Jack Morris' big gain and bigger problems

January, 9, 2012
1/09/12
9:30
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Jack MorrisRonald C. Modra/Getty ImagesJack Morris made significant gains in his 13th year of voting, but will he ultimately get enough?
The subject of Jack Morris and the Hall of Fame seems to be the bright burning flame before the fireworks for Barry Larkin have finished going off. Morris' clock may have been running out, but after he reached 66.7 percent of the vote in the 13th year on the ballot, he might just slip into the Hall on his next-to-last or last chance.

There are too many layers to this onion to sort it out entirely and explain the sudden jump in votes. But in broad strokes, some of my fellow statheads seem to be looking for a new Cooperstown cause to champion now that Bert Blyleven has been given his belated due, while some of my fellow BBWAA members are looking to honor a “pitcher of the '80s.” Sticking with the broad strokes, those are both worthy goals. There have been too many mistakes already as far as the Hall has been concerned -- with Blyleven, Ron Santo and Lou Whitaker representing the worst cases -- while the '80s are a big chunk of recent history that deserves to be remembered.

But in this case these two parties wind up diametrically opposed about Morris. You’ve got mainstream commentators inventing, and then deriding, statheads’ supposed “joyless” worldview about Morris, while the blogosphere burns down any cobbled-together case made for him. I’ve always counted myself among the latter where Morris is concerned. Nevertheless, is there something to his case?

Now if we went with a definition of the “Big '80s” as 1980-1990, Morris handily leads the field with 177 wins, innings pitched (2,693 1/3) and starts (368). These numbers represent the pitcher that he was: a durable workhorse, usually pitching with support of good-to-great lineups and good-to-great defenses. At least this was the case up the middle when he had Whitaker and Alan Trammell plus Lance Parrish behind the plate and Chet Lemon in center. There’s no shame in that -- Morris was a critical component for the Tigers because of his durability. That shouldn't be the standard for best pitcher of a decade, though.

So the question is whether Morris was anywhere close to being the best pitcher of the decade? He clearly was not. Among the 68 guys who made 200 or more starts from 1980-90, Morris is tied for 22nd in ERA+, behind guys like Charlie Leibrandt or Bryn Smith. So let’s raise the bar to 300 starts -- Morris winds up tied for seventh out of 12 men, behind Dave Stieb, Bob Welch, Frank Viola, Nolan Ryan, Charlie Hough and Blyleven. Morris' “pitcher of the '80s” tag owes everything to his durability, not the quality of his work. If you want a pitcher of the '80s, it was Stieb, because he was almost every bit as durable as Morris (364 starts, 2537 1/3 IP), and significantly better (128 ERA+). And nobody’s firing up a Stieb-for-Cooperstown campaign.

None of this is to meant to diminish the value of Morris’ durability, though, and perhaps we take that for granted. In rushing to discredit arguments for and against Morris, perhaps neither side is doing a very good job of wrestling with a more fundamental issue: There is simply a shortage of "pitchers of the '80s" for which cases can be made.

That 11-year span of 1980-90 generated just a dozen men capable of pitching 300 or more turns. In contrast, 1970-80 produced 21 guys making 300 or more starts. The strike season of 1981 is responsible for a small fraction of the drop off, but even allowing for that fact only brings the ’80s close to the standards set since. During the “steroids era”: 1990-2000 gives another 16 300-game starters, and 2000-2010 just 15. So the number of guys we might broadly define as “workhorses” was lower in the '80s than in the period immediately before, and is also lower than what came after. That might speak well of Morris overall as a survivor in a generation that didn’t have many.

This hints at a broader historical problem. The '70s put all sorts of things out of whack for subsequent interpretation and analysis, where two key factors come into play. First, there’s the introduction of the DH in the AL in 1973. Second, immediately before 1973 you have a generation of young starting pitchers coming up at the end of the high-mound era -- perhaps the best time ever to be a young pitcher making his way to the majors because of low scores and short games.

Nolan Ryan might be the most famous member of that generation, but he was far from the only one who lasted forever. Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Jerry Reuss, Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver comprise a short list of all-time greats who made it to the majors long before Morris debuted in 1977, and who then wound up being his contemporaries. (You can also add Vida Blue, Tommy John, Jerry Koosman, Joe Niekro, Charlie Hough … the list goes on.) Morris barely outlasted this older cadre by the time his career ended in 1994, but he didn’t start off with the same advantages they did.

So on the one hand, with the addition of the DH you have something that makes pitching in the American League harder, and on the other, you have a new standard set for the kind of workloads that starters are supposed to be able to maintain. Morris faced this new combined challenge and survived, which makes him relatively rare among the first generation of starting pitchers who pitched during what we might call “the early DH era.”

To give Morris the benefit of the doubt, let’s stretch the scope to include 1973 to 1992 -- or the end of Morris’ career as an effective big-league starter. Put him in that context, and a stat like WAR still has little love for Morris. According to Baseball-Reference, he ranks just 17th overall among big league starters during the first two decades of the DH era. However, half of those 16 men ahead of Morris were his predecessors, older men who benefited from the high-mound and/or no DH.

Fair enough. Let’s look at him in the context of guys who, like Morris, arrived in big league rotations to stay in 1973 or later. Among the leaders in starts over those 20 years there are five guys we might call near-peers, starting pitchers who established themselves and endured at time when the DH was in play: Frank Tanana, Rick Reuschel, Doyle Alexander, Dennis Martinez and Morris. In that group, Morris and Martinez are the youngest, born just two days apart in May of 1955. Let’s switch to a table to spotlight the full careers of those five guys:



None of them ever finished higher than third on a Cy Young ballot during his career -- Morris and Reuschel both managed that twice. That’s symptomatic of the challenges they faced, following in the wake of that tremendous group of aces, and then combating the faster-fizzling or more fragile aces of the ’80s: briefly great starters such as Ron Guidry, Mario Soto or Steve Rogers.

Morris got the best run support within this small peer group, with 4.9 R/G. That goes a long way toward explaining why he gets the most wins, and why this conversation even exists. Contentions that Morris “pitched to the score” were refuted almost 15 years ago by the late Greg Spira, before it was easy to do the research. Meanwhile, Reuschel got the worst support with just 4.1 R/G, which is essentially why he ends up being the great forgotten workhorse while Morris gets kudos. Of course, Big Daddy Reuschel was also the one of these five who was in the NL for almost the entirety of his career -- and a Cub for most of it, the poor soul -- where everyone else on this list spent most of his career in the AL, with the benefit as well as the hazard of the DH.

Which leaves us where? Even with this much special pleading, Morris wasn’t even that remarkable among these few that make up this first cadre of the most durable starters who had to come up after the high-mound generation and having to face designated hitters. Being better than Doyle Alexander is really, really good, but is that really Hall of Fame-level good?

Putting someone in the Hall of Fame because this generation of pitchers risks being overlooked in Cooperstown represents a reasonable enough goal. But why Morris instead of Martinez, or Reuschel? Because he was fortunate in the teammates his teams put around him, where Reuschel obviously was not? Because he barely won more games than Martinez? Because he’s the one left on the ballot and still eligible? If that’s what we’re left with, that’s pretty weak. If the instinct is to be fair to an era as well as a good pitcher, does it make sense to reward this one but not the other, better pitchers who were his peers?

Of course Morris was one of the most durable pitchers of his generation -- he was, and you can love him for it, as we did watching him muscle through one outing after another back then. If you’re a believer in the virtues of a big Hall you might even almost talk yourself into voting for him. Going through this exercise brought me a lot closer to “maybe” than I initially thought possible. But even then, with as many allowances as you might make for Morris, he wasn’t exactly the most durable any more than he was anywhere close to the most effective. Which leaves us with a likely Hall of Famer who is going to wind up as an idiosyncratic generational selection as Jim Rice, Andre Dawson or Bruce Sutter were in recent years. And he is someone we’re just as likely to argue about after he gets elected as we have beforehand.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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