts! By the way, he went 20-17 that year, meaning that in almost half of his “Wins” he did not give up a single run. That’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. In 1976 he had a losing record (13-16), but tossed 6 shutouts and had a 2.87 ERA, struck out 219 batters, and put up a 125 ERA+. A lot of his numbers aren’t just good, they’re eye-popping. This guys wasn’t impressive? The guy who was shutting out his opponents in half of his wins wasn’t impressive when he played? How much did Jon Heyman get to see Blyleven in the pre-cable, pre-internet 1970s?

Blyleven's career has been re-evaluated for the better by numbers people, and while it's tough to make his winning percentage (.534) sparkle, the stat people emphasize other numbers such as strikeouts (3,701), complete games (242) and WHIP (1.19) and many of them even ignore win totals as being largely the result of circumstance beyond a pitcher's control.

Can you believe they would ignore “Win” totals? That’s craziness! And just because pitchers have no control over how many runs their own team scores. What silliness!

While I leave some room for statistical re-evaluation (and am on the verge of being convinced regarding Raines), I still see Blyleven as just short. I look at numbers, too, and while my numbers may be slightly more simplistic than WHIP, WAR or VORP, I think they tell a story of a pitcher who was extremely good, consistent and durable but not quite Cooperstown-worthy. Blyleven was dominant in a lot of at-bats (thus, the 3,701 strikeouts) and even a lot of games (60 shutouts). But he was never dominant for a decade, a half decade or even a full season.

In the aforementioned 1973, Blyleven led the league in shutouts with 9, and ERA+ with a 158. He threw 25 complete games with a 2.58 ERA. He struck out 258 batters while walking only 67 to lead the league in SO/BB. He finished 7th in Cy Young voting only because he “Lost” 17 games. Jim Palmer’s sparkling 22-9 record took home the award despite walking twice as many batters (in 30 fewer innings), and striking out 100 fewer batters. By the way, in 1973 Nolan Ryan, who finished 2nd in Cy Young voting (probably because he lost 16 games), struck out 383 batters.

From 1971 to 1981, Blyleven put up the following ERA+s: 126, 118, 158, 142, 129, 125, 151, 123, 109, 96, 127. He would put together another similar stretch in the 80s. He sure looks dominant to me. The case against Blyleven is solely based on “Wins” and “Losses”.

Also, WHIP isn't a complicated stat. It's (Walks+Hits)/Innings Pitched.

I think this is the worst paragraph in the entire column:

Only four times in 22 seasons did he receive Cy Young votes (he was third twice, fourth and seventh once), only twice did he make the All-Star team and only twice did he win more than 17 games. I tend not to vote for players who I see as great compilers rather than great players, which is why I don't see Lee Smith or Baines as Hall of Famers, either. Baines and Blyleven compiled similarly in some key areas, with Blyleven finishing with four percent short of 300 victories at 287, and Baines four percent short of 3,000 hits with 2,866. And actually, a case could be made that Baines had more greatness, as he made six All-Star teams, three times the number of Blyleven.

There is not a meaningful piece of information in this paragraph. During Blyleven’s career Cy Young voters were idiots. They were people like Jon Heyman. They focused on “Wins” above all else. Many still do, although the situation is improving. By using stats like Cy Young votes and All-Star votes, Heyman is just compounding the ignorance of the voting populace during Blyleven’s career. Allow me to demonstrate with a historically accurate recreation.

Heyman (1973) – He didn’t have enough wins, man. No Cy Young vote for you, Bert.

Heyman (1977) – 14-12? That guy doesn’t belong on an All-Star Team. Sorry Bert.

(By the way, in 1977 Bert led the league in WHIP (which didn’t exist yet, of course), and received no Cy Young votes and wasn't an All-Star . Not a one.)

Heyman (2010) – Blyleven doesn’t have enough “Wins” to start with, and he also doesn’t have enough All-Star or Cy Young votes! How could anyone vote for him for the Hall of Fame?

And then the comparison to Baines is just bizarre. So they’re both 4% short of achieving some arbitrary statistic, and one is a pitcher while the other is a hitter, so he’s equating hits and “Wins”. What? This is reasoning? This belongs on the Sports Illustrated website?

Some will say that Blyleven's career was equal to Hall of Famer Don Sutton's but I say it is just short of Sutton's. They both had big totals in other categories but Sutton wound up with 37 more victories, going over the magic 300 mark by 24.

Have you noticed how Heyman claims to not rely on statistics when making these decisions and then talks about nothing but “Wins”? Ah, that “magic” round 300 number.

Many stat people suggest wins are not important in evaluating careers.

We don’t just suggest it. We’ve proven it. We know it. Do you also believe that the stork brings babies? Or that the world was created in 7 days? Do you believe in the luminiferous ether too?

But until wins don't decide who's in the playoffs and who's out, who makes the World Series and who doesn't, I will continue to view them as important.

They absolutely do not do any of those things. You have things completely backward. Pitchers accumulate “wins” because their teams are good enough to make the playoffs or the World Series. To quote FJM, again, wins are:

2. A simply awful pitching statistic that should be swallowed up by the earth itself, personified, given ears, and forced to listen to a tape loop of Bermanisms for all of eternity. The reason being – and again, you know this, intuitively, even if you have never quite expressed it to yourself – if Carl Pavano gives up nineteen runs in five innings but the Yankees score 20 runs, and they hold on to win, and Pavano gets the win, is Pavano a good pitcher? No he is not. (This scenario is assuming he ever comes back and actually pitches, btw.) If Francisco Liriano throws 9 innings of no-hit ball, but gives up a run on four consecutive errors by Terry Tiffey and gets a loss, is Francisco Liriano a bad pitcher? No he is not. Wins stink to high heaven as a way to value pitchers because they are in very large part dependent on the actions of the other guys on the team.

A pitcher's goal for each game is to win the game, not to strikeout the most batters. And until that changes, I will count wins and losses. I also believe the truly great pitchers pitched to the scoreboard with the real goal in mind.

1. Strikeouts help you to win games.

2. You can only “pitch to the scoreboard” if your team actually scores runs for you, and really, only if they give you a pretty safe lead. A team like that will increase your win total.

3. Please stop saying “wins and losses.” Please.

Some will say Blyleven was handicapped by playing for a string of horrific teams. But his many teams combined for a record of slightly over .500. For the most part, they were mediocre. While his career mark of 287-250 is clearly better than his teams' overall record, it isn't that much better.

What’s his record compared to his team’s record in games in which he did not pitch?

Want to see some cool stats? From Keith Law on Twitter:

“Bert Blyleven was given Losses in 18 games where he allowed 1 or 0 ER. Jack Morris? Seven.”


“Jack Morris was given Wins in 25 games when he gave up 5+ ER. Bert Blyleven? Four.”


“seriously, if people are still looking at Win/Loss record, it's time to start covering competition dog grooming.”

I have to stop now, because if I read anymore I won’t be able to properly function as a human anymore, but the rest is just as mind-bendingly stupid. I’ll leave you with some of the reasons that Joe Posnanski will be voting for Blyleven.

1. He ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts.

2. He won 287 games -- 60 of those by shutout.

3. He won more 1-0 games than any pitcher the last 80 years.


Rubie Q said...

Paul is NBA Jam-level, "OH MY, HE'S ON FIRE" hot this week.

Eric said...

Easy on the seven days brother.

Magic numbers and subjective voting seem to be the key. 3000 hits? hall of fame. 300 wins? ditto.

Oh you were voted to an all star team? how many times?

Career longevity would be a better stat. At least some group of people thought you were good enough to offer a paycheck.

Gregor said...

Here's the thing: I've never even heard of Bert Blyleven before this HoF voting came up. But simply looking at stats you realize this guy was a HoF worthy pitcher.