Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Who was the best Tiger of the 1980s?
By David Schoenfield
Jack Morris, left, and Alan Trammell, right, were both on this year's HOF ballot; Lou Whitaker fell off.
In 1978, four rookies helped the Tigers win 86 games, ending a stretch of four consecutive losing seasons. That group -- Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish -- would be the core of a team that would finish over .500 for the next decade, peaking with a 104-win season and World Series title in 1984 and another American League East title in 1987. While it wasn't exactly historic -- the Tigers would win 90-plus games just three times in that 11-year stretch -- it was certainly a terrific run of success.
Yet that club has just one Hall of Famer so far -- manager Sparky Anderson.
Morris, of course, has a chance to get in when the balloting results are announced Wednesday. But is he the right Tiger who should go in? Trammell remains on the ballot as well, but received just 37 percent of the vote last year. Whitaker, despite strong but underappreciated credentials, fell off the ballot after one year. Their career stats:
Obviously, if you're WAR believer, Morris lags well behind his double-play combo. (Something to consider: How much better did those two make Morris?). Of course, we didn't have WAR back in the '80s, but it's also not correct to say -- as many writers point out in protest against the numbers geeks or in defense of Morris -- that we didn't have those fancy sabermetric stats back then. Of course we did. Bill James was writing his best-selling "Baseball Abstract" throughout the decade.
Let's do a quick survey of how the three players ranked in James' annual "Abstract," to give us another view of how they were viewed at the time.
1981 Morris: Fourth among starting pitchers (behind Fernando Valenzuela, Steve McCatty and Steve Carlton). Morris had a career-best 3.05 ERA in that strike season (it was also the lowest-scoring season in the AL between 1977 and 2012).
Trammell: Sixth among shortstops.
Whitaker: Seventh among second basemen.
1982 Morris: Fifth among starting pitchers (behind Carlton, Dave Stieb, Fernando and Steve Rogers).
Trammell: Fourth among shortstops (behind Robin Yount, Dave Concepcion and Dickie Thon).
Whitaker: Third among second basemen (behind Bobby Grich and Joe Morgan).
1983 Morris: Fifth among right-handed starters. One of his best seasons: 20-13, 3.34 ERA, led the AL in innings and strikeouts.
Trammell: Fourth among shortstops (behind Yount, Thon and Cal Ripken).
Whitaker: First among second basemen. Hit .320, won a Gold Glove, eighth in MVP voting (the only time he received MVP votes).
1984 Morris: James rated entire rotations instead of pitchers. Morris didn't rank in the top 10 in the AL in ERA or innings.
Trammell: Second among AL shortstops. Trammell was the World Series MVP, hitting .450 with two homers and six RBIs.
Whitaker: First among AL second basemen.
1985 Morris: Fourth among AL right-handers (behind Bret Saberhagen, Stieb and Bert Blyleven). In separate article on the Hall of Fame progress of active players, James wrote, "Among the pitchers of his generation, Jack Morris is the one who is making the strongest progress toward the Hall of Fame. It is not that he has done anything spectacular that immediately projects him forward, as Dwight Gooden did last year, but that he is picking up plusses here, there and everywhere, adding something almost every year.
Trammell: Third among AL shortstops (behind Ripken and Tony Fernandez).
Whitaker: First among AL second basemen. "May have been the only unanimous selection other than Gooden," James wrote.
1986 Morris: Fourth among AL pitchers. "He's probably three or four good years away from the Hall of Fame now."
Trammell: Fourth among AL shortstops (behind Fernandez, Ripken and Julio Franco).
Whitaker: Third among AL second basemen.
1987 Morris: Second among MLB right-handed starters (behind 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."
Trammell: Third among MLB shortstops (behind Ozzie and Fernandez). A little surprising that Trammell didn't rate ahead of Fernandez, after finishing second in the MVP vote (and he should have won it over George Bell).
Whitaker: Third among MLB second basemen.
1988 James did not publish a book in 1989.
1989 James published "The Baseball Book," but did not include player rankings. He did include his 1980s decade All-Star team and had Morris as the No. 3 starting pitcher, behind Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens. That's the argument, of course, that has essentially gained Morris momentum in recent years ("Most wins in the '80s.") Morris did pitch the most innings in the decade, and while defining a decade as artificial as any 10-year division, it is instructive to note what happened to the other top pitchers on James' all-decade team:
Dwight Gooden: Suffered shoulder injury in 1989.
Roger Clemens: All-time great.
Ron Guidry: First season didn't come until he was 26, so had a short career. Crushes Morris in career Cy Young shares -- he's 16th while Morris is 76th.
Bob Welch: 211-146, 3.47 in career, won a Cy Young award, received one vote for Hall of Fame.
John Tudor: Developed late and then got hurt, but was great for a few years.
Orel Hershiser: Led National League three consecutive years in innings pitched and then tore rotator cuff. Came back and managed to win 204 games. Fell off the ballot in second year.
Teddy Higuera: The little guy from Mexico could really bring it. Was 27 as a rookie and later had back surgery and then tore his rotator cuff.
Bret Saberhagen: Two-time Cy Young winner had thrown over 1,300 innings at age 25 (Morris had just under 600). Shoulder issues rest of career.
Dave Stieb: Had the second-most wins in the '80s. Averaged 275 innings from ages 24-27. Morris averaged 228 at the same ages. Shoulder and back injuries.
Fernando Valenzuela: Led league in innings at age 20. Averaged 269 innings from 21 through 25. Arm died.
You see what happened here, right? Most of the best pitchers of the '80s got hurt. With guys like Valenzuela, Gooden and Saberhagen, it's not surprising, seeing in retrospect the workloads they carried as young pitchers. This requires a more in-depth article, but the 1980s was a sort of transition decade: Teams were moving to five-man rotations, hitters were getting bigger and stronger, the 300-inning workloads of the 1970s had ceased, but pitchers weren't handled as carefully as now and medical and training techniques weren't as advanced.
Morris and Clemens -- both college pitchers, by the way -- weren't abused at a young age like some of the other top pitchers. They survived. Morris first threw 200 innings at age 24 (between the majors and minors) and threw 250 at age 25, but then had the shortened season at age 26. His first back-to-back big workloads didn't come until 27-28.
That makes Morris unique for his generation of pitchers -- but doesn't make his value more than what it was. But back to the point: Based on James' rankings, Morris was considered one of the best pitchers at the time -- not the No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 guy, but you don't have to be the very best to achieve Hall of Fame status.
Trammell and Whitaker also ranked consistently high and there was certainly a time when Whitaker was defended as the best second baseman in baseball. Trammell might not have quite achieved that status -- but, again, you don't have to be No. 1 to be a Hall of Famer (it would be a small Hall of Fame if that were the case). On the other hand, Morris probably was the most famous of the three. One year, James wrote that one of these days America would wake up and realize how great Whitaker was. That, unfortunately, never did happen, even though Whitaker remained effective until he retired after 1995 (he slugged .518 that year).
OK, this was really just a long post to give a reason to post the poll above. What do you think?