Upon reading Jon Heyman’s new year’s resolution for Bert Blyleven, where he claimed that Blyleven was not in the same category of Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton, I decided to do a little investigating. The statement when applied to Seaver holds up. Tom Seaver was in many ways better than Blyleven. However, when comparing Blyleven to Carlton, I’m not so sure who was the better pitcher.
As a disclaimer, I wasn’t around to see these guys pitch in their primes, so this is based solely on statistics. Which, can be good, because statistics reflect what actually happened, without any bias. But I fully realize that Carlton is considered by many to be one of the best pitchers ever, as evidenced by his almost unanimous induction into the Hall of Fame on his first try.
So here it goes, I’ll lay my argument out based on some traditional stats, non-traditional stats, postseason stats, and impact on the game (awards, all star games, etc.):
Carlton: 329-244, 5217.2 IP, 3.22 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 254 CG, 55 SHO
Blyleven: 287-250, 4970.0 IP, 3.31 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 242 CG, 60 SHO
Carlton and Blyleven pitched most of their careers at the same time and had eerily similar numbers, especially when you consider the number of innings they pitched. They basically trade off each of the major traditional stats: Carlton had a better ERA, but Blyleven had a better WHIP. Carlton struck out more guys, but Blyleven walked less. Carlton had more complete games, but Blyleven had more shutouts. I guess the tiebreaker is wins, and I think it’s pretty safe to say if Blyleven had 13 more wins, he would have been a first ballot hall of famer like Carlton.
Whether you believe in them or not, “non-traditional” stats are here to stay in baseball. I, for one, don’t understand why many people refuse to let the two types of analyses co-exist, but such is life. Anyway, Blyleven has the edge over Carlton in this category. According to baseball-reference.com, Blyleven has a career WAR of 90.1, while Carlton (who had 24 more starts) is at 84.4. The other stat I looked at was ERA+. Blyleven weighed in at 118 for his career, where Carlton was at 115.
This is a favorite for many in arguments for who was a better player. Who was able to rise to the occasion?
Carlton: 6-6, 99.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, 1 CG, 0 SHO
Blyleven: 5-1, 47.1 IP, 2.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 1 CG, 0 SHO
Blyleven was clearly the better statistical postseason pitcher, and for those who dig wins, you have to be impressed with him having only 1 less win than Carlton, despite pitching half as many innings.
Another favorite argument is what impact the player had on the game while he was playing. And many (right or wrong), base this on postseason awards and all-star appearances. This one is a slam dunk for Carlton who racked up 10 all-star appearances, 4 Cy Youngs (and 2 top four finishes), and finished 5th in the MVP voting three times, 9th two times, and 15th once. Blyleven on the other hand, had only 2 all-star appearances, finished 7th or better in the Cy Young four times (never higher than 3rd), and never finished better than 13th in MVP voting.
But rather than this being proof that Carlton was hands down better than Blyleven, it’s more an indictment on the farce that is award voting. Let’s take a look at their numbers between 1970 and 1982. I picked 1970 because it was the start of Blyleven’s career and 1982 because it was the last year that Carlton was relevant in any award voting (the only awards missed by Carlton in this time period are 2 all-star appearances in 1968 and 1969).
Carlton: 238-150, 3536.2 IP, 3.06 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 207 CG, 42 SHO
Blyleven: 169-150, 3021.0 IP, 2.96 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 159 CG, 42 SHO
Carlton did start 60 more games in that time, but as you can see Blyleven was just as good if not better than him in every stat except for his record and complete games. Also during this time, Carlton had a total WAR of 65.6 and ERA+ of 123. Blyleven’s WAR was 62.6 and his ERA+ was 126.
Despite that, Carlton appeared in 8 all-star games during that time period to Blyleven’s 1. Carlton received 532 Cy Young vote points to Blyleven’s 1. And Carlton received 456 MVP vote points to Blyleven’s 4. Hardly seems fair.
Bert Blyleven and Steve Carlton for the most part pitched in the same era and by almost every statistical measure (traditional, non-traditional, postseason), Blyleven was as good as, if not better than Carlton. In fact, Steve Carlton is listed at #10 on Blyleven’s list of most comparable pitchers on baseball-referenece.com. As I said before, I didn’t really get to see these guys pitch, so I can’t comment on the intangibles and fear factor. But based on their bodies of work, I see no reason why Carlton waltzed into the Hall on his first try while Blyleven has agonized for 14 years on the ballot. Well actually, I know the reason. The writers who largely ignored him during his career are the same writers that cast the ballots for the Hall of Fame.