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The Jack Morris Debate & The Biggest Flaw Of The Sabermetrics Community

Disclaimer: I wrote this last year after the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame inductees were announced. Since this is my first article being published, I thought it would be fun to revisit this the night before the 2015 class is revealed.

Debating the merits of a Major League Baseball player when it comes time to be elected into the Hall of Fame can be fun. It should not be a war between two different philosophies. It should be a fun conversation between baseball fans over which ballplayer was the most fun to watch, who came through in the clutch and who was great at playing the game. When I was a kid, my brother and I used to throw the baseball around in the backyard in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and we would argue over who was better: Don Mattingly or Darryl Strawberry. The only thing we had to go by was the back of our baseball cards, newspaper box scores and watching the All-Star Game or any televised game not on cable TV. I was a Mets and Tigers fan, and my brother was a Yankees and Blue Jays fan. We would rib each other about things like who had a more expensive rookie card, what player had more home runs, whose team went to the playoffs, etc… Now both Mattingly and Strawberry’s careers did not go as long as we thought they would but it was still fun to go back and forth over two of the best players of that era. Now, I am 31 years old and it is 2014. Things have changed. Technology is different and you have access to baseball stats at the click of a button. Man, I wish I had that ammunition back in the day. The conversations have changed; the stats have changed…but have they really?

The 2014 Hall of Fame vote has been announced, and we have a new class of inductees. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas will be joining Managers Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa. Craig Biggio missed getting elected by two votes and Jack Morris drops off the ballot after falling short on his 15th year of consideration. Before I get into talking about Morris, I just want to say that Dan Le Batard giving his vote away to Deadspin website visitors was an interesting revelation. The only thing I would say is Dan, if you don’t want to vote, give me your ballot, I would love to vote for the Hall of Fame. It is something that I look at every year and if I had the opportunity, I would jump at the chance. Also, there are a lot of people upset that one writer didn’t vote for anyone that played during the Steroid Era. I would have voted for 10 players, but I don’t fault anyone for taking a different stance than other people; that is what makes this vote unique. Not everyone has the same opinion and that is what makes the Hall of Fame voting process fun. It should feel no different than trading opinions in the backyard while playing catch. You can take your vote seriously, but just remember an opinion is just an opinion. An opinion is not a fact.

Now, my opinion is that the writers usually get the vote right; except when it comes to Jack Morris. I’m not going to try and re-hash an old conversation about how gutsy Jack Morris was and that he pitched to the score. That conversation didn’t work as Jack Morris is no longer eligible until the Expansion Era committee reviews his candidacy in a few years. But rather show you that Jack Morris was great during his best years; worthy of being in the Hall of Fame.

Now, Morris is not a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer. Most people would agree with that, but from what I’ve read on blogs and see on TV shows (like MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential) is kind of ridiculous. Saying that Morris was barely above average is nonsense. It is taken out of context, without looking into what makes a Hall of Famer. To me, a Hall of Famer is someone who can carry a team on their back and take them to the postseason, comes through in a clutch situation and performs at a high standard for a long period of time. I would say Jack was all of those things. But, his numbers say he was not that good. So let’s take a closer look at the numbers argument:

Many compare Jack Morris to Mickey Lolich. They both had signature postseason moments. They both pitched for the Detroit Tigers, and they both fall short of benchmark statistics. Now, Lolich never received more than 25.5% of Hall of Fame votes in his 15 years on the ballot; and some feel that Morris should have suffered the same fate. While Lolich was actually a good-to-great pitcher for about 6 years and was a workhouse for about 12 years, Morris had more years where he was great. Lolich received Cy Young votes in only two years (1971 and 1972). Now, my counter-argument to my own argument is that he could have received votes before they changed the Cy Young voting rules in 1970. “Prior to 1970, writers only voted for the best pitcher and used a formula of one point per vote.”(Wikipedia) But looking at his statistics prior to 1970, it is doubtful it would have been more than one year (1969). So, let’s say Lolich would have received Cy Young votes in three different years. Jack Morris received Cy Young votes in seven different years (1981, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1991 and 1992). “Dating back to 1970, writers voted for three pitchers, with the formula of 5 points for a first place vote, 3 for a second place vote and 1 for a third place vote.” (Wikipedia) With that being said, most writers thought Morris was one of the three best pitchers in the American League seven different years.

Why is that important to know? It provides context to the numbers. The numbers can be easily compared side by side, but you can’t compare different eras without context. Cy Young votes provide insight into how he was viewed during his era. Lolich pitched during a time when pitchers were so good they had to lower the mound. Morris pitched in the years following the Designated Hitter becoming exclusive to the American League in 1973. That same year (1973), Lolich’s ERA went from 2.50 to 3.82 and his WHIP went from 1.08 to 1.27. Like I said, you can choose to look at the numbers any way you want to.

Numbers can lie, but what about box scores or game logs? Does anyone ever look at the statistics of a whole year and wonder how they got there and what kind of competition they faced? Well, let’s do that now. For fun, let’s pull up a game log from Jack’s 1983 season. I took a screenshot so we can all look at it here:

Oh yeah, clearly this guy is just an average pitcher. Look at all of those complete games, what a stat compiler…and 10 innings on July 24th! C’mon Jack, save some of those innings for later in your career when you will need 300 wins to gain election into the Hall of Fame. And on October 1st, you have 20 wins and the Tigers are out of the playoff race, why did you even pitch and ruin your ERA? (Just joking, by the way)

In 1983…his WAR was 4.0. Something just doesn’t sit right with me about that. He pitched 293.2 innings, saved his bullpen the whole month of August (starting a streak of seven straight complete games that he and his team won) won 20 games overall for the season, while striking out 232, yet he was only 4 wins better than an average player? Sometimes these formulas can be deceptive.

He finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 1983, behind LaMarr Hoyt and Dan Quisenberry. I would argue that he would have won the Cy Young Award that year if the voting were to have taken place today. First, he had a better WAR than LaMarr Hoyt (4.0 to 3.7). Pitched more innings (293.2 to 260.2)…More complete Games (20 to 11)…Had a better Earned Run Average (3.34 to 3.66)… Had more strikeouts (232 to 148) and a better ERA+ (117 to 115). The only thing LaMarr Hoyt beat Jack Morris in that year was Wins (24 to 20). And as we all know, Wins doesn’t matter right? Now, LaMarr Hoyt won the Cy Young Award that year because he accumulated more Wins and his team, the White Sox, went to the playoffs. It seems to me that Jack Morris would have been on the good side of sabermetrics that year. I must also point out that the Tigers finished 92-70 that year. This was the third best record in not just the American League, but in all of baseball. But, with no Wild Card in those days, that meant no playoffs. If there was a Wild Card, then that would have been the tipping point for Morris winning the Cy Young Award as Quisenberry’s Royals finished 79-83 that year.

How does Cy Young Award Winner Jack Morris sound? Does it help his case for Cooperstown?

Now, obviously that is just one season, and it doesn’t mean that he was as consistent throughout his career. In fact, Morris was very inconsistent. That is why he isn’t a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer; but to totally skew Jack Morris in a negative light is painting the wrong picture. Over a 14 year period, the man took the ball at least into the ninth inning for 52% of his starts. So, that game log chart I pictured above is close to the Innings he pitched per game, year after year.

Just a few more numbers: His 6 shutouts led the league in 1986, the same year Roger Clemens won both the AL MVP and Cy Young awards. He led the league in Wins in 1981 and 1992 (11 years apart). That shows resilience. I could go on about how he led the league in Complete Games in 1990 during a losing season…but how clutch was Morris?

Some writers point out that despite his 10-inning shutout performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, that his postseason numbers are not that great. So let’s see: 7-4 record, 3.80 ERA in 13 Games Started and 92.1 Innings Pitched. Ok, maybe they have a point. He was just average. But isn’t that just another case of using the overall numbers without proper context? I would argue that when evaluating a pitcher you need to look at how they performed during their best years. You know the same argument they use to justify other borderline Hall of Famers, but apparently does not apply to Jack’s case. I would say that the 1992 postseason was the beginning of the end for his career, and all of the innings he pitched prior to this caught up with him. He obviously struggled during the 1992 postseason, and his fault may have been that he tried to pitch when he wasn’t at his best. His record was 0-3 during this postseason and he gave up 19 earned runs in 23 innings for a 7.43 ERA. He was 37 years old and pitched 240.2 innings during the regular season. By comparison, Bert Blyleven pitched in the 1987 World Series at age 36, and then posted a 10-17 record with a 5.43 ERA for the Twins in 1988. Could it be that he was exhausted from an extended playoff season? So the wheels fell off for Morris in late 1992, but the Blue Jays still won the World Series and he helped them get there with a great regular season. His overall career postseason ERA without including the 1992 playoffs; 20 earned runs in 69 1/3 innings for a 2.60 ERA, to go along with a 7-1 record. That one loss was versus the Twins in 1987, going one-on-one against Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. Morris did pitch a complete game and held Kirby Puckett hitless with a strikeout in 4 at-bats. Not too shabby.

This is the flaw of the sabermetrics community concerning the Hall of Fame discussion. They don’t look at box scores and game logs and the actual game that was played; they only look at individual stat lines and how they compare to others. Some stats cannot be measured. Sure, according to baseball-reference.com, Jack Morris is the 159th best starting pitcher of all-time, and his career ERA would be the highest ever by a Hall of Famer. Who cares? This isn’t the Hall of Stats. When baseball becomes just about numbers and statistical benchmarks, having fun becomes secondary. Jack Morris was fun to watch. He didn’t care about stats. He wanted to start the game and finish the game. I love watching modern baseball games when the pitcher attempts to pitch all 9 innings because it is so rare these days. A battle of the bullpens is boring. Another commercial break, because the lefty specialist is warming up to face one batter, and then here comes the sixth inning guy. Wooooo! When you go to the ballpark do you want to see the manager take a pitcher out after facing one batter? Some people do, I don’t. A game by the numbers is good if you love to count stats in your head while watching the game. But baseball is supposed to be fun…and entertaining. Jack Morris was not perfect, but I was entertained watching him pitch. I may be biased because I was nine years old when he pitched in the 1991 World Series, and remember my parents letting me stay up to watch it on TV. But I want his plaque in the Hall of Fame when I visit. I know all the arguments against Jack Morris and that’s why I left a lot of stats out of the equation. You know the major league record 14 consecutive opening day starts, the 3 All-Star game starts in 5 All-Star appearances, the most wins during the 1980’s, 3 seasons of 20+ wins, etc… Those are fine, but they didn’t win the argument for the 15 years he was on the ballot.

Stats are great, but sometimes you just need to have a controversial yet inspiring and passionate person come along to remind everyone that the numbers can sometimes lie. I thank Jack Morris for bringing that debate.

I hope that he gets enshrined in Cooperstown one day, and I think he will. After all, it’s just a plaque. A plaque that deserves to have a lot to say… and not one of those inscriptions is 3.90 ERA.

This article first appeared on Baseball Hot Corner via the link below:
The Jack Morris Debate & The Biggest Flaw Of The Sabermetrics Community

@BobbyUtahBarnes. @hardballcore.

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