With Bert's election to baseball's Hall of Fame yesterday, I wanted to celebrate his long overdue induction by highlighting the best pitching performances of his career. Of course, that gets just a tad tricky--how do you pick the best from a guy who won 287 games, threw nearly 5000 innings, struck out 3701 batters, completed 242 games and tallied 60 shutouts? We do it by Game Score.
Having researched this today, I wasn't as shocked as I was impressed to learn that a list of Bert's best performances looks better than this list. Yes, if you compare the best Twins pitching performances of the decade (2000 to 2009) to Bert's top games, Bert wins. 42 different pitchers started for the Twins in the decade: Baker, Balfour, Bergman, Blackburn, Bonser, Dickey, Duensing, Durbin, Fiore, Gabino, Gassner, Garza, Guerrier, Greisinger, Hernandez, Johnson, Kinney, Lincoln, Liriano, Lohse, Manship, Mays, Milton, Mulholland, Ortiz, Pavano, Perkins, Ponson, Pulido, Radke, Redman, Reed, Rincon, Rogers, Romero, Ryan, Santana, Silva, Slowey, Smith, Swarzak and Thomas. Blyleven topped them all...put together.
First, a brief introduction to Game Score, so we all know what we're dealing with. Essentially it's a rating system put together by Bill James, used to score the performance of a starting pitcher. Once you get above 75 and 80, you've had a very, very good game. If you get 90 or better, you were outstanding. If you look at the all-decade list for the Twins that I linked to above, you'll see that in ten years a Minnesota starting pitcher topped a score of 90 just four times. Here's how the system works, according to BaseballReference.com:
1. Start with 50 points
2. Add 1 point for each put out recorded, so 3 points for every complete inning pitched.
3. Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th.
4. Add 1 point for each strikeout.
5. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed.
6. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed
7. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed.
8. Subtract 1 point for each walk.
Let's get to it.
Bert's Best Game
Wednesday, August 27, 1975
Twins vs Brewers
This is the type of game in which heroes are made. Blyleven, 24 at the time, was trading punches will Bill Travers. While Travers wasn't half the pitcher Blyleven was, on this day he may as well have been Don Sutton. Inning after inning each pitcher hung a zero on the board. Through nine complete innings Bert had allowed just hour hits and a walk; Travers had been even better--two hits and a walk. But in extra innings, Travers finally faltered. While he worked around a single and a walk in the tenth, Blyleven didn't appear to have lost a step, striking out the side.
In the top of the eleventh, Travers induced a groundout from Rod Carew to kick off the inning before hitting Craig Kusick and walking John Briggs. With the best chance to score the Twins had all game, a twilight Tony Oliva pinch hit for Dave McKay. His single scored the only run of the game, as Blyleven pitched a scoreless bottom of the eleventh to earn the win on a 1-0 shutout.
Game Score: 97
We'll round out Bert's top five after the jump.
Monday, June 21, 1976
Rangers vs Athletics
In just his fourth start with the Rangers since being dealt from Minnesota, Blyleven took it upon himself to win a game. His first three starts for Texas ended in defeats, including an 11-inning, 10-strikeout complete game performance. But on this occasion he was nearly unhittable. Oakland first baseban Ken McMullen singled to lead off the fifth inning, but it was the only hit Blyleven allowed in the entire contest.
Once again he traded zeroes through nine innings, this time with Paul Mitchell. Mitchell, like Travers, wasn't the pitcher Bert was, but on this day he pitched like a giant. Through nine innings he had scattered five hits and a trio of walks--more baserunners than Bert, but the results were identical.
Finally, in the top of the tenth, Tom Grieve belted his ninth home run of the year (he hit a career-high 20 in '76) to give Blyleven all the support he'd need. Bert turned away the A's in the bottom half of the inning, and picked up a very difficult 1-0 win on the road.
Game Score: 94
Sunday, August 16, 1980
Pirates vs Expos
Blyleven's time in Pittsburgh wasn't the best of his career, but he still had highlights. On this occasion he didn't need to go to extra innings to beat the opposition as his first place Pirates spotted him four runs in the first thanks to hits from big names like Dave Parker and a 40-year old Willie Stargell. On the back of that support, Bert smelled blood and was like a shark in the water. He didn't allow a base runner until there were two outs in the seventh.
By the time the dust settled, Bert had blanked the Expos over nine innings, holding the second place Expos (who held an offense including Andre Dawson and Gary Carter) to two hits and a walk.
Game Score: 94
Thursday, September 22, 1977
Rangers vs Angels
While the Rangers were a good team in '77, they were unable to catch the 102-win Kansas City Royals. In this game, however, Blyleven pitched like Texas was a game out and the season ended tomorrow. Bert no-hit the Angels in a nine inning complete game, falling one walk short of a perfect game by walking pinch hitter Carlos May with two outs in the ninth.
Actually, Ron Jackson reached on an error in the third inning, and so even though he was erased on a double play it wasn't quite as close to the perfect game as I make it out to be. But the error isn't Bert's fault, and so for a brief moment I did a little revisionist history.
Game Score: 93
Friday, August 1, 1986
Twins vs Athletics
After coming back to Minnesota in the middle of the '85 season, Bert had a bit of a rennaissance in '86. He posted his lowest walk rates in 13 seasons, leading to his best strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 seasons. At 35 he was striking out more batters again, and allowing a lot more home runs too, but he was a very good pitcher once again. On this Friday night inside the Dome, he treated 15,000 fans to one of the last truly great performances of his career.
Bert struck out two in the top of the first, and his offense put him on top right away in the bottom half of the frame. Kirby Puckett's leadoff triple led to a run on a sac fly from Gary Gaetti, and it was more than enough. Gaetti homered in the fourth, Tom Brunansky followed suit in the eighth, and in between the Twins scored in spades. But the special story of the game was Blyleven.
In nine innings Bert was spectacular, allowing just two hits and a walk for a run, earning him a complete game victory. Oh yeah, and he struck out 15. Carney Lansford and Alfredo Griffin (whose solo homer in the eighth accounted for all of Oakland's offense) were the only two players not to go down on strikes at the hands of the Dutchman.
Game Score: 93
In conclusion, Bert had a lot of highlights, spread out over many seasons in a very, very long career. And here's something I really wanted to highlight: Bert had 11 games in his career where he registered a game score of 90 or better. Three times he scored an 89, six an 88, five an 87 and five an 86. I stopped counting there. But that's 30 starts, a whole season worth of starts of which any single one would register as a career highlight for most players. If you look at Minnesota's best pitching performances of the last decade, the bottom performances of the decade are scraping the same scores as the 30th best game of Bert Blyleven's career.
If anyone ever tries to tell you that Bert wasn't a great pitcher, or that he wasn't great over a long enough period of time, just do two things: point to this list, then stick peanut butter down their pants and light their shoes on fire.