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January 10, 2013

Overthinking It

Has the Sabermetric Movement Been Bad for Jack Morris?

by Ben Lindbergh

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
The best evidence that increasing awareness of sabermetrics has hurt Morris’ candidacy would be a bunch of BBWAAers who used to vote for Morris removing him from their ballots and writing, “Oh, by the way, I did that because his WARP was so low.” Unfortunately, it’s fairly difficult to find that evidence, not necessarily because all of our Tea Partying hasn’t persuaded anyone, but because relatively few voters have made their ballots public, even fewer have published explanations of the thought process behind their ballots, and fewer still have published such explanations that are accessible online after some time has elapsed. (Some newspaper websites are really bad at not breaking links.)

Using @leokitty’s Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker, an incomplete but best-we-can-do record of public Hall of Fame ballots from 2009-2013, I was able to find eight voters who switched from “yes” to “no” on Morris in the last five years. For five of those—Mike Hart, Joe Henderson, Bob Klapisch, Tom Singer, and Marc Topkin (who went from “no” to “yes” to “no” again, according to the tracker), I found no explanation of the change of heart. Two more were inconclusive: ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews subtracted Morris from his ballot this year because he “wasn’t feeling it,” which hardly sounds like it was prompted by a sabermetric come-to-Jesus moment, and Dallas News writer Tim Cowlishaw switched to a “no” in 2011, explaining that the “image of the man and what we remember is a bit different from the career numbers” and concluding, “Facts, not memories. That should be the priority in determining how we vote, and the facts say Morris comes up just short.” It sounds like Cowlishaw’s conversion might have been influenced by the sabermetric perspective, but he doesn’t say so explicitly.

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.)

PED punishment
As Russell Carleton documented today, Hall of Fame voters haven’t been hospitable to those they know, suspect, or divine used performance-enhancing drugs (the scary steroid kind, not the evidently endearing amphetamine variety). In 2000, when Morris first appeared on the ballot, we were two years away from Tom Verducci’s Ken Caminiti cover story, four years away from mandatory testing, and seven years away from Jose Canseco breaking the seal on known steroid users eligible for the ballot. Since then, widespread anti-PED sentiment has solidified, and voters have gone to great lengths to draw distinctions between those they think were clean and those they think had help. The perception that Morris’ career was “without artificial aid”—to quote from the first column by a BBWAA voter that came up when I googled “'Jack Morris' + 'clean'"—may have earned him some votes from writers who wanted to make a statement about supporting clean players or who didn’t want to vote for possible PED people but also didn’t want to send back a blank ballot.

Changing composition of the electorate
We’re not far enough along into baseball perestroika that many writers (if any) who were weaned on sabermetrics have been able to cast a ballot. So it’s still possible that any changes to the voter pool thus far have favored Morris.

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 Zachary Levine noted, it’s not unprecedented for a Hall of Fame candidate to gradually gain support until he hits 60 or 70 percent with a year or two of eligibility left. With the exception of Jim Rice, the previous players who followed that pattern predated the point at which anyone knew what someone’s WARP was. The fact that Morris’ total has continued to climb doesn’t mean it’s been spurred on by sabermetric commentary.

Bert Blyleven
If the sabermetric community has ever been as united about anything as it is in its opposition to Morris, it was its support of Blyleven leading up to his 2011 election. So indebted did Blyleven believe he was to what Heyman called “a small coterie of internet zealots” that he called to thank one of his staunchest online supporters, Rich Lederer, as soon as he heard he’d been inducted. If a large number of voters had been so opposed to new numbers that they’d zig when sabermetrics said zag, just to stick it to the upstarts, Byleven’s support would have declined with every flyer from Bert Belongs rather than continued to climb. So we know that some voters were persuaded by a recent sabermetric campaign to vote for a candidate—here’s one, and here’s another. There’s no reason to think it couldn’t work the other way.

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.
 

If you haven’t heard enough about Morris to last you several lifetimes, you can listen to me and Sam Miller discuss some of the ideas above on our podcast today.

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

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  Jack Morris

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