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Jack Morris, the Hall of Fame, the narrative

12/18/2012
Jack Morris threw all 10 innings in Minnesota's 1-0 win against Atlanta in Game 7 of the 1991 Series. AP Photo/Mark Duncan

In considering of Jack Morris and his Hall of Fame candidacy, I'd suggest that people have already chosen their stance -- in or out -- but that's not really the case. After all, Morris received 71 more votes in 2012 than 2011, despite eight fewer total ballots being sent in. So some people are changing their positions and if another sizable percentage of voters do so -- assuming the same number of ballots, Morris would need an additional 48 votes -- than Morris will get elected in his 14th year on the ballot.

It's possible that this is Morris' last best chance to get into Cooperstown, at least until he's voted on in some future incarnation of the Veterans Committee. Morris is the highest remaining holdover from last year's vote and has reached the percentage where enshrinement is usually guaranteed. Of course, this year's ballot includes many worthy newcomers, but the ties of several of them to performance-enhancing drugs means their enshrinement is unlikely. On the other hand, the ballot now includes many viable Hall of Fame candidates and it's possible some writers who voted for Morris a year ago won't find room on their 10-man ballots this year. If Morris doesn't get elected, next year -- his 15th and final year on the ballot -- won't be automatic either. The additions of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and even Mike Mussina -- all clearly Morris' superiors as pitchers -- means Morris may not receive that boost to get over the 75 percent threshold, as borderline players often see a drop in their vote totals when inner-echelon Hall of Famers join the ballot.

Anyway, many words and columns have been about written about Morris for many years now. I'm not going to go completely down that windy road again, but I do want to present this little table:

Pitcher A is Morris. Pitcher B is a new player on this year's ballot: David Wells.

I suppose the idea of comparing Morris to Wells may seem a little silly to some of you, but the two ended up with similar career totals: Morris won a few more games, but Wells had the higher winning percentage. Morris threw a few more innings, but Wells was close -- pretty remarkable considering his first full season as a starting pitcher didn't come until he was 30 years old -- and while Wells' career ERA is higher, once you adjust for the offensive environments each pitched in, Wells' ERA is actually a little better.

Morris, of course, pitched the Game 7 shutout in the 1991 World Series, while Wells was an excellent postseason pitcher. Morris went 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA in 13 starts (five complete games) but Wells went 10-5 with a 3.17 ERA (17 starts and 10 relief appearances). Wells beats Morris in career Wins Above Replacement, and pretty easily.

But while Morris may get elected to Cooperstown this year, Wells will almost surely receive less than 5 percent of the vote and fall of the ballot. In the case of these two, there is a wide gap between popular reputation and statistical résumé: Morris was a horse, an ace, a staff leader and a tough guy with the tough-guy mustache; Wells was a goofball who was out of shape, wore Babe Ruth's cap to the mound and partied too much.

"He was the last of a breed," Sparky Anderson told Sports Illustrated of Morris in 2003. "Somebody who actually comes to the park with anger to beat you. I never went near him when it was his day to pitch." After that World Series game in 1991, Twins pitching coach Dick Such said, "Tonight, he was a racehorse, a thoroughbred. He was going to run and run and run and not stop until his heart burst." The Jack Morris story always starts, with one of the great games ever pitched. Stories about Wells usually involve things like gout and beer.

* * * *

On his first year on the ballot in 2000, Morris received 22 percent of the vote. I suppose you could argue that indicates those most immediately familiar with Morris didn't initially view him as a Hall of Famer, or even anything close to one. Dale Murphy was on his second year on the ballot that year and Morris received five fewer votes. Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe probably summed up a lot of voters' opinions then when he wrote, "Morris is a worthy candidate and was a terrific big-game pitcher (remember the seventh game of the 1991 World Series?), but a 3.90 ERA is too high for the Hall. (Jim) Kaat (283 wins) is probably a better candidate and has never gotten a sniff. (Bert) Blyleven (287 wins, 3.31 ERA) is a better choice than both, but can't get voters' attention."

The Hall of Fame voting process is an odd thing to anaylze. Some candidates' vote totals surge for reasons sometimes explicable and sometimes not, while others' stagnate. Murphy, for example, peaked in 2000 but fell to 9 percent by 2004. Blyleven, who received fewer votes than Morris in 2000, surged with the help of an Internet campaign that used, in part, sabermetrics to argue his cause. I think the support for Blyleven helped Morris in many regards, because a large numbers of the voters clearly view the two in the same light: Innings eaters, durable, good for a long time if never quite the best pitcher in the game (neither won a Cy Young Award). Of course, the fact that Blyleven and Morris aren't really close in value -- Blyleven finished in the top five in his league in ERA seven times while Morris did it just twice (fifth both times), to cite one measurement -- doesn't matter all that much. As with Wells, we're talking about perception.

In that 2003 article on Morris -- interestingly, from what I can tell, Sports Illustrated never did a full-length feature on Morris while he was active -- Tom Verducci wrote about the moment when Twins manager left Morris in to pitch the 10th inning in Game 7:

Kelly turned. He looked Morris in the eye.

"I can pitch," Morris said.

Kelly paused, then said, "Oh, hell. It's only a game."

"He was giving me the chance to take myself out," says Morris. "But I think he wanted me to look him in the eye and say, 'I'm not going nowhere. This is my game."

I suppose some of the increase in Morris' vote totals can be attributed to a backlash against the steroids era. Again though: Why Morris and not Murphy? Why Morris and not Keith Hernandez or Don Mattingly or Alan Trammell or some other star of the 1980s? Is it fame? Was Morris more famous than those guys? It's hard to argue that he was. Having been a fan in the 1980s, I can assure you that there were certainly other pitchers of that era as "famous" as Morris: Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Dave Stewart, Bret Saberhagen, guys who never get elected. Heck, Saberhagen won two Cy Young Awards and also pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series. I can tell that you while Morris was certainly perceived as one of the better pitchers of that decade, he was never perceived as the best at any given time. (You often see Morris supporters point out he won the most games in the decade, which is true; among pitchers with at least 1,500 innings, he also had the 28th-best ERA.)

This isn't meant to turn into an anti-Jack Morris piece. Frankly, there is already too much unnecessary anger out there over the Morris debate, with the sabermetric crowd lashing out at the pro-Morris bloc and vice versa. If anything, that has probably worked to fuel the Morris case as much as anything: Backlash against statistics and WAR and bloggers and vitriol, and in favor of a simpler time, when you could look a manager in the eye and say, "This is my game."