|Does Morris belong?|
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on August 29, 2007
Every time I read another person abuse their privilege of being able to write on the internet by using said privilege to argue that Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame, my urge-to-kill meter creeps up just a liiiiiittle bit more. But so far, I've managed to keep my responses civil, and I'll continue doing that today, I promise. Just know... as Morris' vote percentages creep up a little more each year, the day draws closer that I begin laying plans to break into the Hall of Fame and vandalize select plaques.
But for right now, I'm going to pretend I don't know any better. I'm going to pretend I think Jack Morris is a credible Hall of Fame candidate. But then, I know there were a bunch of guys who were pretty good pitchers in the 1980s, late 1980s, early 1990s, that period of time. So, in the interest of making sure we don't pick the wrong guy (or guys) or water down the standards so much that we end up going ahead and casting Jamie Moyer's plaque now, in case there's a sudden bronze shortage in 2013, I'm going to do as honest an evaluation of Morris and some other guys as I can. Let's give it a try, shall we?
We'll compare and contrast the following pitchers: Morris, David Cone, Bret Saberhagen, David Wells, Dave Stieb, and Orel Hershiser. And just to establish a benchmark, we'll throw in an actual Hall of Fame pitcher from the period, whose identity I'll wait until the end to reveal, though if you're halfway in the know, you'll figure it out pretty quickly.
I'm going to approach this similarly to how Bill James approached it in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, by taking a good benchmark statistic--in our case, we'll use PRAR and PRAA--and looking at the pitchers' career totals, their peak value as measured by their best three seasons, and their best sustained value as measured by their best five consecutive seasons. Then we'll draw some conclusions, hopefully. PRAR (Pitcher-Only Runs Above Replacement) and PRAA (Pitcher-Only Runs Above Average) aren't perfect statistics, of course, but they're savvy enough in the ways of adjusting for context--park, defense, and such--that it can at least give us an idea of where everybody stands.
Total Career Value
Here's the list for PRAR:
Actual HoFer 1489
Going by this list, it looks doubtful that any of these guys are Hall of Famers. Morris compares OK with his group here—he falls in the middle—if we compare the group to a replacement-level pitcher. What about if we compare them to an average pitcher, instead?
The list for PRAA:
Actual HoFer 295
Now there are only three things we can say about this. Either:
· · · I'm still being open-minded about this. If that second bullet point is correct, he might still have a case. So, let's look at peak value for each of these guys.
Actual HoFer 125+103+98 = 326
Morris comes out looking... well, not great, but not bad. He's in the middle, at least. We still have the Actual Hall of Famer towering above all the rest of these guys, and we must observe Morris is, so far, in the middle of the group, not at the top.
Now let's see how they do against the average in PRAA:
Bret Saberhagen 48+38+36 = 122
Wow, did Bret Saberhagen have one SWEET peak. PRAA is more sensitive than PRAR is; that is, 'average' level is harder to attain and exceed than 'replacement' level is. The result, on this list as on the career list, is that great seasons look greater in PRAA than in PRAR. It's partially a matter of what you think is more valuable, being above average or above replacement, which is why I present both lists in my efforts to be as kind to Morris as possible. Anyway, the two lists are nearly identical, with Morris dropping below Cone when compared to average, indicating yet again that Morris was above average, but not all that much above average. At least he's better than David Wells. He has that going for him.
Actual HoFer 98+88+125+103+87 = 501
The actual Hall of Famer kills all these guys in sustained peak value by PRAR, although if the list above is any indication, he should come back to the field in PRAA. It's remarkable that Saberhagen and Hershiser's peaks are nearly identical in value and happened over precisely the same years, though Hershiser was more consistent and Saberhagen more brilliant. As for Morris, you see him mired in the middle again. I suspect--without having run the numbers yet--Cone will overtake him again, as he did in the best-three-years race.
Dave Stieb 21+29+26+34+28 = 138
Cone's kind of in the middle, and he divides the pitchers between two groups: Those who had Hall of Fame-level peaks, and those that did not. Jack Morris is in the latter group. Given that he didn't do terribly well in peak value by PRAR, either, I think it's safe to say he's pegged where he belongs here.
So, that's what we have. Let's sum up what each pitcher has to sell to Cooperstown, Inc.:
The Actual Hall of Famer ranks 1st in career value (by miles), about tied for 1st with Saberhagen in Peak Value, and 1st in five-year-run value. It's clear that he's head-and-shoulders above the rest of this group.
Bret Saberhagen was really, really awesome in the latter 1980s before his arm fell apart, and continued being good, on and off, throughout the 1990s. He comes out of this study looking good. Saberhagen would rank middle-of-the-pack, maybe third, in career value (it depends on your valuation of replacement vs. average), about tied for 1st with the Actual HoFer in Peak Value (that's impressive!) and a 3rd in five-year-run value. Saberhagen's best years match up well with various Hall of Fame pitchers.
Dave Stieb is selling a very impressive peak--his five year run is even better than Saberhagen's--but his career value would be very low for a Hall of Famer. Sandy Koufax Ultra Lite, if you will. In other words, Stieb was who we thought he was. We'll let him off the hook, but we're not about to crown his ass.
David Cone is has more career value to sell, ranking 3rd, maybe 2nd among these pitchers career-wise, but he never strung together a dominant peak; he ranks 5th among the 7 pitchers in both peak valuations. His top years are scattered around, which is why we don't remember him as a great pitcher all that much (well, the non-New York fans among us, anyway), but he had an abundance of good-to-very-good seasons and, until he hit the end of the line in 2000, no poor seasons at all.
Orel Hershiser is Bret Saberhagen Lite. Hershiser is 5th out of the 7 in career value, 3rd in peak value, 4th in sustained peak value. Hershiser got more attention during his career, more attention from the Hall voters (11% his first year before dropping off the ballot his second year), and more attention now for three reasons:
1. 2. 3. But--and as president of the Orel Hershiser fan club, it pains me to say this--Saberhagen was clearly the better pitcher. Hershiser, Cone and Stieb are hard to pick between; Hershiser's stellar postseason record probably gives him the edge among them.
These pitchers are clearly divided into two groups. Hershiser is the last pitcher I discussed in the group of pitchers who were at least worth discussion as Hall candidates. These final two are not.
I threw David Wells in there just as a top-of-my-head example of a kinda-sorta-borderline guy who's still around. I've seen some little bit of discussion as to whether he might be a credible candidate. Well, gosh Tiffany, but... no. Wells has built up decent career value--at least relative to replacement level--but his peak value is, for a Hall of Famer, pathetic. He's dead last in this group, by far, no matter what metric you try to use. He's just a guy who hung around forever as an above-average-to-good type.
And that brings us to our old pal, Jack Morris.
Jack ranks near the bottom of the group in career value, especially if you compare him to average.
Morris' peak value isn't as bad as David Wells', but it's bad, clearly 6th out of the 7-pitcher group. And we're not comparing him to Hall of Famers here, we're comparing him to a bunch of guys who don't quite make the cut.
Let's talk for just a moment about the compare-to-replacement versus compare-to-average thing. When you're constructing your team's roster this year, it's a good idea to think in terms of replacement; it helps you to understand that there is real, tangible value in a guy like Tim Wakefield or Ted Lilly. They're average-ish pitchers that bounce up and down, but an average-ish pitcher that takes the ball 30+ times in a season has real value to a team. Jack Morris took the ball 35 times a year for many years, and usually delivered above-average performance. He was very rarely great, as even his performance relative to replacement level shows, but he was generally pretty good, and he was pretty good for a long time.
But Jack Morris was never great. Do you know who else I didn't include on this list, but could have? Frank Tanana. Use whatever stat you want, and sort it any way you want--five-year run, peak three, career value, it doesn't matter--and Frank Tanana kills Jack Morris. Even in career value, Tanana is all over him. Why? Because Tanana combines the best qualities of Morris and Dave Stieb: Before he blew his arm in 1978, Frank Tanana was a great pitcher. Nolan Ryan was the second-best pitcher on the Angels' staff those years. After he blew his arm, he hung around all the way until 1993 as an average-ish pitcher.
(This is the point at which I'm going to stop being nice to Jack Morris, having satisfactorily studied his merits.)
When was the last time you saw people trumpeting Frank Tanana for the Hall of Fame? Two days before never, that's when. Why? Because Frank Tanana was just an average-ish pitcher for most of his career, that's why. Here, let me share their won-lost records with you for a few years, namely, 1985-1990:
Tanana: 10-7, 12-9, 15-10, 14-11, 10-14, 9-8. (overall: 70-67)
Morris pitched more games, more innings, and got more decisions. Those are valuable things, and Morris was better than Tanana over that period because of them. Nails-and-Balls was significantly better than Ol' Rag-Arm during this period, when they were teammates on the Detroit Tigers. But the thing is, 1985-1987, in particular, were the best years in Morris' career. These were just ho-hum, cash-another-paycheck years for Tanana.
Frank Tanana was a better pitcher than Jack Morris.
So why is Morris getting so much Hall of Fame support? Because Morris played on consistently strong Tigers teams most of his career and thus racked up wins, and more importantly, because Morris pitched one awesome game in late October, 1991.
There is no argument to be made that Jack Morris was a better pitcher than Orel Hershiser, whose hang-around years in the 1990s don't stack up all that disfavorably with Morris' strings of above-average seasons. Hershiser had a real, superstar peak, which Morris never did. Postseason value? Clutchiness? Orel Hershiser has that all over Jack Morris. Hershiser has that over just about everybody. If it doesn't make Hershiser a Hall of Famer, it sure as hell doesn't make Jack Morris a Hall of Famer.
If Orel Hershiser were a Hall of Famer, or at least a serious candidate for the Hall of Fame, we could talk about Jack Morris. But the problem is, Hershiser isn't. He's maybe better than David Cone and Dave Stieb, and maybe not. He's distinctly inferior to Bret Saberhagen, leaving Morris miles behind the onetime Royals ace. And we haven't even talked about Jim Kaat yet, or Tommy John or Wes Ferrell. Or Curt Schilling or John Smoltz.
Oh yes, and the Mystery Hall of Famer I included in the study? You probably already know that I fooled you: The Mystery Hall of Famer actually is not in the Hall of Fame, for incomprehensible reasons.
At the very least, we should be able to agree that the Hall of Fame electors' responsibility is to identify the best candidates, and Jack Morris isn't among the ten best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.
And before I go, just to really drive the stake home, here are notable starting pitchers on the 2007 Hall of Fame ballot:
Bert Blyleven, 47.7%
This, friends, is an astonishing and totally disheartening display of ignorance penetrating well into incompetence on the part of the voters. It's not just that Blyleven, an obvious Hall of Famer, still hasn't even cracked 50% of the ballot; it's that Saberhagen, who is clearly a better pitcher than Jack Morris and provably a better pitcher than Orel Hershiser, got 1.3% of the vote in his first year of eligibility and was summarily dropped from the ballot like trash.
This system is broken beyond repair, folks, and it's time for those of us who care about more than promoting our own agenda of what a player ought to look and act like to move on with our lives and leave this petty little museum in Nowhere, New York behind.