Our generation of baseball fans and analysts might have been wrong about Jack Morris. Let that sink in for a moment. We yelled and bickered and picked Morris’s career apart, and we won: Morris is not in the Hall of Fame, and if he ever gets there, it will be on the strength of a Veterans Committee vote, not a BBWAA ballot. We told the world, in no uncertain terms, that Morris was an unimpressive compiler, a workhorse without distinctive merit. We scoffed at efforts to lionize him for his October achievements, pointing out (fairly, I think) that his heroics in 1984 and 1991 should be weighed against his abject failures in 1987, 1992, and 1993. Most of all, we contended that his high ERA and FIP, albeit in a huge number of innings, marked him mostly as a durable pitcher, and not as a truly great one. We might have been right, of course. But it looks a lot like we were wrong.
I talk about Deserved Run Average a lot, and I link to the article that first introduced it to the world a lot. You should absolutely read that piece, and get the full story about the development of DRA directly from the people who built it. I’m not one of them, and can’t really do it justice. Since you might not have that kind of time right now, though, and since DRA is the crux of the argument I’m about to make, let me (briefly) describe DRA. It is, in essence, the best statistical measurement of pitching value we have. Instead of measuring earned runs, which is a fairly arbitrary subset of all runs, DRA concerns itself with all outcomes and all runs allowed. It doesn’t zoom in on strikeouts, walks, and home runs, to the exclusion of all else. What it does do is credit pitchers with their role in the outcome of every plate appearance. The effects of opponent quality (in essence: how good is the opposing hitter?), defense, the catcher, the umpire, the ballpark, all of these things are corrected for. Not perfectly, of course, that would be impossible, but as well as we can. DRA also measures a pitcher’s role in slowing the opposing running game, and credits or debits him accordingly.
Let’s zoom back out for a moment. Before DRA, there were three notable ways that major baseball analysis strove to evaluate pitchers. Here’s a summary of them, along with where each one pegs Morris in the historical hierarchy.
Predicated on runs allowed per nine innings, Baseball-Reference’s WAR has the advantage of simplicity and straightforwardness, but it makes relatively little effort to adjust for the varying degrees of help or harm a pitcher gets from his defense, timing, and sheer luck.
Morris’s Career bWAR: 43.8 in 18 seasons
Rank since 1950: 69th
Similar Pitchers: Bob Welch (43.5 bWAR, 17 seasons); Al Leiter (42.6 bWAR, 19 seasons); Bartolo Colon (45.2 bWAR, 18 seasons); Vida Blue (45.0 bWAR, 17 seasons)
FanGraphs uses FIP as the driver of its pitching WAR, because FIP uses only the outcomes over which pitchers have been shown to exercise significant control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. There are skills fWAR can’t capture, but many times, the pitchers we think have those skills turn out not to be able to sustain it.
Morris’s Career fWAR: 56.2 in 3,824 innings
Rank since 1950: 40th
Similar Pitchers: David Wells (58.6 fWAR, 3,439 innings); Larry Jackson (53.9 fWAR, 3,262 2/3 innings); Luis Tiant (53.2 fWAR, 3,486 1/3 innings); Jerry Reuss (52.4 fWAR, 3,670 innings)
Fair Run Average WARP
Until we developed DRA, FRA ruled here at Prospectus. It made efforts to correct for bullpen and fielder support, as well as the ability to distribute outcomes well—what we might call scattering hits. It rested on several (perhaps one too many) assumptions, but it was a mathematically strong model.
Morris’s Career PWARP: 33.3
Rank since 1950: 62nd
Similar Pitchers: Jerry Koosman (35.2 PWARP, 3,839 1/3 innings); Rick Reuschel (35.1 PWARP, 3,548 1/3 innings); Mickey Lolich (33.1 PWARP, 3,638 1/3 innings); Vida Blue (31.7 PWARP, 3,343 1/3 innings)
This is the sketch of Jack Morris with which we were working for the last several years. He resembled mostly the class of pitchers closest to the Hall of Fame, while falling clearly short of it. Rick Reuschel, Vida Blue, and Luis Tiant are especially notable. All three, like Morris, had cases for closer examination as a Cooperstown candidate, but none really rose to the level of deserving induction. Of the quartet, Morris had (and still has, in some circles) by far the strongest support, but it wasn’t enough to get him over the hump. According to all of these measuring sticks, that was just.
Now, check this out.
Deserved Run Average
Morris’s Career DRA PWARP: 64.1
Rank since 1950: 17th
Similar Pitchers: Juan Marichal (64.1 DRA PWARP in 3,507 innings); Jim Bunning (61.4 DRA PWARP, 3,760 1/3 innings); John Smoltz (60.4 DRA PWARP, 3,473 innings); Jim Palmer (58.7 DRA PWARP, 3,948 innings)
All four of the guys closest to Morris in DRA, PWARP, and innings are Hall of Famers. Stop worrying about innings, and you notice that Morris actually has a higher PWARP, by DRA’s reckoning, than Steve Carlton.
How can it be so? Mostly, the answer is (I’m sorry, guys, but it is) exactly what the Luddites at whom you once scoffed said it was. Morris pitched in the American League for his whole career, and for the large majority, he pitched in a really strong AL East. His career opponent RPA+ (runs per plate appearance, relative to the league average) was 104, meaning his opponents were, on average, four percent better than average. Only nine pitchers since 1950 (the Prospectus database era, if you will) faced at least 10,000 batters with a higher opponent RPA+. Morris, by the way, faced over 16,000 batters in his career, so you could keep raising that minimum batters-faced number and make the stat more impressive. Morris faced the fourth-hardest slate of opponents among those with at least 12,000 batters faced, and the second-hardest (trailing only Roger Clemens) among those with at least 15,000.
By the way, the other reason Morris ranks so highly on this list is the same as the reason that he’s relatively high on the preceding lists, even if he wasn’t a Hall of Famer by those other standards: the dude pitched all the time. I wonder if we dismiss that too quickly. It’s not untrue that Morris was a compiler, but it’s also not fair to point that out with a spirit of derision. Pitchers usually get hurt, especially when they pitch as much as Morris did, both within seasons and over the long arc of a career. If Morris was in there, consistently pitching measurably better than an average pitcher. His career 91 DRA- means he was nine percent better than average, which might not sound like much, but is the 44th-best recorded figure for a pitcher with at least 10,000 batters faced (there are 129 of them in our sample). For tons of innings against vicious competition, that’s not a compiler. It’s exactly the kind of player everyone (even statheads) habitually underrates.
Every generation looks monstrous to the generation immediately following it. This is an inexorable truth of human history. My grandparents’ generation began the slow slog toward gender equality, but denied the same progress to anyone—man or woman—of the wrong color. My parents’ generation tried to ameliorate that, however imperfectly, but they transferred their hate to anyone with a non-normative sexual orientation. I’m painting with broad strokes and talking about just a couple issues, here; please understand that I’m not casting aspersions on anyone or using tunnel vision. This is strictly as an example.
What, among the things I believe, will appall and mortify my young sons? I wish I knew, because I’d be better able to change in step with the times, but I don’t. I’m sure when they’re my age, my boys will wonder how society could have taken so long to embrace and empower and celebrate and assimilate people with mental and developmental disabilities. I’m sure they’ll be aghast at the snail’s pace of our response to the threat of global climate change. I’m sure their peers will feel a greater sense of globalism, of their personal responsibility for the suffering of the very poor halfway around the world. I’m sure they’ll detest the extreme to which my generation has taken the last one’s celebration of individualism. I just don’t know which of these will be the hardest for me to really overcome, to stop justifying and deflecting and dissembling over, and I don’t know what other direction social progress will go, which direction that I can’t anticipate and won’t abide, even though I should, and would, if I could keep the grand sweep of history in view. I just know that there will be something, because there always is.
But there is also, always, something the last generation had right. Progress is not a universal good, especially when that progress is undertaken without a sufficient appreciation for history and humanity. Sometimes, we overrun things, and our children (and their children) end up having to clean up the mess. I can’t say for sure that DRA is the final frontier, that we have the information now to say that the founders of this website were wrong about Jack Morris, because it might turn out that I’m the guy gleefully rebuilding velociraptors, or giving sharks brains powerful enough to make them want vengeance for their entrapment. On the other hand, this is a pretty compelling case that we were wrong about Morris, and that we’ve now done irreparable damage to his legacy by seeing that too late. It looks, frankly, like the old guard took a very firm stance on some very unsteady terrain, and like history might remember them as narrow-minded and cavalier. Little though I’m inclined to it, caution is the best counsel when it comes to things like this. It’s important to remember that no matter what you believe, there will almost surely come a point in the future at which you look stupid.
Thank you for reading
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