Friday, December 15, 2017
Jack Morris, Hall of Famer at Last, But…
There are plenty of great pitchers who weren't quite Hall of Fame great and didn't get in. There are more than a few Hall of Fame pitchers who got in despite not quite being truly Hall of Fame great. Jack Morris, who's been elected to the Hall by the Modern Baseball Era Committee with his longtime teammate Alan Trammell, belongs to the latter category.
Morris was as tenacious a competitor as I ever saw pitch, and that's without remembering a certain World Series-winning game. But the Modern Era Committee just wasn't right to elect him to Cooperstown, and there's no disgrace in being a great pitcher who falls just short of Hall of Fame greatness.
I sat on the fence about Morris for most of the time he was on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, until a proper combination of what I saw versus what the results were, net and otherwise, told me that he really doesn't belong. And it's not something you like to say about any man you remember as being genuinely great.
"[T]here's no real joy in turning away Morris," writes Jay Jaffe in his remarkable The Cooperstown Casebook: Who's in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques. (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press; 446 p, $25.99.)
"Many of us who devoted time and energy to arguing against his case grew up watching his no-hitter, Game Seven shutout, and other highlights from his eighteen-year career. We know he was a very good pitcher for a long time. ... It takes a hard heart to avoid acknowledging the man's pain in being close enough to taste his inevitable election, yet falling short due to forces unseen at the outset of his candidacy. He didn't ask to become a battlefront in a cultural war.
That would be the war between "old school," which thinks statistics aren't the life blood but the blood poisoning of baseball, versus the "new school," which sometimes does come across as if we're talking about machines and not men. The old school forgets that statistics are a way to measure men you didn't see play the game or to conjugate what the real results were for those you did see; the new school occasionally forgets the evidence of things not seen. I hope that makes sense, for now.
Funny thing, though. The same Modern Era Committee that seems to have gone old-school in electing Morris seems to have gone new-school in electing Trammell. (Two of the committee members: Sandy Alderson, now the Mets' general manager; and, Jayson Stark, one of the first daily sportswriters to embrace the sabermetric advent.)
Trammell, too, fell off the writers' ballot after fifteen years. Morris gained support before his falloff more steadily and to a larger extent than Trammell did. And Trammell's is a Hall case that depended even more on statistical re-analysis.
Both men but perhaps Morris especially may have been helped big by the makeup of the Modern Era Committee this time around. George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Dave Winfield, and Robin Yount competed against Morris's and Trammell's Tigers. Nothing against those distinguished gentlemen, but you do know what's often said about old players and their recollections. The older I get, the better they were is one way to put it.
The old school disdains the wins above a replacement-level player measurement; the new school uses WAR as a significant, but not quite be-all/end-all measurement. Trammell's WAR is above that of the average Hall of Fame shortstop; it also isn't the sole reason why Trammell really belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Morris's is well below that of the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher. That isn't all you need to know to determine that Morris's isn't quite Hall of Fame greatness, but it matters greatly enough. "I think the image of the man and what we remember is a bit different from the career numbers," wrote the Dallas Morning News's Tom Cowlishaw in 2011, explaining why he was then pulling his former longtime support for Morris.
"Morris seldom had the lowest ERA in his own rotation, and was over 3.50 11 times in his 18-year career. ... Facts, not memories. That should be the priority in determining how we vote, and the facts say Morris comes up just short."
There are a pair of facts that should have jarred even Morris's least flexible supporters. Fact one: Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus once tracked every inning Morris pitched in his career and discovered that he put his teams behind in — wait for it — 344 of his 527 career starts. Think about that. Sixty-five percent of the time Jack Morris put his team in the hole, either by giving up the game's first run or by surrendering a lead.
Fact two: Morris's ERA when his teams scored four or more runs for him was around 3.70 or thereabout but when he had one, two, or three runs to work with, it was 4.08. And, for those who still thrive on pointing to Morris's career wins as a should-be Hall of Fame ticket, be advised that in games where he had three or less runs to work with, his won-lost record was 32-87.
The higher his run support, the better pitcher he was, if you're talking about a spread of four runs to work with. But look him up when his team gave him six or more runs to work with: He lost only nine times in 186 such games ... but his ERA in those games was 4.24. And that's despite opposing hitters having only a .314 on-base percentage and .397 slugging percentage against him in those games.
We know from the record as it is that Morris benefitted tremendously from superb defenses, part of which is going to Cooperstown with him, but that's just a little too much. What about his reputation as a big-game pitcher? It really rests on that one unforgettable Game 7.
You can measure Morris's biggest games — meaning, those he pitched in the heat of a pennant race a) against the team(s) his team most needed to beat to stay alive or get into the postseason; and, b) when beating the opposition no matter where they stood meant his team staying alive, gaining ground, or clinching a title. And he doesn't come out as good as his reputation.
If you measure him in total in the postseason, remove that Game Seven from the picture entirely, and his lifetime postseason ERA overall would be 4.63, with a 4.58 lifetime World Series ERA. That isn't a Hall of Fame disqualifier, necessarily; we know that some of the greatest pitchers of all-time didn't perform well in the postseason. But if big game pitching is one of your Hall of Fame qualifiers, Morris is short enough.
Morris today looks almost like a university scholar solving economics riddles. Let me not be misunderstood. Whenever I watched this guy pitch — he lived on a slider and a split-finger fastball, though the latter sometimes escaped his catchers — I watched a stubborn bull of a pitcher who wouldn't bend if you threw everything including the kitchen sink, the bathroom sinks, two bathtubs, and three toilets at him, even as he aged and wasn't quite the pitcher he'd been in the bulk of the 1980s.
You could bend Morris but not break him without a fight. And that's a guy who also got screwed twice during the collusion of the 1980s, in case you've forgotten. It doesn't mean Morris really belongs in the Hall of Fame. But it doesn't mean he'll be the worst pitcher in Cooperstown, either, by a long enough shot.
At least he'll be going in next to a teammate who was a big reason in his own right why Morris had any Hall of Fame case in the first place. But will Trammell's election open the way for his double play partner Lou Whitaker on a future Modern Era Committee ballot? A consummation perhaps devoutly to be wished, because Whitaker has a Hall case as strong as Trammell's and stronger than Morris's.
You tell me who got a bigger screwing — Morris, who lasted 15 full BBWAA ballots with a not-quite-real Hall of Fame case, or Whitaker, who went one-and-done with the BBWAA but who has a real Hall of Fame case. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with something to provoke even more of the debates baseball lovers genuinely love.