Monday, July 09, 2007

Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris and the Baseball Hall of Fame: When Being Great Isn’t Good Enough

Baseball broadcaster Tim McCarver’s syndicated Sunday TV program featured two very interesting guests last night: Bert Blyleven (left) and Jack Morris (right). While interviewing these two genial, articulate former pitching greats, McCarver also none too slyly inserted comments regarding his own belief that both fellows belonged in the Hall of Fame. So far, both have been snubbed by Cooperstown, despite their compelling statistics, their high-profile, lengthy careers and their World Series rings.

It’s a bummer being on the bubble. It’s also impossible to divine a formula whereby HOF admittance might be guaranteed. They talk of benchmark statistics—300 wins, 500 home runs, 3,000 hits—but there are so many examples of inductees without these numbers that it makes you wonder.

This is particularly true where pitchers are concerned. Sometimes benchmark stats get you in plain and simple (Nolan Ryan, Warren Spahn). Sometimes they’re irrelevant simply because a player’s greatness can’t be disputed no matter what the raw numbers say (Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson). And sometimes the numbers appear to be simply the by-product of good health and a career based more on longevity than flat-out brilliance (Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton).

Alas, guys like Blyleven and Morris fall into that murky no-man’s land. Then there’s something to be said for playing in New York or Los Angeles. Talk about your media-skewing. There is no question that if Morris or Blyleven had played for the Yankees or the Dodgers, they’d have been voted in already. For example, no one disputes that the late Catfish Hunter was a great pitcher, but his 224 career wins place him 66th on the all-time list, well behind Blyleven and Morris. If Hunter had never put in those final years with the Yankees (1975-79), he might still be on the bubble despite his considerable earlier success with the Athletics. The reason? He didn’t have the numbers.

Ditto the late Don Drysdale. You tell me: With 209 career wins, a career winning percentage of .557, only two 20-win seasons, and other years with won-loss records of 12-13, 15-14, 18-16 and 13-16 (twice), would Drysdale be in the Hall if he had spent his career in, say, Seattle? Drysdale had talent for sure. But the high-profile L.A. exposure—he started six games in five World Series for the Dodgers—and his association with the comet-like Koufax boosted his public relations quotient way beyond what the raw data show.

It would be heresy, of course, to suggest that Ryan doesn’t belong in the Hall. The numbers are there: 324 wins, 5,714 strikeouts, seven no-hitters. Yet it might be argued that this is the resume of a gifted statistical freak, compiled over the course of a 27-year career. Look more closely at the numbers: a .526 winning percentage, including seasons of 7-11, 10-14, 19-16 (twice), 17-18, 10-13, 11-10, 12-11 (twice), 10-12, 8-16. Ryan won 20 games exactly twice (and he lost 16 games both of those seasons). He won only one World Series ring, as a middle-relief guy early in his career in 1969 with the Miracle Mets. We’re basically talking here about a .500 pitcher with virtually no impact at all on post-season play. Even in his peak years, Ryan was more Sam McDowell than Christy Mathewson. Morris’ greater impact in their own overlapping time far outstrips Ryan’s.

So let’s take a look at the career numbers of selected Hall of Fame pitchers inducted since 1973 and see how Blyleven and Morris stack up. We’ll include the benchmark stats and a few others that might tell a deeper story about where greatness lies. Hall of Famers are in bold. [This is a random sampling of inductees. Others from the period not included are Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Juan Marichal. Relief pitchers are not included in the sample.]

Breakdown: Years / Wins / Win% / 20-Win Seasons / SO / ERA / SHO / WS Rings-Wins

Nolan Ryan—27 / 324 / .526 / 2 / 5,714 / 3.19 / 61 / 1-0

Gaylord Perry—22 / 314 / .542 / 5 / 3,534 / 3.11 / 53 / 0-0

Phil Niekro—24 / 318 / .537 / 3 / 3,342 / 3.35 / 45 / 0-0

Jim Bunning—17 / 224 / .549 / 1 / 2,855 / 3.27 / 40 / 0-0

Catfish Hunter—15 / 224 / .574 / 5 / 2,012 / 3.26 / 42 / 5-5

Whitey Ford—16 / 236 / .690 / 2 / 1,956 / 2.75 / 45 / 6-10

Don Drysdale—14 / 209 / .557 / 2 / 2,486 / 2.95 / 49 / 3-3

Sandy Koufax—12 / 165 / .655 / 3 / 2,396 / 2.76 / 40 / 3-4

Bob Gibson—17 / 251 / .591 / 5 / 3,117 / 2.91 / 56 / 2-7

Warren Spahn—21 / 363 / .597 / 13 / 2,583 / 3.09 / 63 / 1-4

Don Sutton—23 / 324 / .559 / 1 / 3,574 / 3.26 / 58 / 0-2

Jack Morris—18 / 254 / .577 / 3 / 2,478 / 3.90 / 28 / 3-4

Bert Blyleven—22 / 287 / .534 / 1 / 3,701 / 3.31 / 60 / 2-2

Statistics can tell different stories. Based on the pure benchmark of wins, Hunter, Ford, Drysdale, Gibson, Bunning and Koufax don’t make the Hall. Based on post-season impact, Ryan, Bunning, Perry and Niekro are virtual ciphers. Only Ryan has more strikeouts than Blyleven, and Blyleven has more World Series rings than Ryan, Perry, Niekro, Bunning and Sutton combined. Only Ford and Hunter have more World Series rings than Morris, and only Spahn, Koufax, Ford and Gibson have higher winning percentages.

These are the tough gray areas that form the boundary between immortality and mere greatness. Getting that bi-coastal media boost sure helps you when you’re on the bubble. Failing that, you’ve got to have the obvious numbers, and Blyleven and Morris may go begging for a long time at the Hall of Fame’s induction line.

With his wins, strikeouts and shutouts, Blyleven looks like the riper candidate based on pure talent, but Morris was a high-impact player in his time, and his performances in the 1984 and 1991 World Series are pretty legendary. Yet it remains to be seen if HOF voters would ever go for Morris with his 3.90 career ERA. No one’s been inducted in the modern era with anything higher than a 3.35.

It took Bunning 25 years to get inducted after his career closed in 1971, courtesy of a Veterans Committee that remembered him fondly. He had his moments of greatness, winning 100 games in each league and tossing two no-hitters (one a perfect game). Still, those 224 wins must’ve looked pretty “lite” when he originally came up for consideration. And he never once played in a post-season game, toiling mostly for also-ran Tigers and Phillies teams his entire career.

Things won’t get any easier for Blyleven and Morris if the Hall doesn’t come calling soon. The next decade promises that a bevy of huge pitching stars with unassailable credentials will start to be eligible for induction. Among that list are Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling.

Sometimes quality counts over quantity. And sometimes quantity’s all you need. But pitching in either New York or L.A. can never hurt a guy’s chance at immortality.

As for me, I'm on the bubble too. Morris and Blyleven were great talents. But impact on the game has to be a deciding factor where the Hall is concerned. Frankly, I don't think Drysdale deserves the honor. Nor Bunning, Niekro and Sutton. And maybe not Perry, either. There Koufax sits with his puny 165 wins, but you'd never think to exclude him. On that basis, Morris should go in. Blyleven remains a close call, which could mean a much longer wait.

Modern Era Hall of Fame Pitchers Who Have Thrown No-Hitters:

Nolan Ryan (7), Sandy Koufax (4), Jim Bunning (2), Warren Spahn (2), Juan Marichal, Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver

Note: Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven have also each pitched a no-hitter.

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