JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame Ballot: Jack Morris
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect last year’s voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the schedule and an explanation of how posts on holdover candidates will be presented, see here.
On Oct. 27, 1991, Jack Morris put together what many consider the greatest pitching performance in postseason history, throwing 10 shutout innings against the Braves to win Game 7 of the World Series. Remember, a championship wasn’t directly at stake when Don Larsen threw his perfect game for the Yankees in 1956 — that was a Game 5. 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 did 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 nearly enough votes to reach the Hall of Fame, thanks to a slow climb mirroring that of Bert Blyleven. In 2011, Blyleven was elected by the BBWAA in his 14th turn on the ballot, breaking a 19-year string in which the voters hadn’t elected a single starter with fewer than 300 wins since Fergie Jenkins in 1991. Morris debuted at 22.2 percent of the vote back in 2000; he didn’t he reach 30 percent until 2005, and it took him another five years to break 50 percent. After surging to 66.7 percent in 2012, his 13th year, his election appeared inevitable, but amid last year’s crowd, he netted just three additional votes, finishing at 67.7 percent.
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. Particularly given the timing, Morris’ surge in popularity seems like a reaction to that campaign — a reactionary one at that, as it’s a return to old-school emphasis on wins and things less quantifiable.
As intense as the debate surrounding his candidacy has been, it will end this year, or at least go on hiatus. Morris could be the next Jim Rice (76.4 percent in 2009), crossing the threshold in the final round, or he could fall short by an agonizingly small margin, as Enos Slaughter (68.8 percent in 1979), Nellie Fox (74.7 percent in 1985) and Orlando Cepeda (73.5 percent in 1994) did. All three eventually gained entry via the Veterans Committee, as did a handful of other modern candidates whose BBWAA eligibility expired with far less support: Jim Bunning (63.7 percent in 1991), Ron Santo (43.1 percent in 1998), Bill Mazeroski (42.3 percent in 1992), Red Schoendienst (39.0 percent in 1983) and Richie Ashburn (30.4 percent in 1982).
|Avg HOF SP||72.6||50.2||61.4|
A native of St. Paul, Minn., 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 Morris’ future Cooperstown ballot-mate Alan Trammell in the second round and rotation-mate Dan Petry in the fourth. Morris started his professional career at Double-A Montgomery and made just 29 minor league starts 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 joined Morris in making their big 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 beginning the next year in the minors, but when he was promoted in mid-May of ’79, he was up for good. He went 17-7 with a 3.28 ERA (133 ERA+) and accumulated 5.8 WAR. The latter mark ranked fifth in the league and would stand as his career-high.
That was the first of 12 full seasons Morris spent in Detroit’s 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 3.1 WAR. He reached 20 wins in 1983 and topped that with 21 in 1986. He dipped below 30 starts only three times in those 12 seasons: in 1979, 1981 (a strike-shortened season) and 1989, when he spent two months on the disabled list. Amid all this, he made four All-Star teams.
Morris 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 do so in either category. His 4.0 WAR didn’t crack the AL’s top 10, but he finished third in the Cy Young voting.
Morris no-hit 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 Detroit steamrolled 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+, 5.1 WAR), he helped Detroit to the 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 (1988-90) weren’t 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 with incentives and two player options that could escalate it to $11 million.
He rebounded from a 15-18, 4.51 ERA showing in 1990 to go 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA (125 ERA+) and 4.3 WAR for the Twins in ’91, 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 Minnesota 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. He gave up one run and threw 94 pitches that night, 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 on Gene Larkin’s pinch-hit 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, signing a two-year $10.85 million deal (plus an option) with the Blue Jays. He went 21-6, albeit with a 4.04 ERA (101 ERA+). The Blue Jays won the AL East, the ALCS and the World Series, but Morris couldn’t 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 with Toronto in 1993 (6.19 ERA) and was excluded from its postseason rotation. He moved on to Cleveland, where he was knocked around for a 5.60 ERA 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 43rd all-time, having been surpassed since he retired 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 1980s (162) than any other pitcher.
The problem with those who think that last stat matters is that those arbitrary endpoints aren’t particularly more special than others except for shorthanded stereotypes about the period — skinny ties, trickle-down economics, etc. While Morris leads the pack in wins for most rolling 10-year periods during his career, he falls to third in the 1984-93 period behind Clemens and Frank Viola, both of whom had 163. It’s worth mentioning that even with a Cy Young to his credit — something Morris never won — Viola never got any kind of Hall of Fame support, falling off the ballot with 0.4 percent in 2002.
The exaltation of high wins totals comes because in a more modern era, they are an endangered species thanks to five-man rotations and the systematic use of specialized bullpens designed to take advantage of late-inning matchups. 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.
Morris received above-average run support from his teams over the course of his career. We can express that figure in normalized form just as we can ERA+, with 100 representing the park-adjusted league average. Morris’ 106 mark in that run-support 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 he 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-1960s into the ’80s (Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton), only Carlton (105) and Sutton (104) had better-than-average SUP+. Of the 57 Hall of Fame starters, 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 subject.
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 allowed a .272 batting average on balls in play, 14 points better than the league average during his career (thank you, Trammell and Whitaker) and 32nd among the 200 pitchers with at least 1000 innings from 1977 through 1994. Just to cherrypick a few comparisons, Stieb yielded a .262 BABIP (eighth), Clemens .281 (78th), Blyleven .285 (117th) and Viola .287 (128th). That support was important, because Morris didn’t dominate opposing hitters by striking them out with exceptional frequency. His 5.8 K/9 ranks 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 from 1980-89. 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 1924-47. Morris’ 105 ERA+ would be the third-lowest among Hall of Famers, ahead of only Catfish Hunter’s 104 and Rube Marquard’s 103. Just nine Hall of Fame pitchers have an ERA+ lower than 110; Ruffing is at 109.
To choose one pitcher whose career overlapped with Morris’, David Wells was an exceptionally durable pitcher who finished his career with 239 wins and an ERA nearly a quarter of a run higher at 4.13. His ERA+ was 108. For all of his big-game ability (10-5, 3.17 ERA in the postseason), Wells went one-and-done on last year’s ballot, with 0.9 percent of the vote.
Morris’ supporters dismiss his high ERAs by noting that they’re distorted by the end of his career. He put up a 5.91 mark over his final two seasons; through 1992, he stood at 3.73, with a 109 ERA+ but “only” 237 wins. Cut him off after 1988 — before Game 7 was even a twinkle in the Twins’ eyes — and he’s at 3.59, with a 113 ERA+ but just 177 wins.
This is hardly unique, even among Hall of Famers; take Hunter (4.52 ERA and an 86 ERA+ while battling injuries over his final three seasons), Carlton (5.72 ERA over his final three seasons) and Niekro (6.30 ERA in his final year), for example. 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’ 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’ record, therefore, 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), won in spite of them (1992 Blue Jays) or entirely without him (1993 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 four times during his career, but never higher than fifth. His mark for the 1980-89 period (30.5) is tied for 11th with Nolan Ryan, just below Charlie Hough (30.6) and significantly below Saberhagen, who didn’t even reach the majors until 1984, with Stieb (48.5) first and Blyleven (38.1) second. Morris’ 44.1 career WAR is tied with Bartolo Colon for 142nd among starting pitchers, surpassing just five out of 57 Hall of Fame pitchers. His peak score ranks 182nd, tied with Ray Caldwell and Cole Hamels, the latter of whom is still mid-career, with a chance to move much higher. Among enshrined starters, only Marquard (29.0) had a lower peak. Via JAWS, Morris is tied for 159th, surpassing just three Hall starters.
According to 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, and any modern reckoning of his value illustrates that definitively. 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? He’s close enough that his election appears to be an inevitability, whether it comes via the BBWAA or whatever form the Veterans Committee takes five years from now; Gil Hodges (63.4 percent in 1983) stands as the player with the highest share of the BBWAA vote not to gain entry via the VC. That said, the recent influx of qualified candidates doesn’t help Morris’ cause. Among the pitchers on the ballot, 300-win newcomers Maddux and Glavine outpace him in the JAWS categories, as do Mussina and holdovers Clemens and Curt Schilling — and that’s without considering the backlog of hitters. Based upon last year’s total of 569 voters, Morris would still have to pick up 42 new ones to reach 75 percent, more than double the 20 votes Rice picked up from 2008 to 2009. I don’t see it happening this year.
Contrary to what the level of research and energy I’ve devoted to my arguments against Morris over the past decade may suggest, I won’t take joy if he’s turned away. I watched that 1984 no-hitter as a teenager and the 1991 Game 7 shutout as a college senior; that World Series brought me back to baseball fandom after a couple of years in the wilderness (I didn’t see any of the post-earthquake 1989 World Series, or a single pitch of the 1990 season). Those memories are indelible, and they still give me goosebumps, and Morris brought me many more good ones along the way.
Even so, I long ago chose reason over emotion with respect to the Hall of Fame, and I’ve come too far to turn back.