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Bert Blyleven: As Dominating as Sandy Koufax

Yes, this is another article pushing Blyleven for the Hall of Fame. Given his career accomplishments, like 287 wins and over 3,000 strikeouts, if he were to have had a dominating period in his career as good as, say, Sandy Koufax's run from 1962-66, that should pretty much make him a lock. I started thinking about this when Rich Lederer, of the Baseball Analysts site, had a quote from Buster Olney which, in part, said that Blyleven was ". . . never a dominant presence for a period of at least a few years." I think that is wrong. In fact, Blyleven's best five-year stretch is as good as Koufax's in some ways.

Let's start with a stat called RSAA or Runs saved against average. "It's the amount of runs that a pitcher saved vs. what an average pitcher would have allowed," as explained in the Lee Sinins Complete Baseball Encyclopedia. It is also adjusted for park effects. Here is the top 10 from 1973-77:

1    Bert Blyleven               181  
2    Jim Palmer                  159  
3    Tom Seaver                  145  
4    Phil Niekro                 123  
5    Gaylord Perry               108  
6    Andy Messersmith            107  
7    John Hiller                  99  
8    Frank Tanana                 96  
9    Luis Tiant                   91  
10   Steve Carlton                81  

Blyleven saved 22 more runs than his nearest competitor, Palmer, who is in the Hall of Fame and won 3 Cy Young awards in this time. Blyleven beat out several other Hall of Famers to be the best run preventer in this period. Many of them were in their primes (or close to it). Seaver won 2 Cy Young awards in this period. Carlton just one, but he also won in 1972. Perry was between awards, winning in 1972 and 1978. Niekro is also in the Hall (and his best 5 year RSAA stretch was from 1974-78, nearly matching the period in question). Nolan Ryan did not even make the top 10 and this was a period when he was setting strikeout records and pitching 4 no hitters.

All these good pitchers at or near their peaks and Blyleven topped them all. That seems pretty dominating. How did Koufax do? Here are the leaders in RSAA from 1962-66:

1    Sandy Koufax                194  
2    Juan Marichal               172  
3    Bob Gibson                  131  
T4   Jim Bunning                 114  
T4   Jim Maloney                 114  
6    Whitey Ford                  99  
7    Jim Kaat                     88  
8    Hoyt Wilhelm                 87  
9    Dean Chance                  86  
10   Don Drysdale                 84  

Interesting that Koufax is exactly the same number of runs ahead of the number 2 guy as Blyleven was. Now, of course, Koufax saved more runs than Blyleven. But only 2.6 more per season. Another way to see how close they are is to see how many runs each would allow per nine innings assuming some average. Say the average pitcher allows 4. To find out how many Koufax would allow per 9 IP, we divide his 194 RSAA by his 1,377 IP to get .14. That times 9 is about 1.27. Then subtracting that from 4 gives us 2.73. That is how many runs Koufax would allow per 9 IP. Doing the same thing for Blyleven, who had 1,414 IP, we get 2.85 runs allowed per 9 IP. Not too much higher than for Koufax.

It is also interesting to note that Blyleven's best year was 1973 when he pitched 325 innings with an RSAA of 53. Koufax's best year was 1966 with 323 IP and an RSAA of 58. Those look like very comparable seasons.

Of course, a pitcher gets help from his fielders in preventing runs. So it's worthwhile to look at stats that are controlled more by the pitcher. Let's start with strikeout-to-walk ratio. Below are the leaders in strikeout-to-walk ratio from 1962-66, relative to the league average. The minimum number of IP is 810.

1    Sandy Koufax                225    
2    Jim Bunning                 191    
3    Juan Marichal               186    
4    Don Drysdale                176    
5    Turk Farrell                168    
6    Bill Monbouquette           167    
7    Ralph Terry                 163    
8    Whitey Ford                 160    
9    Jim Kaat                    155    
10   Ken Johnson                 149    

The 225 for Koufax means his ratio was 2.25 times the league average. His ratio was 4.57 and the league average was 2.03. Now for 1973-77

1    Ferguson Jenkins            221
2    Frank Tanana                214  
3    Bert Blyleven               202  
4    Tom Seaver                  198  
5    Gaylord Perry               172  
6    Mickey Lolich               165  
7    Jon Matlack                 163    
8    Don Sutton                  161    
9    Luis Tiant                  150    
10   Rick Reuschel               148

Blyleven is not first, but only 2 pitchers are ahead of him and one, Jenkins, is in the Hall of Fame. Sutton joins the list of Hall of Famers that Blyleven bested in this period (Sutton was aged 28-32). Now Koufax scores about 11% better than Blyleven on this measure, but that is not a huge difference, and, as I show later, if we only look at road games, the two pitchers are just about even.

Another stat that pitchers have more control over is HRs. Below are the leaders in HRs allowed relative to the league average from 1962-66, again, with an 810 IP minimum.

1    Bob Veale                   246      
2    Dean Chance                 201      
3    Steve Barber                158      
4    Gary Peters                 153      
5    Joe Horlen                  143      
6    Claude Osteen               142      
7    Sandy Koufax                139      
8    Bob Friend                  133      
9    Al Downing                  129    
10   Billy O'Dell                128

The 246 for Veale comes from the fact that he allowed 34 HRs while the average pitcher would have allowed 84. Then the inverse of 34/84 (about .405) is taken to get about 2.46 which is converted to 246. Koufax allowed 89 while the average pitcher in the same number of IP would have allowed 124. The 139 means he gave up 39% fewer HRs than the average pitcher would have.

Now for 1973-77

1    Nolan Ryan                  162        
2    J.R. Richard                153        
3    Al Fitzmorris               151      
4    Steve Rogers                144      
5    Ed Figueroa                 141      
6    Bill Singer                 135      
7    Carl Morton                 135      
8    Bert Blyleven               133        
9    Jim Palmer                  130        
10   Jerry Reuss                 126    

Blyleven allowed 88 HRs while the average pitcher would have allowed 117. Notice how close Koufax and Blyleven are (although, as I explain below, Koufax pitched in Dodger Stadium, which was a very tough park to hit HRs in). Notice that only one Hall of Famer is ahead of Blyleven and that none of the pitchers who are ahead of him here were ahead of him in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

So from 1973-77, Blyleven was 3rd in strikeout-to-walk ratio, 8th in HRs allowed and 1st in preventing runs. Blyleven's ranks rival Koufax's, which were 1st, 7th and 1st, respectively. He finished ahead of many Hall of Famers who were at or near their peak in these categories. That sounds pretty dominating.

There is one more thing to do. It is a little more technical and it has to do with park effects. The HR park factors for Dodger Stadium in these years were 50, 63, 62, 49 and 70. The 50 means that the number of HRs hit in Dodger home games was 50% of the number hit in Dodger road games. 70 means it was 70%. Blyleven's HR park factors 97, 105, 161, 106, and 109. 105, for example, means his home park allowed 5% more HRs (the next to last year, 1976, is actually a weighted average of the Twins park and the Rangers park since he was traded). It should be fairly clear that Koufax gets a huge advantage here. His park was tough on HR hitters while Blyleven's parks tended to make it a little easier for HR hitters. The HR park factors are from the STATS, INC All-Time BASEBALL SOURCEBOOK

Another way to look at this is to just use the data from road games. From 1962-66, Koufax allowed HRs to 2.05% of the batters he faced in road games while the league average in this time was 2.13% (that is actually an average of each year's league HR frequency weighted by how many batters Koufax faced each year). So Koufax's rate was about 96.3% of the league average. Doing the same thing for Blyleven, his road HR% was about 1.32% while the league average was 1.93%. So his rate was only about 68% of the league average. It sure looks like Blyleven was better at preventing HRs than Koufax was. Road data was from Retrosheet.

There could be a problem with this since we are only looking at about half of each guy's IP. We don't really know for sure if it is not biased against one of them. But even so, each guy pitched well over 600 innings in road games. We can't conclude anything for sure from this, but it is part of the puzzle. And if Koufax was supposed to be so great back then, being as good as him or better in some stat is pretty impressive.

In strikeout-to-walk ratio, Koufax's was 3.97 in road games while the league average was 2.04. Koufax was 1.95 times the league average. Blyleven's strikeout-to-walk ratio in road games was 3.04 while the league average was 1.49. He was 2.04 times the league average. He and Koufax seem about equal in strikeout-to-walk ratio.