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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

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