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Prime Starts: Bert and Pedro

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PRIME STARTS: BERT AND PEDRO

Remember Bert Blyleven, the Dutch-born curveball specialist who broke in with the Twins at age 19 in 1970 and was still pitching in the American League 22 years later? He’s now an announcer for the Twins, and he would like very much to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Blyleven won 287 games in his long career. Had he won 300, he would have been enshrined already, and with normal luck he’d have had 300 wins. It was no fault of Blyleven that most of the teams that employed him were noncontenders. And it was doubly unfortunate for Blyleven that a high percentage of his starts (151 of 685, 22%) resulted in no decision for him. A start-by-start analysis of Blyleven’s career reveals that he pitched very effectively in a great majority of these no-decisions.

Keep in mind that pitchers don’t remove themselves from games. They can only control what they do when they are in the game.

Blyleven was born on April 6, 1951. He stood 6-3 and threw right.

Year
Club
Starts
Prime
Pct
Team Pct
1970
MIN
25
15
.600
.605
1971
MIN
38
22
.579
.463
1972
MIN
38
22
.579
.500
1973
MIN
40
23
.575
.500
1974
MIN
37
22
.595
.506
1975
MIN
35
24
.686
.478
1976
MIN
12
7
.583
.525
1976
TEX
24
12
.500
.469
1977
TEX
30
18
.600
.580
1978
PIT
34
24
.706
.547
1979
PIT
37
24
.649
.605
1980
PIT
32
17
.531
.512
1981
CLE
20
13
.650
.505
1982
CLE
4
2
.500
.481
1983
CLE
24
12
.500
.432
1984
CLE
32
23
.719
.463
1985
CLE
23
11
.478
.370
1985
MIN
14
9
.643
.475
1986
MIN
36
21
.583
.438
1987
MIN
37
25
.676
.525
1988
MIN
33
15
.455
.562
1989
CAL
33
28
.848
.562
1990
CAL
23
14
.609
.494
1991
CAL
1992
CAL
24
11
.458
.444
TOTAL
685
414
.604
.504

“Pct” is Blyleven’s Prime Start percentage.
“Team Pct” is the overall winning percentage of Blyleven’s team.

Blyleven did not pitch in 1991.

As a starter, Blyleven had 286 wins, 248 losses, and 151 no-decisions. His record was 1-2 in 7 relief appearances.

6 of Blyleven’s 248 losses were prime starts.

122 of Blyleven’s 151 no-decisions were prime starts (a very high .808 percentage).

In 20 of the 22 years he pitched, Blyleven’s prime start percentage was higher than his team’s overall winning percentage. Many of the ballclubs he pitched for were mediocre.

Blyleven's 1979 season with Pittsburgh is an interesting case. In 37 starts he won 12, lost 5, and had 20 no-decisions, which has to be a record or close to it. My figures show 24 prime starts for Blyleven out of 37. That's a very good .649 percentage.

Blyleven delivered prime starts in 4 of his 5 postseason starts.

I contacted Blyleven through his website:

Dear Mr Blyleven:

Over the past several years there has been a lot of discussion about whether your career justifies election to the Hall of Fame. I have followed this topic with interest. Lately I have conducted a start-by-start analysis of what you accomplished. My findings will be welcomed, I think, by your supporters.

I'd like to know whether you agree with the concept of the "Prime Start" that I explain below. Before we can determine how well a man does his job, we have to understand what his job is. That's true in any walk of life. I believe that a pitcher's job is to prevent the other team from gaining a lead.

But that's just my opinion. You started 685 major league games. What do you believe a pitcher's job is?

Thanks and best wishes.

I received this reply:

I believe the pitcher’s job is to keep the game close and allow his team to have the opportunity to score 2 runs late in the game and win. When he does that, then he has done his job. One of the hardest things is to pitch a shutout, allow 3 or fewer runs in a game. Too many things can happen throughout a 9 inning game that go into a shutout. If you lose 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, or even 4-3, is it the pitcher’s fault? NO, it's the team’s fault, and the pitcher is part of the team.

Good luck to you and Go Twins,

Bert Blyleven

While Blyleven doesn’t exactly endorse the Prime Start concept, I don’t think we’re all that far apart.

The Hall of Fame is seriously flawed, and I lost interest long ago in pondering who should or shouldn’t be immortalized in Cooperstown. Still, as a lifelong baseball fan I find it almost impossible to ignore Hall of Fame questions completely. My opinion about Bert Blyleven is that he was definitely as good as some of the pitchers who are presently enshrined, probably not quite as good as most of them, but better than a few of them. All in all I'd have to rate him as a "very good," not a "great" pitcher. He pitched very well for a long time, and I’m happy he found a fulfilling second career after his playing days ended.

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WHITHER PEDRO MARTINEZ?

The prime start concept is especially useful for evaluating the pampered starting pitchers of the 21st century. These men, unlike their ancestors, are banished to the showers after 6 or 7 innings of work, even when they are pitching well, and consequently pile up a lot of no-decisions.

Pedro Martinez’s star quality is such that his last name has become irrelevant. Say “Pedro,” and every baseball fan knows whom you’re talking about. He is now 33 years old. He is pitching effectively for the New York Mets, but he is no longer, as he was not long ago, acclaimed as the best pitcher in baseball, and his salad days are almost certainly behind him.

Through 2004 Martinez has started 321 games, of which he has won 171, lost 73, and had 77 no-decisions. 53 of his no-decisions have been prime starts. He has no prime-start losses. Through 2004 his won-lost percentage as a starter is .701, and his prime start percentage is .698. These percentages are spectacular, but they will be lower than this when Martinez finally hangs up his glove.

I like to compare Martinez to Juan Marichal, another Dominican righthander who wasn’t especially big for a pitcher. Marichal at 33 had started 353 games, resulting in 199 wins, 87 losses, and 67 no-decisions. His winning percentage as a starter was .696. I haven’t looked at Marichal start by start, so I don’t know his prime start percentage, but I’d guess it’s similar to Martinez’s. Marichal was 22 when he became a major league starter, just as Martinez was. At age 32 Marichal, like Martinez, showed definite signs of diminishing effectiveness. He would have just one good year left in him, at age 33 in 1971. After that it was downhill. Almost every great pitcher descends, eventually, to the ranks of the mediocre. Those who bow out on top a la Sandy Koufax are the exception, not the rule.

Martinez never pitches with fewer than 4 days of rest, and he is often given 5 days off between starts. Working this infrequently, Martinez has just an outside chance to win 250 games, even if he continues to pitch well and remains healthy. His Hall of Fame chances will depend on his percentages, not his career totals.

Martinez produces lots of strikeouts and low ERAs, but these numbers are far less meaningful than winning percentage, and by extension prime start percentage. For a pitcher, not losing is the true name of the game. In this category Martinez won’t finish his career as the best pitcher ever, but he’s been very, very good. Baseball needs pitching stars, and I hope that he continues to pitch well for several more years.

When in Brindisi, stay at the Masseria Refrigerio.

April 2005

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