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January 9, 2013

Wezen-Ball

Through the Years: Jack Morris

by Larry Granillo

With the Hall of Fame announcement scheduled for this week, now is a good time to look back at the early careers of some of this year's most talked-about nominees. (And with the early exit polls looking as they do, it might be nice to remember just how great some of these players were.)

Jack Morris, longtime anchor of the Detroit Tigers pitching staff, winningest pitcher of the 1980s, and author of one of the most memorable World Series games of all-time, is now in his fourteenth year on the Hall of Fame ballot. Only three years ago, Morris was barely receiving 53% of the vote. Five years ago, it was merely 44%. Today, however, he sits on the verge of election, receiving 67% in the 2012 voting and returning to the ballot as the lead vote-getter. To be honest, the arguments over Morris's Hall worthiness have gone on so long now that it feels nearly impossible to even remember what he was like as a player. For both sides of the debate, "Jack Morris" has turned into a stone idol, representing all that is beautiful and romantic of old-school baseball on one side and all that is vile and oppressive of outdated thinking on the other. His year-to-year and day-to-day strengths and weaknesses have been mostly forgotten or ignored, except when useful in proving a point. Morris, more than any other candidate on the Hall of Fame ballot, may benefit most from a look back at contemporary accounts of his early career.

A fifth-round draft pick by the Tigers in 1976, the 21-year-old righty began his career in double-A Montgomery before pitching well enough in triple-A Evansville in 1977 (3.60 ERA in 20 games and 135 innings) to earn a brief call-up. Heading into the 1978 season, some watchers were beginning to wonder if Detroit had done it again. From the 1978 Street & Smith's:

In '76, the Tigers came up with "The Bird"; last year, it was Dave Rozema. Who'll be the club's righty pitching sensation of '78? Perhaps nobody. But 21-year-old Jack Morris (6-7, 3.60 at Evansville), came up and split two decisions with the present club in only his second pro season.

Morris did stay in the big leagues for most of 1978, but his impact was nowhere near that of Detroit's recent phenoms. Morris made 28 appearances that season, starting only seven games. He managed a 4.33 ERA in those 106 innings pitched, a more-than-adequate number from a 23-year-old rookie. His future was fully ahead of him.

Jack Morris and Steve Baker, two youngsters of 23 and 22, aren't far away from starting regularly.

That initial leap came in 1979. As a regular starter for the fifth-place Tigers, Morris boasted a 3.28 ERA while striking out 113 batters en route to a 17-7 record. The only other Tigers pitchers with double digit wins were Milt Wilcox (12-10), Jack Billingham (10-7) and closer Aurelio Lopez (10-5, 21 saves).

The following spring, manager Sparky Anderson had great praise for his staff ace. From the 1980 Sports Illustrated preview issue:

Joining him in the rotation are veteran Milt Wilcox (12-10) and Jack Morris (17-7, 3.28), whom Anderson considers "possibly the best righthanded starter in the league."

Morris cracked the 200 inning barrier for the first time in 1980 in his age-25 season, shooting all the way to 250 innings in only his third big league campaign. The season was a step down from the year before. His 4.18 ERA was good for only a 99 ERA+ and his 16-15 record wasn't winning him any awards. With 112 strikeouts in 250 innings (down from 113 in 198 innings the year before), it was also the worst strikeout rate of Morris's career. Still, for a 25-year-old on an 84-win squad, there wasn't much to dislike.

For his part, Morris was very aware of his issues that season. From the 1981 Sporting News preview guide:

Morris, who was 16-15, is optimistic also. But an inconsistent season in 1980 made him re-evaluate his status.

"Nothing is going to come easy," he said. "After winning 17 games in '79, maybe I thought it would. It wasn't a conscious change on my part, but I found out it takes concentration all the time. All the time."

The weird strike-shortened 1981 season was another quality year for Morris. In 25 starts and 198 innings, Morris led the American League with a 14-7 record while putting up his career-best 3.05 ERA. That year, he was one of three strong pitchers on the Detroit staff. From the 1982 Street & Smith's:

The Tiger pitching was stronger than most people suspected. Dan Petry (10-9), Milt Wilcox (12-9), and Jack Morris (14-7) all had earned-run averages of right around 3.00 and ranked in the top 15 in the league.

Though Sporting News found his season to be much more praiseworthy.

The Tigers have three reliable starters in Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox. Morris started the All-Star Game for the American League and also was the Sporting News American League Pitcher of the Year. He was 14-7 with a 3.05 earned-run average and looms as a potential 20-game winner for years to come.

The American League Cy Young Award was given to Rollie Fingers that year. Morris finished third.

Morris followed up his 1981 with another down year, repeating what seemed to be the up-and-down pattern of his early career. Though he pitched in 266 innings in 1982, Morris managed only a 4.06 ERA (a league average 100 ERA+) while walking 96 and striking out 135. Sporting News, who had given him their pitcher of the year award the year before, noticed his unevenness.

Dan Petry established himself as one of the top young pitchers by compiling a 15-9 record and 3.22 ERA, fourth best in the American League. Morris staggered through an up-and-down season but emerged with 17 victories while losing 16.

The 1983 Tigers won 92 games and finished second in the East behind the eventual world champion Baltimore Orioles. Morris helped lead his team to those heights with another strong year. Pitching in a league-leading 293 innings (including 20 complete games), Morris cruised to a 3.34 ERA, a career-best 232 strikeouts, and the first 20 win season of his career, finishing 20-13. Though he didn't make the All-Star team that summer, Morris did finish third in the Cy Young voting again (behind Lamarr Hoyt and Dan Quisenberry). The 1984 Street & Smith's likened the Morris/Petry duo to some greats of Detroit's past.

Morris and Petry were the best 1-2 pitching punch in Detroit since Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich. Morris, whose forkball keeps getting better, won ten straight games.

It all led up to 1984, when the Tigers, who brought up Morris, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, and Kirk Gibson roughly together in the late-1970s, finally came through on Sparky's five-year plan and won the World Series. Morris did his part in contributing, posting a 3.60 ERA in 240 innings pitched. He even threw his first career no-hitter that year. It wasn't all wine and roses, however.

And now—drum roll, please—the two aces of the rotation: Jack Morris and Dan Petry. Morris (19-11, 3.60) traumatized himself after a no-hitter of the White Sox in April by letting the media get to him when things soured. An elbow problem and slump forced him to lose seven of 12 starts in June and July, so he threw tantrums and stopped talking to the press. He really was hurt when coach Roger Craig criticized him in print, but a heart-to-heart talk with the professor turned Morris around. He finished strongly, then starred in postseason play with a 3-0 record.

Morris followed up the World Series season with two nearly identical seasons, posting ERAs of 3.33 and 3.27 in '85 and '86 while pitching 257 and 267 innings, respectively. The win totals were very different, however, with his 16-11 record shooting up to 21-8 the next year. His peripherals were a bit better in 1986—both strikeouts-per-nine and walks-per-nine improved—but that can't fully explain the change in win totals.

It is interesting to note that, despite Morris's 1985 and 1986 seasons both being better than his 1984, the 1986 Street & Smith's goes out of its way to note how he had slipped since the World Series win.

Jack Morris and Dan Petry slipped from their '84 contributions of 37 total victories to 16-11, 3.33 ERA and 15-13, 3.36, respectively, but they remain one of baseball's better 1-2 combinations. Morris is the winningest pitcher of the decade (102) and one of only 11 pitchers in Detroit history to post seven straight seasons of 10 or more victories. ... The pair must improve in Tiger Stadium. Morris was 5-5 at home with a yield of 14 of his 21 home runs.

And this is where we first see a mention of Jack Morris as the "winningest pitcher of the '80s". He earned the title following the 1985 season, pulling it away from the aging Steve Carlton, and never looking back. As I've noted before, the phrase didn't come into prominence for another couple of years, however, when Morris (and other top free agents) were the victims of collusion. It was a fun talking point for fans of Morris who were happy to see the righty succeeding following his unfair and illegal treatment. No one would have guessed we would still be talking about it 25 years later.

Morris’ reputation as a winning pitcher—“the winningest pitcher”—was really set in that 1987 season, not four or five years later. That’s four more years than anyone realized contemporary writers had to watch Morris and write about (and, more importantly, internalize) his “winning nature.”

We all know the story from here. In 1991, Morris pitched the game of the ages when he shutout the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the World Series for ten innings as the Twins won their second World Series in five years. The next year, he won 21 games for the Toronto Blue Jays as they went on to win their first World Series (he was left off the postseason roster the following year). All of this has somehow snowballed into one of the longest, most bitter Hall of Fame debates in recent memory.

Looking back at how Morris was talked about when he was young, it actually makes some sense. Sure, Morris's statistical case is weak, considering his high career ERA and less-than-stellar strikeout and walk rates, but the language surrounding him has been effusive for over thirty years. In his peak years, when his ERA dropped close to 3.00 in support of his high win totals, writers couldn't help but use "best", "fabulous", "ace" and other superlatives reserved for the game's top stars. The language was toned down some in his down years—"threw tantrums", "slipped", "inconsistent", "staggered"—but it rarely lasted. Either the writer could point to Morris's 16 or 17 victories (while ignoring his corresponding 15 or 16 losses) that season or his success the next year would wipe it out of their memory. Either way, the "Jack Morris is a great pitcher" narrative was kept alive. Thirty years of narrative-building later, it's no wonder why so many fight tooth-and-nail to keep Morris in high regard.

Jack Morris was a very good pitcher—at times even a great pitcher—whose performance fluctuated on a year-to-year basis. It's a testament to his skill and talent that his "down" years consisted of nothing worse than 250 innings of 4.18 ERA ball during his prime. In looking at contemporary accounts, it's clear that writers of the time were impressed by his ability to consistently earn 15-20 victories each year, a fact that blinded them to his faults. None of this adds up to a Hall of Fame pitcher, but, no matter what happens when the results are released this afternoon, it's a career that Morris can be proud of.

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