In the middle of writing this longish post on Jack Morris — the 48,384th one I’ve done — I stopped for a moment to ask myself the obvious question: What’s this obsession with Jack Morris anyway? It’s not like I’m opposed to Morris going in the Hall of Fame. I’m not. Frankly, at this point, I WANT him to get elected into the Hall. He does not deserve to have his career so publicly argued about and to come achingly close to election time after time. No, I won’t vote for Morris because he falls below my Hall of Fame line, but I’d be happy if he was elected. No, I don’t think the obsession has much to do with Morris himself.
Instead, I think it has to do with something a little bit mistier. One of the things that fascinates me most is that thin line between myth and reality, between what we want to believe is true and what is actually true. Some of my favorite movies, some of my favorite novels, some of my favorite television shows tightrope that line, gently leading our minds to where they want to go and away from what is tangible and true. I love that riddle, i’m sure you’ve heard it, a father and his son are in a car accident. The father is killed. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon suddenly says, ‘I cannot operate on this boy, he is is my son.’ How is this possible?
The first time I heard it, many years ago, my mind went to all sorts of crazy places and could never quite come back to the simplest answer of all: The surgeon was his mother. I’ve heard people say the answer is too easy, but I don’t think that’s quite right. The answer is shielded by the roads we’ve already taken. For a long time, I thought the riddle would stop being effective as everyone became more and more used to the idea of women surgeons, but just a few weeks ago I tried this riddle on my daughters. And they fell for it. The brain is a complicated organ that has a lot of one-way roads in it.
In so many ways, Jack Morris’ career is a one-way road. Morris was so durable — the guy NEVER missed a start — and he pitched for so many good teams and he had this reputation as a bulldog or gamer or whatever you want to call it. He won a lot of games when winning games was how everyone judged pitchers, and so he built this aura … an aura that was multiplied by itself when he pitched that legendary Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. These things, I believe, left an impression that Jack Morris was a better pitcher than his numbers indicate, an impression that the brain simply cannot unload.
If someone wanted to make a Hall of Fame case for Jack Morris, they could say this:
1. He was an extremely durable pitcher who never missed a start and completed 175 games in his career.
2. He pitched one of the greatest World Series games.
3. He compiled borderline Hall of Fame caliber stats with his 254 wins and 2,478 strikeouts and his durability, the respect he built from teammates and opponents alike and his Game 7 push him over the border.
4. He was probably better than a handful of starters already in the Hall.
This isn’t necessarily the most compelling argument, but this is what you have to work with. The trouble is, many people seem ABSOLUTELY SURE there is more to Morris’ case. They just know — absolutely know — that Morris had to be better than that relatively tepid argument. And so they go searching. This is where the whole “pitching to the score” line of thinking began. Jack Morris may very well have pitched to the score in his mind — he might have consciously thought he was pitching differently when the score was close — but it does not show up in any quantifiable way that anyone has found. I got another statistical breakdown just today from Brilliant Reader Alan showing that Morris did not pitch to the score any more than his contemporaries (I get one of these studies every three weeks or so). Alan looked at Dave Stieb, Bob Welch, Fernando Valenzuela, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris, and found that Morris actually had the lowest percentage of games decided by one run. He found numerous other equally compelling things. No surprise. The whole pitching-to-the-score thing with Morris was a hope.
That seems to be what so much of this stuff is. It’s like the search for the Fountain of Youth, this attempt to find the statistic or argument that shows Jack Morris was as good as so many people remembering him being or want him to be.
This week, Joel Sherman, who I think is one of the best and shrewdest baseball writers around, made his pitch for Jack Morris. I’ve had conversations with Joel about Morris, and I greatly respect his baseball knowledge and his opinion on Morris. That said, I didn’t buy his arguments here. That’s what got me writing this in the first place.
Joel basically made two points in his Morris Hall of Fame case. First he quotes a Tom Verducci statistic that shows Morris pitched 248 games where he lasted at least eight innings — the most by an American League pitcher in the designated hitter era. It goes without saying that I think Tom is brilliant, by the way.
The statistic is semi-interesting — it amplifies the point that Jack Morris was an extremely durable pitcher — but then there’s the usual Morris overreach. That stat — Morris had the most eight-inning starts for any AL pitcher in the DH era — is one of those hyper-specific stats that drive me nuts. It’s fun to play that game, but not very helpful. For instance, I can say that only one player in baseball history has hit at least 575 doubles and 350 homers while also driving in 1,400 RBIs, stealing 100 bases and getting hit by pitch more than 100 times. Only one player! Ever! And it isn’t Willie Mays! It isn’t Babe Ruth! Can you guess who is this titan of baseball?
It’s Luis Gonzalez. Yes. And that’s why Luis Gonzalez belongs in the Hall of Fame!
Here’s the best part of that nonsense. If you are paying attention, you might say: “Well, sure, you added that ‘hit by pitch’ caveat which is meaningless — I mean, that’s a dead give away.” But that’s the way the conman works. I argue for a few minutes that HBP are important and then finally act like you wore me down and say: “OK, fine, take away Hit By Pitch.” Now you have just four players left. Hank Aaron. Carl Yastrzemski. Barry Bonds. And Luis Gonzalez.
Gonzo for the the Hall!
See, the WHOLE STATISTIC is a setup. It works because the combination is built around Gonzalez’s numbers and are fairly random. The Jack Morris stat only works because (1) You start in the “DH Era,” which happens to be just before Jack Morris’ career begins; (2) The stat is “8 innings,” we’re not talking complete games and we’re not talking seven innings ; (3) You have to say AMERICAN LEAGUE pitcher because, in fact, Morris did not lead all pitchers in this nebulous statistic over this odd time period. Nolan Ryan pitched more 8-inning games in the DH era. And you know who else did? Right. Bert Blyleven.
I went back to Tom’s original post and he actually goes more in depth on this thing. He takes this statistic back to 1961 — Morris is 12th in eighth inning starts. That doesn’t seem as impressive until Tom points out that the 11 in front of him are all in the Hall of Fame.
Then again, it might be worth mentioning that he’s 33 games behind the 11th guy on the list (Juan Marichal) which seems a pretty wide gap. But the larger point is that while he’s 33 behind Marichal, he’s only two ahead of Tommy John, three ahead of Jim Kaat and nine ahead of Mickey Lolich. None of them are Hall of Famers. Even in this invented stat, Morris really compares better to non-Hall of Famers.
And, you can add this: Morris had a lot of eight-inning starts, but he had a LOT OF STARTS period. Lolich actually had a HIGHER PERCENTAGE of eight inning starts than Morris. So did Andy Messersmith, Luis Tiant, Dennis Leonard, Wilbur Wood, Mike Cuellar and so on.
So, no, I don’t care much for that eight-inning stat.
The other point Joel made is one a lot of people have made — Morris started Game 1 in the 1984 ALCS and World Series, started Game 1 in the 1991 ALCS and World Series and started Game 1 in the 1992 ALCS and World Series. This is a marvelous thing — six Game 1 starts — and I think it’s perfectly viable to use this as a point in the Hall of Fame argument. But again, with Morris, you need to watch out for that overreach. Joel argues that Sparky Anderson, Tom Kelly and Cito Gaston were all hugely successful managers and they picked Morris to start Game 1 and maybe they know just a little bit more than the sabermetric crowd these days.
And, yeah, that goes a bit too far. Yes, Sparky Anderson started Morris in Game 1 twice in 1984. But … who else was he going to start? The Tigers second-best pitcher that year was Dan Petry. I don’t hear too many sabermeric types making the argument that Dan Petry belongs in the Hall of Fame. Their third best pitcher was Milt Wilcox or Juan Beranguer. I’m not hearing any Hall of Fame arguments for them either.
But this gets to the point — nobody I know is arguing that Jack Morris wasn’t a good pitcher. He was a very good pitcher. Nobody is arguing that he was worse than Juan Berenguer or Milt Wilcox. If the Tigers had Tom Seaver and Jack Morris, who would have started Game 1? How about Steve Carlton? Bob Gibson? Juan Marichal? Jim Palmer? Sandy Koufax? Nolan Ryan? These are the people in the Hall of Fame, these are the pitchers Jack Morris must compare with. Some might argue that Morris would start over some Hall of Famers like Phil Niekro or Don Sutton or Bert Blyleven or Jim Bunning or Ferguson Jenkins. I don’t think he was as good a pitcher as any of those guys. But we can certainly have the argument.
But all of us agree that was a better pitcher than Dan Petry (though Petry was very good that year). That doesn’t make Morris a Hall of Famer.
In 1987, when Sparky Anderson had Doyle Alexander, who did not receive a single Hall of Fame vote at the end of his long career. Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA for the Tigers down the stretch that year; Sparky Anderson chose Doyle to pitch Game 1 over Morris. I suspect many sabermertically minded folks think Jack Morris was better than Doyle Alexander. Maybe Sparky knew something that the sabermetricians didn’t know.
You go with what you have. That’s the point. The 1991 Twins had Jack Morris and Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson. You could argue that Tapani and Erickson both had better years than Morris, but it was close, and Kelly went with Morris in Game 1. Let’s say it again: Morris was better than Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson. It’s not much of a Hall of Fame argument.
In 1992, the Blue Jays chose a 37-year-old Morris over David Cone, who had come over toward the end of the season. Cone IS a borderline Hall of Famer and so I suppose you could make a point about it. But the larger point might be: Cito chose wrong, Morris lost Game 1 and got shellacked in Game 4 of the ALCS. In the World Series Morris lost Game 1 (though he pitched well) and didn’t make it out of the fifth inning in his last World Series start. The Blue Jays won the 1992 World Series in spite of Jack Morris, not because of him.
The search goes on for a statistic that makes Jack Morris the legendary pitcher so many remember him being. But there is no such statistic because Jack Morris wasn’t that pitcher. He was, as mentioned, a bulldog who started every fifth day, completed a lot of games, struck out quite a few people, gave up more than his share of home runs, never had a sub 3.00 ERA but competed his rear end off. He was a better pitcher, I think, than Catfish Hunter, Jesse Haines and Rube Marquard, and they’re all in the Hall of Fame. I think this is the best case that can be made.