The case for Morris

Tyler Kepner has a piece up today about Jack Morris‘ qualifications for the Hall of Fame. I don’t buy Kepner’s arguments, but he makes the best case he can while also acknowledging the many negatives against Morris. Kepner presumably would have a vote if the New York Times let him, but there is that conflict of interest thing. Too bad more papers and writers don’t acknowledge that particular issue.

The key point of Kepner’s thesis is that Morris’ one moment of glory—the seventh game of the 1991 World Series—is just so HUGE that it puts him in, despite his otherwise less-than-Hall-worthy qualifications. Unfortunately, Kepner also lowers himself to the baffling “he looked like a winner” argument. But I will skip that for now.

I do want to address Kepner’s main point, which is that Morris’ one moment in the sun is enough to qualify him for the Hall. The good news is that we can quantify that perspective. In this year’s (and last year’s) Hardball Times Annual, Sky Andrecheck provided a great service to those of us who like Win Probability Added, Championship Leverage Index.

Here’s what it is: the value of the seventh game of a World Series is one whole championship. The teams are even and whoever wins that game will win the trophy. If you go back a step (and assume that each team has a 50/50 chance of winning future games), then the sixth game of a World Series is worth 0.5 championships. That is, the Series leader already has a one-game lead with one more win to go, so that particular game is worth half a championship. You can “chain” this logic backwards, all the way back to the first game of the regular season, which Sky did in this series of articles a couple of years ago. When you do that, you find that the seventh game of the World Series has 166 times more championship value than an average regular season game.

That’s a whole heck of a lot. Morris posted a fantastic Win Probability Added figure of 0.845 in that seventh game matchup against John Smoltz. Multiply 0.845 times 166 and you get a “Championship WPA” figure of 141. To put that in perspective, the Championship WPA leader of the 2010 regular season was Joey Votto, with eight. Morris’ single moment in the sun had 18 times more “championship value” than Votto’s entire season. If Votto has a long career in line with last year’s performance but rarely makes the postseason, his career Championship WPA won’t be as high as Morris’ single-game total.

Here’s another perspective. Bert Blyleven was 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA in the postseason, while Morris was 7-4, 3.80. This is another reason many of us scorn those who prefer Morris’ Hall credentials over Blyleven’s. But in postseason Championship WPA, Morris beats Blyleven handily 170-32. One game makes that much difference.

In fact, I believe that Morris’ single-game Championship WPA is the highest in the history of baseball.

And this is what sportswriters like Kepner feel, though they don’t measure it this way. They see the singular moments and games, they concentrate on who wins, and they give those factors a lot of weight. The kicker is, they’re not wrong. When you break down the math, Morris’ game really was that big.

This is why I like WPA so much. It quantifies things that people intuitively feel when they watch baseball. It says that “Yes indeed, Morris really did come up big in that game. Your gut is right on.”

Does that mean that Morris should be in the Hall of Fame? Not in my book. WPA, especially the championship variety, is too arbitrary to have so much importance for the Hall. One game, no matter how spectacular or important, just shouldn’t have that much pull. Plus, I don’t believe that anyone is consistently applying this kind of logic to Hall candidates. They’re simply remembering singular events that stand out in their memory. And no one should get into the Hall because he “looked like a winner.”

But maybe, just maybe, we should acknowledge that Morris supporters aren’t totally out to lunch.

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Comments

  1. Devon & His 1982 Topps blog said...

    I like the math here. I remember watching the game live and I was rooting for Atlanta. Sure Morris pitched great, but two things throw a monkey wrench in the argument that this game makes him a HOFer.

    1. If any one game was removed from a HOFer’s career, he should STILL be a HOFer. Shouldn’t he? Guys aren’t in Cooperstown ‘cause they had one record breaking moment or tossed a shutout in game 7 (see Saberhagen, Burdette, and Podres). So, saying this game puts Morris over the top, sounds illogical to me.

    2. Chuck Knoblach’s defensive deception to keep Lonnie Smith from scoring in the 8th (or was it the 7th?). His quick thinking is the reason Morris threw a shutout that day. How this great play forgotten?

  2. gdc said...

    Where do the walkoff AB’s by Mazeroski and Carter fare in this calc?  Probably can’t quantify the shock value of the Pirates beating the favored Yanks as opposed to the more evenly regarded Jays and Phils.  However, Maz was game 7 (albeit breaking a 0 out tie) and Carter was game 6 (but with a 1 run deficit and 1 out-a GIDP would lose).

    Has there been a last game 2 out GWH in any postseason that changed a loss into a win (either WS or advancing to next level) that would have such a high leveraged WPA?  e.g. Bobby Thomson’s 1 out 3R HR only upped the Giants championship probability to 50%.  Speaking of whom, I had gotten the impression over the years he was sort of a 1 hit wonder and Mays on deck was the real threat, but his 32 HR was by far the most on the 51 Giants.  And if “fame” was the main criterion his career line would have stood up better than Don Larsen’s and equal to Roger Maris in the One Great Accomplishment wing.

  3. Devon & His 1982 Topps blog said...

    oh, gdc just reminded me, I was going to ask about Sandy Koufax’s CG shutout in game 7 of the ‘65 Series. How’s the Championship WPA for that one?

  4. Dave Studeman said...

    Devon, good point about Knoblauch.  It’s good to remember that pitching WPA doesn’t separate out the impact of fielding.

    Koufax’ game 7 WPA was .581. The Dodgers scored two in the fourth, so it wasn’t nearly as close as the Twins/Braves.

    Actually, the second-best Game 7 pitching performance (by WPA) belongs to Ralph Terry in the game that ended on the famous 1962 McCovey/Richardson play.  He pitched a gem to win 1-0 (WPA of .823).  How come no one ever calls for Terry to be in the Hall?

    The greatest Game 7 offensive performance occurred on October 13, 1960, but it wasn’t Bill Mazeroski.  When Maz hit his home run, the score was tied, meaning that he “only” added less than 0.4 wins to the cause.

    The WPA hero of the day was Hal Smith, who hit a huge home run in the bottom of the eighth, Pirates trailing 7-6 and two out. That single blow was worth .63 wins, the greatest offensive contribution in Game 7 history.

  5. Steve Treder said...

    “How come no one ever calls for Terry to be in the Hall?”

    Because he’s history’s greatest monster.  Duh.

  6. Matt said...

    Very interesting article…I never thought of the math behind the “big game.”  I think if a player is borderline for the Hall, a game 7 performance might well be what puts him over.  I don’t think Morris is close enough for it to matter, but if Bagwell had some enormous game 7, perhaps that would put him in for me since he stands right on the top of the fence.

  7. Cyril Morong said...

    How would Morris rate if we used Tom Tango’s definition of clutch?

    WPA minus WPA/LI

    where LI is the Leverage Index

    How would Blyleven do?

  8. Jeremy said...

    I buy this as a mathematical reconstruction of the way many Morris supporters think. But I’ll admit I don’t find it compelling. The problem is with the premise that winning game 7 of the WS is worth 1 whole championship—as if what came before didn’t matter. Fire Joe Morgan once did a reductio ad absurdum of this logic (sorry, too lazy to look up the link), when they joked about inserting a baseball-playing tarsier at first base with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th in game 7 of the WS. Then, when that tarsier caught the throw that resulted in the final out of the game, it would be considered to have won the championship all by itself, with no one else in baseball having any value at all. (And yes, I realize that a baseball-playing tarsier probably would have a low WPA, but I don’t think that undermines the serious point of the joke…)

  9. Dave Studeman said...

    Jeremy, I get your point, but you’re overstating it.  It’s not that all the previous games have *no* value at all.  As I said, the sixth game of the Series has half the value of the seventh.

    But yes, the seventh game (and ninth inning) have a lot more value than previous games (or innings). In my opinion, this is not just a mathematical reconstruction of how Morris supporters think, but the way things *feel* to an average fan while the series or game is in action.

  10. Dave Studeman said...

    I should mention that all of my stats are from Baseball Reference.  You can create all-time postseason/game leaderboards in their Play Index.

  11. jim in nc said...

    These Morris people are insane.  Sure, a 7th game helps.  Derek Lowe started on Oct 17, 2004, and then came back to start the 7th game of the ACLS on Oct 20, beating the Yankees to complete the greatest comeback in major league history, on the way to the Red Sox winning their first WS in generations.  Does he belong in the HOF?

  12. Jeremy said...

    @Dave

    Yes, I agree that your math captures the way things feel to the average fan (and perhaps the players themselves, too). Indeed, I suspect this feeling is at the root of a lot of suspicion of a lot of statistical analyses. The average fan focuses a lot on what the player or the team does in their last chance—game 7, the 9th inning, the final out, the final strike—with everything that came before taken as given and so implicitly devalued. And of course earlier events are given in a sense—you can’t go back in time and change them. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have come out any other way. Yes, pitching great to win game 7 of the WS makes you a hero. But what about all the heroics that had to happen in order for you to even get that far? Or heroics that allowed you to win in a sweep, so you never even had to play game 7?

    It’s not just baseball fans who feel this way. Football fans praise quarterbacks who lead 4th quarter comebacks. Whereas I find myself thinking, “If he was *really*, he wouldn’t *need* to lead a 4th quarter comeback because his team would already be ahead.”

    Then again, sometimes even average fans think about the whole shooting match, not just the final shot. There’s a saying in golf that “You can’t win the Master’s on Thursday, but you can lose it.” Or the slogan (from an ad campaign?) “Every game counts.”

  13. Jeremy said...

    Oops, here’s what I would’ve written if I could type better:

    “If he was *really* that good, he wouldn’t need to lead a 4th quarter comeback…”

  14. Soundbounder said...

    Just saw this on Twitter:

    TylerKepner Tyler
    This is pretty cool, from the Hardball Times. Doesn’t back Jack Morris, but it gets at the way I feel, with a number: http://bit.ly/gXHgOQ

    Also, I wasn’t aware the NYT doesn’t vote for the HOF. Good for them!

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