Jack Morris: Babblefest 2009by Tom M. Tango
November 13, 2008
Another year, another day to talk about the Hall of Fame candidate Jack Morris, known as the "pitcher of the decade".
The best pitcher of the 1980s. I’m sure you’ve heard that plenty, right? About Jack Morris? Just take some arbitrary 10-year period, preferably bordered by round numbers, like the “80s”, and you have your test of greatness. Why not “pitcher of the decade”, and take something like 1976-1985? Or 1986-1995?
Anyway, let’s get back to 1980-1989. In that time period, Jack Morris led the league with 2443.2 innings. Let’s set the minimum innings pitched qualifier to 80 percent of that (1955 innings). We actually get back only 11 pitchers. Among those pitchers, Morris is seventh in ERA+! Unquestionably, the pitcher of the 1980s was not Jack Morris, but David Stieb, with the era-leading ERA+ of 127, far ahead of No. 2 Bert Blyleven. Here’s the full list.
Jack Morris’s W/L record was 162-119, a win percentage of .577. But, that’s No. 2 behind Bob Welch’s .596. Stieb was third at .562. Steib was also 2nd in innings.
What’s better? The No. 1 (by far) in ERA+, No. 2 in innings, and No. 3 in win percentage, or the No. 1 in innings, No. 2 in win percentage, and No. 7 in ERA+? I know this sounds like a trick question, but it’s not! There’s been mountains of ink spilled by people claiming, proudly, that it’s the latter.
Let’s shift things by one year: 1981-1990. The innings leader (Morris again) was 2443.1, making the threshhold level 1955 innings. Now, Stieb looks even better, bumping his ERA+ by two points to 129, compared to Morris’ 108. His win percentage is .593 while Morris is at .569. Heck, Morris doesn’t even compare to Bob Welch (ERA+ of 115). Welch was 150-90, compared to Morris’ 161-122. You get 11 more wins with Morris, but 32 more losses too! Morris had a 3.70 ERA compared to Welch’s 3.17.
If you want to give Morris credit for most wins for the decade, fine, go ahead. But, don’t call him the best pitcher for the decade. Stieb is definitely ahead of him. And with Welch, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Charlie Hough and Fernando Valenzuela around, Morris is lucky to even be considered better than any of those guys for “best” pitcher of the 80s.
Cy Young Voting
How did Jack Morris do in the Cy Young Voting in the 1980s? He received votes in five different seasons, to tie Dan Quisenberry for the lead. They are followed by Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Nolan Ryan,and Mario Soto, each receiving Cy Young votes in four seasons.
If you go by total Cy Young points (five for first place, three for second place, one for third place), the leader is Steve Carlton (280), followed closely by Roger Clemens, and Bret Saberhagen. Quisenberry is fourth. Jack Morris is in 22nd place.
The former method gives you one total point if you received votes from anyone. The latter method gives you alot more points the more first place votes you get. As a result, each is biased to one extreme or the other. In either case, Jack Morris takes a back seat to Dan Quisenberry.
Pitcher of the 1950s
When you select an arbitrary time period, like the 1980s, it is biased toward whatever player happened to get his peak years in the 1980-1989 time period. You could have someone with better years from 1981-1990 (as Stieb unquestionably tops Morris under this guideline), and you can have someone else be better in the 1977-1986 time period. The point of selecting the time period is to compare Jack Morris to his peers. To that end, what I like to do is compare players based on birth year. Morris was born in the middle of 1955, and so, his contemporaries would be pitchers born between 1950 and 1960.
Among those pitchers, Morris is fourth in innings, just behind Dennis Martinez and Frank Tanana. He's way ahead of the next guys (Doyle Alexander, Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch), and even more behind the leader (Bert Blyleven). In terms of quantity, our best comparisons for Morris are Martinez (born 1955) and Tanana (born 1953). Here are Morris and Martinez:
Morris Martinez Wins-Losses 254-186 245-193 ERA 3.90 3.70 IP 3,824 4,000
According to Baseball Reference, Martinez compiled his 3.70 ERA in a league and parks where the average pitcher would have had a 3.93 ERA, while Morris did his 3.90 in an environment of 4.08 for an average pitcher. So, Martinez was 0.23 ERA better than average and Morris was 0.18 ERA better than average.
Dennis Martinez may not be the pitcher of the 1980s, but he's had a career performance that is very close to Jack Morris. Dave Stieb may be the pitcher of the decade, while Jack Morris is just one of many names in the running, along with Bob Welch. Dan Quisenberry was considered a better pitcher by the contemporary writers over Jack Morris.
These are the number of Hall of Fame votes each of these pitchers received in their first year of eligibility:
111 Morris (9 years on the ballot, and counting) 58 Hershiser (2 years on the ballot, then removed) 18 Quisenberry (1 year on the ballot, then removed) 16 Martinez (1 year on the ballot, then removed) 7 Saberhagen (1 year on the ballot, then removed) 7 Stieb (1 year on the ballot, then removed) 1 Welch (1 year on the ballot, then removed)
Other than the "1980s" tag, what exactly vaults Morris over every one of his peers? Is it the memory of the 1991 World Series, while ignoring the 1992 World Series? Unfortunately, we'll be talking about Jack Morris every two months until 2014. Stieb, Martinez, Hershiser at al will be nothing more than afterthoughts until their obituaries are written.
A different Hall of Fame awarding system would keep all these very fine pitchers, including Morris, in the forefront, and all would be discussed simultaneously. As blogger Patriot has pointed out, the Hall of Fame discussions are now focused almost entirely on who was left out, rather than who is now in. Who are we going to be talking about in one month: Jim Rice and Jack Morris, or Dave Winfield and Nolan Ryan? Who has had more ink spilled in their names, the guys who are actually considered better, or the guys who just keeping hanging on?
References and Resources
This article is an expanded version of a post that first appeared on the author's blog.
Tom has co-authored a baseball strategies book called The Book - Playing The Percentages In Baseball, which is available at Inside The Book. Readers are encouraged to post comments on the author's blog, or to send him an email.