January 6, 2010

With That Hat I'd Shave the Beard And Go 'Stache Only

Former Pirate Bert Blyleven is widely regarded as the best eligible pitcher not already in the Hall of Fame. As we await today's announcement of whether he finally has made it, let's look at the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh and his Pirates career.

The Pirates had consistently good teams throughout the 1970s, but they were stuck in the same division as the Schmidt-Luzinski-Carlton Phillies in those pre-wild card days. After consecutive second place finishes in 1976 and '77, management wanted a second ace behind John Candelaria.

In those sexually free days, the Pirates pulled off a four-team swap with the Mets, Rangers, and Braves to land Texas righthander Bert Blyleven. Bert possessed the best curveball in baseball and already had 122 wins at the age of 26, but had apparently angered Rangers management (and no doubt some Bible-thumping fans) by giving the finger to a TV camera. The Pirates liked his 2.72 ERA and league-leading 1.07 WHIP.

The Pirates sent All-Star left fielder and 1971 champion Al Oliver to the Rangers, along with crappy shortstop prospect Nelson Norman. Pittsburgh gambled that the aging Willie Stargell could stay healthy and productive, allowing Bill Robinson to take over in left field. They hedged their bet with the acquisition of John Milner from the Mets in the same trade. Milner was a slightly above average hitter who could play first base, left or right fields - the type of guy the modern Yankees and Red Sox trade for every season.

Reflection Of The Times
This trade never would happen today. Teams just do not part with 26-year-old ace pitchers unless they don't plan on contending, and the Rangers were coming off a 94-68 season. Meanwhile, Oliver, 31 at the time, was the type of player who has recently fallen out of favor - a poor fielder with few walks and only moderate power at a corner outfield position.

But Oliver's .296/.335/.454 Pirates line was just what baseball writers and fans loved in those days. In fact he had earned MVP votes in five of his previous six seasons in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, while Milner's career .344 OBP and .413 slugging with the Mets looks like a minor downgrade from Oliver in retrospect, batting average was king in those days. Milner's .249 career average reduced him to a throw-in.

Championship Pitching
As the key piece coming to Pittsburgh, Blyleven was even better than Candelaria in 1978. He went 14-10, 3.03 and pitched 243 innings. Unfortunately, the team spun its wheels most of the season and had a losing record as late as August 26 before winning 11 straight to get back into the race. Needing a four-game final weekend sweep of the Phillies, the Pirates fell a game short.

In 1979, Blyleven was the Pirates Opening Day starter. Despite throwing a team-high 237 innings he got 20 no-decisions and went 12-5, 3.60. Accustomed to completing more games, Blyleven began to complain about his usage.

He got his complete game wish in the NLCS, going the distance to beat the Reds in the clinching third game, 7-1. He then went six strong innings in a no-decision in World Series Game 2, an eventual win over Jim Palmer and the Orioles.

Of course his next performance was one for the ages. With his team facing elimination, down 3-1 in the series and 1-0 in the game, Bert Blyleven came in on two days rest and pitched four shutout innings for the crucial win. It was his first relief appearance in seven years. He would be gone just one year later, but with a 2-0, 1.42 record in that postseason, Bert cemented himself in fans' memories.

Blyleven got poor run support in 1980 and went 8-13, 3.82 as the Pirates failed to make a serious run at defending their crown. He was then shipped to Cleveland for a bunch of crappy late 1970s Indians players. Overall Blyleven went 34-28, 3.47 in Pittsburgh and averaged 34 starts in his three years. After leaving Pittsburgh, he continued to be a top-tier starter as late as 1989, compiling 131 more wins and winning another World Series with the '87 Twins.

The Rest of The Story
John Milner stayed until halfway through 1981 season, hitting .263/.361/.417 in a platoon role. Those don't look like great numbers now, but were very good for a role player at the time. Milner was traded for Willie Montanez, a big name player who had nothing left in his tank by the time he got ot Pittsburgh.

Al Oliver hit over .300 every year from 1978-84 and made four more All-Star teams, including 1982 when he hit .331 with 22 home runs and 109 RBI. Overall he hit .311/.355/.447 with 1253 hits after the trade.

Finally, the Pirates were better off without Nelson Norman, who hit a horrendous .221/.256/.263 in 198 inexplicable major league games.

A Win For The Pirates
While not a complete steal, overall the Pirates clearly won this trade. In Blyleven, they got the big game ace they needed and won a World Series. In 1979 anyway, Milner and a rejuvenated Stargell made up for the lost production from Oliver. This deal was one of two that put the Pirates over the top, the other being the Bill Madlock trade in 1979.

While the later trade of Blyleven was a big loser for the Pirates, in the 1977 trade the Pirates traded a very good player at his peak and a garbage prospect for a young Hall of Fame pitcher and a very solid role player. This was completely foreseeable as every player in the trade continued to play the same after the trade as before.

We'll find out at 1:30 today whether Bert Blyleven will take his rightful place in Cooperstown.

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