He’s baaaack. After being tortured for 15 years on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, longtime ace starting pitcher Jack Morris is one of 10 candidates on the Modern Baseball Eras Committee ballot. The Eras Committee is the current version of the Veterans Committee, which has for decades been tasked as a “2nd chance” avenue for players to gain a plaque in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. If Morris or any of the other candidates are going to be conferred with the ultimate honor in baseball, they’ll find out this Sunday, December 10th in an announcement at baseball’s Winter Meetings.

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Morris, during the years that he was pitching (from 1977-1994) was considered the consummate big game pitcher, epitomized by his epic duel with John Smoltz in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. In that classic game Morris, pitching for the Minnesota Twins, tossed 10 innings of shutout ball to lead the Twins to a 1-0 win over the Atlanta Braves.

This was a matchup between a grizzled War Horse (the 36-year old Morris) against a Young Gun (the 24-year old Smoltz). Baseball is a sport full of great stories. What better way could you have to tell this story of Game 7 than to tell it as Hall of Famer vs Hall of Famer, in a winner-take-all Game 7, matching zeroes until the War Horse outlasted the Young Gun and almost single-handedly won one of the greatest deciding title games in the history of the sport. The Young Gun was a first ballot inductee into Cooperstown (in 2015) while the War Horse is still not in the Hall of Fame. The story is not complete.

This piece, which covers both sides of the Morris Hall of Fame argument, is in five parts:

  1. A recap of the highlights of Morris’ career, for the casual or younger reader who may not know much about him.
  2. A discourse of his 15-year odyssey as the “almost” candidate on the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) ballot.
  3. The case against his induction into Cooperstown.
  4. The case for his induction.
  5. Some closing thoughts.

#4 will be the meat of this piece. In that 4th section, you will read some arguments and see some statistics in favor of Morris that you have never seen before (put in boldface deliberately to excite, tantalize or disgust you). This will include a sabermetric argument in favor of Morris’ induction into the Hall.

This piece represents a comprehensive analysis so it’s a little bit long. If you care about the topic, it’s worth the read. If you’re marginally interested, there are headlines along the way to help steer you to the parts you’re most curious about. If you’re a sabermetrically inclined reader and short for time, don’t miss the second to last section about the sabermetric case for Morris.

Cooperstown Cred: Jack Morris

  • Career: 254-186 (.577), 3.90 ERA, 2,478 strikeouts
  • Career: 175 complete games, most of any MLB pitcher since 1975
  • 3-time 20-game winner
  • 5 times in top 5 of Cy Young Voting (7 times in top 10)
  • 3-time World Series Champion (with 3 different teams)
  • Career: 7-4, 3.80 ERA in 13 post-season starts
  • 5-time All-Star (started 3 times)
  • Opening Day starter for 14 consecutive years (1980-1993)

(cover photo: WordPress.org)

Career Highlights (pitched for 4 teams between 1977-1994)

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John Scott Morris, born in 1955 in St. Paul, Minnesota, was the Detroit Tigers’ 5th round draft pick in 1976, the same draft in which they plucked his longtime teammate Alan Trammell. Morris had just completed his junior year at Brigham Young University, in which he was transformed from an wild thrower into an an well-rounded pitcher by Vern Law, the long-time Pirate and 1960 Cy Young Award winner whose son Vance was Jack’s teammate at BYU.

Just a little over one year after he was drafted, Morris made his debut with the Tigers in relief. In his second career MLB appearance, he was the Tigers’ starting pitcher, matched up in Arlington, Texas against future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. It wasn’t quite like Game 7 1991 but Morris and the Flying Dutchman matched deuces, each throwing 9 innings of 2-run ball before the Rangers prevailed in the bottom of the 10th.

Arm troubles limited Morris to just 138.2 innings in the rest of ’77 and ’78. After starting the 1979 season at AAA Evansville (the hometown of fellow Modern Game ballot member Don Mattingly), Morris was back with the Tigers for good on May 13th. Despite the late start, Morris went 17-7 with a 3.28 ERA in 27 starts and 197.2 innings.

After somewhat of an off-year in 1980 (16-15, 4.18 ERA), Morris emerged as a star in the strike-shortened 1981 season. He was selected to pitch the All-Star Game (which was the first game played after the strike) and finished the campaign at 14-7 with a 3.05 ERA, good enough for a 3rd place finish in the A.L. Cy Young Award voting.

Morris had another less than stellar season in 1982 (17-16, 4.06 ERA). According to his SABR bio, he was having problems with his slider and  was looking for a “strike three” pitch. It was around that time that Morris discovered the forkball, or split-fingered fastball. Although Tigers pitching coach Roger Craig is often credited with teaching him the pitch, Morris credits his veteran teammate Milt Wilcox, who said he watched future Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter throw it when they were both in the Chicago Cubs’ organization. Wilcox couldn’t throw it himself because his fingers were too short but Morris turned it into his “out pitch.”

Morris started throwing the splitter in 1983 and, for five years, was one of the top starters in the American League. For those five years, he led all A.L hurlers in wins, complete games, strikeouts, and BAA (batting average against) and (for pitchers with at least 1,000 innings tossed) was 2nd in ERA. He made three All-Star games during those five seasons and had two top 5 finishes in the Cy Young voting. He won 20 games twice, averaging 19 wins during those five years.

For the Tigers, of course, 1984 was the glory year. Although, ironically, it was Morris’ worst of those five campaigns, he got the season going like gangbusters. He was manager Sparky Anderson‘s choice to start Opening Day (for the fifth straight year) and tossed 7 innings of one-run ball against his hometown Minnesota Twins. In his second start of the season, he led the Tigers to their fourth straight victory by tossing a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox.

Detroit famously went 35-5 to start the ’84 season. The ace right-hander’s contribution, in 11 starts, was a 9-1 record with a 1.97 ERA and 6 complete games. Morris went through a mid-summer swoon (a 6.92 ERA in 12 starts between June 12th to August 16th) but finished strong with a 2.85 ERA in his last 9 starts and a 1.42 in his final three. In the post-season, Morris was a true ace, going 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA, which included two complete games in the World Series, which the Tigers won in 5 games over the San Diego Padres.

At the end of Morris’ five-year run of excellence (1987), the Tigers were in a heated battle with the Toronto Blue Jays for the A.L. East title. Needing a boost to their starting rotation, General Manager Bill Lajoie made a trade on August 12th, trading a young pitching prospect to the Atlanta Braves for veteran right-hander Doyle Alexander, who led the Tigers to the playoffs by going 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts. The playoff appearance came at a high price, however. That young pitching prospect was named John Smoltz.

For the only time in his career, Morris was supplanted as his team’s #1 starter. Alexander started (and lost) both Games 1 and 5 of the ALCS to the Twins. Morris, pitching in Game 2 against Blyleven at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, gave up 6 runs in 8 innings and took the loss. The Twins completed a 4-1 series win when Blyleven beat Alexander in Game 5.

If Morris had been able to maintain his form from 1983-87 for the succeeding five seasons, we wouldn’t be still arguing about whether he was a Hall of Famer or not. From 1988-90, he went 36-45 with a 4.40 ERA. During this down period, in ’89, he had elbow surgery for a stress fracture. Even in these three down years, Morris remained a workhorse; his 31 complete games during these years were second only to Oakland’s Dave Stewart.

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Things turned around in 1991 when Morris signed a one-year contract with his hometown Twins. He went 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA, leading the Twins back to the playoffs. After winning Games 1 and 4 of the ALCS (against the Toronto Blue Jays), he opened the World Series at the Metrodome against the N.L. champion Atlanta Braves. Tossing 7 innings of 2-run ball, he won that game. In Game 4, pitching at Fulton-County Stadium in Atlanta on three days rest, he gave up just one run in 6 innings but was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the 7th and had a no-decision.

Of course, again pitching on three days rest, he delivered the World Series to Minnesota with his 10-inning shutout in Game 7, besting Smoltz, that young pitcher the Tigers had traded to get Alexander just four years before. Big Game Jack’s Game 7 performance was the vintage start for an ace. He talked manager Tom Kelly out of replacing him in the 10th inning and delivered a perfect frame on 8 pitches; he was the winning pitcher when Gene Larkin delivered a based-loaded sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 10th.

From his SABR Bio:

“I probably had the best mindset in that game that I’ve had in any game in my whole career, and that’s because I didn’t allow negative thoughts into my game… If I could bottle that, I’d be the richest man in the world. If I could bottle it and sell it to athletes or sell it to businessmen or whatever, it would be a phenomenal thing. I can’t hardly even describe it, but I can tell you it was something I had never experienced before and really never experienced again.”

— Jack Morris (in his Bio by the Society of American Baseball Research, by Stew Thornley)

The Canadian Press/Hans Deryk

After the title run, Morris disappointed Twins fans by taking a bigger money offer to sign with their ALCS opponents, the Blue Jays. He led the Jays in wins with 21 (against 6 losses), leading the talented squad back into the playoffs. Toronto won their first of two consecutive World Series titles but this time, without a significant contribution from their #1 starter. Morris went 0-3 with a 7.43 ERA in four post-season starts.

As many players do, the long-time workhorse finished his career on a down note. He went 7-12 with a 6.19 ERA with the ’93 Jays and 10-6 with a 5.60 ERA with the Cleveland Indians in 1994.

Morris had a chance to make a comeback with the New York Yankees in 1996 but turned down the offer because they wanted him to make two starts in the minor leagues first, a decision he would later regret because he could have added to his collection of three World Series rings. And thus his career was over at the age of 41.

All in all, Morris finished with 254 wins, a 3.90 ERA and 175 complete games, which remains the most in baseball for any pitcher since 1974.

15 Long Years on the BBWAA Ballot

After Morris’ five-year run of excellence (1983-87), sabermetric pioneer Bill James, in his annual Baseball Abstract, ranked Morris as the #2 right-handed starting pitcher in baseball, behind only Roger Clemens.

“For the ninth straight year, Jack Morris last year did a few things that would be characteristic of a Hall of Fame pitcher… With 162 career wins, Morris has now entered the range in which his career totals start to get him toward getting into the Hall of Fame.”

— Bill James, in The Bill James Baseball Abstract (1988)

 

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, the last seven years of his career were rocky, with two positive campaigns (1991 and 1992) surrounded by five that were average to mediocre to downright ugly. With two ugly campaigns souring the afterglow of his 1991 Game 7 gem and his 21-win season in 1992, Morris hit the BBWAA ballot in 2000. In the previous ten years, the writers inducted eight starting pitchers into the Hall of Fame. That august group of eight, all of whom debuted between 1962 and 1967, were an incredibly tough act to follow. They averaged 309 career wins, ranging from 268 (Jim Palmer) to 329 (Steve Carlton):

These eight superb hurlers essentially had set a new standard for what a Hall of Fame staring pitcher should be. It was a standard that Morris (and four other starters on the 2000 ballot) could not match.

As an aside, if you’re wondering what differentiated Fergie Jenkins and Jim Palmer (both of whom won less than 300 games) from the 280+ win hurlers on this list (Tommy John, Bert Blyleven and Jim Kaat) it’s this: Palmer won 20 games in a season 8 times; Jenkins was a 20-game winner in 7 different seasons. John and Kaat only managed 20 wins three times (Blyleven just once). Morris did it three times, Tiant four.

To put it simply, in the 1990’s, the BBWAA seemingly had three criteria for inducting Hall of Fame starting pitchers:

  1. Win 300 games in your career.
  2. Win 20 or more games in a season multiple times.
  3. Win at least one Cy Young Award.

Phil Niekro and Don Sutton each required 5 ballots before getting their Cooperstown plaques. Even though they were 300-game winners, they were considered “compilers” who only achieved 300 wins by pitching forever.

#3 on this checklist is also important. The lack of Cy Young hardware was also held against Niekro and Sutton and it helps explain the difficulties on the ballot that Blyleven, John, Kaat, Morris and Tiant all faced.

Of the five named hurlers on that 2000 ballot, only Blyleven eventually made the Hall of Fame, thanks to the advent of advanced sabermetrics. Voters always held it against The Flying Dutchman that he was barely above a .500 pitcher. Still, at the end of the 1999 season, Blyleven was third all-time with 3,701 strikeouts (behind only Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan). As the years passed and Wins Above Replacement become a known statistic, his extraordinarily high WAR (96.5) finally propelled him into the Hall of Fame on his 14th try in 2011.

In the years that followed, Tiant, Kaat and John all fell off the ballot while Morris slowly crept up above 50%. He got as high as 68% (on his 14th ballot in 2013) but fell back to 61.5% in 2014, thanks in part of the first-time presence on the ballot of 300-game winners Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

The three aforementioned criteria seem to still be in effect for the majority of Hall of Fame voters. Maddux, Glavine, and Randy Johnson met the 300-win criteria. Pedro Martinez met the Cy Young criteria (as a three-time winner) and John Smoltz got in with his Dennis Eckersley-esque combo career as an elite starter and, for three years, an elite relief ace.

In the meantime, Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina (both of whom never won a Cy Young and fell short of 300 wins) remain on the current BBWAA ballot, outside of Cooperstown, even though Schilling won 20 games three times.

Anyway, regarding Morris, his BBWAA high of 68% is the highest vote percentage of any player who is not in the Hall of Fame. All of the players who reached that high a percentage in the past were eventually inducted into the Hall by the Veterans Committee. In 15 years on the ballot, Morris got 3,324 votes, the most ever for a player without a plaque in Cooperstown.

The chart below shows the names of the six players in the last 40 years who were between 50% and 75% of the BBWAA vote in their 15th and final year on the ballot.

The question today, for the Modern Baseball Committee, is whether Morris will remain with Hodges on the outside or join Slaughter, Fox, Bunning and Cepeda on the inside. That committee will also be assessing the Cooperstown candidacies of John and Tiant.

Why Jack Morris is so Polarizing as a Hall of Fame Candidate

As I’ve been searching through the internet for tidbits about the nine players on the Modern Game ballot, I’ve often encountered the term “stathead,” often used in a derogatory fashion. If you asked my closest two dozen friends if I’m a “stathead,” they would all resoundingly answer “YES!” If you’ve read any of the other profiles on this site, you’d probably agree that I like to use statistics.

Baseball and its statistics are intrinsically linked, going back to the 19th century. How many of us, especially of a certain age, spent hours scouring box scores in the newspaper on a daily basis? Today, there are advanced statistics available that measure everything from average velocity or each type of pitch to launch angles for hitters to route efficiency for outfielders chasing down fly balls.

What is it that makes Jack Morris such a lightning rod in the Hall of Fame debate? It’s because Morris is the personification of the “WAR” between a player evaluation based exclusively on statistical metrics and an evaluation based on the opinions of players who competed against them and writers and broadcasters who watched them play. The Morris Hall of Fame argument is the ultimate “Old School” vs “New School” argument. In his recently released book (“The Cooperstown Casebook”), Sports Illustrated‘s Jay Jaffe devoted an entire chapter to Morris, Blyleven and what he called “The War on WAR.”

(If you’re a new reader and don’t know what WAR is, it stands for “Wins Above Replacement.” The goal of this statistic is to show, in a single number, how valuable each player was in terms of how many games he helped his teams win as opposed to a replacement player, defined as someone you could find at the top level of the minor leagues. The breakdown of how WAR is calculated for pitchers can be found here in the Glossary.) 

As a “stathead,” I am a rank amateur compared to many writers you can find on-line today. There are dozens of writers you can find on multiple websites that can dazzle you with so many metrics that you’ll feel that you need a PhD from M.I.T. to decipher them. If you were to label the “Old School” and the “New School” baseball analysts as members of political parties, you could consider me an Independent. I respect the advanced baseball statistics and find them useful but still care about the ones we grew up, like hitters’ RBI and pitchers’ wins.

With that small diversion out of the way, let’s look at the case for and against Morris, both from an “old school” perspective and the “stathead” perspective.

The Hall of Fame Case Against Jack Morris

The case against Jack Morris as a Hall of Famer is fairly compelling and you don’t need modern sabermetrics to make it. All you have to do is look as his career Earned Run Average of 3.90, which would be the highest for any pitcher with a Cooperstown plaque. ERA can be understood by third grade mathematics. Using Earned Runs allowed (ER) and Innings Pitched (IP), the formula is simple. ER*9/IP. Simply put, an ERA of 3.90 means that Morris allowed nearly four earned runs per 9 innings and that’s a higher number than anyone currently in the Hall.

Moving on to advanced metrics, when accounting for ballpark effects and the overall pitching environment during his 18 years on the mound, his ERA+ is just 105. If you’re not familiar with it, ERA+, as shown on Baseball Reference, sets 100 as league average every season. Of the 68 pitchers currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame, only Catfish Hunter (104) and Rube Marquard (103) have a career ERA+ lower than the one authored by Morris.

The second plank in the case against is that his career WAR (43.8) is low. Only 11 Hall of Famer pitchers have a lower WAR; three of them are relief pitchers. All told, Morris’ WAR, according to Baseball Reference, is just 139th best for pitchers in baseball history. He’s behind luminaries such as Brad Radke, Bartolo Colon, Kenny Rogers, and his teammate Frank Tanana on this list.

Forget the ridiculous standards of 300 wins for a moment. The third plank in the case against is that Morris’ 254 wins, a solid total, is inflated because of the quality of the teams he played for. Throughout his career, his teams scored 4.9 runs per game in his starts. That’s half a run higher than the average run support for all MLB pitchers during the 18 years that he played. In The Cooperstown Casebook, Jaffe asserts that Morris’ career win-loss record, equalized by the Pythagorean Theorem, would be 234-206 instead of the 254-186 that it actually is.

The fourth plank in the case against Morris is that his record is also inflated by the superior defensive squads that he pitched for. Take a look at the Tigers’ WAR leaders during Morris’ best five seasons (1983-1987).

The argument is that Morris was the beneficiary of the defensive skills of Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Chet Lemon. All three have a career WAR significantly higher than Morris’, with a significant portion of their value being attributed to defensive metrics. Also, Morris’ career BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .272, a full 14 points lower than the MLB average during his 18 years on the hill. The argument is that BABIP is inherently a function of the quality of a pitcher’s defense.

Trammell, incidentally, is one of the other eight players on the Modern Game ballot. His career WAR is 70.4 compared to Morris’ 43.8. Whitaker’s is even higher (74.9). Lemon’s mark is 55.5.

The fifth plank in the case against is that Morris was not the legendary post-season pitcher that we think of because of Game 7 in 1991. His overall October mark is 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA, which is a reflection of his regular season record. He pitched some great games to be sure but tossed several clunkers as well, especially in 1992 with the Blue Jays.

Ouch. This is all a pretty compelling case against.

The Hall of Fame Case For Jack Morris

The case to put Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame rests upon five arguments:

  1. He was a big game pitcher who helped his teams win championships, epitomized by Game 7 in 1991.
  2. He was an innings eater who saved his bullpens by pitching deep into ballgames.
  3. Why the wins matter.
  4. He was the best and/or the most historically significant pitcher of his generation.
  5. WAR, being an approximation subject to multiple subjective choices by its inventors, does not adequately reward Morris for his performance. Yes, folks, I’m going to go to war with WAR.

The “He Helped His Teams Win” Argument

Let’s start with the “big game” reputation. As we saw at the end of the “case against,” Morris’ post-season record contains some great performances but also some poor ones.

In 1992, whether it’s by WAR or by ERA, Morris (who went 21-6 with a 4.04 ERA) was actually Toronto’s fourth best starting pitcher, behind Juan Guzman (16-5, 2.64 ERA), Jimmy Key (13-13, 3.53 ERA) and mid-season acquisition David Cone (4-3, 2.55 ERA in 8 appearances).

When he was on the hill, Morris was rewarded with 5.6 runs per start by his team’s hitters, a full run per start better than Guzman received so let’s accept for the moment that maybe the 25-year old Guzman deserved to be the team’s 20-game winner. Still, in 12 of Morris’ wins, he pitched at least 7 innings and gave up 2 runs or less. In two other wins he pitched into (but didn’t finish) the 7th and gave up 2 runs or less. In another win, he tossed 8 innings of 3-run ball. In another, he did the minimum for a quality start, 6 innings of 3-run ball. In fairness, he had 5 cheap wins in which he game up 4 or more earned runs.

In the Blue Jays’ 1992 World Championship run, Morris went 0-3 with a 7.43 ERA so it’s fair to say his team gave him that third ring, just as Morris was almost single-handedly responsible for the Twins’ 1991 title. So, it’s true that Big Game Jack’s overall post-season ERA (3.80) is nothing special but it’s because of that one post-season. In his first 9 October starts, Morris went 7-1 with a 2.60 ERA.

What’s the point of this boring story? The point is that, in the regular season, Morris won 21 games and the Blue Jays won the division by just four games. Even if we discount his five cheap W’s, it’s fair to say that the Jays would not have made the 1992 post-season without the free agent acquisition of Morris.

If you wanted to invent a category called “Rings Above Replacement” (how many rings did a player help his team’s win), Morris probably deserves two. The ’91 Twins absolutely positively won the Fall Classic because of Morris. The ’92 Jays might not have made the playoffs without Jack on the hill for his 21 wins. The ’84 Tigers were a superteam (they won the A.L. East by 15 games) so the loss of any one player wouldn’t have kept them out of the playoffs. However, it’s an unknown if the team would have won the World Series without Morris’ two complete games (won by scores of 3-2 and 4-2). So, let’s give him one “Ring Above Replacement” for his essential role in ’91 and half a “Ring Above Replacement” for his post-season contribution in ’84 and his regular season contribution if ’92.

A lot of Hall of Fame voters look upon post-season heroics as “extra credit” for a Cooperstown resume. I put much, much more stock into October baseball. For me, his 1991 Game 7 ten-inning shutout was worth 30 to 50 regular season wins.

He didn’t always deliver in October but he did it twice and in a big way.

The Innings Eater

Whether you think he’s a Hall of Famer or not, there’s no doubt whatsoever that Morris was a workhorse. 7 times in his 18 seasons, Morris was in the top five in the American League in Innings Pitched. In 7 different seasons, he was in the top three in the A.L. in Complete Games. Starting in Morris’ rookie season, here is the list of the top 5 pitchers in baseball with the most Complete Games.

What makes Morris’ total all the more remarkable for his generation was that, for 11 1/2 of his 18 seasons, his manager was Sparky Anderson, who was known as Captain Hook when he was skippering the Cincinnati Reds dynasty in the 1970’s. Nobody went to the bullpen more often than Sparky but, in the A.L. and the lack of need for pinch-hitting for the pitcher, in Morris he found a horse that he trusted to go the distance. Morris completed nearly a third of his starts in his entire career. In his years with Anderson at the helm in the dugout, he completed 151 out of 387 starts (39%).

But it wasn’t just the complete games. Morris went deep into games (8+ innings) more than any pitcher in the last 41 years.

If you take out the first two and the last two years of his career and look just at the 14 years when he was a full-time starter (and qualified for the ERA title), he went 8 or more innings in 241 out of 464 starts (52%). The second highest total for those 14 years was belongs to Charlie Hough (who made 166 starts of 8+ IP).

Interestingly, the 8th inning was Morris’ worst. In his career, his 8th inning ERA (4.47) was the worst of all 9 innings of the game. When Morris reached the 9th, however, he was highly effective, posting a 2.78 ERA in 165.1 innings while holding opposing batters to a .208 average.

Morris as 9th inning closer:

Don’t worry. There wasn’t a Smoltz-esque part to the career of Jack Morris that you missed. Morris only appeared out of the bullpen 22 times in his career, all but one of those appearances in 1978. What I was curious about was how he performed in the 9th inning in what would have been a save situation if a new pitcher had entered the game.

Detroit News

To do this, I went through all of Morris’ career game logs on Baseball Reference, downloaded and sorted them, focusing on the games in which he pitched into the 9th inning. There were 68 games in his career where Morris went out to finish the game in what would have been a save situation for a closer (a lead of 1 to 3 runs). In those games, Morris (had he been a closer as a clone of himself) would have been credited with a save 49 times, with just 3 blown saves. In 10 other games, he would have gotten what today we call a “hold,” where he held the lead but didn’t finish the game. In 5 games, he allowed the first batter to reach base and was taken out after that one batter.

All told, his performance as the “closer” to his own games is pretty darn great for someone who had already labored for 8 innings: 49 saves, 10 holds, 3 blown saves and a 2.97 ERA.

Since the mound was lowered in 1969, there have been 16 pitchers who who started at least 150 games and pitched into the 9th inning. Those 16 are the 10 existing Hall of Fame starters from the last 49 years plus Morris, John, Tanana, Vida Blue, Jerry Koosman, and Jerry Reuss.

Here are the five best in both ERA and batting average against (BAA).

Morris’ 9th inning record and ERA are this low despite the fact that, during the games in which he was relieved during the 9th inning, he is credited with 51 earned runs allowed but 40 runs allowed. This means that 11 earned runs were charged against him because those succeeding him on the mound allowed the inherited runners to score. This is the highest number among the 16 starting pitchers who have 150 or more games pitched in the 9th.

Don’t Kill the Wins

In the sabermetric community, there is a movement, led by MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, to “kill the win.” The concept is that wins and losses are subject to the randomness of run support and bullpens blowing leads to cost a starter his win or a team rallying to take a starter off the hook for a loss. In today’s game, where more relief pitchers are used than ever before, killing the win might make sense. But when Jack Morris was pitching, wins still mattered.

In the short version of the Morris Hall of Fame case, it’s that he won the most games in the 1980’s. He had 162 wins in the decade, 22 more than runner-up Dave Stieb.

“Most wins in the ’80s” is a junk stat, like “OPS from Aug. 24 through [the] end of season” or “batting average in day games in even-numbered innings during Ramadan.” You know, the kind of thing stupid people think is sabermetrics.

— Jason Brannon (SB Nation, Dec. 17, 2012)

Brannon has a point and I partially agree with it. However, his comparative example of OPS from Aug. 24 through the end of the season is meant to amuse; a period of ten years represents a large sample size and is not to be completely discounted.

It’s true that, by choosing a particular decade, you are in essence gerrymandering the results for a player or pitcher who happened to toil during the years in questions. But, on Baseball Reference, we can also look at who led the majors in wins from 1978-1987 or from 1983-1992 or any other period in time you wish to analyze.

The truth is that Jack Morris led all of MLB in wins in the 10-year periods from 1977-86, from 1978-87, 1979-88, 1980-89, 1981-90, 1982-91 and 1983-92. For seven consecutive rolling periods of 10 years, Morris won more games than anybody else in baseball. If you do this once, maybe it’s a fluke, but seven times?

Look at the names of the other pitchers with at least six 10-year periods in time in which they had the most wins.

That’s some pretty strong company, don’t you think? In fact, if you take the list of every pitcher to lead the majors in wins for a 10-year stretch, going from 1878-87 to 1999-08, all but two pitchers are in the Hall of Fame.

The non Hall of Famers are Paul Derringer, who led all MLB in wins from 1934-43 and Bucky Walters, who has the honor for four cycles in a row, 1935-44 through 1938-47. Derringer legitimately had the most during his years, besting Red Ruffing by 3 wins. Walters, however, likely owes the honor because the best pitcher in baseball at the time, Hall of Famer Bob Feller, lost nearly four years from 1942-45 serving in World War II. Rapid Robert led either the majors or the A.L. in wins in the three years prior and two years after his military service.

The key element of this discussion is to clearly understand that, in the case of Morris, his wins mattered. He also led all of MLB in complete games for 9 consecutive 10-year cycles (from 1977-86 through 1985-94). By being the workhorse who finished more games than any other pitcher in his generation, he won more games than any other pitcher in his generation. That matters.

Morris also led the majors in innings pitched from 1978-87 and the next five 10-year cycles after that. The workload for this workhorse eventually caught up to him. After averaging 241 innings pitched for 13 seasons, he fell to 152.2 in 1993 and 141.1 in ’94, with his productivity shot. Because he wasn’t able to pitch into his 40’s, Morris fell short of the traditional Hall of Fame benchmark of 300 wins. Take a look, though, at how he ranks among all MLB pitchers who logged less than 4,000 career innings.

At the time his career ended (after 1994), Morris had 254 wins. At that time, only two pitchers (John and Kaat) had more wins among pitchers who would not eventually get into the Hall of Fame.

The win total for Morris matters. They mattered then. They matter now.

Best (or Most Significant) Pitcher of his Generation?

So, how do you define the Jack Morris generation?

This is an important part to a case in favor of Morris and the Hall of Fame. If you match him up to the dominant hurlers from the 1970’s (the nine who are in the Hall of Fame), he compares favorably only to Catfish. If you match him up to the luminaries of the 1990’s (Clemens plus the five that are now enshrined in Cooperstown), he doesn’t have the volume or quality of work to match.

But there’s a big gap in between. Blyleven was the last of the great ’70’s aces to make his MLB debut; it was in 1970. Among the ’90’s greats, Clemens was the first to toe the rubber; his rookie year was in 1984. In between (from 1971 to 1983), there were 54 different pitchers who premiered in the big leagues who would go on to have careers in which they logged at least 2,000 innings. Only one of those 54 hurlers (Dennis Eckersley) is in the Hall of Fame and he’s there because of his dual career as starter and closer.

In the previous 13 years (1958-1970), 62 pitchers debuted who would go on pitch at least 2,000 MLB innings; 12 of those 62 have plauqes in Cooperstown.

If you have triskaidekaphobia, I apologize for using 13-year windows on this chart.

The 13-year windows of time are somewhat random, designed to fit the 1971-1983 gap. I could have chosen 15 years, since Clemens (debuting in ’84) is actually not in the Hall of Fame due to his use of PEDs. The first window (1871-1879) is only 9 years long because recorded baseball history starts in 1871.

The point here is that the period of time spanning 1971 to 1983 is utterly bereft of starting pitcher representation in Cooperstown. The only three pitchers who debuted during those three years were primarily or exclusively relievers (Eckersley, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter).

There is room in the Hall of Fame for a representative (or two or three) of the Morris generation. Morris himself debuted in 1977, right smack-dab in the middle of this Cooperstown-lacking generation of starting pitchers. So, using WAR as a preliminary sorting tool, here are the top 10 starting pitchers to debut between ’71 and ’83.

This is not a bad list. Orel Hershiser, Ron Guidry, Frank Viola and Bob Welch all won Cy Young Awards. Still, there are no obvious selections and it’s clear why this generation of hurlers is currently unrepresented in Cooperstown. There is no dominant figure on this list, no multiple Cy Young Award winners and no 300-game winners.

Because he is often the pitcher named by the sabermetric community as the “best pitcher of the 1980’s,” we’ll tackle the Morris comparison with Dave Stieb last.

First, how does the 1991 World Series MVP stack up with the other 8 hurlers on these lists.

Rick ReuschelWhen I first looked at WAR years ago, I couldn’t believe how high Big Daddy ranked. I always considered him a solid #2 or #3 starter but not remotely resembling a Hall of Famer. The writers agreed; Reuschel got just 2 votes (0.4%) on his only appearance on the ballot in 1997. Reuschel’s high WAR is a result of his ability to limit home runs allowed (especially for his years pitching in Wrigley Field with the Cubs) and the brutal quality of some of the defensive squads that played behind him (again mostly in Chicago).

His best season was in 1977, when he went 20-10 with a 2.79 ERA for the Cubs, who were a .500 club that season. It helped that it was also Bruce Sutter’s best season; the split-fingered specialist saved 8 of Reuschel’s 20 wins. Anyway, for that one season, the big righty was credited with 9.4 WAR.

Reuschel appeared in 3 post-season series and, overall, did not do well. In three World Series appearances (with the Yankees in 1981 and the Giants in 1989), he posted a 8.22 ERA in 7.2 innings.

In terms of career run prevention, Reuschel was a superior pitcher but if you consider each pitcher’s relative impact on the history of the baseball, there’s no comparison between Reuschel and Morris.

Frank Tanana: The California Angels’ first round pick of the 1971 draft looked, early in his career, like a Hall of Famer in the making. In his age 21 season (1975), the hard-throwing lefty led the majors with 269 strikeouts. The next year, pitching for a bad team, he went 19-10 with a 2.43 ERA and 261 strikeouts. Also featuring a devastating curve and impeccable control, by the end of his age 24 season (1978), Tanana’s WAR was 31.3. Only 4 starters in the 20th century had a higher WAR through their age 24 seasons (Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Blyleven and Feller).

Tanana averaged 259 innings and 16 complete games in his first five seasons and the abuse of his young arm reduced him to a junkballer for the balance of his career. For the last 14 of his 21 MLB seasons, Tanana went 156-175 (.471) with a 4.03 ERA. He and Morris were teammates in Detroit from 1985-1990.

His peak years were excellent but not long enough to make a Cooperstown case. He did not get a single vote in his lone appearance on the BBWAA ballot in 1999.

Orel Hershiser: The lanky right-hander known as Bulldog is only on this list because he technically made his MLB debut in 1983, pitching 8 innings out of the bullpen. Hershiser, despite injuries that limited his overall career numbers, is legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. He was a great post-season pitcher (going 8-3 with a 2.59 ERA) and set the MLB record with 59 consecutive scoreless innings to close out the 1988 regular season, a year in which his Los Angeles Dodgers would go on to win the World Series, thanks in large part to Orel.

Hershiser’s primary contributions in MLB occurred after 1987 so he was on a different Eras Committee ballot (the Today’s Game ballot) last year.

If there’s anyone on this list besides Morris that has a really strong Hall of Fame case, it’s Hershiser.

Dennis MartinezStatistically speaking, El Presidente’s regular season record is the one that most closely resembles Morris’. The pride of Nicaragua was a late bloomer, having battled alcoholism for the early part of his career. It wasn’t until the second half of his age 33 season in 1987 that he solidified himself as a consistent MLB starter. He didn’t make his first All-Star squad until he was 36 years old. However, by pitching at a high level into his 40’s, he wound up with an impressive overall career record.

Take a look at Morris vs. Martinez through their age 32 seasons and beyond:

Each pitcher has a no-hitter on their resume (for El Presidente, a perfect game) but Morris has three rings; Martinez has none.

What hurts Martinez is that the most wins he ever had in a single season was 16. He won 16 games four times, won 15 or more 7 times and 14 or more 10 times. In today’s game, those low win totals would be fine but, as we’ve seen, Martinez pitched 8 innings or more 190 times out of his 560 career starts. Nor can his lack of a high-win season be attributed to pitching for bad teams. Not counting the strike-shortened seasons of 1981 and ’94, in 12 different campaigns Martinez pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title. Six of the teams he pitched for in those years won 90 or more games. 11 of the 12 won at least 81 games.

Morris finished in the top 5 of the Cy Young voting on five different occasions; Martinez did that just twice. Morris won 17 or more games eight different times; Martinez didn’t do it once. If they ever create an age 34 and older version of the Hall of Fame, El Presidente would be an excellent candidate but, in the one that exists in Cooperstown, New York, Morris is a much better choice.

Ron Guidry: The New York Yankees left-hander, dubbed Louisiana Lightning, sure looked like a future Hall of Famer in 1978, the year he went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA and won the A.L. Cy Young Award. I remember the first time I ever saw Guidry in person. It was June 17th, 1978 (I was 11 years old) and I was sitting in the upper deck, behind home plate. Gator struck out a career-high 18 members of the California Angels in a 4-hit shutout that night. There was an electricity in the ballpark that I didn’t experience again until the heyday of Dwight Gooden with the Mets in the mid-1980’s.

1978 was Guidry’s signature campaign but he had 5 other seasons in which he finished in the top 7 of the Cy Young balloting. Overall, he won 20 games or more 3 times and won 2 World Series rings with the Yankees.

This is what the career numbers looked like for both Morris and Guidry at the end of the 1987 season, when they had almost the same number of innings pitched.

Based on peak value, Guidry has a legitimate Hall of Fame case and, if he had pitched for the Bronx Bombers in the first half of the 20th century and posted the same record, he’d probably already have a plaque. Still, 2,392 career innings is a low number and his 170 win total is low too. As good as he was, his career was too short. Guidry lasted for 9 years on the BBWAA ballot but never got above 9% of the vote.

After 1987, Morris, although not the same caliber pitcher that he had been prior, pitched long enough to get another 92 wins and two more World Series rings.

Frank Viola: The New York born left-hander looked like a Hall of Famer in the making when he helped lead the Minnesota Twins to the 1987 World Series title and followed it up with a 24-7, 2.64 ERA campaign in which he won the A.L. Cy Young. In July, 1989, he was traded to his hometown New York Mets in exchange for four players, including Kevin Tapani and Rick Aguilera, two key pitchers on the Jack Morris-led Twins of 1991.

By my reckoning, Sweet Music had four Hall of Fame caliber seasons and two other good ones. The problem is that, at the age of 34, after six starts with the Boston Red Sox in 1994, he underwent Tommy John surgery, effectively ending his career. He pitched just 44.2 innings after coming back from the surgery. Therefore, his career total of 176 wins (with a 3.73 ERA) leaves him far short of the Hall of Fame. He received a total of 2 votes (0.4%) in his one ballot appearance in 2002.

Steve Rogers: In October, he’s best remembered for giving up the go-ahead home run to the Dodgers’ Rick Monday in his Game 5 relief appearance in the 1981 NLCS. What’s forgotten is that, in three previous post-season appearances (all starts), he went 3-0 with a 0.68 ERA.

A long-time ace for the Montreal Expos, Rogers was a very good pitcher, one of the three to five best for a seven-year period (1977-83). By ERA, he was the 2nd best only to Carlton. By WAR or ERA+, only Carlton and Guidry were better. In 1982, he deserved to win the N.L. Cy Young Award but was beaten out by Carlton.

His career was of similar quality to Guidry’s except that he pitched for mostly poor Expos squad in Canada while Guidry pitched in the bright lights of New York City for a perennial post-season contender. Like Guidry, his career ended too soon to be a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. Because of shoulder woes, Rogers only threw 38 innings after his 34th birthday.

Bob Welch: Welch is more famous for one at bat than he is for winning the 1990 Cy Young Award. That one at bat is when, as a 21-year-old rookie, he struck out Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, to end Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. The Yankees got their revenge with a walk-off win off Welch in Game 4 and Reggie got his revenge with a two-run blast off Welch in the decisive Game 6.

Welch’s Cy Young campaign was in 1990; he went 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA. This was one of two All-Star campaigns and the only season in which he won more than 17 games. Because he spent his entire career throwing in pitcher-friendly Oakland and Los Angeles, his career 3.47 ERA translates to a 106 ERA+. That’s about the same number as Morris’ but Jack won 43 more games, threw 114 more complete games, had 3 more All-Star appearances and played a larger role in his teams’ three championships than Welch did in his teams’ two.

Morris vs. Stieb

DAVE STIEB (The Toronto Star)

This is the key comparison. Whenever Morris advocates throw out the “most wins in the 1980’s” argument, the Dave Stieb advocates throw back the Toronto right-hander’s significantly superior run-prevention metrics.

Le’t start by saying that it is an absolute fact Stieb has better run-prevention numbers during the totality of the two hurlers’ careers. He gave up fewer hits, home runs and walks per 9 innings than Morris did in his career.

From 1980-85 (a six-year span), Stieb was the best pitcher in baseball. He had the highest WAR (by a lot), the best ERA+ (by a lot) in all of baseball and the lowest ERA, WHIP, and BAA in the American League.

If you take a look at where the two hurlers stood after the 1990 season (an All-Star campaign for Stieb and a poor one for Morris), the only advantage to Morris is the win total (due to completing more starts and pitching on better teams in the early 1980’s).

If both players’ careers ended after 1990, I would have to rank Stieb above Morris. Other than the wins, his numbers were better. Also, he made 7 All-Star teams in the 1980’s (which included 2 starts) compared to 4 for Morris.

But that’s not what happened. Morris signed a free-agent contract with Minnesota for 1991 (and won the World Series) and then signed with Stieb’s Blue Jays in 1992 (and won the World Series). In the meantime, Stieb was hurt for most of both seasons and didn’t appear in either post-season.

After 1992, Morris had two mediocre campaigns (17-18, 5.91 ERA combined) in ’93 with Toronto and ’94 with Cleveland. Stieb pitched just 22.1 innings in 1993 with the Chicago White Sox, missed the next four seasons and, in a ’98 comeback with Toronto, posted a 4.83 ERA in 50.1 innings.

All in all, although Stieb’s career ERA of 3.44 and WAR of 57.0 were far superior to Morris’ 3.90 ERA and 43.8 WAR, Morris finished with 78 more wins. All team sports are ultimately about wins, losses and championships. Morris won more games. Morris won more championships (three to none).

It’s true the Morris had more chances to win rings (four playoff appearances to Stieb’s two) but Stieb did not acquit himself well in his two bites at the post-season apple. In 1985, the Blue Jays had a 3-to-1 series lead over the Kansas City Royals, thanks in part to two starts from Stieb in which he gave up just one run in 14.2 innings. But the Royals won Game 5 at home and Game 6 in Toronto, setting up a Game 7 showdown at Exhibition Stadium. The Jays’ ace right-hander gave up 6 runs in 5.2 innings and the Royals went on to win the World Series.

Then, in 1989, the Jays, again A.L. East champions, matched up with the Oakland Athletics. Stieb was the starter and loser in both Game 1 and the decisive Game 5, posting a 6.35 ERA in those two starts. It’s a small sample size to be sure but Stieb had two October “win or go home” starts and lost them both. Morris had one, and pitched 10 innings of shutout ball.

Stieb, by the way, has a pragmatic view of his own Cooperstown worthiness, In a recent interview with The Sporting News, he acknowledged that he “didn’t belong” in the Hall of Fame because he “didn’t win enough games.” He wasn’t happy, however, about being drummed off the BBWAA ballot after one year; he got just 7 votes (1.4%) on the 2004 ballot, saying “please amuse me and string me out for two or three years.”

Stieb, who today is very aware of his superior WAR, did say that “ERA is indicative of who’s better” but was highly complimentary of his 1992 teammate in Toronto:

“He was an awesome pitcher. He was an animal, a bulldog-like [workhorse], and wanted to win like no one else. I totally respect him and his skills and what he did. But if you had to look at everything, I think I was the best.”

— Dave Stieb (about Jack Morris and himself) (in The Sporting NewsFeb., 21, 2017)

Pound for pound, Stieb is right. He was the better pitcher. But showing up counts too. Morris started 115 more games, pitched 928.1 more innings and won 78 more games.

If you’re picking a “pitcher for the ’80’s,” just the 1980’s and not beyond, I’d be inclined to agree with the selection of Dave Stieb. If you’re picking the most historically important pitcher of his generation, it’s Jack Morris. If you’re picking a Hall of Famer, it’s Morris.

The Sabermetric Argument for Jack Morris

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Three of the arguments against Jack Morris for the Hall of Fame are that his career ERA was high, that his WAR was low, and that he had the benefit of great defensive teams behind him (notably the keystone combo of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker). We’re going to tackle all three of those arguments here.

Morris had a career ERA of 3.90, which would be the highest for any pitcher in MLB history in the Hall of Fame. It’s notable though, that Morris spent his entire career pitching in the American League, with the designated hitter, and all but one season in the rugged A.L. East. His career started in 1977, four years after the advent of the DH. It ended after the 1994 season, three years before the debut of interleague play in regular season games.

In his career, Morris faced 16,120 position players and not one pitcher. There is no hurler in the history of baseball with more position players faced without ever having the benefit of the “easy out” that the opposing pitcher usually provides.

Now, it’s true that ERA+ (the park-and-year-adjusted version of ERA) is supposed to take this into account. Therefore, Morris’ 3.90 career ERA is adjusted to a 105 ERA+ for the fact that he was an A.L. pitcher. It can’t, however, account for the cumulative wear and tear of pitching over an average of 245 innings without ever getting that easy out break.

If you take the 50 pitchers with the most “non-pitchers” faced since 1973, Morris’ .247 BAA (batting average against) is 11th best. He’s behind 7 Hall of Famers, Stieb, Charlie Hough and David Cone.

To use an example of the significance of this A.L. only factor, I’m going to pick one pitcher who is behind Morris on this list and offer a side-by-side comparison. That one pitcher is Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, a 305-game winner, who spent his entire career in the N.L.

This is not to take anything away from Glavine, a worthy Cooperstown inductee, but he had the enormous benefit of spending nearly two full seasons’ worth facing his opponents’ pitchers. The point here is that, when analyzing what Morris did, the workload that he shouldered in lineups that were stacked 1-to-9 needs to be taken into consideration. Morris’ results against non-pitchers, from a batting average and OPS perspective, are significantly superior than the numbers of a first ballot Hall of Famer. The lack of easy outs has a collateral impact on a pitcher’s ERA.

The Complexities of WAR

First of all, let me say that I believe in Wins Above Replacement and the goal of its existence. It’s the only statistic that has the ability to measure position players against pitchers. It’s a good way to try to compare players across eras. It’s a useful sorting tool to determine the overall worthiness or lack thereof of a group of players. But WAR must also be looked upon with skepticism. The outcomes of the mathematical formulas are objective but the creation of those formulas requires subjective judgment calls by its creators. Many of you may not know this but there are multiple versions of WAR. The one that we cite almost exclusively on “Cooperstown Cred” is from Baseball Reference but there are two other mainstream versions, one from Fan Graphs and the other from Baseball Prospectus.

When you start to look at how differently the three websites rate how WAR-thy each player is, you will be stunned at some of the differences and it might make you lose a little faith in the entire process. The way that WAR ranks pitchers on the three sites has the highest level of variation. There is a lot about pitcher performance that is subject to factors beyond each man’s control. The pitcher has no control over the quality of the defense behind him. The pitcher has no control over the dimensions of the ballpark he’s pitching in or the wind direction. The pitcher has no control of the quality of the opposing lineup. He has no control over who is umpiring behind the plate and whether said umpire favors hitters or pitchers.

Finally, to a certain extent, and this is the biggest mystery, the pitcher doesn’t have total control over what happens when the ball is put into play. To make a complex subject as simple as possible, Baseball Reference uses a runs allowed formula (both earned and unearned) with adjustments for the ballparks and quality of defense behind the pitcher. Fan Graphs’ WAR for pitchers is based on a concept called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which relies on the things that a pitcher does in which the defense has no control (issuing walks, getting strikeouts and giving up home runs).

Baseball Prospectus has a version (called WARP, adding the word “Player” after “Replacement”) which incorporates a unique metric called DRA (Deserved Run Average). DRA micro-targets the batter-by-batter performance of each pitcher, zooming in to the quality of each opposing hitter, the defense, the catcher, the umpire and the ballpark.

If you’re a believer in WAR and a Morris detractor, this is going to blow your mind. Take a look at the different WAR calculations for Morris and other notable starting pitchers that we’ve been discussing (and some we haven’t) and see how different the results are across the three websites.

Take a moment to linger over some of these numbers for a moment. Baseball Prospectus (WARP) lists John, Tanana, Martinez, Hershiser, Reuschel and Morris ahead of the legend Bob Gibson and far ahead of Glavine and Jim Palmer. Morris’ WARP is also ahead of Hall of Famers Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, and Phil Niekro. It could be subject of an entire book to explain the whys and wherefores of each pitcher’s wide variance in what each website perceives as their value.

Incidentally, I’m not trying to make the point that Tanana, Martinez, Hershiser or Reuschel should have a place in Cooperstown ahead of Morris. There are many other factors involved that have already been discussed. However, a new level of respect and analysis for the career of each is warranted. 

Anyway, there are two ways to respond to this. One is to throw your hands in the air and give up. That’s not the path that I would take.

The reason I showed this, in this piece, is to give some credit to Jack Morris for the things that have been denigrated by the sabermetric community, primarily that he labored his entire career in the unforgiving American League East. Please allow one of the Baseball Prospectus writers to elaborate:

“Our generation of baseball fans and analysts might have been wrong about Jack Morris. Let that sink in for a moment. We yelled and bickered and picked Morris’s career apart, and we won: Morris is not in the Hall of Fame… We told the world, in no uncertain terms, that Morris was an unimpressive compiler, a workhorse without distinctive merit… We might have been right, of course. But it looks a lot like we were wrong… This is a pretty compelling case that we were wrong about Morris, and that we’ve now done irreparable damage to his legacy by seeing that too late… It’s important to remember that no matter what you believe, there will almost surely come a point in the future at which you look stupid.”

— Matthew Trueblood, Baseball Prospectus (June 20, 2015)

(you can link to Trueblood’s full article on Baseball Prospectus here)

Here’s one other really important point about the various WAR calculations as it relates to the subject of our story. One of the narratives in the case against Morris is that a great deal of his success is due to the defensive contributions of Trammell and Whitaker (as well as Chet Lemon in center field). So, let’s look at the three websites and how they rank the relative WAR of Morris and his teammates.

Nobody who watched the Detroit Tigers in the 1980’s would doubt the contributions of Trammell, Whitaker and Lemon to the success of those teams but the notion that Morris was merely the beneficiary of their excellence defensively deserves a second thought here.

In his 14 years pitching at Tiger Stadium, Morris had a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .265. That’s the fifth lowest in MLB among all MLB pitchers for those 14 years. Since a pitcher’s BABIP is generally considered to be a random act not subject to their own skills, some detractors have actually used that low BABIP as an argument against Morris, making the case that he was merely the beneficiary of a great defense behind him. But take a look at this:

  • From 1977-1990, the Detroit Tigers (as a team), had the lowest BABIP of any team in baseball for games played at Tiger Stadium
  • In those same years, the Tigers (as a team) yielded the second most home runs in their home games, second only to the perennial doormat Seattle Mariners

For road games:

  • From 1977-1990, the Tigers (as a team), had a BABIP that was tied for 10th lowest (with three other teams).
  • In those same years, the Tigers (as a team), yielded just the 6th most home runs.
TIGER STADIUM (WordPress)

Morris, in his 14 years in a Tiger uniform, gave up 25 more home runs at home than he did on the road. His BABIP was 8 points lower at home than it was on the road. These same home/road splits are almost universally consistent with the results of other Tiger pitchers during these 14 seasons. The home run splits are also consistent with longtime Tigers hurlers Jim Bunning, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain in past years.

What’s the conclusion? The conclusion is that Tiger Stadium, at least from 1977-90, was a WAR-depressing ballpark for pitchers. The short porch in right field, especially with the upper deck that extended over the field, was highly conducive to home runs. If you have a ballpark that has a high propensity for the long-ball but also a propensity for a low BABIP, that’s going to be to the detriment of the pitchers because home run rates are considered the sole responsibility of pitchers while BABIP is attributed to the excellence (or lack thereof) of the defensive squads behind them.

Closing Thoughts

Whether you’re an advocate or a detractor, there’s no doubt that Jack Morris played an important role in the history of Major League Baseball. From his 14 Opening Day starts, his 3 All-Star Starts. his 3 World Championships and MLB-best Complete Games for the last 41 years, Morris was the personification of a workhorse, an ace.

You can go online and find many sabermetric arguments against Jack Morris as a Hall of Famer. The most thorough is from Sports Illustrated‘s Jaffe, on si.com, which covers some of the material in Chapter 6 of his excellent book, The Cooperstown Casebook. Incidentally, although I disagree with his conclusion here, this is the best book written about the Hall of Fame (in my opinion) since Bill James’ Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame. I will give Jaffe credit for being magnanimous in one of his concluding paragraphs in his beat-down of Morris.

“There’s no real joy in turning away Morris. Many of us who devoted time and energy to arguing against his case grew up watching his no-hitter, Game 7 shutout and other highlights from his 18-year career. We know he was a very good pitcher for a long time, an intense competitor and a sturdy workhorse. It takes a hard heart to avoid acknowledging the man’s pain in being close enough to taste his inevitable election, yet falling short due to forces unforeseen at the outset of his candidacy. He didn’t ask to become a battlefront in a cultural war.”

— Jay Jaffe, “The Cooperstown Casebook” (2017) (this portion also on si.com)

 

I’m not asserting that the analysis of Jaffe and the other critics is necessarily wrong. Based on the numbers as they exist on Baseball Reference, the analysis is valid. And, remember, you don’t need WAR to make that case. Morris’ 3.90 career ERA would be the highest of any starting pitcher in the Hall. My argument is that Morris pitched at a unique period in baseball history and, despite many blowout losses that padded his ERA, he was a dominant force during his period in history. My second argument is that his win and complete game totals mattered; they were unique to his particular generation. And my third argument is that the sabermetric science that puts Morris in the below-Cooperstown tier is not settled, as we saw in the last section.

The last line, that the sabermetric science is “not settled,” might one lead one to conclude that we should wait until it is settled before inducting Jack Morris to the Hall of Fame. My answer to that is that the poor guy has had to wait long enough. Let’s stop torturing him. Until we invent a time machine and can send a brigade of sabermetricians back in time to document every game in MLB history the way we do it today, we’re never going to exactly know how to properly analyze the statistics for players of Morris’ generation. His wins are real. His complete games are real. His rings are real. Game 7 was real and if you asked Morris if he would trade that game for 50 more regular season wins, I guarantee you his answer would be an emphatic “No.” To me, that 10-inning masterpiece was worth 50 regular season wins.

On MLB Network’s MLB Now, the official MLB historian John Thorn made a comment to host Brian Kenny that “Jack Morris should be in the Hall of Fame because he was famous.” That’s not enough, obviously. Morris’ Tigers teammate Kirk Gibson was famous and nobody thinks he should be in the Hall.

The point is that Morris was famous as the game’s durable workhorse long before his epic performance in Game 7 of the ’91 Series. I met Thorn at a SABR conference a couple of months after that MLB Network appearance and we talked about Morris. He made a comment, almost as if he had plucked it directly out of my brain: “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of WAR.”

It’s time for Jack Morris to have his moment in the sun and a plaque in the Hall of Fame. And, because he’s usually a part of MLB Network’s coverage of the ceremonies, it will be noteworthy and appropriate that John Smoltz, his adversary in Game 7 of the ’91 Fall Classic, will be there to enjoy Jack’s day in the Cooperstown sun.

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Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

2 thoughts on “The Definitive Analysis about Jack Morris and the Hall of Fame”

    1. Thanks for noticing that. Technically speaking, you’re correct that Martinez was a member of the 1983 Orioles and I’m sure he has a ring. He went 7-16 with a 5.53 that year and did not participate in the post-season. Technically, Morris has 4 rings because he was a member of the ’93 Blue Jays (went 7-12 with a 6.19 ERA). Again, he didn’t participate in the playoffs.

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