The Origin of the Blyleven Narrative

Earlier this week, over at The Hardball Times, I took a look back at some 1980s newspapers to show that the whole “Jack Morris as Pitcher of the ‘80s” thing has been around at least since the winter of 1986, when Morris and a slew of other players were victims of collusion. It’s a narrative that has been around for nearly 25 years now and is quite possibly responsible for Morris’ increasing support for the Hall of Fame.

Bert Blyleven has been in a similar situation, with a certain narrative following him around for seemingly his entire career. Blyleven’s narrative, though, has been almost the exact opposite of Morris’: that Blyleven is a pitcher with ridiculous stuff who just never learned how to win games.

Digging around through the Sports Illustrated vault last night, it’s become clear that this narrative has followed Bert around for over 35 years, since he was a 23-year-old with 66 wins, 58 complete games, and over 850 strikeouts under his belt. Somehow all of this combined into an unimpressive package for baseball fans at the time. Perhaps it was Bert’s personality?

“Bert has a better curveball than Seaver,” says Hundley, “and his fastball may be a bit quicker, too.” But Blyleven is a copy without the original’s shades and textures; without his classical foundation. “Bert’s a thrower,” says Hundley. ” Seaver’s a pitcher.”

And:

Bert Blyleven is a mild, unobtrusive man who exudes not charm but stolidity.

Plus:

Blyleven’s pitching success is as unobtrusive as his character. He gels seven or eight strikeouts every game rather than 18 in a burst. He does not have a phenomenal ERA one year, a mediocre ERA the next. Blyleven’s have been merely excellent—and are improving (2.82 in ’71; 2.73 in ’72; 2.52 in ’73).

Although his own nature and his career have been understated, it has been to Blyleven’s advantage, allowing him to cultivate his craft in privacy.

Those are quotes from a May 1974 SI piece on Blyleven called “Glowing Within the Oyster”. The subtitle of the article is “A pearl of a pitcher, Bert Blyleven is fortunate to be encased in an inconspicuous shell; undisturbed, he can add luster to his skills.”

Let’s just be clear here. At the start of the 1974 pitcher, Blyleven was 23 years old with 66 wins, 58 complete games, 18 shutouts, and 845 strikeouts to his name. The only pitcher in history up to that point with more strikeouts by that age was Bob Feller. Only Feller, Smokey Joe Wood, Babe Ruth, and Christy Mathewson had more wins by that age; Wood & Walter Johnson were the only two pitchers with more shutouts and Blyleven was the first pitcher in 30 year (since Feller) to have as many complete games by that age.

And if we’re going by winning percentage – a big knock on Blyleven his entire career – then we should probably note that, at the start of his age 23 season, Walter Johnson was 57-65, for a .467 winning percentage (compared to Blyleven’s .521). Walter Johnson, of course, is quite possibly the greatest pitcher of all time.

(Click “Read More” to continue reading.)

The article, by Pat Jordan, tries to compare Blyleven to some of the more colorful fireballers of the time, most notably the young Vida Blue:

Blyleven pitched 325 innings at the same age, 22, at which Blue had pitched 312 amid public clamor that he was being overworked by the Oakland management. There was no such outcry over Blyleven’s work load, because his 20-17 record was considerably less flamboyant than Blue’s 24-8 in his first full year. Bert’s personality tended to discourage attention, not attract it. He did not have Blue’s flashing smile, quick wit, boyish innocence and exuberance—all of which had helped make Blue a sensation.

As good as Jordan makes Blyleven out to be – and comparing his stuff favorably to the likes of Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan can only be a good thing – he can’t let the last word be all that positive. Here’s how he finishes the piece:

“I’ve seen a lot of great arms who never succeeded like they should have,” says Davey Johnson of the Atlanta Braves. “Bert had one of the best I faced when I was with the Orioles. But then he was more concerned with how hard he threw and how much his curveball broke than anything else. He didn’t consistently throw to spots. I never dreaded facing him. I would wait for him to make a mistake and sooner or later he would.”

Despite the mistakes he still makes, Blyleven has such overpowering stuff that he is one of the very finest pitchers in the game. Heaven help the batters if he ever becomes perfect.

Davey Johnson was a four-time All-Star by 1974, but he wasn’t exactly Willie Mays (or even Dick Allen). His track record against Blyleven, for the record, was four hits in ten at-bats, including a double, a home run, one walk and three strikeouts.

Two years later, in June 1976, Blyleven found himself traded to the Rangers after getting in a bit of a spat with Minnesota management over his salary. Pat Jordan again wrote an SI article about him. The descriptions had not changed. Blyleven continued to be described as a pitcher with “stuff” who should have a better record. There’s some attempt to explain it away:

The fact is, as Blyleven candidly admits, he has a low distraction threshold. Take another recent game against the Angels. In the first inning Blyleven stepped off the mound and reached down for the resin bag. He needed the resin bag less than he did a moment of solitary concentration. He had two outs, a runner on second and Bobby Bonds at bat. The resin bag felt strange in his hand. He tossed it away. He stared at Bonds and began his motion. Bonds lined a curve-ball to center to score the runner.

Blyleven’s tendency to be “distracted” is then discussed for another three paragraphs, before we get this quote from Bobby Bonds:

“Bert’s got the stuff of a 20-game winner,” said Bonds. “He is a 20-game winner whether he wins 20 games or not.”

Which is quickly followed by:

So far Blyleven has won 20 only once, in 1973, when he lost 17. He has always hovered around .500: 10-9, 16-15, 17-17 twice. This year he is 4-6, with a 2.97 ERA. Being close to his 100th win is an unusual accomplishment for a 25-year-old, but less than satisfactory for this 218-pounder, considering his stuff.

By the start of Blyleven’s 1976 season, he owned a career record of 95-85, a .528 winning percentage. The only pitchers in history with more wins by that age were Mathewson, Johnson, Feller, and Wood. The Big Train had upped his winning percentage to .561 by that point, though. I suppose that’s enough to throw Blyleven to the curb then. (Or not.)

California manager Dick Williams joins in the fray:

If Blyleven’s parts have seemed greater than the whole, he attributes it to his struggles with a mediocre team. But as Dick Williams, the manager of the Angels, says, “I’ve seen a lot of pitchers who never had Blyleven’s stuff win 20 games with teams a lot worse. Some pitchers pitch just good enough to win, whether it’s 1-0 or 9-8, and others always seem to pitch just good enough to lose.”

[Williams] says Blyleven throws too many curves. Any hitter stands a better chance of connecting with a curveball if he sees it 10 or 12 times a game instead of six or seven. If Blyleven would throw more fastballs or a greater variety of pitches, his good stuff would be even better.

And even when Blyleven does something right, he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt:

In that win over the Angels, for instance, whenever Blyleven was in a jam in the later innings he simply threw seven or eight curveballs in a row. Since the curve was exceptional that night, he got out of trouble. On another night, with lesser stuff, he might have been beat.

The article ends with two quotes: one from Jim Palmer, saying “There’s no telling how good a pitcher Blyleven will become when he learns how to pitch.” The other was from Blyleven’s Minnesota manager Gene Mauch:

Gene Mauch sums up Blyleven’s problems by saying, “It’s like a baseball player playing golf for the first time. Say he’s faced with a 10-foot putt. He concentrates, tries to concentrate anyway, and then misses it. Afterward he says he lost his concentration. Well, he didn’t. He was concentrating, but he just didn’t know what to concentrate on.

I know I just spent way too much time analyzing and blockquoting two articles from 35-year-old magazines written by one author. Who knows if what Pat Jordan had to say was something the general public cared about, or if it was even indicative of the rest of the country at the time. I understand that.

But Sports Illustrated was a major publication at the time, especially for a country that didn’t really have a national view of the baseball world. If, in two years of Blyleven’s prime, the only two articles about him in that publication painted a picture of a talented player who didn’t know how to get the job done, then that clearly did a disservice to the man. There were no other national voices around to change that perception. Considering that we hear the same thing some 35-years later, as he (finally) sits on the verge of Cooperstown, I think it’s safe to say that the Blyleven narrative as espoused by Pat Jordan and others of his era had a lasting impact. When they finally announce Bert’s name next Wednesday, it’ll be a justice long-due – and no thanks to the 1970s era Sports Illustrated.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.

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