A funny thing happened to former Minnesota Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven’s Hall of Fame credentials during what unfortunately has become known as baseball’s Steroid Era.
They got more impressive.
Steroids, human-growth hormone and other performance-enhancing substances have fueled skepticism of players’ statistics over the past 15 or 20 years as those numbers eclipsed, even dwarfed, some of the game’s long-accepted standards.
Sixty home runs in a season? Bah, child’s play! Or 755 in a career? Second place, bub. A home run every 8.5 at-bats in a season? That record (Babe Ruth, 1920) stood for 76 years until Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire topped it a total of five times between 1996 and 2004.
Pitching numbers, though, haven’t felt the same impact. In fact, while hitters’ stats from the pre-Steroid Era might look a little puny these days, those of the game’s best hurlers appear more imposing, maybe even unreachable. Excluding Roger Clemens from the discussion, anyway.
Juiced hitters’ success hurt pitchers’ stats
There are two solid reasons for this. First, juiced hitters boosted their numbers at the expense of their mound contemporaries; all those long balls goosed earned-run averages, drove starters out of games and weigh heavily in the pitching stats. Second, the game already was changing from a century’s worth of relative iron men — four-man rotations, tons of complete games and relievers who routinely pitched two or more innings — to a couple of decades of strict pitch counts and three-out closers.
That has brought deflation to career totals, which makes some of Blyleven’s stats (60 shutouts, 3,701 strikeouts) more striking than they already were. Even the Twins righthander’s 287 victories — 13 short of near-automatic election — soon might look dominant if the Hall’s unofficial threshold comes down to 250 for the generation after Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and (maybe) Clemens.
“I know I have Hall of Fame numbers,” Blyleven told me by phone last week from Fort Myers, Fla. If all goes well, Blyleven will get a phone call in early January from the Baseball Writers Association of America, giving him the good news that he finally has been invited to Cooperstown. If not, he will get the call a little earlier on announcement day, telling him he has fallen short. For the 11th time.
“It took Bruce Sutter 13 years. Some players, for some reason, it’s a waiting game,” said Blyleven, the Twins broadcaster who began his career in Minnesota and spent all or parts of 11 seasons here. “I know I wanted my dad to be there [for an induction ceremony], and he passed away about four years ago. After a while, you take it for what it is.”
Blyleven’s always gotten my vote
While Blyleven agreed to write in September the foreword to a Twins book I wrote for publication this spring, he had no knowledge that I have voted for him every year he has been eligible. Those 60 shutouts, ninth-most in history, are what get me; there are nothing but Hall of Famers in the eight spots ahead of him and the next 13 after him.
From those who do not vote for him, most focus on his .534 winning percentage (tied for 444th best in history), his lone season as a 20-game winner and his lack of Cy Young awards. But the Cy Young trophy in Blyleven’s league, during his career, was won 12 times by seven eventual Hall of Fame pitchers (Gaylord Perry, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Steve Carlton, Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley) and one (Clemens) who either earned or cheated his way to Hall-worthy numbers. That cut his chances by more than half.
Then there’s this: Blyleven was 5-1 with a 2.47 earned run average in the postseason, twice winning World Series rings. He was 65-4 when giving up four hits or fewer. And only one pitcher in modern history (Nolan Ryan) ranks higher than Blyleven in victories and strikeouts and shutouts. Blyleven’s lack of run support, especially early in his career, hurt too. Consider that, in his 32 defeats in 1971 and 1972, the Twins scored a total of 42 runs.
“Rod Carew himself said he didn’t understand it,” Blyleven said. “I know there were times I would sit on the bench, I’m pitching the next day, and the Twins would score six, seven runs. Then I’d pitch and we’d score one or two. Next day, it’s six or seven again. I’d look down the bench and say, ‘What, you don’t like me?'”
At this point, Blyleven needs 75 percent of Hall voters to like him. He had 53.3 percent two years ago before slipping to 47.7 percent last December. But his name gets an X on my ballot, along with Goose Gossage (intimidating and pioneering closer), Andre Dawson (five tools, 400 HR/300 steals) and Jack Morris (best starter in ’80s, three rings/three teams).
Just short, in my view: Tim Raines (unique player but stolen bases are only “milestone”), Jim Rice (big fade from age 34, hit 40 points better at Fenway than on road) and Lee Smith (inflated saves total, no postseason success).