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January 17, 2002

The Legend of Jack Morris

Slowing a Bandwagon

by Michael Wolverton

Another Hall of Fame election has come and gone, and the post-mortem columns look pretty much the same as last year. They lament the fact that Gary Carter has to wait another year, that Bert Blyleven and Rich Gossage got stiffed again, and that a decent candidate got dropped from the ballot. (Actually, I'm surprised at how little attention that last one received; Ron Guidry got less than the 5% required to remain on the BBWAA ballot, and now joins Lou Whitaker, Dwight Evans, and the rest in Veterans Committee purgatory.)

What caught my attention was Jack Morris. No, Morris didn't get that much attention from the BBWAA voters. His total of 21% of the vote was up slightly from last year, but still miles away from the 75% needed for induction. However, Morris got very enthusiastic support from a number of high-profile analysts, including three of ESPN's most visible personalities: Joe Morgan, Peter Gammons, and Jayson Stark. Page 2's Bill Simmons also gave Morris a strong endorsement.

It wasn't so much the fact that they supported Morris that caught my eye, but the arguments the four used. They discuss Morris as if he were a mythological entity, a baseball legend who single-handedly carried teams to world championships. Like a lot of legends, this one focuses on individual anecdotes at the expense of the big picture, and it stretches the truth a little to make the character larger than life.

Let's give Morris his due: he was a fine pitcher. He was the great workhorse of his time, and his ERAs were consistently good, if unspectacular. He finished with nearly 4,000 innings pitched and a park-adjusted runs allowed average that was six percent lower than the leagues in which he pitched. In the eight years from 1979 to 1987 he averaged 250 innings a year, and had an above-average rate of run prevention in all of them. If he ever does make it to the Hall, he won't be the worst pitcher there.

That said, there's a difference between "wouldn't be the worst" and "really belongs." I don't see much of a case for Morris as a Hall of Famer, at least not if you believe that a pitcher's main job is to prevent the other team from scoring. Morris's record in that respect just isn't at the level of most other Hall of Fame pitchers.

Using pitchers' run prevention to arrive at an estimate of Wins Above Replacement (WAR)--how many wins the pitcher contributed to his teams beyond what a replacement pitcher would have contributed--Morris ranks only 95th all time. (More detail about the method to arrive at WAR is given in this article). He rates behind quite a few of his contemporaries who are unlikely to receive much Hall of Fame consideration:

Rank                 WAR
62   Rick Reuschel    58
64   Dave Stieb       58
72   Frank Tanana     55
81   Jimmy Key        53
90   Dennis Martinez  52
95   Jack Morris      51

and ahead of only the most questionable of the Hall's 56 starting pitcher inductees:

Rank                 WAR
95   Jack Morris      51
98   Herb Pennock     51
100  Burleigh Grimes  50
101  Bob Lemon        50
104  Chief Bender     50
130  Jesse Haines     46
131  Catfish Hunter   46
135  Jack Chesbro     45
138  Dizzy Dean       45
160  Rube Marquard    40

But what about all the "extra credit" arguments that supposedly elevate Morris above the Rick Reuschel/Frank Tanana/Jimmy Key level into legendary status? Let's look at a few of those:

  • Bill Simmons: Morris "served as the ace for three championship teams."

    That depends on how you define "ace." Morris was pretty clearly the ace of the 1984 Tigers, even though Dan Petry wasn't far behind him. I suppose there's a good case that Morris was the ace of the 1991 Twins, although I'd argue that both Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson had better seasons.

    It's stretching the truth to claim that Morris was the ace of the 1992 Blue Jays. True, Cito Gaston went with Morris's postseason experience in Game 1 of the ALCS and Game 1 of the World Series that year--bad decisions, as it turns out, as Morris pitched horribly throughout the postseason. But did anyone, even Gaston, really think that Morris and his 4.04 ERA was a better pitcher for the Jays that year than Juan Guzman (2.64 ERA) or Jimmy Key (3.53 ERA), not to mention late-season acquisition David Cone (2.81 ERA)? In this case, "manager's pet" may be a more accurate label than "ace."

    So maybe Morris was only the ace for two world champions. Isn't that still impressive? Not really. At least it hasn't impressed Hall voters in the past. Don Gullett was the staff ace for two world champions, and I've never noticed a campaign to get him in the Hall. Same with Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Mort Cooper. Merely being the best pitcher on a couple of great offensive teams is not an automatic ticket to Cooperstown.

  • Simmons: "That 10-inning, complete-game shutout in Game 7 of the '91 Series was the best 'big-game' pitching performance I've ever seen."

    It was an amazing game, and Morris pitched wonderfully. He deserves some of the mileage he gets out of it. But as I've argued before, if Lonnie Smith and Bobby Cox enter the park with two functioning neurons between them that night, the Braves score at least one run off Morris in the eighth, and John Smoltz is the one whose "big-game performance" is frozen in our memories. Morris gave up the go-ahead run in that inning twice; the Braves were just too slow-witted to accept it.

    More to the point, many pitchers have turned in great Game 7 performances, some more dominating than Morris's. But no one has suggested that Steve Blass, Mickey Lolich, or Ralph Terry belong in the Hall.

  • Stark: "There was a reason Morris was the winningest pitcher of his era by such a vast margin."

    There was a reason, and it's called "run support." Not counting his cup of coffee in 1977, Morris pitched 17 years in the majors. Thirteen of his 17 teams were better-than-average run-scoring teams, and a whopping seven of those teams finished either first or second in the league in runs.

There's a "but" to all of the extra-credit arguments for Morris. He won a bunch of games...but that's due in large part to Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Kirby Puckett, John Olerud, Roberto Alomar, et al. He pitched well in the World Series...but not very well in the League Championship Series. The bottom line with Morris is that there are a lot of other pitchers who have essentially the same credentials as he does, too many to argue that those credentials are good enough for the Hall.

I hope this serves as a reality check to the growing Morris legend. And if next year at this time we're reading columns about how Morris chopped down forests with his big blue ox...well, at least I tried.

Michael Wolverton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Hall Of Nearly Great,  Ace

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2002-02-15 - Controlling the Running Game
2002-01-17 - The Legend of Jack Morris
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