Bill James on Bert Blyleven
Should Bert Blyleven be in the Hall of Fame? The main reason he's not is that he didn't win 300 games; his record was 287-250. However, even his critics will acknowledge that Blyleven's other stats are certainly HOF quality – 685 starts, 3701 strikeouts, and a 3.31 ERA.
So the question becomes: is Blyleven's W-L record his "fault"?
On his pay website, Bill James analyzes Blyleven's record quite thoroughly and entertainingly (using Retrosheet data). The Blyleven study is actually available in a free preview – go here and click on "Blyleven."
Bill argues, quite reasonably, that there are two reasons Blyleven might have lost a few wins off his record:
1. His teams might have given him poor run support;
2. He might have failed to "match the effort" of his teammates.
Number two means that, even though Blyleven pitched well, he might have saved his best outings for when it still wasn't good enough; giving up three runs when his team only scored two, for instance. If true, that would have cost him a bunch of wins, and, in some eyes, would be enough to keep him out of the hall.
Bill starts by looking at run support. Throughout the essay, he compares Blyleven to six other similar pitchers. Those others, like Blyleven, had long careers and ERAs ranging from 3.22 to 3.45.
It turns out that Blyleven had poor run support compared those other guys:
From here, let me tell you what I would have done. Then, I'll show you what Bill did, which is much more thorough.
Blyleven had 685 starts, and got about a tenth of a run less support than average. That's about 70 runs. That means that run support cost him about 7 wins, still not enough for 300. Of course, if he had had Fergie Jenkins' support, that would be 14 wins, which does take him over the 300 mark.
As for timing of runs in games, you can use Pythagoras for that. Blyleven's ERA wa 3.31; including unearned runs, his "RA" was 3.65.
A team that scores 4.19 runs per game while giving up 3.65 should have a winning percentage of .563 (using exponent 1.83). Blyleven had 537 decisions, so he should have gone 302-235: 15 games better than his actual record.
However, Blyleven pitched 7.25 innings per start, not nine. Since Bert was an above-average pitcher, the bullpen would have cost a few extra runs. Assuming Blyleven's relievers would have given up (say) 4.25 runs per 9 innings, that would have been about 80 additional runs over Blyleven's 3.65. That's 8 wins. So Blyleven was really only 7 wins worse than he "should have" been due to run timing.
So I'd conclude: run timing cost Blyleven 7 wins, and run support another 7.
Now, here's what Bill did. Actually, this is his main method; he has a couple of other methods, and some interesting observations (When given three runs of support, Don Sutton was 52-33 – Blyleven was only 29-48 !!!). You should definitely read Bill's study in its entirety, because I'm only going to describe one of his methods here.
Instead of resorting to Pythagoras, Bill looked at those six comparison pitchers, and figured out the records of their teams when they scored 0 runs of support, 1 run, 2 runs, and so on. He then counted how many times each of those scores happened in a Blyleven start, and computed an "expected" number of wins.
The expected record was 371.5-313.5. The actual record of Blyleven's teams was 364-321. That's 7.5 wins, almost exactly what the Pythagoras method found.
I like Bill's method better than the Pythagorean one because it doesn't just satisfy sabermetricians, but it's able to convince non-sabermetricians as well. To a columnist who is openly hostile to sabermetrics, Bill's method is one that can't be dismissed out of hand. At least not as easily.
And, by the way, for those of you who want to hold Blyleven responsible for his 7 missed "timing" wins, Bill writes,
"Suppose that Blyleven has a seven-game stretch during which he wins games 13-0 and 5-2, but then loses 3-2, 4-3, 3-2, 7-4 and 3-2. Those are the actual scores of Blyleven’s games from May 3 to June 4, 1977.
Blyleven was supported by 4.43 runs per game during that stretch and allowed 3.14, but he lost five of the seven games.
"One can look at that and say that Blyleven failed to match his efforts to the runs he had to work with—but why is that all Blyleven’s fault? Isn’t it equally true that his offense failed to match their efforts to Bert’s better games? It seems to me that it is.
"So why do we hold Blyleven wholly responsible for this? Wouldn’t it be equally logical, at least, to say that this was half Blyleven’s fault, and half his team’s fault?"
I never thought of it that way before, but, yeah, Bill, you're right.