Jack Morris And Arbitrary Endpoints

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.

64 comments on this post.
  1. c u n d gulag:

    If Morris goes in, he won’t be the worst pitcher in the HOF.

    Having said that, I don’t think he belongs.

    He was a very good pitcher, who had a lot of run support, from Trammel, Whitaker, Gibson, Nokes, and Evans.

  2. Sherm:

    If being a really good player with excellent facial hair who played in the 80′s qualifies one for the Hall of Fame, I’d vote for Keith Hernandez before I’d vote for Jack Morris.

  3. Sherm:

    Scott, I’m beginning to suspect that you like discussing Jack Morris because it gives you the opportunity to mention Dennis Martinez and Steve Rogers. If so, you could always throw Ross Grimsley into the equation as well.

  4. Scott Lemieux:

    Hernandez actually was a Hall of Famer, I think.

  5. Scott Lemieux:

    Hmm, I guess I could do a post about how some people remember a less-than-mediocre pitcher like Grimsley as being vaguely comparable to genuinely outstanding pitchers like Martinez and Rogers because he happened to hit an arbitrary round win total once.

  6. Bill Murray:

    But is league average inning munching really a good HoF case maker?

  7. Erik Loomis:

    Wow, I don’t think I remember Dennis Martinez with the Mariners either.

  8. Scott Lemieux:

    No, which is why it’s good that I didn’t argue that.

  9. Scott Lemieux:

    Probably for the best for all concerned, really.

  10. Sherm:

    I think it was his facial hair that triggered my memory. But he did have career ERA of 3.81, which was not too shabby.

  11. Erik Loomis:

    One could say that about forgetting the last decade of the Mariners.

  12. Jeff R.:

    His highest total was 10.8% and he fell off the ballot in his ninth year.

  13. Ni Hao Lao Wai:

    Hernandez is in the “Hall of Merit” put together by Baseball Think Factory to determine the most “meritorious” players based upon statistical analysis by the various voters. It’s a really cool project. If you rate Hernandez’s defense as most people do, he’s got a very strong HoF argument, and was given short shrift by the voters.

  14. Ni Hao Lao Wai:

    Stieb is actually in Baseball Think Factory’s “Hall of Merit” which makes saying Morris is worse than him not mean as much.

  15. Sherm:

    57.1 WAR for Keith. His candidacy was undermined by 1) the stereotyping of good first basemen as power hitters and 2) his failure to pad his counting stats later in his career due to injuries. If he had gotten up to around 2,700 hits or so, I think he would have been voted in eventually.

  16. howard:

    i can see you young people are only beginning to experience the thrill of learning that your once-infallible memory for sports trivia is becoming…fallible.

    trust me, it won’t be the last time you make this discovery in those thrilling years of getting older to come!

  17. Seitz:

    Also the first two decades (roughly).

  18. howard:

    this is why i’m both not that interested in the hall of fame (i care more about which were the greatest teams than i care about who was the sixth greatest shortstop) and think that it’s got too many players in it (to be precise, the hall of fame contains roughly 1.25% of all the players in major league history, and i think the number should be more like 1%, and because in that 1.25% are guys that were really in the top 3-5%, we end up with discussion points like cund gulag kicked off the comments with: if jack morris were in the hall of fame, he wouldn’t be the worst pitcher in the hall of fame).

    i’m on record here and many other places as saying that given the circumstances, i think game 7, 1991 world series, was the greatest game ever pitched by a guy with his stuff, but i never once watched jack morris pitch and think “hey, i’m watching one of the immortals.”

    as opposed, for example, to king felix, who from the first time i saw him pitch (he beat dice-k, i’d have to look the details up) i said “if this guys stays healthy, he is going to be one of the immortals.”

  19. Leeds man:

    For a sec I thought the link had ‘sabrametric’ in the title, and got excited about new analysis of the Israeli election.

  20. Sherm:

    You want to forget Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds, Mark Langston and the first half of Griffey Jr’s career?

  21. howard:

    not to mention the kingdome, which was by far the worst of the 26 different major league ballparks i’ve seen games at (plus i was once at the astrodome, but not to see a game).

  22. Seitz:

    Well, I’m an Angels fan, so I don’t care either way, but I’m not sure they’re any more worth remembering (in a certain sense) than King Felix and Ichiro. It’s more the 16 losing seasons and 1,379-1,737 record that I’d want to forget. Even terrible teams have good players sometimes.

  23. Sherm:

    Home of the 1979 all star game. As an 11 year old Mets fan, I was quite upset when Dave Parker (strong HOF case as well btw) got the MVP rather than Lee Mazzilli, despite Maz’s game tying pinch hit homerun in the 8th and game winning bases loaded walk off Ron Guidry in the 9th.

  24. Sherm:

    You just need to concentrate on forgetting Vernon Wells then.

  25. Linnaeus:

    he lacks a famous signature game Key was a much better postseason pitcher than Morris.

    I suspect that had Tanana not pitched just a little bit better, that would have been Key’s signature game. 1 ER, 3 hits, 3 walks, and 8 K’s would be good enough to win most games, I would think.

  26. Paul Clarke:

    If this means “actual total value in the 80s,” he may well have been.

    Not according to Fangraphs at least – he comes in seventh. He does better if you base WAR on actual runs allowed though: second to Stieb.

  27. Dana Houle:

    You’re correct that Morris shouldn’t be in the HoF. But you mention Whitaker and Trammell…the former who has the highest WAR of any Hall-eligible player without controversy (PED/Pete Rose) prior to this year who’s not in the HoF. Check out these numbers, mostly middle infielders and guys inducted in last 10 years or so:

    All time list 66th-74th place:
    DiMaggio 75.1
    Ozzie 73.0
    Brooks R 72.7
    Molitor 72.5
    Yount 72.4
    Bench 72.3
    [Dead ball player]
    Whitaker 71.4

    Guys between 81st and 149th
    F Thomas/L Walker 69.7
    Jeter 69.3
    Reggie 68.4
    Grich 67.3
    Larkin/Trammel 67.1
    Santo 66.6
    Raines 66.2
    Gwynn 65.3
    Lofton/Sandberg 64.9
    Manny 64.8
    Edgar M 64.4
    Pee Wee Reese 63.1
    Willie Randolph 63.0
    R Alomar 62.9
    Banks 62.5
    Biggio 62.1
    McCovey 60.7
    Dawson 60.6
    Winfield 59.4

    Almost everyone on that list is in the Hall. The glaring omissions are, imo, Whitaker, Trammell, Edgar and Grich. Also, I think WAR is a flawed metric, especially for comparisons within a single season. It also inflates players who had a high OBA even if they didn’t do much else other than play competently in the field and play ever game. [Randolph's WAR, for instance, seems greater than his performances and career could justify; he had an outstanding OBA but only once hit over .300, never had more than 7 HR's in a season, never stole 40 bases in a season or more than 16 after he was 25, and had a .724 OPS.]

    But if you look at career numbers, Whitaker is almost identical to Sandberg and very close to Biggio. Trammell matches up well against the middle infielders; his career totals were a bit lower due to some injury seasons, but unlike a lot of other guys who began as middle infielders, he never moved to a corner or to the OF or DH’ed much. And their numbers looked paltry to some because Ripkin’s numbers were so huge, and because they became eligible during the height of the ‘roids era, which was skewing people’s perceptions of what was a good season.

    Morris not making the Hall would not be a screw job to a former Tiger. He was very good, but not a HoF-caliber player imo. But Tramaker not making it–and especially Whitaker not even getting enough votes to stay on the ballot after the first year–is a screw job.

    [BTW, Tanana's final game victory to complete the season-ending 4 game sweep of the Jays that put the Tigers in the playoffs is my favorite Tigers game. It was brilliant, and probably no pitch was faster than 83 MPH.]

  28. Njorl:

    Jack Morris clearly has experienced no warming in the last 16 years.

  29. Dana Houle:

    Also, his (non-performance enhancing) drug problem probably hurt him, especially w older writers who came of age prior to the 60′s and didn’t have much respect for them hippie kids and their marijuana and their cocaine.

  30. Ken Houghton:

    Wins the thread–probably the two of them combined.

  31. Seitz:

    Vernon who?

  32. Ken Houghton:

    I can make a case for Tanana more easily than for Morris; those Angel teams of the mid to late 1970s–who was Autry’s GM, Trigger? Omar Minaya?–didn’t win much, but he and that middle reliever they got from the Mets for Fregosi kept them in a lot more games than they deserved.

  33. cpinva:

    i’ve been to the baseball hall of fame. oddly enough, it’s located in the same small town as the US soccer hall of fame. the soccer hall of fame is the more honorable of the two, it’s located in a corner bar. oh, and the lake/marina is nice too.

  34. Dano:

    I grew up as a pitcher/center fielder and a Tiger fan in Detroit area the 70s and moved away in early 80s. But went back often because my dad could always get outstanding tickets, including usually Row F right by the rubber at the Tiger bullpen, so I would see them all warm up. I have my opening day 1985 ticket with the trophy from that section by the bullpen.

    Tanana was by far my favorite during that time, although Morris was fun to watch as well. I liked Chet Lemon in CF, and Aurelio at 3B earlier. And of course Tram and Whittaker. Nevertheless, I digress:

    What the stat-heads/never played IMHO sometimes forget is how the team plays behind you. The team always played hard behind Morris. When I played you could tell by turning around whether the team could tell if I had it, and if not if I was fighting through it enough to give them a chance.

    I’m not arguing Morris should be in the Hall. But they sure played well behind him, that is for sure. And I didn’t have the talent, but if I would have had the chance it would have been a privilege to be on the field when Morris was on the mound, because you knew he would give 110% every pitch. Every pitch.

    Sorry that took so long. Good memories.

    Best,

    D

  35. Sherm:

    What the stat-heads/never played IMHO sometimes forget is how the team plays behind you. The team always played hard behind Morris.

    And his ERA was high only because he was a winner who pitched to the score!

    You should have reported your observations to Sparky Anderson. I’m sure he would have kicked some ass in the clubhouse if he knew that his every day players only played hard once every five days.

  36. Bill Murray:

    and I never claimed you did, but the quoted excerpt certainly implies this

  37. Tom:

    Morris’ career stats are remarkably similar to another 80s star that doesn’t get much HOF speak: Fernando Valezuela. It seems to come down to that one awesome game.

  38. Scott Lemieux:

    Given the era and the defenses behind him it actually was pretty shabby, but I hate to bash Ross.

  39. Scott Lemieux:

    Well, I see no reason to believe that they’re infallible. I’m a big Stieb fan but his credentials for immortality are pretty dubious.

  40. Scott Lemieux:

    Well, again, WAR isn’t precise enough to draw that distinction. As I said, he had an argument as having the most total value of any 80s pitcher; the problem is that this isn’t really a Hall of Fame argument.

  41. howard:

    but sherm, without getting into the details of jack morris and his teammates, it is generally speaking true that pitchers who work fast and throw a lot of strikes have more attentive fielders than guys who are working slow and throwing a lot of balls.

  42. Dana Houle:

    Also, as you may remember, at least from July neither Morris nor Tanana was the best pitcher on that team. After they got him from the Braves in the much maligned but I think solid for both teams trade for John Smoltz, Doyle Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA and the Tigers won all 11 of his starts.
    [Smoltz wouldn't have developed with the Tigers, who by then were suffering from the ownership of Tom Dominoes Pizza Monaghan, who was gutting the minor league system; Alexander got them to the playoffs, which is what that kind of trade is supposed to accomplish.]

  43. Dano:

    You should have reported your observations to Sparky Anderson. I’m sure he would have kicked some ass in the clubhouse if he knew that his every day players only played hard once every five days.

    Ah. You never played.

    Nevertheless, that’s not what I asserted. But I’m sure you work just as hard every day and never mail in a day or three a month.

    Best,

    D

  44. Sherm:

    Apples and oranges. That wouldn’t necessarily make them better pitchers, and that sure as hell wouldn’t make their own teams score more runs by virtue of greater effort due to the presence of a winner on the mound who willed them to play harder.

  45. CJColucci:

    I started calling Stieb “Johnny VanderLess” after he pitched back-to-back one-hitters, each a no-hitter broken up in the ninth. He also lost a perfect game the same way. Maybe if he’d gotten luckier 3 times in his career, he’d have HOF support.

  46. Sherm:

    I’m mailing it in today for sure as I am not intellectually stimulated by the appellate brief I’m working on, and I have a few more days to get it done.

    And correct, my baseball career ended as soon as fastballs started to get fast.

  47. rea:

    As any Tiger fan could tell you, Morris pitched more than one awesome game. But (having seen them both pitch in person) he’s not even in Verlander’s league.

  48. rea:

    For example, on April 7, 1984, the Tigrs had started the season 3-0, and Morris was pitching agaisnt the White Sox. Morris threw a no-hitter, and the Tigers seemed to get energiized by it, going 35-5 in their first 40 games (before going into Seattle and getting swept).

  49. Thlayli:

    And, yes, yes Morris was amazing in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, ….

    If one game was all that mattered, why isn’t Don Larsen in the HOF?

  50. Rob:

    So you’re saying Morris was one of those pitchers who went on a tirade if his fielders didn’t take their greenies that day?

  51. Linnaeus:

    I do remember that. Alexander’s magic ran out against the Twins in the ALCS, but there was plenty of responsibility to go around. None of the Tigers’ starters won a game that series.

  52. Brien Jackson:

    Well, there’s a way to prove you know what the hell you’re talking about. I’m sold!

  53. Dana Houle:

    Tigers pitching in that series was horrible.

  54. Dano:

    I’m mailing it in today for sure as I am not intellectually stimulated by the appellate brief I’m working on, and I have a few more days to get it done.

    ;o)

    You know you are not going to win every game, so most players don’t go 100% for 100% of the time – that’s why some players were respected for their being at a ’100%’ all the time. Griffey Jr even got some flack for going 110%.

    Best,

    D

  55. Dano:

    he’s not even in Verlander’s league.

    Well, that’s a very high bar. If he can stay injury-free there’s a good chance Verlander could make the Hall. His stuff is – obviously – dynamite.

    I don’t spend a lot of time watching sports any more, but if I can catch a Verlander game I’ll set some time aside. Treasure it while you can.

    Best,

    D

  56. Jonah Keri:

    So what I’m hearing is…#ElPresidenteForHOF

  57. SanRafaelCA:

    Exactly.

  58. LosGatosCA:

    And Justin seems to be nicer person than Jack, having met both of them in person, although I have no complaints about Jack.

    Morris’ had a child in my daughter’s class when I lived in Orchard Lake and I actually got onto the field at Comerica during pitcher’s batting practice a week after Galarraga pitched his perfect game (that was robbed from him). Armando, Justin, and Max were all very nice, relaxed, playful, and professional.

    Met Gene Lamont, too. It was a great experience for the two boys with us and a very nice Father’s Day.

  59. Dano:

    Morris’ had a child in my daughter’s class when I lived in Orchard Lake and I actually got onto the field at Comerica during pitcher’s batting practice a week after Galarraga pitched his perfect game

    That’s really cool! I haven’t gone to a game in Detroit since I said goodbye at Michigan and Trumbull (that would mean I’d have to travel to MI, but still envious).

    Best,

    D

  60. Epist:

    Harumph!

  61. Sam240:

    Stieb’s credentials pretty much come down to peak performance. If you look at the pitchers of his generation, and adjust win share totals for the 1981 strike, Stieb would come in first at 113 over five consecutive seasons. Quisenberry is second at 107, and Guidry third at 96. Stieb led AL pitchers in win shares each year for four straight years (1982-85).

    None of the pitchers of Stieb’s generation have high career win share totals, and all of the top pitchers have their peaks near the beginning of their careers. That latter phenomenon is weird in itself. In other generations, some pitchers had high peaks near the beginning of their careers, but others had their peaks closer to the middle of theirs.

    Stieb’s generation happens to be the first to debut in the majors after teams changed from a four-man rotation to a five-man rotation. After such a change, good young pitchers were rushed in as starters instead of getting into the rotation gradually. Of course, all those innings early on tended to shorten pitchers’ careers.

    It wasn’t until ten or twelve years after that change that young pitchers again gradually gained experience before getting into the rotation. Once that started to happen in the mid-1980s, we started to see pitchers with longer careers again.

    I’m convinced that the change from four-man rotations to five-man rotations reduced the career value of pitchers who came up between 1973 and 1984. They were forced to pitch too many innings too early in their careers, and thus couldn’t last.

  62. Scott Lemieux:

    This is probably the case. My question: given that it comes to peak value, how can you vote for Stieb over Gooden or Saberhagen?

  63. Scott Lemieux:

    Now we’re talkin’.

  64. Sam240:

    Saberhagen’s five-year peak was 98 win shares (1985-89). That’s the same total as Stieb’s four-year peak (1982-85). Throw in 1981, and it’s not even close.

    Gooden’s five-year peak was 95 win shares (1984-88). He did have that monster year in 1985, but that was the only time he recorded at least 20 win shares in a single season.

    Saberhagen won the Cy Young in 1985, with an ERA+ of 143 over 235.1 innings. Stieb had a 171 ERA+ over 265.0 innings in the same league. Saberhagen went 20-6, while Stieb had extremely bad luck in terms of run support and went 14-13. Gooden was the best pitcher that year, with a 229 ERA+ over 276.2 innings, but, as noted earlier, he never came close to having another season like it.

    If you look at a peak as being, say, four or five consecutive seasons, as compared to one monster season, then Stieb beats Gooden and Saberhagen in peak value quite easily.

Leave a comment