JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot: Jack Morris
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
On October 27, 1991, Jack Morris put together what still stands as arguably the greatest pitching performance in postseason history, throwing 10 shutout innings against the Braves in Game 7 of the World Series. After all, a championship wasn’t on the line when Don Larsen threw his perfect game for the Yankees in 1956 — that was a Game Five. Nine pitchers had thrown shutouts in Game 7s before Morris, most recently Bret Saberhagen for the Royals in 1985, but that was an 11-0 blowout. Ralph Terry had done so in a 1-0 game for the Yankees in 1962, but he threw “only” nine innings. No pitcher had ever taken a shutout beyond nine innings in the deciding game of the World Series.
In conjunction with his 254 regular season wins, that stellar performance has garnered Morris almost enough votes to reach the Hall of Fame, thanks to a slow, steady climb from the 22.2 percent share of the vote he received in his debut on the ballot back in 2000. Not until 2005 did he reach 30 percent, and not until 2010 did he break 50 percent; last year, his 13th on the ballot, he surged to 66.7 percent. His slow ascent towards election mirrors that of Bert Blyleven, who in 2011 was elected by the BBWAA on his 14th turn on the ballot, breaking a 19-year string in which the voters hadn’t elected a single starter with less than 300 wins since Fergie Jenkins in 1991.
Blyleven benefited from a long grassroots campaign that owed a debt to the way an advanced statistical lexicon heightened the appreciation of accomplishments that received less than their due in his heyday. Morris’ growing popularity as a candidate seems like a reaction to that campaign, a return to old-school emphasis on the Ws and things less quantifiable. Not surprisingly, it’s a candidacy that’s seen spirited debate on both sides.
|Avg HOF SP||67.9||47.7||57.8|
A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Morris attended Brigham Young University and was drafted by the Tigers in the fifth round in 1976, a banner draft by general manager Jim Campbell and scouting director Bill Lajoie that also yielded ballot-mate Alan Trammell in the second round and rotation-mate Dan Petry in the fourth. Morris went straight to Double-A Montgomery, and made just 29 starts in the minors before debuting with the Tigers on July 26, 1977. In his second start, he struck out 11 Rangers over nine innings while allowing just four hits (the game went into extra innings). In September, Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish all made their major league debuts; that quartet became a fixture by the following season, and would hold together through 1986, when Parrish left via a collusion-throttled free agency.
Early struggles in the rotation led to Morris spending the bulk of the 1978 season in the bullpen and to start the 1979 season in the minors, but when he was promoted in mid-May of that year, he was up for good. Morris went 17-7 with a 3.28 ERA (133 ERA+) for a season worth 5.6 WAR. The latter mark ranked fifth in the league, and would stand as a career-high. That was the first of 12 full seasons which Morris spent in the Tigers’ rotation, a span during which he averaged 33 starts, 13 complete games, 241 innings, 5.9 strikeouts per nine, a 3.71 ERA (109 ERA+) … and just 2.8 WAR. He reached 20 wins in 1983, and topped that with 21 in 1986, dipped below 30 starts only in 1979, the 1981 strike season, and a 1989 campaign in which he spent two months on the disabled list; amid all this, he made four All-Star teams. He learned a split-fingered fastball from pitching coach Roger Craig in 1983 and led the league in strikeouts (232) and innings pitched (293 2/3) — the only time he would lead the league in either category — and finished third in the AL Cy Young voting; his 3.7 WAR that year didn’t crack the league’s top 10.
Morris threw a no-hitter against the White Sox on April 7, 1984, the signature moment in Detroit’s 35-5 start en route to a world championship. Through the end of May he was 10-1 with a 1.88 ERA, but a rough stretch following that — a 6.30 ERA over 14 starts from June through mid-August — as the Tigers ran away with the AL East led to criticism in the media about his level of intensity. At one point, Morris stopped talking to the press until ordered to resume doing so by manager Sparky Anderson. He finished the 1984 season 19-11 with a 3.60 ERA (109 ERA+), then went 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in three postseason starts as the Tigers rolled over the Royals in the ALCS and the Padres in the World Series.
Morris tried to test free agency after the 1986 season, in which he’d gone 21-8 with a 3.27 ERA (127 ERA+) and a league-best six shutouts, but because of collusion, he drew very limited interest; even George Steinbrenner toed the line when presented with Morris’ demands. He wound up returning to the Tigers on a one-year, $1.85 million deal via arbitration instead of getting the three-year deal he sought and deserved, and while it worked out well in the short term, that sorry saga would eventually lead to his departure from the Motor City. Via another strong season in 1987 (18-11, 3.38 ERA, 126 ERA+, 4.8 WAR), he helped the Tigers to an AL East flag, though he was rocked for six runs in eight innings as his team was upset by the Twins in the ALCS. After the season, he signed a two-year, $4 million deal that gave him the highest average annual salary for a pitcher.
Morris’ final three years in Detroit (1988-1990) weren’t so pretty. Though still durable enough to average 218 innings even with his DL stint in 1989 due to an elbow injury, his ERA for that stretch was 4.40, and was worse than league average in all three seasons. When the collusion scandal was settled, the 35-year-old was allowed to declare free agency. He spurned the Tigers’ three-year, $9.3 million offer and signed a one-year, $3.7 million deal with the Twins that included incentives and two player options that could take it up to $11 million. He rebounded from a 15-18, 4.51 ERA showing to go 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA (125 ERA+) and 4.1 WAR for the Twins, earning his fifth and final All-Star appearance. Knocked out after just 5 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays in the ALCS opener, he threw eight strong innings in Game 4, and the Twins prevailed in five. They won the World Series opener against the Braves behind his seven innings of two-run ball, but lost Game 4, in which Morris was pulled after six innings of one-run ball and just 94 pitches — a relatively light outing by his standards, but then again, he was on three days’ rest. He would make his Game 7 start on three days’ rest as well, but needed just 126 pitches to complete the job. The Twins won it for him via Gene Larkin’s pinch-single in the bottom of the 10th.
Despite the championship and the hometown-boy-makes-good narrative, Morris opted out of his contract that winter and signed with the Blue Jays. Though he went 21-6, his 4.04 ERA translated to just a 101 ERA+. The Blue Jays won the AL East, the ALCS and the World Series, but Morris wasn’t able to duplicate his postseason magic; chased before completing five innings in two of his four starts, he was roughed up for a 7.43 ERA with 15 walks in 23 innings. That was the beginning of the end for Morris; he was terrible the following season with the Blue Jays (6.19 ERA), excluded from their postseason rotation, and knocked around for a 5.60 ERA with the Indians in the strike -shortened 1994 season. He pitched for the hometown St. Paul Saints in the independent Northern League in 1995, hoping for a return to the majors, but he couldn’t find a deal. He nearly signed with the Yankees in 1996 but was unwilling to pitch more than once in the minors. At 41, his career was over.
Morris’ Hall of Fame candidacy rests largely on his win total, which ranks 42nd all-time, having since been surpassed by Greg Maddux (355), Roger Clemens (354), Tom Glavine (305), Randy Johnson (303), Mike Mussina (270), and Jamie Moyer (267). Morris reached 20 wins three times, and won at least 18 six times, racking up more wins in the Eighties (162) than any other pitcher; Dave Stieb (140) is second. One problem with this line of thinking is that those arbitrary endpoints aren’t particularly more special than others except for shorthanded stereotypes about the period — skinny ties, trickle-down economics, et cetera. While Morris leads the pack in wins for most rolling 10-year periods during his career, he falls to third in the 1984-1993 period behind Roger Clemens and Frank Viola, both tied for the lead at 163. Even with a Cy Young to his credit — something Morris never won — the latter never got any kind of Hall of Fame support, falling off the ballot with 0.4 percent in 2002.
The exaltation of high win totals comes because in a more modern era, such totals are an endangered species because of the move to five-man rotations and the systematic use of specialized bullpens designed to take advantage of late-inning matchups, hence the dearth of pitchers who have surpassed that 254 mark. Via this, Morris’ considerable durability (175 complete games, the 16th-highest total of the post-1961 expansion era and the highest of any pitcher whose career began after the introduction of the DH in 1973) is a counter to the more modern, sabermetrically-driven view of pitcher wins as products of adequate offensive, defensive and bullpen support.
On the offensive score, Morris received above-average support from his teams over the course of his career. We can express a pitcher’s run support in normalized form just as we can ERA+, with 100 representing the park-adjusted league average. Morris’ 106 mark in that category (call the stat SUP+) is no small advantage. Via the Pythagorean Theorem, each extra percentage point difference in run support translates roughly to a .005 gain in winning percentage, or an extra win for every 200 decisions. All else being equal, Morris’ 6.4 percent advantage would translate to a record of 234-206 over the course of 440 decisions (the number Morris had in his career), assuming average run prevention ability. Blyleven, by comparison, received run support four percent worse than league average (96 SUP+), Stieb and Clemens three percent worse (97+). Among the cohort of durable hurlers who won 300 games in careers that ran from the mid-Sixties into the Eighties (Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton), the highest SUP+ from the group is Carlton’s 105, with Sutton’s 104 the only other above-average mark from that group. Of the 59 Hall of Fame hurlers, only 21 had support better than Morris, with Catfish Hunter (112, 10th) and Jim Palmer (108, 16th) the only ones whose careers overlapped that of our hero.
Particularly in the DH league, run support is entirely out of a pitcher’s control. Run prevention, on the other hand, is not, though it certainly requires defensive support. Morris’ .272 batting average on balls in play was 14 points better than the league average during his career (thank you, Trammell and Whitaker), 32nd among the 200 pitchers with at least 1000 innings from 1977 through 1994. Just to cherrypick a few comparisons, Stieb was at .262 (eighth), Clemens at .281 (78th), Blyleven at .285 (117th), Viola at .287 (128th). That support was important, because Morris didn’t dominate opposing hitters by striking them out with exceptional frequency. His 5.8 strikeouts per nine rank 62nd out of 200 with at least 1,000 innings pitched over the full span of his career, and 28th out of 99 with 1,000 innings in the 1980-1989 period. His 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was 46th during that latter period.
Even with that above-average defensive support, Morris’ run prevention ability was hardly exceptional. His 3.90 ERA would be the highest in Cooperstown, supplanting Red Ruffing’s 3.80, compiled from 1924-1947. Morris’ 104 ERA+ would be the second lowest among Hall of Famers, ahead of only Rube Marquard’s 103. Just eight Hall of Fame pitchers have an ERA+ lower than 110; Ruffing is at 109. David Wells, an exceptionally durable pitcher who’s also on the ballot, and who finished his career with 239 wins and an ERA nearly a quarter of a run higher at 4.13, is at 108; for all of his big-game ability (10-5, 3.17 ERA in the postseason), he’s clearly no Hall of Fame-caliber starter.
Morris’ supporters dismiss his high ERAs by noting that they’re distorted by the 5.91 mark he put up over his final two seasons; through 1992, he stood at 3.73, with a 109 ERA+ but “only” 237 wins. This is hardly unique, even among Hall of Famers. Hunter yielded a 4.52 ERA and an 86 ERA+ while battling injuries over his final three seasons; he finished with a 105 ERA+, one percentage point better than Morris. Carlton was rocked for a 5.72 ERA over his final three seasons. Niekro was lit for a 6.30 ERA ERA in his final year. Blyleven posted a 4.35 ERA and a 90 ERA+ over his final four seasons, a span that included a full year missed with injury; he had one stellar year (17-5, 2.73 ERA) and two with ERAs above 5.00 in that span. All of those pitchers elevated their win totals by hanging on, but with the possible exception of Blyleven, none enhanced their Hall of Fame cases. Even if one merely focuses on his good seasons, Morris cracked the top 10 six times in raw ERA, but never ranked higher than fifth, and only four times ranked in the top 10 in ERA+, never higher than fourth.
Supporters have tended to dismiss Morris’s high ERAs with claims that he “pitched to the score.” The research efforts of Greg Spira and Joe Sheehan have long since put the lie to this claim. In studying his won-loss record through 1993 (his second-to-last season), Spira found that Morris was just four wins ahead of his projected record based upon run support. Sheehan, who pored over Morris’s career inning-by-inning via Retrosheet, concluded: “I can find no pattern in when Jack Morris allowed runs. If he pitched to the score — and I don’t doubt that he changed his approach — the practice didn’t show up in his performance record.” Morris’s record is more a product of strong run support than it is special strategy.
As for Morris’s postseason performances, while his Game 7 shutout is certainly impressive, his overall line (7-4, 3.80 ERA in 13 starts) is a reasonable distillation of his regular-season performance, with good starts and bad ones. Teams won it all with his help (1984 Tigers, 1991 Twins), but teams also fell with his struggles (1987 Tigers), or won in spite of those struggles (1992 Blue Jays). He was not exceptionally clutch in the grand scheme of his postseason resumé.
Morris’ relatively unexceptional performance in terms of run prevention and hitter dominance costs him dearly with regards to WAR and JAWS. He ranked among the AL top 10 in WAR five times during his career, but never higher than fifth. His mark for the 1980-1989 period (27.6) ranks 13th, just below Charlie Hough, Nolan Ryan and Teddy Higuera (who didn’t even debut until 1985!), with Stieb (45.6 first) and Blyleven (35.8) second. Morris’ 39.3 career WAR ranks 150th among starting pitchers, between contemporaries John Candelaria and Fernando Valenzuela, surpassing just five out of 59 Hall of Fame pitchers. His peak score ranks 180th, tied with Clif Lee and Felix Hernandez, both of whom are still mid-career, with chances to move much higher. Only two enshrined starters have lower peaks. Via JAWS, he ranks just 127th — higher than in either of the other two standards — but still surpassing just four Hall starters.
Via this view, that’s not a Hall of Fame pitcher. Morris was gritty, gruff, and exceptionally durable, and he saved his bullpens a whole lot of work, but he simply didn’t prevent runs in the manner of an elite pitcher. For all of his extra wins and postseason success, Morris case rests on outmoded barometers and a distortion of the value of one shining moment.
Will he get in? The jump to 66.7 percent in his 13th year gives him a fighting chance, but the incoming flood of qualified candidates — which will include Maddux, Glavine and Mussina next year — doesn’t help his cause. Based upon last year’s total of 573 voters, Morris would still have to pick up 48 votes to reach 75 percent, and he’s got just two years to stand out in an enlarging crowd. It’s not out of the question that he will make it, but it’s no lock.