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January 10, 2012

BP Unfiltered

Watching Jack Play

by Colin Wyers

CBS's Jon Heyman Tweeted this comment earlier today:

i love the folks who never saw jack morris pitch who are certain he isnt hall of famer bec their stat guru said so

Now, to be clear, I wholeheartedly endorse being certain someone isn't a Hall of Famer because Jay Jaffe says so, so if he's your stat gury of choice, carry on. (Other stat gurus will be evaluated on a case by case basis.) Morris's numbers have been analyzed endlessly here (for those of you who missed it, Jay's latest examination of Morris is here), so I won't belabor the point. But I do want to look at something - namely, what did the people who saw Jack Morris pitch think of him during his career? And not just any people, but card-carrying BBWAA members, the sort of people now currently engaged in Hall of Fame voting?

Morris was the pitcher "of the 80s," so I took a look at Cy Young balloting from 1980 through 1989. I took each player's point total from that season and divided by the maximum number of points for a pitcher that season (such that a 1 means a player won the Cy Young, and a .5 means a pitcher accumulated half as many points as the winner). In that spirit, I give you the top 25 pitchers in Cy Young share of the 80s:

Pitcher Points
Steve Carlton 2.333
Roger Clemens 1.943
Bret Saberhagen 1.893
Rick Sutcliffe 1.558
Fernando Valenzuela 1.558
Dan Quisenberry 1.486
Dwight Gooden 1.483
Mike Scott 1.433
Orel Hershiser 1.317
Frank Viola 1.036
Dave Stewart 0.914
Rollie Fingers 0.900
Mark Davis 0.892
John Denny 0.858
La Marr Hoyt 0.829
Steve Stone 0.714
Pete Vuckovich 0.679
Ron Guidry 0.679
Mike Norris 0.650
Willie Hernandez 0.629
Steve McCatty 0.600
Tom Seaver 0.558
Jack Morris 0.543
John Tudor 0.542
Mario Soto 0.533

Morris, during the years that his defenders point to most enthusiastically, was not especially well regarded by Cy Young voters. This isn't a perfect or even a very good measure of pitching - I wouldn't suggest that Rick Sutcliffe is a better pitcher than Morris nor would I imagine anyone else would as well. But it does suggest that whatever qualities Morris has that are only noticeable to those who watched him pitch went unnoticed by those who actually watched him pitch while he was still actually pitching. The lionization of Morris seems to have started when it wasn't possible for anyone to have watched him pitch any more - in other words, upon reflection. If Morris is the Hall of Famer that people like Heyman think he is, it should be possible then to elucidate a case for Morris that relies upon reflection, and thus is as accessible to "stat gurus" as it is to those who were there for his career.

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

Related Content:  Steve Mccatty

39 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BP staff member Jason Collette
BP staff

Still amazing to see his percentage total triple since he debuted on the ballot. Even more amazing is to see how further scrutiny has actually helped push his ballot momentum rather than slow it down.

Jan 10, 2012 08:29 AM

I think it might actually be beat writers voting for him to spite stat gurus.

Jan 10, 2012 13:50 PM
rating: 4
BP staff member Jason Collette
BP staff

That point was raised by Brian Kelly on Clubhouse Confidential last night and it and it really got me thinking. Since 80 percent of the voters chose not to publish their ballots or explain them, all we can do is wonder.

Jan 11, 2012 05:28 AM

Almost like the beat writers' retort to the stathead push that got Blyleven inducted. Interesting angle.

Jan 12, 2012 09:03 AM
rating: 0

Also, there are really a lot of stat gurus that didn't see Morris pitch? It's not like he's Juan Marichal. Dude was pitching in the 90s.

Jan 10, 2012 08:42 AM
rating: 5

Didn't you know stat gurus don't watch baseball games? They're too busy playing with their computers in their mom's basements.

Jan 10, 2012 08:51 AM
rating: 11

I am not following the point accumulation method here. The points are not additive for each year in the decade, or Clemens who won two Cy Youngs ('86, '87) would have two points (or more). Are the total votes a pitcher received in the decade divided by the sum of the winners totals for each year the pitcher pitched in the decade?

Jan 10, 2012 09:12 AM
rating: 4

I had the same trouble, but it looks like he's not computing the numbers the way he says. He's dividing the points received each year, not by the points the winner got, but by the total points available that year. That's how come Willie Hernandez is .63 instead 1.0 he got 63% of the total points that year (the only year he got any Cy Young points).

Jan 11, 2012 10:18 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Mike Petriello
BP staff

I will now take up the "Steve McCatty for HOF" flag.

Jan 10, 2012 09:13 AM
Jay Taylor

"I wouldn't suggest that Rick Sutcliffe is a better pitcher than Morris nor would I imagine anyone else would as well."

I think you could actually make that argument. At the very least they were both comparable. On their careers Morris has the slight edge in WARP 32.57 to 29.02, but in their seven year peaks Sutcliffe beats Morris by two wins, and his two best season were better then any season Morris had.

Morris was certainly the more durable pitcher (1200 more innings), but on a per inning basis, I think the argument could be made that Sutcliffe was the higher quality pitcher.

Jan 10, 2012 09:26 AM
rating: 3

Please stop feeding the troll that is Jon Heyman.

Jan 10, 2012 09:29 AM
rating: 17

As a younger baseball fan (24) I always find it funny that on one hand the writers love to hate the "steroid guys" because they tainted the numbers. Yet on the other hand, when you try and use actual numbers (and I'm not even talking SABR stuff)to decide on players for the HOF, your argument is instnatly not valid because "You didn't see him and I did."

Jan 10, 2012 10:04 AM
rating: 11

Hear, hear. If "seeing" the player was intended to be the criterion, there would be no reason to let anyone but the home team's writers vote for a given player.

Jan 10, 2012 10:37 AM
rating: 1
Greg Burns

Would the same reasoning be an argument against the HOF case of Bert Blyleven?

Jan 10, 2012 10:12 AM
rating: 0
Shaun P.

I'd say no.

In Morris's case, people are resorting to arguments based on something other than objective facts, because the objective facts do not support the case.

For Blyleven, everyone started with an argument based on objective facts, because they did support the case. No one resorted to "Well you should have seen him pitch!" arguments for Blyleven (at least without going through the numbers first).

Jan 10, 2012 10:21 AM
rating: 2

To add to that, Blyleven was active during this entire period and doesn't show up on this list at all...

Jan 12, 2012 12:04 PM
rating: 0

Heyman's comments are unfortunate, because 1) they are utterly defensive (and need not be), and 2) they subtract from the (vaguely) legitimate debate over Morris's credentials.

But he does raise an interesting point: If a voter didn't see a player, should they be allowed to vote for that player? I'm guessing Heyman, who was born in 1961, has never cast votes for and against players he never saw.

Oh wait! He voted for Ron Santo, whose final season was 1974, when Heyman was all of 13.

Ah well, there's room for hypocrisy in baseball, too, I suppose. Especially when writing about it.

Jan 10, 2012 10:34 AM
rating: 0

The Morris as a HoF pitcher seems tied entirely to his 10-inning gem in '91. It is the same as people who put Joe Carter in the HoF after he went yard off of "Wild Thing."

Jan 10, 2012 11:10 AM
rating: 4
BP staff member King Kaufman
BP staff

I just want to say it's totally adorable how people keep arguing against the Jack Morris Hall of Fame case with things like "stats" and "facts" and "logic."

The argument on behalf of Jack Morris for the Hall is almost entirely religious. If you believe Morris is a Hall of Famer, you just plain believe it, and no amount of logic is going to push you off of that point.

Jan 10, 2012 13:50 PM

+ 1
More evidence that if you want to understand the Humanities, then study Baseball.

Jan 12, 2012 15:33 PM
rating: 0

I was a huge Tigers fan in the 80s which was before I really got into advanced stats. Your chart confirms what I remembered - that Morris was not viewed by the media as a great pitcher in the 80s. When Morris, Trammell and Whitaker made the ballot, it never occurred to me that Morris would be the one who get the most attention. First, he was not as good as the other two. Second, the media had never paid that much attention to him as a Tiger.

It seems that he did not become a candidate until he pitched his famous 10-inning game for the Twins. Only then did they start building up his career and coming up with arbitrary stats to make him look better than he was. It has nothing to do with having seen him pitch or understanding of intangibles that stat guys can't see. I think it was just that one game which started the ball rolling.

Jan 10, 2012 14:11 PM
rating: 2

Re: the "pitching to the score" meme... has Heyman ever bothered to explain why any pitcher would ever choose to do this? What would be the point? In effect, he's admitting Morris purposefully let up when he had a big lead. Why would that be considered a positive and not a negative???? Not that I believe Morris did any such thing. But it begs the question... why would any pitcher make that choice????

Jan 11, 2012 06:54 AM
rating: 5

That part, I think I can follow Heyman on, and -- get this -- I'm not sure he's wrong.

The answer to the "why" question is -- theoretically -- so that there are more top-flight, out-getting pitches left in the pitcher's arm as the season goes on. The implicit assumption is that a pitcher can only throw just so many pitches per year at 100% effort, whether it's by dialing a fastball up to 95 rather than sitting at a "comfortable" 90, settling for a few rpm less on the snap imparted to a curve ball so that it doesn't break as hard, and so on. "Pitching to the lead" then amounts to pitching with less than 100% effort on every pitch. Doing so once one has a big lead, so the argument goes, preserves the arm so that the top stuff is available when needed in more games. This, again so the argument goes, was the thing that allowed guys like Morris to get into 250-inning territory year after year, whereas a 2011-vintage pitcher, who's throwing at near peak effort all the time, risks his arm falling off if he gets beyond 230 or so. The obvious down side is the possibility that the opponents get back into the game by teeing off on the less-than-100%-effort offerings. "Pitching to the score," "knowing how to win," etc., is then a special trait of those pitchers with a particularly accurate sense of when they can get away with backing off from peak effort and when they can't.

Most statistical studies of pitching to the score, e.g. by the late, lamented Greg Spira, focus on the outcome, and conclude that it didn't really happen. In my opinion this is misguided. What should be done is a careful look at whether it HAPPENED, as manifested by slower fast balls, mushier curve balls, etc., when the game wasn't in doubt. I am not aware of this having been done, and would love to be corrected if it has.

Seen in this light, I can begin to understand some of the arguments for Morris. In the context of his time, which was more valuable: a pitcher who was lights-out for 200+ innings, or one who was good-but-not-great for 250? Could Morris -- or any other pitcher -- choose to be one and not the other? Was there a unique ability that allowed Morris to be "effective enough" while throwing a 95%-effort pitch a third of the time? I don't think so, but the data don't allow me to refute people who think the answer is yes, of whom Heyman presumably is one. Can anyone else do better?

Jan 11, 2012 09:11 AM
rating: 4

But if the strategy of "pitching to the score" is meant to explain the bad ERA results and it doesn't do that, why should we care about it? I thought the whole reason that "pitching to the score" was brought up as a Morris argument was to explain why his bad ERA isn't actually as bad as it looks.

Jan 11, 2012 09:43 AM
rating: 1

I promise I typed my response before reading yours and just got delayed by work. Great minds think alike I suppose!

Jan 11, 2012 09:56 AM
rating: 0

The "pitching to the score" theory is generally applied to Morris as a reason/excuse for his ERA not being that of a hall-worthy pitcher. Because of this I don't think it's misguided at all to use the outcome as a determination of whether it happened or not. If it didn't affect the outcome then it's an irrelevant defense of Morris' run prevention abilities (or lack thereof) and should be discarded. If pitching to the score didn't affect his ERA then why should it matter if he tried to do it or not, at least in the context of a Hall of Fame discussion?

Jan 11, 2012 09:50 AM
rating: 0

Because the issue isn't whether pitching to the score affected his ERA, it's whether it affected his ability to pitch lots of innings. Again, who would you rather have pitching for your team: a guy who's throwing 220 innings with an ERA+ (I use this metric for a reason) of 130, or one who throws 265 innings with an ERA+ of 115? The former is Tim Lincecum this year (and a modern pitcher who puts that line up year after year is a HoFer in the making), the latter is Morris at his peak in the 1980s. In today's game, I'd rather have Lincecum. In the 1980s, with 4-man rotations and significantly less deep bullpens than today, you can make a case that Morris was the better guy to have around. If pitching to the score really did help him be 1985 Morris rather than 2011 Lincecum, then it helped him be valuable in the context of his time -- which was not the present day.

Jan 11, 2012 10:09 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

The problem I have with all of this - not particularly you, Bill, but a sentiment that's been voiced elsewhere on the topic - is that we're already crediting Morris' ability to pitch a lot of innings. That's what any value over replacement level metric is purporting to do - reward bulk playing time even if it's merely average.

If Morris is throwing 250 IP at a higher run-prevention-measure-of-choice rate, and another frontline pitcher only throwing 220 IP at a better rate, well, there's a tradeoff to be made there, and we can measure that value by comparing both pitchers to the run prevention of a replacement level starter. Which is what we've done, and the measurement doesn't particularly flatter Morris, since his run-prevention ability wasn't that special.

What's not captured is the way his additional innings might help with distributing the bullpen workload, saving the best relievers from a small handful of extra innings, but even then, replacement level is a proxy for that as well. So I don't think we're particularly underestimating Morris.

Jan 11, 2012 10:57 AM

Fair enough, Jay, and I think you're approaching the heart of the matter: whether comparison to replacement level properly accounts for the skill of being able to throw 250+ effective innings/year for a long, long time. Because while Heyman doesn't put it in those terms, it's really the heart of his argument, when you strip away all the silly ad-hominem stuff.

I am coming to suspect that the answer is that it does not -- which is a very different conclusion than I held in previous years, when I pretty well pooh-poohed the notion of Morris as HoFer. Being able to throw that many effective innings IS a skill, and a rare one in modern baseball. Morris finished in the top ten in MLB innings pitched seven times in his career. The list of Morris contemporaries with that many top-10 finishes is very short, and very distinguished (basically, Clemens, Maddux, and maybe Johnson, Smoltz and Carlton to the extent they were Morris contemporaries). Include the guys who did it six times, and it's still a highly distinguished list (P. Niekro, Blyleven, Valenzuela). Most of those guys, I would claim, had value beyond their raw WAR totals, for all the reasons you say aren't being captured, and others like them (not to mention for sheer awesomeness). It's not unreasonable to me to consider the possibility that Morris also had such excess value.

All of this still doesn't convince me that Morris is really a HoF-worth pitcher. It does, however, convince me that the case against him is not as clear-cut as I long thought it to be.

Jan 11, 2012 12:55 PM
rating: 5

How much are we thinking his performance level would have risen if he'd pitched fewer innings. Bob Welch threw about 37 fewer innings a year than Morris from 80-90, and had an ERA over a half a run lower (ERA+ 7 points higher) and no one is tooting his horn for having a Hall of Fame caliber peak.

Jan 11, 2012 11:22 AM
rating: 1

That first sentence should be a question obviously.

Jan 11, 2012 11:24 AM
rating: 0

This is a side issue to your main thrust, but I am not so sure that pitching to the score, if it attempted, involves throwing weak pitches more than it does throwing more strikes and doing less painting of corners etc.

Jan 12, 2012 13:02 PM
rating: 0

Fair enough, and also something where data should be locatable. Did the CS/SS/B ratios change when Morris was allegedly pitching to the score, compared both to tighter games and to the behaviors of other pitchers?

Jan 12, 2012 15:24 PM
rating: 1

Wouldn't it be better to repeat this exercise with the endpoints the start and finish of Morris' career rather than an arbitary decade? Not that it will change the point any.

Jan 11, 2012 08:33 AM
rating: 1

I think Morris was mostly done by the early to mid-90s anyway. By that point, he was plying his trade for the St. Paul Saints.

Jan 11, 2012 11:41 AM
rating: 0

Wasn't Heyman the Yankees beat reporter for Newsday for most of the 80s and 90s? If that's the case, how many times did he actually see Morris pitch? Would it have been more often than the casual fan or stathead?

Jan 11, 2012 09:07 AM
rating: 0

As to seeing him pitch, I wouldn't be suprised if Heyman watched only one game pitched by Morris, his 10th inning WS game.

Jan 11, 2012 10:24 AM
rating: 2

Heyman's just trying to justify an abominable HOF voting system that limits participation to mostly ignorant reporters like himself.

Jan 11, 2012 15:15 PM
rating: 1
Doug Thorburn

I adore the frequency with which ignorance and arrogance intertwine

Jan 12, 2012 03:25 AM
rating: 1
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