Let's say this at the outset: I am absolutely delighted that Bert Blyleven was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame today. Bert had a very long and distinguished career and I am convinced that had he spent most of his career as, say, a Los Angeles Dodger or a New York Yankee, he would have won well over 300 games and would have been in the Hall years ago. So good for him. Congratulations are also in order for Roberto Alomar, who also was elected today.
Now, having said that, we need to say something else -- the standards for the Baseball Hall of Fame are getting nearly impossible to understand. Blyleven made it this year in large measure because of the support he has received over the years from the baseball stathead community. No sport attracts more geeky number-crunching than baseball and Blyleven's career stats have been sliced and diced in countless ways, many of which have been helpful in making Bert's case.
While I think numbers are very important, especially for benchmarking purposes, it's always very tricky to compare career numbers across different eras, a point that the premier stathead, Bill James, has always made. To provide an example, if you compare the career numbers of two third basemen not in the Hall, Ron Santo and Matt Williams, you might argue that Santo and Williams are similar players with similar worth. You would be wrong, though -- Santo was one of the best third basemen ever to play the game, while Williams was merely very good. In fact, the only third baseman I'd rank ahead of Santo are Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Mathews and (maybe) Brooks Robinson, although I've heard Pie Traynor was pretty good. But because Santo played the vast majority of his career in the pitching-rich 1960s and played for mostly rotten Chicago Cubs teams, his numbers aren't as impressive as they might have been if he had been born 10 years earlier or 10 years later. Nor did he get the publicity that Robinson got as a key contributor to the powerful Baltimore Orioles teams of that era. Meanwhile, no one thinks Matt Williams is a Hall of Fame player, except maybe the immediate members of Matt Williams's family.
And that's what makes it tough -- comparisons are very tricky. To use another example, I can think of two pitchers who were older than Bert Blyleven but were still contemporaries, who aren't even getting a sniff these days. One is Jim Kaat and the other is Tommy John. Blyleven won 287 games in a long and distinguished major league career. Kaat won 283 games. John won 288. I saw all three pitch and while there's no doubt that Blyleven was the most dominant pitcher of the group, especially when he was getting his curveball over, Kaat and John were both outstanding. Kaat was an innings eater, one of the best fielding pitchers in the history of the game and remarkably consistent. John came in as a power pitcher, famously wrecked his arm, then came back after being the pioneering recipient of what is now known as "Tommy John surgery" and became perhaps the most crafty lefty in baseball for nearly 15 years after losing his 1975 season. To understand the sort of pitcher that John was, the best current comparison is Jamie Moyer, who pitched in the major leagues last year at the age of 47.
So what is it that makes Blyleven better than Kaat or John? You could ask all 581 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America and chances are you'd get 581 different answers. Some might even argue that Kaat or John was better. But at no point did Kaat or John ever get that close to the 75% threshold for election during their 15-year eligibility period, so if either of these worthies is going to get the nod, it will have to be from the even more mercurial Veterans' Committee.
And then there's the matter of Jack Morris, who doesn't have great numbers but was universally regarded as the best starting pitcher of the 1980s and the man who provided one of the greatest pitching performances in World Series history in 1991. Morris is getting a little closer now in the balloting, but he's got a long way to go.
We aren't even touching the matter of the Steroid Era Sluggers. Yet. That's another post, although I would say this: I was very surprised to see Jeff Bagwell get less than 50% of the vote, as he has not been implicated as a steroid user. What the BBWAA did today in the voting will also have ramifications for two other sluggers of the era who are also not implicated, Frank Thomas and the still-active Jim Thome. But we'll come back to that.