Wednesday, January 04, 2012
Morris vs. BlylevenPosted by Dave Studeman
The Hall of Fame results will be announced next week, and the subject of Jack Morris continues unabated. I admit that it's hard for me to take the Morris Hall of Fame campaign seriously, but Chris Jaffe predicts he'll get 65 percent of the vote. That's astonishing to me.
A lot of people have written a lot about Morris, and I'm not going to repeat it all here. But one of the things I've heard from a Morris defender is this: Now that Bert Blyleven's in the Hall, Morris should be, too. I'd like to put that notion to rest.
First, there are the surface stats: Blyleven pitched 4,970 innings, struck out 3,701 batters and had a 3.31 ERA. When you compare his ERA to his contemporaries (and adjust for ballpark), his ERA+ is 118. That means that the adjusted league-average ERA was 18 percent higher than his.
Morris pitched 3,824 innings, struck out 2,478 batters (5.8 per nine innings vs. Blyleven's mark of 6.7 per nine innings) and had a 3.90 ERA. His ERA+ was 105, which means that the league-average ERA (adjusted for ballpark) was five percent higher than his. Morris was a fine pitcher, but he was no Blyleven.
Some people then say, "Fine, but Morris was a winner." It's true that, statistically, Morris had a better winning percentage than Blyleven. Morris won 254 games and lost 186 for a winning percentage of .577, while Blyleven won 287 games and lost 250 for a winning percentage of .534. The implication is that Morris was a "winner," and Blyleven wasn't. This perception is enhanced by Morris' fantastic performance in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series.
This is ridiculous. Minnesota in the early 1970s (Blyleven's prime) was a .500 team. Detroit in the early 1980s (Morris' prime) was a .540 team (I'm just guesstimating here, but I don't think I'm off by much). Morris typically pitched for much stronger offenses than Blyleven did. The difference in their win/loss records has everything to do with context and nothing to do with pitching performance.
Still, the perception persists. I've heard it said that Morris was better than Blyleven at "pitching to the score." This typically means that, sure, Morris sometimes gave up six runs, but only when Detroit scored 10. He matched his performance to his surroundings.
Better baseball analysts than I, such as Bill James and Joe Sheehan, have already picked this argument apart. But I'd like to do it one more time, the easy way. I'd like to show the difference in each pitcher's Win Probability Added (WPA).
WPA is discussed here. The upshot is that players are given credit for helping their teams win games based on what they did on every single play. You can find WPA stats at both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference; it's easy to find and easy to understand. Plus, it captures performance and context. It reflects someone "pitching to the score."
Let me give you a few examples from 1974, one of Blyleven's finest years.
On April 20, Blyleven lost a 1-0 game against the Rangers, giving up the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. He pitched extremely well but ultimately gave up the winning run, resulting in a WPA of just 0.15. His contribution was very positive, and his WPA was positive, but it didn't result in a win. Given that a winning team compiles 0.5 WPA points in total at the end of a game, this was a good-not-great total.
On the other hand, on Sept. 25, the Twins beat the A's 1-0 with Blyleven pitching a complete-game shutout. His WPA total was a fantastic 0.77, one of the best totals you can achieve in a game. He pitched extremely well AND he gave up fewer runs than his team scored. As a result, his WPA total was 0.62 higher in this game than on April 20.
On June 24, the Twins beat the Rangers, 8-4. Blyleven pitched just six innings and left with a 4-3 lead. Bill Hands shut down the Rangers, and the Twins scored four more runs to put the game away. Blyleven's WPA in this game was 0.01—average.
Lastly, on July 13, the Twins won a 2-1 game against the Indians in 11 innings. Blyleven pitched nine innings and gave up just one run, keeping the Twins in the game until they won it with Bill Campbell on the mound. Blyleven's WPA total was 0.41, an excellent total matching his performance with the context of the game and ultimately resulting in a win. Note that even if the Twins had lost the game, Blyleven's WPA would have remained 0.41, as he was off the mound when the final outcome was determined.
The point is that WPA totals reflect both performance and context. It does a much better job of uncovering how well pitchers pitched to the situation than won-loss record does. (As an example, Campbell picked up the win in that July 13 game; Blyleven got a no-decision). Short of examining each game one-by-one (which James and Sheehan did), it's the single best way of capturing how well pitchers "pitched to the score."
Here are the WPA totals for Morris and Blyleven, by age:
Age Morris Blyleven 19 0.3 20 3.4 21 1.7 22 -0.1 3.5 23 -0.9 3.7 24 2.3 4.2 25 1.3 4.1 26 1.8 2.1 27 1.4 0.3 28 1.4 -0.2 29 1.2 -1.0 30 3.0 1.9 31 3.2 -0.3 32 3.6 0.5 33 0.1 3.4 34 -1.9 2.5 35 -2.7 0.0 36 2.1 1.6 37 2.1 -2.9 38 -2.0 4.5 39 -1.0 -1.1 41 -1.7 Total 15.0 30.6
It's not close. Blyleven's career total is twice Morris', and his peaks were higher, too. Blyleven had seven years with a WPA total above 3.0; Morris had three. Blyleven topped 4.0 three times; Morris never did.
Unlike some folks I know, I'm willing to give Morris some credit for his fantastic seventh game heroics. But that still doesn't make the comparison between these two great pitchers close. Only one is a Hall of Famer.
Dave was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Comments about this article can be sent to him through the miracle of e-mail.