Thursday, December 30, 2010
Jack Morris just doesn't pass muster
The debate about whether Jack Morris deserves to be in the Hall of Fame continues.
In the latest entry in Joe Posnanski's Hall of Fame blowout, Joe gives the thumbs-down -- reluctantly, I'm sure, because Joe's such a nice guy -- to Harold Baines, John Franco, Juan Gonzalez, Don Mattingly, John Olerud, Dave Parker, Lee Smith, and ... Jack Morris.
Morris is the key figure here, because of course Morris is the cause célčbre of so many Hall of Fame voters. Joe writes at some length about all those fine players listed above, because that's what Joe does (and does so brilliantly). All of Joe's words are useful and valuable, because each of those players have Hall of Fame qualifications, and each has his fans. But with the possible exception of Lee Smith, Morris is the only one of these candidates with any real chance of election in the foreseeable future.
I have spent way too much of my life explaining why I don’t think Jack Morris is quite a Hall of Famer. I have made the point that his 3.90 ERA would be the highest in the Hall of Fame, and I simply don’t see what Morris did ˙˙that would make his Hall of Fame case especially compelling beyond that. He did not win 300 (254), he did not strike out 3,000 (2,478), he did not have any historically great years (he never even finished a season with a sub-3.00 ERA). His WHIP (1.206) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.78-to-1) are nothing special.
And I’ve made this comparison before:
Jack Morris: 527 starts, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+
Rick Reuschel: 529 starts, 3.37 ERA, 114 ERA+
The cases made for Morris have been, in my opinion, not particularly convincing or even intellectually honest. That Morris won more games than any pitcher in the 1980s is a nice piece of trivia, but even if you stay in the fairly uninteresting realm of pitcher wins it’s worth pointing out that Morris did not solely lead baseball in wins EVEN ONCE in the 1980s. Not a single time. In the strike year of 1981, if you want to count that year, his 14 wins tied him with Dennis Martinez, Tom Seaver, Pete Vuckovich and Steve McCatty for most wins. You would think that even the most passionate Morris fan would not trumpet that. But there is no other year to trumpet. Other than that year, he did not even tie for the lead in wins one single time in the 1980s.
This would make Morris, in that pointed phrase that Morris fans seem to despise, a “compiler of stats.”
These words mean more coming from Joe than they would coming from me, because Joe is a longtime Hall of Fame voter and also (in case I didn't mention this already) a really nice guy. He can get away with calling the arguments for Morris intellectually dishonest (or terribly misguided) in a way that perhaps I can't. Whether that means that at least a few voters will actually change their minds because of what Joe's written, I don't know. But at least he's fighting the good fight.
People often ask how a voter can operate this way. Did someone’s stats change? Of course the stats won’t change. So either you’re a Hall of Famer or you’re not a Hall of Famer.
Well, no. First of all, we are now in possession of data that wasn’t available in years past. Some people have benefited greatly from what we shall call the Bill James New Math. Secondly, some things just look better over time. In addition to the other valid reasons to vote for Blyleven, the man had 60 shutouts!
As for Morris, the biggest “yeah, but’’ on him is his career 3.90 ERA, which would be the highest among Hall of Fame pitchers. Well, either you buy into the notion that Morris pitched to win the game and not to protect his stats, or you don’t. Either you buy into the notion that he would win 7-5 or 6-4 complete games because he’d give up the solo homer in the eighth or ninth before he’d walk a man, or you don’t.
Well, Bob, you're batting .500.
Look, I appreciate the possibility that Morris was better than his ERA, that he really did "pitch to win the game" rather than "protect his stats." But there's no need to blindly "buy into the notion" or not, because WE HAVE THE MATH.
And it's not even the Bill James New Math. It's just the basic, everyday math that's been around for something like a century. It's just a matter of taking the time and doing the work. And here's the really crazy thing: It was done nearly seven years ago.
Seriously. Eight years ago, Joe Sheehan engaged in The Jack Morris Project, in the process of which Joe went through Morris' entire career, start by start by start by start, looking for whatever evidence might be found to support the notion that Morris "pitched to the score" any more than other pitchers do.
I can find no pattern in when Jack Morris allowed runs. If he pitched to the score -- and I don't doubt that he changed his approach -- the practice didn't show up in his performance record.
I tracked a couple of extra categories for Morris, things that I thought might fit someone "pitching to the score." Morris made 527 starts, and in 235 of them, 44.6%, he gave up the first run of the game. He had 41 career starts in which he allowed no runs, so unless he was perfect that day Morris was as likely as not to put the Tigers behind.
Setting aside those games in which he allowed the first run, Morris gave up a Tiger lead in another 109 starts. [Note: the definition of "blowing a lead" is extremely generous. Morris had to be on the mound when the go-ahead run scored. This excludes all leads blown by relievers, even if the runs scoring were charged to Morris.]
Of everything I've presented here, I believe this is the one point that best refutes the arguments for Jack Morris as a Hall of Famer. We know his raw numbers don't stack up, and we know he has some bonus markers-a no-hitter, Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, three other championship rings. What we now know is that instead of "pitching to the score," as his supporters claim he did, Morris actually put his team behind in 344 of his 527 career starts. All told, Morris blew 136 leads in 527 starts, or about one every four times out, and that's using a generous definition of "blown lead." ...
As I said, I don't know what the performance record of someone who had successfully pitched to the score would look like. I am certain, though, that for a pitcher to build his Hall of Fame case on the notion that he did such a thing, he couldn't have put his team behind in nearly two-thirds of his career starts, and he couldn't have blown leads once a month throughout his career.
Jack Morris was a very good pitcher whose primary skill was durability. He benefited from coming up with a number of good players, players who would form the core of a good offense that scored lots of runs for him. He happened to have a career in a down period for starting pitchers, so he stands out among his peers more than someone with his performance record would in the 1970s or 1990s.
He's not a Hall of Famer. As much as I loved watching Game Seven in 1991, and as much as I think the man got cheated by collusion in 1986, he's not a Hall of Famer.
There's just no reason to guess. If you don't trust Joe's conclusion simply because I published it, all you have to do -- and by "you" I mean you, Bob Ryan -- is click on that link and spend 10 or 15 minutes reading everything that comes before Joe's conclusion. It's a lot of material and a lot of numbers and even a little bit of math, but it really seems like a small thing.