Jack Morris was the winningest pitcher of the 1980s. With a 162-119 record between 1980 and 1989, Morris was the pitcher of record in more club victories than any other pitcher in the same time frame. Morris also started the most games, completed the most games, and pitched over 115 innings more than the next-most pitcher over the decade.
If you’ve been following the Hall of Fame debate at all over the last few years, then you’ll recognize those stats as an important piece of the case for Jack Morris. There are, of course, other arguments that Morris supporters use, but Morris’ dominance over that 10-year stretch is always a key part. It may be couched in a phrase like “you had to be there,” but you can bet that Morris’ status as the “Pitcher of the ‘80s” will make it’s way into any “Morris for the Hall of Fame” piece.
But when did Morris get this distinction? His supporters like to appeal to the prevailing wisdom of the era in which he pitched, so one must wonder when exactly in his career he adopted that level of reverence. The safe bet would have Morris gaining the mantle of the “Pitcher of the ‘80s” after the 1989 season, once the competition was over and the title was securely his. Others more cynical might expect the “Pitcher of the ‘80s” talk to have begun after Morris completed his other big claim to fame, the 10-inning shutout of the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. A more literal fan might think of the title having been granted to Morris following the 1985 season, when he took the “most wins of the 1980s” crown away from Steve Carlton.
And while each argument may have some merit, none are exactly true. Looking through newspaper reports from the late-1980s, the discussion of Morris as the “pitcher of the ‘80s” or “the decade’s best pitcher” seemed to begin in earnest in the winter following the 1986 season. Morris was a free-agent that year and, as of mid-December, had broken off the arbitration process with the Tigers in favor of four other clubs (the Angels, Yankees, Twins, and Phillies). The offers did not come in and, as the dreaded “c-word” came into play, writers were left trying to figure out what was happening. From the Boston Globe (Dec. 11, 1986):
“Moss reportedly wants a four-year contract for Morris that would at least place him in the salary neighborhood of Dwight Gooden ($1.4 million annually).
Morris’ credentials seem to indicate he is worth it. In 1986, Morris went 21-8 with a 3.27 earned run average. His 10-year record is 144-94. He is the winningest pitcher of the ’80s (123-81), and one of the most durable.
Morris is willing to be a test case. But there is no early indication that anyone but the Tigers is willing to come close to his salary demands, and some might consider this ploy a form of blackmail.“
And again from the Los Angeles Times a month later (Jan. 9, 1987):
“Was it just coincidence, the union asks, that no free agents received a contract offer of more than three years last winter, and no free agents, including Kirk Gibson and Donnie Moore, received offers from a club other than their own before the Jan. 8 deadline for re-signing with their own clubs?
Is it just coincidence, the union asks, that no free agents with offers on the table from their own clubs, including Tim Raines, Lance Parrish and Andre Dawson, had received even one offer from other clubs before Thursday’s deadline, that a variety of contract proposals by Jack Morris, the winningest pitcher of the ’80s, was rejected by four teams and that, again, no players have received more than three-year offers and no pitchers have received more than two-year offers?”
Morris ended up signing back with the Tigers, a fate similar to most other victims of collusion. He responded with another strong season for the Tigers, finishing the year 18-11 with a 3.38 ERA (126 ERA+) and 208 strikeouts in 266 innings pitched. As of mid-August, Morris seemed to be in contention for his first career Cy Young award, sporting a 15-6 record and a 3.42 ERA.
The strong season combined with the winter he had just had (where writers took every opportunity they could to remind everyone that Morris had more wins than anyone else in the 1980s) only bred more superlatives from the beat writers.
A quick Google search, for example, for “jack morris”+”pitcher of the 80s” shows a spike in newspaper articles during that 1987 season. A prime example of what was being said that year can be seen in this Tracy Ringolsby column from Sept. 22:
“Jack Morris has become a victim of his own success. He’s so good and so consistent that he is often overlooked.
Morris is the only pitcher to have won at least 15 games in each of the last six years. He leads the majors with 141 victories and 270 starts in the ’80s, and has pitched at least 240 innings in every year except the strike-shortened 1981. He is on his way to his sixth [sic] consecutive 200-strikeout season, has never in his career allowed more hits than innings pitched, and has a composite 3.39 ERA in this decade.
For all of this, Morris has received only two first-place votes in Cy Young balloting during his entire career.
Will it change this year?
Manager Sparky Anderson thinks it should.
“He is the horse of baseball,” Anderson said. “If he doesn’t win the Cy Young this year there isn’t the justice I thought there was in our game. These fly-by-night guys come along and disappear into the night. Someone hops on their bandwagon and they end up winning the Cy Young.””
There is a lot of energy spent by detractors of Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame case refuting the various arguments put forth by Morris supporters, most notably that his win/loss percentage is a valuable indicator of his talent and value as a pitcher and that his “aura” of a “man who knows how to pitch” isn’t verifiable when it comes to the statistics. These detractors seem to recognize that they have a tough road to climb in battling these ingrained opinions, but I don’t think they realize just how tough that road will be.
Morris’ reputation as a winning pitcher – “the winningest pitcher” – was really set in that 1987 season, not four or five years later. That’s four more years than anyone realized contemporary writers had to watch Morris and write about (and, more importantly, internalize) his “winning nature.” Ignore that his 1988 and 1989 seasons were forgettable; all that’s important is that he finished the decade with the title that he held for five years. Winning 18 and 21 games, respectively, in 1991 and 1992 were just icing on the cake.
Jack Morris can be on the Hall of Fame ballot all the way through the year 2014. By that time, Hall of Fame voters who covered the game during the 1980s will have had nearly 30 years of the “Jack Morris is a winner” line of thinking. That, more than anything, may be responsible for Morris’ eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown. If only the owners had not colluded in that winter of ‘86…