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January 8, 2013

BP Unfiltered

Is Jack Morris the Best Pitcher of an Era?

by Colin Wyers

It's Hall of Fame balloting time, and you know what that means: it's also time to bicker about Jack Morris. The setup: Danny Knobler's ballot justification, though I could pick plenty of others that say more or less the same thing.

I've long been a supporter. I understand the arguments against. But he was the dominant starting pitcher of his era. We've never elected a pitcher who spent his entire career in the American League during the DH era. Morris deserves to be the first.

Yes, yes, someone is flogging this horse again, but since it keeps whinnying each time you flog it, I'll feel free to proceed. I will use numbers, but I will stay away from advanced sabermetric numbers and stick to the sort of numbers that everyone is comfortable with, like "years." In other words, this discussion is entirely about what "era" means in this context (frankly, those are three letters in a particular order I never thought would be used as a case FOR Morris, but I digress).

Let's look at all the starting pitchers currently in the Hall whose careers overlap with Morris (click to see a larger version):

HoF pitchers whose careers overlap with Morris

I left out Dennis Eckersley, as his Hall case isn't really built around his work as a starter, or at least not exclusively so. What you see is that Morris's career overlaps significantly with the careers of some pretty elite pitchers. Here's a chart showing how much of Morris' career overlaps with varying numbers of Hall of Fame pitchers:

10 16.7%
9 38.9%
8 38.9%
7 44.4%
6 55.6%
5 61.1%
4 66.7%
3 66.7%
2 88.9%
1 94.4%

What this says, for instance, is over half of Morris' career was played contemporaneously with at least six active Hall of Fame starting pitchers. Morris started later than any of these, but he has the second-shortest career on the list (only Catfish Hunter, who was beset by diabetes and arm troubles, pitched for fewer years).

Now, let's expand this to look at not just current Hall of Famers, but a reasonable list of future Hall of Famers whose careers would overlap with Morris' as well. Let's use Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and Pedro Martinez. (I am leaving out John Smoltz for similar reasons to Eck; his career can't be easily boiled down to starting without considering relieving as well.) There's room to quibble with this list (I expect Clemens is particularly contentious, for reasons that have nothing to do with his dominance), but it's a pretty good list. Now, the graph (again, click for a larger version):

HoF and probably HoF pitchers whose careers overlap with Morris

Now for the same chart above, but with our presumed Hall of Famers added:

10 16.7%
9 38.9%
8 66.7%
7 83.3%
6 100.0%
5 100.0%
4 100.0%
3 100.0%
2 100.0%
1 100.0%

Given our assumed Hall of Famers, at no point in his career did Morris play with fewer than six other Hall of Fame pitchers also in the league.

Now, if you look at the graphs (especially the second), you can see that Morris doesn't slot in neatly with either the group of pitchers preceding him or the ones following him. He's sort of a weird tweener (although he does have peers in that, like Dave Stieb and Ron Guidry). But there's simply no need to come up with a Jack Morris Era of pitching in order to have a complete accounting of baseball history in Morris' career; every single season is very well represented by the players already in the hall and the contingent now coming onto the ballot starting with Clemens and up through Pedro.

The act of creating an era for Jack Morris to dominate is nothing more or less than gerrymandering, carefully setting your boundaries so that Morris doesn't have to be compared to a set of pitchers he simply doesn't match up to. It's the sort of thing you do if you start off with the idea that Morris is a Hall of Fame pitcher and work your way backwards to an argument for it.

(Thanks to Jay Jaffe for his input.)

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:  Hall Of Fame,  Jack Morris

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

BP Comment Quick Links

ahemmer

"We've never elected a pitcher who spent his entire career in the American League during the DH era."

This quote is also some dubious cherry picking. In the free agent area, how many pitchers spend their entire career in one league?

Jan 08, 2013 11:05 AM
rating: 4
 
jdeich

It conveniently sidesteps the longer/better pitching career of Frank Tanana, who doesn't technically count because he spent part of his age-39 season with the Mets before retiring.

(Surprisingly, Tanana hit a respectable .155/.183/.207 as a 39-year-old with 1 career PA before that.)

Jan 08, 2013 12:46 PM
rating: 1
 
BillJohnson

Oddly enough, these graphs cause me to draw exactly the opposite conclusion from yours, to the point that I am beginning to seriously question my long-held opposition to Jack Morris as a Hall of Famer.

The graphs show, and study of individual careers confirm, that not one starting pitcher who debuted between June 1970 and May 1984 is, or (other than Morris) is likely to become, a member of the Hall of Fame. That's a "generation gap" spanning nearly fourteen years, which is a very long time in baseball terms. It is also a gap that is utterly unprecedented in baseball history. Going all the way back to 1875, there has never been a time, not one, when ten years have passed without a single Hall of Fame starting pitcher making his debut. The closest were six-year gaps between debuts in 1930 (Lefty Gomez and Dizzy Dean) and 1936 (Bob Feller), and in 1942 (Warren Spahn) and 1948 (Robin Roberts -- Satchel Paige made his "major-league" debut that year but his circumstances were obviously unusual). The difference between six years and fourteen years, in baseball time, is enormous.

To put it another way: dozens of players had long and satisfying (up to 10 years) careers entirely within a time period when no new starting pitcher appeared who had a stronger Hall of Fame case than Jack Morris. That had never happened before, and it has never happened since. That starts to make a case that Morris WAS the leading pitcher of his generation, in a way that I never imagined possible before I saw this graph.

Still not sure I'd vote for him if I had a ballot, but this was really thought-provoking, even if my thoughts don't line up with yours.

Jan 08, 2013 11:53 AM
rating: 1
 
Matt

That is a very interesting observation. But I still don't see how that makes it the Jack Morris era, or how that fact is more than just trivia.

Jan 08, 2013 15:29 PM
rating: 3
 
BillJohnson

You kinda missed the point. Fifteen years IS an "era" in baseball terms, in that very, very few careers last longer than that. 1998 looks very distant to us now from the perspective of baseball in 2013. So also 1970 to 1984. For there to be no HoF-worthy starting pitchers debuting in that time is an extreme, indeed unprecedented, anomaly, and one that suggests that the historical view of Morris might be missing something. Might.

Jan 08, 2013 17:53 PM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

The chart also made me look twice. Didn't take long at all to find these two pitchers (using baseball-reference, and cherry-picking some stats):

Pitcher A: 6'3", 195lbs, righty
Pitcher B: 6'3", 190lbs, righty
Pitcher C: 6'1", 160lbs, righty

Pitcher A: 1977-1994; .577 W%, 5.8 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.30 WHIP / 3.90 ERA
Pitcher B: 1978-1994; .591 W%, 5.7 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.27 WHIP / 3.44 ERA
Pitcher C: 1976-1998; .559 W%, 4.8 K/9. 2.6 BB/9, 1.27 WHIP / 3.70 ERA

Pitcher A - Season best: Wins, 21; Cy Young 3rd
Pitcher B - Season best: Wins, 27; Cy Young winner
Pitcher C - Season best: WIns, 16; Cy Young 5th

Pitcher A - Career WAR: 39.3 in 549 Games; (JAWS rank 167th)
Pitcher B - Career WAR: 39.9 in 506 Games; (JAWS rank 171st)
Pitcher C - Career WAR: 45.1 in 692 Games; (JAWS rank 134th)

Pitcher A: 4 Postseasons, 7-4 Record, 3.80 ERA in 13 Games
Pitcher B: 8 Postseasons, 3-3 Record, 4.56 ERA in 17 Games
Pitcher C: 3 Postseasons, 2-2 Record, 3.32 ERA in 12 Games

Jack Morris
Bob Welch
Dennis Martinez

That's just two quick examples I pulled up. I expect there's others. Morris just doesn't stand out, even among his exact contemporaries unless we look back at a couple cherry-picked and rose-colored postseason memories.

Jan 08, 2013 21:41 PM
rating: 4
 
jdeich

Dennis Martinez also absolutely kills Jack Morris in Nickname over Replacement Player.

Jan 09, 2013 06:25 AM
rating: 2
 
TADontAsk

I actually played the same game with my friends last night using Dennis Martinez, Frank Tanana and even Rick Reuschel as the examples.

He seems to be getting a boost from A) his 14 Opening Day starts, but Martinez had 11. (And Brad Radke had 9) B) Breaking the 250 win barrier (so he was lucky enough to be on a team with better hitters than these other pitchers) and C) His 10 inning Game 7 World Series start (or, 0.255% of his career).

If you traded places between Morris and each of these other guys, we may very well be discussing Dennis Martinez today and how he shouldn't be considered a Hall of Famer because he was similar to Morris and Morris didn't break 5%.

Jan 09, 2013 06:39 AM
rating: 1
 
Dave Holgado

Interesting stuff, Colin. To challenge the "AL pitcher in the DH era" contention even more, it's worth noting how many of Morris' direct contemporaries in the AL were simply better than he was for reasonably sustained periods, even if their careers were not quite Hall-worthy. Just for instance, Ron Guidry (1977-85), Dave Stieb (1981-90), Bret Saberhagen (1984-91), Frank Viola (1984-92), Jimmy Key (1985-94), Teddy Higuera (1985-90), Dave Stewart (1987-92), Mark Langston (1987-92), and Bob Welch (1988-92) all out-pitched Morris for periods of five to ten seasons. I am sure there are others I'm forgetting.

Jan 08, 2013 11:54 AM
rating: 6
 
jdeich

It's not especially close in some of those cases.

pWAR according to bRef:
Bret Saberhagen: 56.0
Dave Stieb: 53.5
Chuck Finley: 54.3
Kevin Appier: 51.9
David Cone: 58.2
Kevin Brown: 64.5
Rick Rueschel: 64.6
(lots of other contemporaries)
...
...
...
Jack Morris: 39.3

A head-to-head comparison that makes this simpler:
Frank Tanana. Pitched 1973-1993, virtually never out of the bullpen, all but part of 1993 in the AL. 4188 IP. ERA of 3.66, ERA+ of 106. 2773 K, 1255 BB, 1.27 WHIP. 52.6 WAR for pitching, +0.5 for defense.
Jack Morris. Pitched 1977-1994, virtually never out of the bullpen, all in the AL. 3824 IP. ERA of 3.90, ERA+ of 105. 2478 K, 1390 BB, 1.30 WHIP. 39.3 WAR, +0.4 for defense.

Nearly identical eras, especially if you subtract 1973 when Tanana pitched 26 IP. And Frank Tanana outperformed Jack Morris in every way that matters.

Morris was 254-186, compared to Tanana's 240-236. This is because over their careers, Morris got 4.9 runs/game of support, and Tanana got 4.4 runs/game of support.

Possible outcomes:
1) Frank Tanana is a Hall of Famer. Jack Morris isn't.
2) Both Morris and Tanana are Hall of Famers.
3) Neither Morris nor Tanana are Hall of Famers.

#1 and #2 have been decided in the negative by the BBWAA, as Frank Tanana got precisely 0 votes when he came up in 1999. This leaves Outcome #3.

Jan 08, 2013 12:40 PM
rating: 6
 
BillJohnson

An important point about Tanana was that the bulk of his career didn't live up to the spectacular promise he showed in his first five full years. This hurt him in two ways. First, it left him rather deficient in the "black ink" and "gray ink" categories used by Bill James to assess how likely a player is to reach the Hall -- not how much he deserves it, but how likely he is to actually be elected. (On the James monitors he's nowhere near as close to being a Hall candidate as Morris.) Second, it made a lot of people cluck sadly over "what might have been" if he'd lived up to that "potential." In fairness, he did not live up to it. That didn't keep him from being an excellent pitcher for a long time.

Tanana and Stieb are going to cause future baseball historians to wonder "WTF were they thinking?" when they look at HoF voting on pitchers from 1970 to 1990. It's an interesting question that goes far beyond the infatuation with Morris.

Jan 08, 2013 13:04 PM
rating: 2
 
rajzen

Given all of the HOF contemporaries (loosely speaking) it would be interesting to know how each of Morris' seasons ranked when compared against those of his contemporaries in the same year. Perhaps this analysis isn't necessary to prove the obvious, but I'm betting Morris doesn't do too well.

Jan 08, 2013 15:52 PM
rating: 1
 
Thenewcat1

I think the comments pretty conclusively reveal the best pitcher of the Jack Morris era was Dave Stieb....

Jan 09, 2013 04:20 AM
rating: 3
 
BillJohnson

Uh, they reveal that people here think the best pitcher of the Morris era was Stieb. Never make the mistake of confusing what people believe to be true with what is actually true.

Jan 09, 2013 10:08 AM
rating: -2
 
ttt

I think we should just blame Elbridge Gerry.

Jan 09, 2013 12:32 PM
rating: 0
 
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