Top 100 Indians: #44 Bert Blyleven

LGT's countdown of the greatest players in franchise history continues with Bert Blyleven, the greatest Dutch baseball player of all-time.


Rik Aalbert Blyleven

Starting Pitcher, 1981-1985

Height: 6'3" Weight: 200 lbs

Throws: Right; Bats: Right

How Acquired: December 9, 1980: Traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates with Manny Sanguillen for Gary Alexander, Victor Cruz, Bob Owchinko and Rafael Vasquez

Left Via: Trade, August 1, 1985: Traded to the Minnesota Twins for Jay Bell, Curt Wardle, Jim Weaver and Rich Yett (PTBNL)

Bert Blyleven was born in Zeist, Netherlands in 1951, but before his second birthday, his family emigrated to Canada, and when he was five, Bert moved with his parents and six siblings to Garden Grove, California. Bert grew up listening to Vin Scully call Dodgers games, and was perhaps inspired to develop his curveball by vivid descriptions of Sandy Koufax's own 'Uncle Charlie.' Blyleven practiced his art from a mound his father built for him in the backyard, was a star in high school, and was taken by the Minnesota Twins in the 3rd round (#55 overall) of the 1969 draft.

Blyleven had great success in rookie ball and single-A that year, and again at triple-A the following spring. In June of 1970, just one year after he graduated from high school, Bert made his Major League debut. He gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, but no one scored after that Bert was the youngest player in MLB. On June 27 he pitched his first complete game and on August 26 he threw his first shutout. There were many more of each to come. Over the next few years Blyleven was one of the best young pitchers in baseball history.

Between 1970 and 1975 (when Blyleven was still just 24), he pitched 1611.0 innings, struck out 1,327 batters, and tossed 97 complete games, including 24 shutouts. No pitcher had matched any of those marks by such a young age since Bob Feller, before World War II. Bert did it all while posting a 2.78 ERA, which adjusts to an ERA+ of 133. Over those six seasons, only Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer posted a better figure than that.

Blyleven was traded to Texas in June of 1976. He spent a season and a half with the Rangers, averaging more than 8 innings per start, with an ERA of 2.78. Yet he lost as many decisions as he won, due to very poor run support. I don't normally care about a pitcher's record, but it turned out to be pretty important in the storyline of Blyleven's career, so it's worth mentioning here. Bert threw a no-hitter on September 22, 1977, but at season's end, he was traded to Pittsburgh.

For the previous seven seasons, Blyleven had averaged more than 18 completes games per year, but in Pittsburgh he wasn't allowed to finish many starts, which led to heated arguments between Bert and Pirates manager Chuck Tanner. Blyleven was one of the best players on the World Series-winning team of 1979, but had stopped enjoying baseball. In 1980 he asked to be traded and contemplated retiring when his request was ignored. Bert posted the worst season of his career (though he was still a league average starter in 200+ innings) and in December, Pittsburgh gave him his wish, dealing him to the Indians.

Blyleven made his Indians debut on Opening Day of 1981 and went on to pitch a complete game in six of his first seven starts with the Tribe that year, including a 4-hit shutout on April 18. Two months of that season were lost to a labor dispute, but Bert finished the year with a team-high 159.1 innings and team-best ERA of 2.88. Why he was not one of the ten pitchers named to the American League All-Star team is a mystery to me, given that he was among the top ten in wins, innings, completes games, ERA, and strikeouts at the break, AND the game was held in Cleveland that year. For whatever reasons, Blyleven was often overlooked.

In just his fourth appearance of 1982, Bert left in pain during the second inning. It turned out that he had a serious elbow injury, which caused him to miss the rest of the season. He returned in time for the start of the 1983 season, but didn't seem fully recovered, and went on to have a somewhat disappointing season. His 3.91 ERA still led the Indians, as did his WHIP and strikeout-rate. Plagued by ailments, he made only five starts after July 13th, never lasting more than six innings in any of them. At age 32, he wasn't old, but his body had more than 3,000 innings of Major League work on it. He still had two years on his contract, but there were concerns that his time as a good pitcher was at an end.

Instead, Bert bounced back to have what he considers the best year of his career. He threw seven shutout innings in his first game of the year and pitched fairly well into mid-May. That's when he badly rolled his ankle while playing catch before a game, leading him to go almost four weeks between starts. On June 24, Blyleven pitched his first shutout of the season, and from that point on, he rolled through the rest of the year, going 14-4 with a 2.59 ERA, averaging 8 innings a game over 21 starts.

All told, Bert won 19 games that year, the second-highest total of a career marked by low run support. His 2.87 ERA placed 3rd in the league and if he hadn't missed those four starts, he'd likely have led the league in innings and wins, with an ERA as good as anyone's. With a resume like that, he'd probably have won the Cy Young Award. Instead, one win shy of the magical 20th, he finished 3rd in the voting, behind two relief pitchers. Still, it was a very impressive season, arguably the best by an Indian in the last 30 years.

In 1985, Blyleven made his second Opening Day start for the Indians. It didn't go particularly well, and he struggled throughout the month of April. He bounced back to throw four complete games in May though (three of them shutouts), and in June, he had an even better month. He started six games, going the distance in five of them and throwing a total of 51.1 innings (meaning he missed out on just 8 of a possible 162 outs). Two of those games were shutouts, and his ERA for the month was just 1.93. In July he pitched five more complete games, giving him 14 in three months. Think about that, 14 complete games in just three months.

Sadly, by the end of that run, as well as Bert had pitched for the previous year and a half, the Indians weren't going to re-sign Blyleven once he hit free agency that winter. On August 1, he was traded back to Minnesota. He finished the year with the AL lead in innings, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts. He continued to have success with Minnesota, and was the second-best starter on their 1987 World Series-winning team. After the 1988 season, Bert was traded for the fifth time in his career, this time to his hometown Angels. He pitched for them (in front of family and friends) until 1992, making the final start of his career on October 4.

At that point, Blyleven ranked 3rd on the MLB strikeout list, with 3,701. His 60 career shutouts were just three behind Warren Spahn's mark for the most since the end of the Deadball Era. He'd finished among the top ten in the league for ERA in ten different seasons, and his ERA had been 3.16 or better twelve times. He should have been an easy 'yes' on Hall of Fame ballots, but in his first year of eligibility, he received just 17.5% of the vote, a far cry from the 75% needed for induction. He'd won 20 games just once in his career, and only made two All-Star teams (which is criminal). Slowly though, his votes climbed, as more advanced metrics, which rate Blyleven as one of baseball's best (he has 96.4 bWAR, 11th most among pitchers, and 105.4 fWAR, 6th most), became better known. Finally, in 2011, his 14th year on the ballot, Blyleven was voted into the Hall of Fame.

Blyleven was known in Cleveland (and the clubhouse at every stop of his career) as quite a prankster. He earned the nickname "The Frying Dutchman" for his love of the hot foot, in which a teammates shoes are lit on fire. During his time with the Angels, the clubhouse fire extinguisher read, "In Case of Blyleven: Pull." Also, from Bert's time in Cleveland, there is THIS.

His odd sense of humor has made him a popular broadcaster. He's worked as color commentator for the Twins since 1996. Fans in Minnesota bring signs reading "Circle Me, Bert" to games, hopes that Blyleven will draw a ring around them on his telestrator. In 2009 and 2013, Blyleven also as the pitching coach for the Dutch National Team in the World Baseball Classic. When not broadcasting games or coaching the Dutch, Bert lives in Florida with his wife and their children.

Numbers with Indians

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS CG SHO IP HR BB SO ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
1981 30 CLE 11 7 2.88 20 20 9 1 159.1 9 40 107 127 1.161 8.2 0.5 2.3 6.0
1982 31 CLE 2 2 4.87 4 4 0 0 20.1 2 11 19 86 1.328 7.1 0.9 4.9 8.4
1983 32 CLE 7 10 3.91 24 24 5 0 156.1 8 44 123 110 1.305 9.2 0.5 2.5 7.1
1984 33 CLE 19 7 2.87 33 32 12 4 245.0 19 74 170 144 1.135 7.5 0.7 2.7 6.2
1985 34 CLE 9 11 3.26 23 23 15 4 179.2 14 49 129 128 1.180 8.2 0.7 2.5 6.5
CLE (5 yrs) 48 37 3.23 104 103 41 9 760.2 52 218 548 126 1.191 8.1 0.6 2.6 6.5

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table

Selected American League Awards/Leaders

  • All-Star: 1985
  • Cy Young: 1984 (3rd); 1985 (3rd)
  • WAR: 4th, 1981 (5.6); 4th, 1984 (7.2); 7th, 1985 (6.8)
  • WAR Pitchers: 1st, 1981 (5.6); 2nd, 1984 (7.2); 3rd, 1985 (6.7)
  • ERA: 3rd, 1984 (2.87); 5th, 1985 (3.16); 8th, 1981 (2.88)
  • Wins: 2nd, 1984 (19); 5th, 1985 (17); 10th, 1984 (11)
  • WHIP: 2nd, 1984 (1.14); 7th, 1985 (1.15); 9th, 1985 (1.16)
  • Hits/9 IP: 2nd, 1984 (7.49); 9th, 1985 (8.09)
  • BB/9 IP: 6th, 1985 (2.30)
  • K/9 IP: 6th, 1981 (6.04); 7th, 1984 (6.25); 7th, 1985 (6.31)
  • Innings: 1st, 1985 (293.2)
  • Strikeouts: 1st, 1985 (206); 3rd, 1981 (107); 4th, 1984 (170)
  • Games Started: 1st, 1985 (37)
  • Complete Games: 1st, 1985 (24); 4th, 1984 (12); 9th, 1981 (9)
  • Shutouts: 1st, 1985 (5); 3rd, 1984 (4)
  • Strikeouts/Bases on Balls: 3rd, 1981 (2.68); 4th, 1985 (2.75); 8th, 1984 (2.30)
  • HR/9: 7th, 1985 (0.71); 10th, 1981 (0.51)
  • Hit By Pitch: 2nd, 1983 (10); 2nd, 1988 (9); 8th, 1981 (5)
  • Adjusted ERA+: 2nd, 1984 (144); 6th, 1985 (134); 9th, 1981 (127)
  • Win Probability Added: 7th, 1984 (3.4)

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • 20th WAR Pitchers (20.1)
  • t-27th ERA (3.23)
  • 49th Wins (48)
  • 27th W/L Percentage (.565)
  • 12th WHIP (1.191)
  • 23rd Hits/9 IP (8.140)
  • 14th Bases on Balls/9 IP (2.579)
  • 13th Strikeouts/9 IP (6.484)
  • 34th Strikeouts (548)
  • t-47th Games Started (103)
  • t-42nd Complete Games (41)
  • t-29th Shutouts (9)
  • 7th Strikeouts/Bases on Balls (2.514)
  • 44th HR/9 IP (0.615)
  • t-26th Hit By Pitch (28)
  • t-6th ERA+ (126)
  • 18th WPA (6.7)

Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-25th Pitching WAR (7.2; 1984)
  • t-25th W/L Percentage (.731; 1984)
  • t-40th Strikeouts (170, 1984)
  • t-38th Shutouts (4; 1984, 1985)
  • 36th K/BB (2.796, 1983)
  • 46th K/BB (2.675, 1981)
  • 47th K/BB (2.633, 1985)
  • t-36th Hit By Pitch (10; 1983)
  • t-50th ERA+ (144; 1984)
  • t-36th WPA (3.4, 1984)

Sources

New York Times, 1/5/2011

MLB.com, 1/5/2011

Rich Lederer, 12/29/2004

Baseball-Reference.com

Wikipedia.com

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