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:
|La Marr Hoyt||0.829|
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.
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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.
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).
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.
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.
More evidence that if you want to understand the Humanities, then study Baseball.
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.
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?
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.
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.