Dave Fleming’s contrarian case for Jack Morris, I think, is while much better than the typical case for Morris still nearly self-refuting. A couple points:
- I take the point that one shouldn’t overestimate the precision of WAR totals, and I’m actually inclined to agree that the B-Ref ones understate his value. Another way of putting this is that according to FanGraphs WAR Morris ranks slightly ahead of Stieb and Key and El Presidente — although not Tannana — and his total is a more credible 56.9. I suspect 57 is closer to his real value than 39; B-Ref’s formula, as Fleming suggests, doesn’t seem to fairly value league-average inning eating, which actually has pretty significant value. (FG values Morris in 1982 at 2 WAR rather than 1, and that seems a lot more reasonable.) Having said that, while I agree that B-Ref’s WAR totals don’t prove that Martinez and Stieb and Tannana were better than Morris, they do quite clearly establish that they were comparable in value, and none are considered even marginal HoFers. And, yes, yes Morris was amazing in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, but Tannana pitched an almost-as-amazing game to put the Tigers in the playoffs in 1987, and while he lacks a famous signature game Key was a much better postseason pitcher than Morris. The difference on value between these games just isn’t enough to make Morris a better pitcher. The only reason that Morris is considered a better pitcher than those other guys is that his teams scored a lot more runs for him (which is also why his similarity scores — which rely heavily on the W-L record — also like him more.)
- What the case for Morris really comes down to, then, is that he was the “best pitcher of the 80s.” If this means “actual total value in the 80s,” he may well have been. Stieb might have the best alternative case, but I dunno — Morris’s K rates were better, and I suspect that pitching in the same parks with the same defenses behind them Morris might have allowed fewer runs. They’re pretty even, and if you say that you rate the edge to Morris I won’t really argue with you. The real problem here is that this is just the arbitrary endpoints fallacy — Morris is a Hall of Fame candidate because most of his best years happened to occur within a particular decade. Gooden and Saberhagen — while their careers weren’t long enough to be Hall of Famers — were better pitchers than Morris but aren’t in the discussion because they only pitched half the decade. Morris couldn’t carry Roger Clemens’s jock, but because Clemens didn’t have his first great year until 1986 he can’t be part of this particular discussion. Steve Rogers was about as good as Morris over a ten-year period, but since his first full season was 1974 and thanks in part to the 550 innings the men who gave us the Washington Nationals Jim Fanning and Bill Virdon made him throw in 1982-3 he was done 10 years later he doesn’t count. Kevin Brown was a far better pitcher than Morris, but he’s off the ballot because he happened to pitch in the same years as several real Hall of Famers and didn’t reach arbitrary win totals. I have no problem with taking exclusions from an era into account if this is the result of a bias created by unusual statistical standards — hitters from the 60s being underrated, say. But there’s no statistical illusion here. There just happened to have been more great starting pitchers from the 70s and 90s than the 80s — this doesn’t make Jack Morris a Hall of Famer. It means that there should be more Hall of Fame pitchers than usual from the 70s and 90s/early 2000s and fewer from the 1980s. (If Morris gets in, should that mean that one of Johnson, Maddux, and Perdo gets excluded? It’s silly.) Particularly since despite the relative drought of elite pitching talent in the early 1980s Morris was probably never the best pitcher in his league even once. Whether he ranks slightly ahead of Stieb rather than slightly behind him, neither of them are Hall of Fame pitchers.
- Also make sure to scroll to the comments for the great Craig Wright, who dedunks the idea that Morris’s relative durability inflated his ERAs.
And an addendum: one reason I’m happy to have done this is that I found out that Dennis Martinez pitched for the Mariners in 1997. I have no recollection of that at all.