Let’s just get it over with and rename the Baseball Hall of Fame the Hall of Longevity. Because longevity is more important in Hall of Fame voting than a person’s fame or achievements.
I’ll start by saying that I think Bert Blyleven, who was elected today, probably belongs in the Hall of Fame. He was a great pitcher with one of the best curveballs of his era. He had one of the best Chris Berman nicknames (Bert “Be Home” Blyleven). I don’t fault the Baseball Writers Association of America for voting him in. This makes more sense than many of the decisions by that inconsistent and inexplicable group. Blyleven was one of the dozen or so best pitchers of his time. But the only way that he belongs in the Hall of Fame before Ron Guidry is if longevity is the most important consideration. In every other consideration, Guidry was at least a comparable pitcher and in many respects, he was far superior. He was one of the two best pitchers of his time (admittedly a shorter time, fewer pitchers to overlap with).
I earlier compared Guidry to Dodger Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. I’ll take a different approach to comparing Guidry with Blyleven. We’ll give Blyleven the longevity, by a long shot. He broke into the Twins’ starting rotation at age 19 and played till he was 41. So he got a lot of wins and strikeouts, the two most popular yardsticks for measuring great pitchers.
Guidry took a while to make it to the major leagues as a reliever and didn’t become a starter until he was 26. And when injuries caused a decline in his performance, he retired at age 37, rather than try to come back and add some mediocre 8-win or 12-win seasons at the end of his career. But over a nine-year stretch, Guidry was hands-down the best pitcher in the American League and second only to Steve Carlton, a first-ballot Hall of Famer even though he was a jerk (and you know how baseball writers hate a player who doesn’t suck up to them).
The comparison of dominant seasons is not even close. A good measure of a dominant pitcher is a guy who wins 20 or more games in a season and loses fewer than 10. Even on a championship team, that pitcher has a better winning percentage than his team. Guidry did it three times. Blyleven never did it. Well, OK, that’s kind of an unfair comparison because Blyleven only won 20 games once (more on that shortly). Let’s cut him some slack and count times that he won 15 games or more and lost fewer than 10. He gets two there (and Guidry picks up two, so he still leads 5-2).
Blyleven never led the league in wins; Guidry led twice. In Blyleven’s only 20-win season, 1973, he was seventh in the league in wins, one of a dozen 20-game winners in the A.L. alone. Guidry, on the other hand, won 25 in a year when the runner-up won 22 and won 22 in a season with only one other 20-game winner.
Blyleven never led the league in winning percentage. Guidry led twice, with the No. 8 all-time mark of .893 in 1978. In 22 seasons, Blyleven had six seasons with a winning percentage at .600 or above. In 14 seasons (12 as a starter), Guidry had eight seasons better than .600, seven of them in a row (here’s how good that is: Greg Maddux never had seven seasons in a row above .600). Guidry’s career winning percentage was more than 100 points higher than Blyleven’s, .651 (24th all-time) to .534. Guidry had a losing record only once in a season that he was healthy enough to start 20 games; Blyleven had eight.
By any measure except longevity, Guidry blew Blyleven away in the pitcher’s most important job: winning games. But let’s concede that Guidry played on better teams than Blyleven, so maybe wins and winning percentage aren’t the best measures of his greatness (or pretty-goodness). How about ERA? Blyleven never led the league in ERA. Guidry led the league twice. His 1.74 in 1978 was the lowest ERA in the American League for a 32-year stretch. Their career ERA’s were similar, a slight edge to Guidry, 3.29 to 3.31. I won’t go into details, but he has a similar edge in WHIP, walks and hits per inning pitched.
Strikeouts are a big part of Blyleven’s Hall of Fame credentials. Of course, his career total, 3,701, is large because he pitched for so long. But he only led the league in strikeouts once (Guidry’s best was second). He had seven 200-strikeout seasons, to only two for Guidry. Their best seasons, 258 for Blyleven and 248 for Guidry, were comparable. Guidry had his amazing 18-strikeout game on June 17, 1978. For their careers, they had nearly identical ratios of strikeouts per nine innings (both 6.7) and strikeouts-to-walks (Guidry 2.81, Blyleven 2.80). Blyleven might have a slight edge here, but except for longevity, they were comparable strikeout pitchers.
Was Blyleven considered a great pitcher by the writers and/or managers of his day? Maybe a greatness they perceived wasn’t measured well by statistics. Not really. American League managers named him to only two All-Star teams 22 seasons, compared to four for Guidry. Guidry won a Cy Young Award and finished second once (with better statistics than the winner, Bret Saberhagen, who pitched in a pitchers’ park for a world champion), third once and four more times in the top seven. The closest Blyleven came was two third-place finishes. He made the top seven four times.
In various miscellaneous measures, Guidry has the edge: He never led the league in homers allowed and never gave up more than 28; Blyleven led the league twice, giving up 50 in 1986 and 46 in 1987. Guidry won five Gold Gloves; Blyleven never one a Gold Glove. In the World Series, Guidry was 3-1 with a 1.69 ERA; Blyleven was 2-1, 2.35. (They both were good in the playoffs, but Blyleven had a slight edge there.) In other miscellaneous ways, they were comparable: each led the league once in complete games; each had a best season of nine shutouts.
One of the starkest comparisons you can make is to compare best year vs. best year, second-best vs. second-best and so on. Pretty soon you can weed out the pitcher whose case rests on one or two spectacular years and give credit to the pitcher who was consistently good.
First year: No contest, Guidry’s 25-3, 1.65 Cy Young year in 1978 blows away Blyleven’s best, 19-7, 2.87 in 1984.
Second year: Again, Guidry’s 22-6, year in 1985 easily beats Blyleven’s 17-5 season in 1989.
Third year: Guidry goes 21-9 in 1983, way better than Blyleven’s 20-17 in 1973.
Fourth year: Guidry 18-8 with league-leading 2.78 ERA, Blyleven 15-10, 3.00 in 1975. Again, a big edge for Guidry.
Fifth year: Guidry still way ahead at 16-7, 2.82, 1977; Blyleven 12-5, 3.60.
Sixth year: Guidry clearly ahead but getting closer, 11-5, 2.75; Blyleven 11-7, 2.88, both in strike-shortened 1981.
Seventh year: finally a toss-up, Guidry 14-8, 3.81, 1982; Blyleven 14-12, 2.72, 1977.
Eighth year: again very close, but Guidry probably leads, 17-10 (note that this is the first Guidry year with double-digit losses), 3.56; Blyleven, 14-10, 3.03 , 1986.
Through the best eight years of their career, Guidry is way ahead. From here, Blyleven is clearly better. Guidry’s only other nearly full years were 10-11 and 9-12. Blyleven had seven seasons comparable to or better than those years. But really, are we deciding Hall of Famers based on seasons like 17-17, 15-12 and 16-15?
Guidry’s career fell within Blyleven’s. So compare them head to head those years: Guidry wins ’77-’83 (usually big, but all those years were decisive). Blyleven had a big advantage in ’84. Guidry was way ahead in 1985. Blyleven was better in 1986 and the next two years Guidry started just 17 and 10 games. In the 10 years they both were in their prime, Guidry was way better for eight of them.
For the nine-year stretch from 1977 to 1985, only Carlton was Guidry’s equal. Dennis Leonard and Tommy John (who also belongs in the Hall of Fame ahead of Blyleven) also had three 20-win seasons, but still don’t match Guidry’s performance during that time. Other Hall of Famers (Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Ferguson Jenkins) were still in their primes and pitching well, but not as well as Guidry.
During Blyleven’s career, all of those Hall of Famers overlapped heavily with his career and were clearly better than him. Also Catfish Hunter. I’m not counting pitchers such as Bob Gibson, Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens, whose prime years barely overlapped with Blyleven. I’m not counting non-Hall of Famers who arguably were comparable to or better than Blyleven, such as Vida Blue, Dwight Gooden and Jack Morris. And we’ll set aside Guidry and John, since I’ve dealt separately with them. But the best argument you can make for Blyleven is that he was about the 10th best pitcher of his era.
Guidry’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame shows how biased the baseball writers are in favor of longevity and against Yankees. But congratulations to Bert Blyleven.