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January 10, 2013
Has the Sabermetric Movement Been Bad for Jack Morris?
Appearing on MLB Network in the wake of yesterday’s non-elections, Jon Heyman looked like a broken man. Visibly deflated (unless that’s just how everyone who sits close to Tom Verducci looks by comparison), Heyman called Morris’ stagnant results—just three votes and one percentage point higher than last year’s, leaving him well short of the magic 75 percent mark with one year of eligibility remaining—“unfair” and “a real shame," even going so far as to suggest that Morris was “mistreated.” After the segment, Heyman took to Twitter to get a head start on the decisive 2014 voting, which will, one way or another, drive a stake into the heart of these delightful end-of-year debates:
Aside from the Orwellian implication that there hasn’t already been a vocal pro-Morris movement, the most interesting part of that tweet is the reaction it prompted from some on the other side of the sabermetric aisle.
So on one hand, we have Heyman, who seems to thinks Morris would be in already if he hadn’t been bullied by negative nerds brandishing statistics. On the other hand, we have, well, the negative nerds (sorry, guys), who think the ascendance of the internet and the sabermetric movement has at best had little effect on his chances and at worst spawned a backlash that may have drummed up more support for Morris. So which is it?
We know at least three things for sure about the period from 2000-2013, which comprises Morris’ first 14 years on the ballot. First, as Sullivan says, the internet has grown much more popular, making millionaires out of everyone who bought low on GIFs and cute cat videos. Second, sabermetrics has moved toward the mainstream, picking up book deals and movie deals and making some impression on the electorate, however indirect (the first saber-slanted internet writers inducted are either no longer in the organization or still several years away from being able to fill out a ballot). And third, the percentage of Hall of Fame ballots on which Jack Morris’ name appears has risen from 22.2 percent to 67.7 percent.
Put those things together, and all signs point to a pretty clear correlation between Hall of Fame support for Jack Morris and support for sabermetrics. As we know, of course, it’s dangerous to draw conclusions about causation from correlation alone. This correlation could mean that all the anti-Morris material out there has made pro-Morris people dig their heels in even harder, but it might also mean that those two trends have merely coincided, and that there’s something (or some things) else going on. All we can conclude is that if the sabermetric movement has hurt Morris, it hasn’t hurt him so much that he’s lost support on the whole, at least among longtime BBWAAers. What we don’t know, and can’t know, is what Morris’ percentage would look like in an alternate universe where you and I were still worrying about pitcher wins.
What we’ve got here, aside from a failure to communicate, is a classic chicken-and-egg scenario: Which came first, the greatest-hits arguments in favor of Morris—pitched to the score, best of his era, clutch postseason competitor—or the equally impassioned arguments against each of those tired tropes? Was the Morris menace something sabermetrics helped combat, or something it helped create?
Here’s why the answer matters, at least a little, even to someone who normally doesn’t devote much time to Hall of Fame debates and still can’t believe he’s actually writing about Jack Morris right now: It’s in some sense a referendum on how well we’re marketing the objective approach to thinking about baseball that we’ve all come to care about. If all the bandwidth that died to bring voters the information that Jack Morris wasn’t as good as they think he was has had no effect—or worse, has had the opposite of its intended effect—then either the electorate is exceptionally stubborn or we’re doing a lousy job of presenting our opinions in a way that will persuade people. In either case, it would be time to abandon or alter our approach.
Talking about Jack Morris can be tiresome and repetitive. It might be one of the worst pastimes in the world. And if you’ve been reading or rehashing the same points about one pitcher for the past decade, unable to rest until no one is wrong in the internet, you’ve probably reached the point at which you can’t wait until you don’t have to do it again, even if it means Morris is in. But if the debate isn’t 100 percent echo chamber—if the message has had an impact, and we’re not just addressing an appreciative audience composed entirely of ourselves—then continuing to talk about Morris might make some sense. Even if you don’t care about upholding Cooperstown’s established standards for player performance, you can care about what Morris not making it might mean for the quality of baseball discourse, in the same way that Nate Silver’s success at forecasting Presidential elections is nice not just because now Nate gets a new book deal, but because it might convince some people that math isn’t so scary.
Fortunately—and here’s a sentence I don’t type every day—there are at least a few reasons to think that Heyman might be right about the effect the steady stream of studies and new-age statistics has had.
Voters who’ve changed their minds
But there is at least one voter who not only switched his vote thanks to advanced stats but has been hugging it out with the sabermetric community ever since: Ken Davidoff, formerly of Newsday and now of the New York Post, who retracted his support from Morris in 2009. As Davidoff explained a couple years later, “continued looks at his stats convinced me that he simply didn’t merit consideration.” And when he says “stats,” Davidoff doesn’t just mean ERA (though in Morris’ case, you’d think that would do it). He means ERA+, WAR, and JAWS.
Most voters aren’t as open-minded as Davidoff, especially after they’ve decided which way to vote once. But if sabermetrics have swayed one former Morris voter, they may have swayed more; for a jaded veteran of past Hall of Fame voting seasons, reading Davidoff’s ’09 ballot must have been like Lloyd Christmas learning there’s a chance. And even though we can’t count many Hall of Fame flip-floppers, there’s no way to know how many might have left Morris off their ballots from the beginning because they saw the sabermetric light. With Morris only 42 votes away from induction, it wouldn’t take that many changed minds to make him crumple up yet another acceptance speech. (Note: I take no pleasure in Jack Morris, a perfectly nice person, not getting to celebrate what would be a wonderful honor for him.)
Changing composition of the electorate
You still see some of the old guard who view anyone who thinks Morris was just a pretty good pitcher as a member of the “vigilante sabermetric brigade.” But even the younger voters who’ve cast their first votes since Morris appeared on the ballot might skew sympathetic to his case. Take a fictitious baseball writer whose formative years as a young fan came in the early-to-mid-1980s, when Morris was at the peak of his powers. If the future writer—let’s call him Preston Pass—were, say, 11 and 13 years old, respectively, in 1981 and 1983, two years in which Morris led the league in lots of counting categories and earned his two highest (third-place!) Cy Young finishes, he might have viewed Morris as a future Hall of Famer.
Maybe that writer happened to stumble on a Bill James Abstract, began to think about baseball differently, and grew up to be Jay Jaffe, sprouting a Morris-grade mustache but otherwise casting his lot with the negative ’netters. But most likely, there was no Abstract in sight, and Preston stuck with the same stats he used to see on the back of his Jack Morris baseball card, the one with all the black ink. He got his BBWAA badge at 30 and filled out his first Hall of Fame ballot at 40, in 2010, the year when Morris’ percentage first topped 50 percent. Naturally, he checked off a box for the Tiger he’d always seen starting on Opening Day.
If Preston Pass isn’t entirely fictitious, and he has colleagues and contemporaries with similar stories, it might explain how Morris’ vote count has climbed despite the electorate’s initially lukewarm reception.
Historical voting patterns
As Christina Kahrl said two years ago, “30 years ago, (voters) might make phone calls and ask each other, ‘Which way are you leaning?’ The debate, such as there was, was limited. Now, it’s more dynamic, and the Internet created an ease of access to materials.” Many of those materials offer reasons not to vote for Jack Morris, and maybe some of them have convinced someone of something they didn’t believe before. In that case, Heyman’s call to arms can be viewed as a grudging compliment, a tip of the cap to the internet adversaries whom Morris calls the “guys who are caught up into this numbers deal: WHIP and RIP and ZIP” (one of which is a real statistic!) Odds are it’ll only renew their resolve for round 15.