11 January 2014

Jack Morris - Why I Changed My Mind on His Hall-of-Fame Worthiness

Trivia time - Who was the most recent pitcher to start consecutive World Series games?

You've probably guessed that the answer is Jack Morris, who started Game 7 (the final game) of the 1991 World Series for the Twins and Game 1 of the 1992 World Series for the Blue Jays. This is a double-twist trivia question - the first twist, which almost everybody recognizes, is that the answer involves the last game of one Series and the first game of the next Series. The second, and harder, twist is that the pitcher didn't have to make his starts for the same team.

I asked this question of a good friend of mine, a baseball fan even more hardcore than I am. He served as the beat writer for the Norfolk Tides for several seasons, has been the primary official scorer for the Tides for many more seasons, and co-wrote the memoirs of Blake Cullen, a long-time Cubs and National League executive. When I asked him this question, he struggled with it for awhile until, after a hint, he came up with Morris.

Relevant to this discussion was his comment after he realized that the answer was Jack Morris - he said he had completely forgotten about Morris' stint with the Blue Jays. For the better part of a decade, the Blue Jays had been a contending team that wasn't quite able to get over the hump. They won division titles in 1985, 1989, and 1991; and had come one game short in 1987 and two games short in 1988 and 1990. Before the 1992 season, they signed Jack Morris as a free agent. Morris won 21 games for the Jays; the Jays finally made it to and won the World Series, and a hardcore baseball fan had completely forgotten that part of the story of Jack Morris' career.

That, in a nutshell, is the main reason why, in the 2013 survey of how Camden Depot contributors and friends would vote for the Hall of Fame, I stated I would vote for Jack Morris. There's an awful lot of career there, and I thought that deserved to be honored. The other main reason, frankly, is that most of the number-fiddlers among baseball writers were dismissive of Morris, arguing that he was completely unworthy of consideration. I dislike arrogant know-it-alls, and I let my dislike affect my opinion.

Camden Depot repeated the article in 2014, and this time I changed my mind about Jack Morris. I hope that this analysis of my change of mind will be interesting and thought-provoking. First, I'll state my thoughts on the weight that should be given to Jack Morris' career win total.

Jack Morris' Win Total

The least subjective of Jack Morris' credentials for Hall of Fame selection is his career win total of 254, which ranks 43rd all-time. The extreme numerical analysts have argued for disregarding his wins, on the grounds that (1) a pitcher's wins are at least as much a function of his team, (2) the rules for assigning wins are arbitrary, and (3) a pitcher can be credited with a win even if he pitches poorly. On the other hand, the extreme impressionists point out that the primary function of baseball is to win games, and that ultimately a pitcher's win total is the most important fact in evaluating his career.

As is often the case, both sides have some truth. I say to the extreme number-crunchers that no pitcher, no matter how badly he pitched, has ever gotten credit for a win in a game his team lost. Morris was credited with the win in 254 games in which he team won; I think that's important. While Morris' impressionist supporters ballyhoo the fact that he won the most games in the 1980s - a fact which is arbitrary - it is also true that Morris won the sixth-most games in the period 1970-1999. His career win total is a positive marker in his Hall of Fame case.

On the other hand, I say to the extreme impressionists that Morris isn't wholly responsible for the wins he was credited with. His role was exclusively defensive, and he had no control of the number of runs his team scored. You haven't shown me any evidence that Morris gave up a significant number of runs in games that were already decided.

Oh, and as to the charge that the de-emphasis on wins is a newfangled, sabermetric concept - I remember forty-plus years ago reading as a nine-year-old boy a preseason book or magazine about the 1972 season. The Cincinnati Reds had a pitcher named Jim Merritt, who had won seventeen games in 1969 and twenty games in 1970 before going 1-11 in 1971. The authors of the preview - it probably wasn't Street & Smith's but it was something about as mainstream - noted that Merritt had had an ERA of 4.37 in 1971 - and an ERA of 4.08 in 1970 and 4.37 in 1969. They concluded that Merritt's won-lost record probably reflected the offensive abilities of his teammates rather than his own pitching ability. This was 1972, and the idea that wins and losses weren't the best measurement of a pitcher's ability was then circulating in the mainstream.

Summary of Morris' career

I've been a reasonably knowledgeable baseball fan over the entire course of Morris' career. I was fifteen when Morris made his debut in 1977, and thirty-two when he made his final appearance in 1994. I never considered Morris to be a Hall-of-Fame caliber pitcher when he was active, nor do I remember him being considered one of the best pitchers in baseball during his career. In 1984, when his Detroit Tigers started 35-5 and coasted to the pennant, he finished third in the Cy Young voting on his own team, trailing Guillermo Hernandez and Dan Petry; in 1987, when his Tigers came from behind to nip Toronto in the final week, he finished behind his teammate Doyle Alexander who made all of eleven starts for Detroit. Of course, he did do better in other Cy Young votes - twice finishing third - but (1) a great pitcher really ought to do better and (2) in several of those seasons, the competition wasn't real good.

Morris was never considered to be one of the best starting pitchers in the American League during his career. He was, however, at the top of the second tier of starting pitchers. In the 1986 Bill James Baseball Abstract, 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 ... [but] he is picking up plusses here, there, and everywhere, adding something almost every year."

Morris's peak was the three seasons 1985-1987, when he went 55-30 with ERA+ values of 122, 127, and 126. That is a relatively low peak for a Hall of Famer. Morris had three other, widely scattered seasons with ERA+ over 120, but his best ERA+ was only 133. Even the most questionable Hall of Fame pitchers, Jesse Haines and Rube Marquard, had seasons more dominant than that; the only Hall of Famer who didn't have three straight seasons better than Morris' was Catfish Hunter.

Why I Changed My Mind

I supported Morris for the Hall of Fame in 2013 because I believed that Morris' career, his place in baseball history, was more substantial than reflected in the statistical record. For this year, I gave his career more thought. I believe he still does have substantial off-the book merit.

But it boils down to my earlier statement that I never thought of Morris as a Hall of Famer when he was active. And the record confirms that believe to a large degree. Morris did not have many seasons in which he was outstandingly effective at preventing runs the way, say, Mike Mussina or Bert Blyleven did. Morris was not a key contributor to a great team the way, say, Red Ruffing or Don Drysdale were. And while Morris' career totals aren't quite good enough to lift him into the class of great pitchers. I didn't think of Morris as a Hall of Famer when he pitched, and looking back on his career in retrospect made me realize that I shouldn't have changed my mind.

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