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Jack Morris, the Hall of Fame and the Most Wins in a Decade

For whatever reason, Jack Morris has a seemingly large group of fans that believe he deserves a spot in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. I’ve heard all of the arguments, including the laughable ones that claim he was a big game pitcher or that he pitched to the score. Being a big game pitcher itself is a real and tangible thing. Pitching to the score is far less tangible and to this writer and fan something that runs completely counter to the point of pitching (or doing anything competitive).

The problem with these arguments as they relate to Jack Morris is that they are unfounded. Fortunately many reasonable people such as Bill James, Joe Posnanski and Rich Lederer (just to name a few) have taken the time to reveal the fallacies and flaws behind such arguments.

Neither of those arguments thrown out by the pro-Morris HOF camp bother me nearly as much as the following:

Jack Morris had more wins in the 1980s than any other pitcher in baseball.

Before I go any further, and as you can probably guess, I don’t believe Jack Morris had a career worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. I say that even though I have every reason to feel and perhaps even believe that Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame.

1) When it comes to taking a “big-hall” or “small-hall” stance, I am definitely a “big-hall” type of guy.

2) Until the day I left for my freshman year of college at Iowa State, I had spent my entire life as a resident of Minnesota.

3) Like Morris I was born in St. Paul and like Morris I attended high school in the Twin Cities. This is significant because players who were born in, spent their childhood in, or went to high school and/or college in Minnesota have always had a special place in my heart.

4) While I was not even 2 years old when Morris made his ML debut in 1977, I have been alive for his entire career and his biggest moments on baseball’s biggest stage were all smack in the middle of my formative years as a baseball-obsessed youth. His last year came in 1994 when I was finishing up my senior year of high school.

5) I watched him in the 1984 and 1991 World Series. His performance in game 7 of the 1991 World Series was in a word remarkable. It was the single greatest game I have ever witnessed (live or on TV).

While we are on the topic of the postseason, can we please stop calling Jack Morris one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time?  He made 13 starts in the playoffs and not all of them were as rosy as Morris fans would have you believe.

Morris made his postseason debut in the 1984 playoffs and made 3 starts (1 in the ALCS and 2 in the World Series). This is where the myth began to take shape. In the ALCS he beat the Royals pitching 7.0 innings of 5 hit, 1 run baseball. He walked 1 and struck out 4 as the Tigers romped over the Royals 8-1. Against the Padres in the World Series he went the distance in games 1 and 4. In those 18 innings he allowed 13 H, 4 R, 3 BB and 13 SO. His Game Scores (GSc) in those starts were 66, 69 and 73. No question he was great. There is little you can say when you’re looking at a line like this: 25.0 IP, 18 H, 5 R, 4 BB and 17 SO.

If he had stopped right there, Morris would belong in the discussion of great but not greatest postseason pitchers.

Then 1987 rolled around and the Tigers were back in the ALCS, this time to face a scrappy underdog Minnesota Twins team. Morris started game two and was anything but dominant. In 8.0 innings he allowed 6 H, 6 R and 3 BB while fanning 7. That line masks how bad he really was in the game. In the top of the 2nd inning the Tigers scored twice off Bert Blyleven and staked Morris to a 2-0 lead. Jack went out and promptly gave up 3 runs to the Twins. He gave up another 2 runs in the 4th and another run in the 5th and should have been lifted from the game. He was left in to pitch the 6th, 7th and 8th (and get his GSc up to 50) but the game was over by that point. The Twins won 6-3.

After 1987, Morris reeled off 3 below-average seasons in relation to his peers. His ERA+ during that stretch ran from 98 to 79 to 89 and his time with Detroit had run it’s course.

In 1991 he landed with the Minnesota Twins and bounced back to finish the regular season with an ERA+ of 125. Morris often gets referred to as the ace of that staff, but at 36 years old it was mainly because of his experience (i.e. he was long in the tooth). In terms of performance, he was really the Twins 3rd best starter behind 27-year old Kevin Tapani and 23-year old Scott Erickson.

In the playoffs, he started games 1 and 4 of the ALCS pitching poorly in the 1st (GSc 40) and solidly in the 4th (GSc 58). His 1991 ALCS line: 13.1 IP, 17 H, 6 R, 1 BB, 7 SO. In the World Series he pitched games 1, 4 and 7. In the first 2 he put up Game Scores of 58 and 57. Morris’ line after those 2 starts was: 13.0 IP, 11 H, 3 R, 7 BB and 7 SO. He was good, perhaps great (depending on your definitions of the terms) but he was far from dominant.

I mentioned that 1984 was where the myth of Jack Morris began to take shape, but it was Game 7 of the 1991 World Series that cemented it. For countless fans, baseball writers, and casual observers it made Jack Morris a legend and, apparently, a Hall of Famer.

For that one game he was statistically dominant (10.0 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 SO) and good for a 84 GSc. The funny thing is, I remember that game well. I’ve seen replays of it over the years either in clips or in its entirety and I have to say that I always felt like the wheels were going to come off for Morris along the way. Maybe that is what makes it so special in some people’s minds. He, at 36-years old, was dueling John Smoltz, a 24-year old with an electric arm and future stardom dripping off of him. A pitcher who we know now is immensely more qualified* to have the title of most dominant postseason pitcher in ML history bestowed upon him.

*John Smoltz pitched 209.0 postseason innings making 27 starts and 14 relief appearances. He was 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 2.67 SO/BB. He also had a far better postseason in 1991 than Jack Morris did throwing 29.2 IP with 27 H, 5 ER, 4 BB and 26 SO in 4 starts.

Morris and the Twins weren’t supposed to win that game. Smoltz and the Braves were. Morris wasn’t dominant in game 7, but the game itself was dipped in magic and simply unforgettable. In that game Jack Morris was gritty, he was tough, he also went 10.0 innings without allowing an earned run. Even today if I watch a replay of that game, I still expect Jack to stumble and lose it for the Twins. That’s not dominance to me.

Dominance is Kerry Wood‘s 1-hit, 20 strikeout masterpiece on May 6th, 1998 which happens to holds the distinction of being the highest Game Score (105) ever recorded in a 9-inning game. It happened in the regular season, but it was so off the charts that I find it hard to imagine watching a pitcher ever dominate a game like that again.

Dominance is a pitcher completely owning a team. It’s being able to watch a game and know there is no way in hell the opposing team is going to score a run on that day. In terms of Game Score, these games generally rate in the 90s or 100s.

Morris’ game 7 performance was nowhere close to dominant. Most people I know walked away from that game amazed that the Braves didn’t scratch a run across at some point during the game.

In 1992 with the Toronto Blue Jays, Jack Morris once again reached the postseason and started 4 games. He went 0-3 with the following line: 23.0 IP, 24 H, 19 R, 15 BB, 18 SO and 6 HR allowed. One would think that would crush the postseason dominance argument, but I guess not.

His career postseason line stands as follows: 13 GS, 7-4, 3.80 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 2.00 SO/BB. Those are good numbers, but not great and certainly not dominant. One fun thing I noticed in perusing the stats and game logs of his postseason exploits is that he never allowed an unearned run. What does that means in relation to this column? Nothing, but I wanted to pass it along anyway.

~~~~~

Getting back to what I intended to be the original point of this column. The notion that racking up the most wins in a given decade is a good reason to elect someone into the Hall of Fame.

The problem with collecting the most of anything in a span of ten years is that it largely depends on how that span of time fell within your career. Wins for a pitcher over a span of 10 years is even more suspect because the stat is so dependent on the rest of a pitcher’s team.

Let’s put all of that aside for a moment and look at the 5 leaders in wins from 1980-1989 (I put the number of games started in parenthesis):

162 Jack Morris (332)
140 Dave Stieb (339)
137 Bob Welch (313)
128 Charlie Hough (331)
128 Fernando Valenzuela (298)

He is, in fact, the leader for the decade. That, and the rest of the list tells me several things.

1) Jack Morris was durable
2) Jack Morris played on good teams
3) Jack Morris was in the prime of his career during the 1980s
4) None of the 5 players listed have ever merited much HOF consideration from me

What if we alter the list and look at the leaders in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for the same span of years?

45.2 Dave Stieb
35.1 Bob Welch
34.8 Fernando Valenzuela
34.0 Bert Blyleven (288)
32.8 Orel Hershiser (191)

Even if you’re not a fan of WAR as a stat, the differences between the lists is pretty revealing. Stieb, Welch and Fernando make both lists. Hough falls from #4 in terms of Wins to #11 in terms of WAR. Jack Morris falls from #1 in terms of Wins to #12 in terms of WAR having accounted for only 27.9 wins above replacement during the decade.

The two new names on the WAR side of things are Blyleven who was 6th in Wins during the decade and Hershiser who won 98 games in the 80s. As you can see from the games started, Orel Hershiser’s position on the decade leaderboard for wins was hampered by his inability to avoid injury having made approximately 100 to 140 fewer starts than the other pitchers on both lists.

Curious to know how the top-5s play out for the 1990s? Well I am so here we go doing Wins in the 1990s first.

176 Greg Maddux (331)
164 Tom Glavine (327)
152 Roger Clemens (305)
150 Randy Johnson (290)
143 Kevin Brown (314) and John Smoltz (315)

Next up the 1990s top-5 in terms of WAR:

63.2 Roger Clemens
61.1 Greg Maddux
49.5 Randy Johnson
49.3 David Cone (287)
45.7 Kevin Brown

4 of the top “5″ are the same guys. In terms of WAR Tom Glavine (42.8) slipped to 7th and John Smoltz (38.3) slipped to 10th. Since I am a Royals fan I feel obligated to point out that Kevin Appier finished the 90s in 6th place at 45.0 wins above replacement. Had Jack Morris pitched his 80s in the 1990s his 27.9 WAR would have ranked 15th behind David Wells (29.1) and ahead of Jose Rijo (27.4)

Okay let’s do the dance again this time for the 2000s following the same pattern Wins then WAR for the decade:

148 Andy Pettitte (300)
143 Randy Johnson (281)
140 Jamie Moyer* (315)
139 Roy Halladay (267)
137 Tim Hudson (289) and Roy Oswalt (271)

Next the 2000s top-5 in terms of WAR:

44.5 Roy Halladay
42.7 Randy Johnson
42.1 Johan Santana (234)
39.5 Roy Oswalt
39.4 Mark Buehrle (301)

*If Charlie Hough in the 1980s poked a hole in the concept of  using wins in a decade as reason to vote someone into the Hall of Fame, then Jamie Moyer in the 2000s has to be the cannonball that sinks it.

Pettitte fell well off going from 1st in wins to 17th in WAR (26.8) but nothing compares to Moyer who fell from 3rd to 34th (21.9). Tim Hudson dropped from 5th in wins to 9th in WAR (37.4). Looking at the newcomers on the WAR top-5, Johan Santana finished the decade with 122 wins despite not becoming a full-time starter until 2004 and Buehrle just missed the wins top-5 finishing the decade with 135. Again if Jack Morris had pitched his 80s in the 2000s he would have ranked 17th, ahead of Andy Pettitte and behind Carlos Zambrano.

Again a lot of these rankings depend on how the decades used fell within each players career arc, but using the the 10 year spans above one thing is blatantly obvious when comparing Wins and WAR. If you are a truly great – and thus a Hall of Fame worthy pitcher – there should not be that large of gap between your rankings between the two. Especially when going from Wins to WAR and especially when looking at the bulk of your prime years as is the case with Jack Morris in the 1980s.

In fact only 4 pitchers that finished in the top-5 in wins during the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s failed to stick in the top-10 in WAR during that same span. Two of them were Jamie Moyer and Charlie Hough. The third is obviously Jack Morris.

The fourth pitcher to meet that criteria? If you’ve been paying attention, you know it is Andy Pettitte. A pitcher who like Morris should probably be the subject of a slew of HOF controversy when his name hits the ballot. Pettitte of course will probably get in relatively quickly because he pitched for the New York Yankees and racked up a lot of wins. Like Jack Morris Pettitte’s postseason history is more fondly remembered for greatness than it should be, but that is a column to be written several years from now.

~~~~~

Posnanski may have put it best when he wrote in an article today:

I guess my point here is to ask those people who think that Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame to PLEASE make more appealing arguments.

Topics: Bert Blyleven, Detroit Tigers, Hall Of Fame, Jack Morris, Minnesota Twins

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  • Southpaw

    There’s a lot of hall of famers that most people will never remember….many hofers are in simply because of longevity.

    In some ways Morris’ 10 inning shutout is worth more than being in the Hall…simply because his legend or myth grows with each year. You pointed out Smoltz…unfortunately more people will still believe in Morris than Smoltz.

    That one “BIG” moment that everyone is watching is often worth MORE than a Hall of Fame induction. I mean what would you rather have?

    A legendary and immortalized moment like Gibson’s homer or Morris’ game 7. Or Joe Carter’s game 6 homer? Or 1988 Orel Hershiser winning Cy Young, MVP or both NLCS and WS…having that long shutout streak and having a WS game where he had as many hits as the entire Oakland team.

    Those moment are the ones people will always remember.

    • Wally Fish

      Southpaw,

      Longevity does play a part in the equation since players are required to have 10 years of major league experience to be eligible. If Morris had only pitched 9 years and still had his big Game 7 moment, he wouldn’t be on the ballot and no one would have to have write about his HOF resume.

      To answer your question, I personally would MUCH rather be inducted into the Hall of Fame than to have one big moment in time or a series of them. That’s a no brainer to me. For what it is worth, I’d also rather have a great season like Orel’s 1988 than any singular moment of legend.

      To me any individual can have a moment (or several moments) of greatness or heroism in their life. The people that display excellence and greatness over a long period of time deserve more attention.

      It’s just the way I think and the way I was raised. I will remember and hold in higher regard the Braves teams of the 90s/early 2000s as a standard of greatness far more than I will remember a team given team winning a particular World Series. I’d also rather have my team make the playoffs 10 consecutive years but not win the World Series than have my team win the World Series once in a 10 year span while missing the playoffs the other 9.

      I know I’m the exception to the rule in today’s world. I’ve never been a part of the ESPN “winning the championship is all that matters” attitude and I never will be. To me, especially in baseball, the regular season is both the journey AND the reward. The playoffs are just a bonus.

  • Southpaw

    Argh typo: I meant MVP of both NLCS and WS.