Sir Bert the Obscure

One of the raging debates regarding players close to the Hall of Fame is how much adjustment should be made for their playing on bad teams. What hasn’t been quantified as much is how few people actually saw each player perform. Arguments float around occasionally that, had so-and-so played in New York, he would be more appreciated. Roberto Clemente made a similar argument about himself, and it appears entirely valid, not only for him but for the star of today’s article, Bert Blyleven. Relative to current Hall of Famers, Blyleven’s career by the numbers was remarkably obscure because of his teams. There is no comparison in the Hall of Fame to Bert’s type of obscurity, and voters have no clue what to do with it.

I decided to use relative attendance totals to devise an Obscurity Factor, based on how many fans we would expect, given league averages, to have seen a certain player or heard about him based on his team’s fans. Basically, the formula (listed at the end if you’re interested) takes the season total of fans for a team (who saw the team in home games), adds it to half the average of the league without that team (average for road games), and then compares that number to 1.5 times the league average, or how much a league-average team for fans would draw for home and road. It’s something like a park factor, only it’s measuring who’s in the stands, not the distance to the stands. (If a player played for multiple teams, the team with the highest factor is chosen, since the transaction itself draws some attention.)

For example, the Yankees drew 4,271,867 fans last year; the league average with all teams included was 2,527,968. The Yankees’ expected fans number was 5,468,778, or 44 percent above that of an average AL team (3,791,952, or 1.5 times the home game average). Thus, any player who played only for the Yankees in 2007 had an Obscurity Factor of 44. Of course, we know that the Yankees draw more fans on the road than does the average team, but treating the percentages as actual numbers exaggerates the differences a little bit anyway, which should substitute for the road fan difference decently enough.

As a warm-up exercise, here are the 10 best and 10 worst Obscurity Factors since 1982 (a positive factor means more viewers):

1982 Dodgers 64           2001 Expos -48
1983 Dodgers 61           2004 Expos -45
1995 Rockies 57           1999 Expos -44
1984 Dodgers 52           2002 Expos -42
1990 Blue Jays 51         2002 Marlins -42
1996 Rockies 51           1985 Indians -40
1994 Rockies 50           1998 Expos -40
1991 Blue Jays 48         2000 Expos -40
2005 Yankees 47           1984 Indians -37
3 teams with 46           2 teams with -36

In marked contrast to the teams on the left with their oodles of rabid fans, the teams on the right at -33 or lower actually had more fans see them on the road than at home. Thus, if we consider two players of equivalent value but different media exposure—to take contemporaries from both columns, Pedro Guerrero and Andre Thornton—more fans and media are available to hype Pedro than Andre. This shouldn’t make a difference, but as anyone who tries to follow baseball outside the Red Sox/Yankees Nation/Empire knows, it does.

Now for the practical application: Has Bert Blyleven’s Hall of Fame case been hurt by a lack of media coverage? As far as I can tell, the answer is a loud yes. I looked at 173 Hall of Famers—those who are in the Hall at least partly for their playing and who started playing since 1901, or at least played ten years after 1901—and calculated their overall Obscurity Factors and average obscurity per season. (I omitted the Federal League from all calculations, because it’s hard to talk about fan bases when the teams lasted only two years (“Oh, those passionate Newark fanatics…”).)

Of the Hall of Famers whom I investigated, only 51 had negative Obscurity Factors for their careers. The median score is 144, achieved by Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams. Here are the top and bottom deciles with Blyleven included:

Babe Ruth         853    Walter Johnson      -408
Lou Gehrig        821    Chuck Klein         -333
Bill Dickey       814    Phil Niekro         -315
Don Sutton        751    George Sisler       -305
Tony Lazzeri      729    Rick Ferrell        -305
Gabby Hartnett    716    Willie Stargell     -295
Yogi Berra        712    Ernie Banks         -270
Lefty Gomez       649    Sam Rice            -267
Christy Mathewson 611    Jim Bottomley       -252
Earle Combs       595    Billy Williams      -223
Herb Pennock      584    Luke Appling        -205
Joe DiMaggio      582    Lloyd Waner         -201
Kiki Cuyler       566    Bert Blyleven       -193
Don Drysdale      546    Eppa Rixey          -192
Red Ruffing       541    Jesse Haines        -176
Phil Rizzuto      539    Roberto Clemente    -166
Billy Herman      537    Richie Ashburn      -160

The players on the high end are almost all expected, except for maybe the ’30s Cubs trio of Hartnett, Cuyler and Herman. The ones on the right are fairly well expected, too; it’s actually rather hard to identify solid memories of seasons for most of them, unless they’re identified with either a major record or milestone or a well-known pennant-winning team.

What is most commonly known about the obscure guys is their general style of play, their career line, and, in almost every case, their long identification with a single team, which helps them transcend the anonymity of their teams. Most casual fans couldn’t tell you too much about Ernie Banks other than that he was “Mr. Cub” and wanted to play two; no one knows what a Willie Stargell season looks like, but they know it was done for the Pirates; etc. Most of these guys played everything except their last couple of years for one team, in the pattern of Phil Niekro or Billy Williams. The only real exceptions are Eppa Rixey, who had two long tenures (with the Phillies and Reds), and Rick Ferrell, who was in the same league for 18 seasons, was a Veterans’ Committee selection 37 years after his last game, and is just a weird selection all around.

Which brings us to Blyleven. Blyleven did spend 11 years with the Twins, but the association is not as powerful because that tenure was broken into slices of 7 and 4 years, those slices were a decade apart, and 11 years is not long compared to the other tenures on the list. His season-by-season Obscurity Factors:

1970 Twins    +16
1971 Twins    - 3
1972 Twins    -10
1973 Twins    -12
1974 Twins    -25
1975 Twins    -21
1976 Rangers  - 3
1977 Rangers  - 7
1978 Pirates  -27
1979 Pirates  -12
1980 Pirates  - 4
1981 Indians  -22
1982 Indians  -24
1983 Indians  -35
1984 Indians  -37
1985 Twins    - 4
1986 Twins    -19
1987 Twins    - 4
1988 Twins    +31
1989 Angels   +15
1990 Angels   +12
1992 Angels   - 6

Had Blyleven not been traded in the midseason of 1976 or 1985, he would have a -26 for 1976 (Twins) and a -40 for 1985 (Indians, which was on the worst-since-1982 chart above). The 1991 Angels had a +3, so getting hurt didn’t change much.

Now, those who support Blyleven’s Hall of Fame campaign point to his sterling postseason record. The problem, as evidenced above, is that nobody remembers it. Sure, fans went to the postseason games, but they didn’t see his teams’ other 162 games: His three playoff years—1970, 1979 and 1987—have a combined Obscurity Factor of 0. A playoff team doesn’t normally draw just the league average. (The five opponent teams, three LCSs and two World Series teams, have factors of 3, 3, 4, 21 and 31. The latter two are typical playoff team figures, but the first three are rather bad. The 1979 World Series between the Pirates and Orioles combined for a -9!)

So we have a guy where:
(1) We don’t remember him for a positive record or milestone (no 300 wins, and maybe we’d remember the strikeouts except that Carlton and Ryan got all the attention for that in the early ‘80s);
(2) His playoff teams aren’t well known;
(3) We can’t place the majority of his career with one team; and
(4) He spent 17 straight years with below-average teams for fans.

For being on so many teams, (4) is rather hard to do; in terms of luck, it’s something like landing on Income Tax with your first roll and then getting a Chance card and going to jail with your second. At least Rick Ferrell had three years in the middle of his career with the bigger-market Red Sox; all of Blyleven’s recognition came at the end of his career, when he was already 37. Unfortunately, whereas Blyleven’s ERA+ dipped below 107 only twice before 1987, it was below 85 in three of the four seasons after. Thus, Blyleven’s increased fan base saw him at his absolute worst.

Obscurity hides strengths just as fame exposes flaws, which I think explains why neither Blyleven nor Tommy John are in the Hall. Blyleven was dominating, but nobody remembers it; John wasn’t dominating (at least not in the traditional sense), and everybody remembers it. Yes, every now and then, the voters do sort things out, giving an MVP to A-Rod or a Cy Young to Pedro. But when a player spends his entire career in obscurity—and an even more obscure obscurity than that of the obscure Hall of Famers—the voters, as they’ve shown with their recent votes, don’t know what to do with it.

So is the knock on Rik Aalbert Blyleven his lack of 300 wins or his perennially playing for bad teams? Both could be part of the problem, and likely are; but I suspect that neither would be a problem if the voters truly remembered him. Blyleven wasn’t “Mr. Twin” or “Mr. October” or anything you can hang your hat on; he was just a dominant pitcher, and apparently that’s not enough. I at least have an excuse for not remembering him: On the day that he pitched his fourth-to-last career start, I was having my seventh birthday party (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themed, for maximum awesomeness). The voters’ excuse appears to be a popularity contest that they can get away with because the fans don’t remember him either.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

It’s high time the mystery man receives his due.

References & Resources
The Obscurity Factor formula is

x + [(ny – x)/2(n-1)]

where x is a team’s season total, y is the league average of fans per team, and n is the number of teams in the league.

A special thanks to Baseball Almanac for having attendance totals for each team in chart form, making the data processing headache-free.

Added Note: As DavidRF noted over at Ballhype, there’s a mistake in my formula. Basically, I shouldn’t divide by two, and the number derived from it should be compared to twice the league average instead of 1.5 (once again, because we’re not cutting the road average in half). This brings all Obscurity Factors about 25-33% closer to zero, although it doesn’t change their relative value.

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