I've been a baseball fan all my life. I became obsessed with baseball in 1998.
It was around then that Rob Neyer starting writing for ESPN.com. Before Rob, I had never heard of Bill James, or, for that matter, any statistic that didn't get printed on the back of a baseball card. Rob introduced me to concepts that now seem so elemental to our understanding of the game now: league and park effects, adjusted statistics, the importance on team performance on stats like Wins, RBIs, and Runs. It was eye-opening at the time, and completely changed - and enhanced - my understanding of the game.
Later today, we'll find out if 75% of the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have selected Bert Blyleven to join baseball's Hall of Fame. This is a topic that has generated countless arguments, columns, and heated tweets. It has also been a personal crusade of Neyer for years. Back in the early days of his ESPN.com column, he wrote about the topic a lot. I mean a lot. So much so that when he devoted two pages of his Big Book of Baseball Lineups to the topic, it felt like he was beating a dead horse.
That book was published in June of 2003. That was nearly eight years ago. And, as of the time I'm writing this post, Rob is still waiting.
Now, don't worry, I have absolutely no intention of rehashing the arguments for and against Bert Blyleven. As you could probably guess, I'm firmly in support of Bert's candidacy. I also think this will be the year for Bert: he was painfully close last year, and, as many have noted, players finishing that close to election typically are voted in the following year. For what it's worth, Baseball Think Factory's ballot tracker has Blyleven getting named on 78.6% of publicly released ballots.
I'm much more interested on how we've gotten to where we are today: with Bert Blyleven on the precipice of election to the baseball Hall of Fame. See, when Bert was first placed on the ballot, voters barely paid him any mind: 17.5% in 1998, 14.1% in 1999, 17.4% in 2000. At that point, there was very little reason to think Bert would ever enter Cooperstown without a paid admission.
Except for this little thing called the Internet. And "sabermetrics." And Rob Neyer (along with the hundreds of other very smart baseball fans that took up the cause). Amazingly, the Bert-for-the-Hall campaign has been driven almost exclusively by stat-focused baseball writers given a voice by the power of the Internet. Writers have used the internet to inform and enlighten fans and voters about Blyleven's career, cast doubt on opponents' arguments, and shame voters who dare misspell Blyleven as "M-O-R-R-I-S" on their ballot. It's worked, no matter what happens with today's announcement.
The debate has also mirrored our ever-growing understanding of baseball statistics. When Neyer took up the cause in the late-90s, he focused on the misleading nature of wins and the number of times Bert finished in the top 10 of certain key categories, like strikeouts and innings pitched. To put this in some context, this was around the same time he was trying to explain to readers the importance of adding together slugging percentage and on-base percentage. Both arguments seem kind of quaint now, don't they? Just like we've moved beyond OPS in how we measure the performance of hitters, the Bert-for-the-Hall argument is now fought with ERA+, WAR, and other more advanced statistics.
And, of course, the debate has brought out the very worst in those arguing both sides of the issue. You don't have to look far to find an insufferable stat-head that treats every new statistic as gospel, and uses it to berate and discredit non-believers and agnostics. And they'll probably be arguing with someone who has stuck their head so far in the sand that they'll never believe any pitching stat that can't be shortened to ‘W'.
The Bert for Hall debate began just as the Internet and baseball world began to collide, and the result of that collision - the rapid expansion of our knowledge, analysis, and interpretation of baseball statistics - has been the driving force behind the winning side of the argument. Thinking back to reading those old Neyer columns on ESPN.com, it's pretty remarkable to see where we are today.
Without any larger point to make, let me end with this: good luck, Bert. You deserve it. May your birthday present come a few months early this year.
Just a note: I'm sure many writers championed Bert's Hall of Fame case well before Rob Neyer. He was my introduction to the debate, therefore the focus of this post.