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Jack Morris, Statistics and the meaning of the Hall of Fame

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Its Hall of Fame ballot time. Let the Jack Morris arguments start-up again. Photo John Iacono via si.com

(coincidentally, this is the exact same picture and exact same caption as I used last year.  Nothing w/r/t Morris has changed).

Every year about this time comes the inevitable Jack Morris battles when it comes to deciding whether or not he’s a Hall-of-Famer.  Those who argue against him (and argue they do, rather loudly, as exemplified by writers such as David Schoenfield, Rob Neyer, and Joe Posnanski and easily found at nearly any baseball blog, almost all of which are extremely anti-Morris) typically point at Morris’ career ERA, his ERA+, his career WAR and then argue that he was actually a mediocre pitcher.  They have all sorts of arguments against “pitching to score” and even make arguments that middling starters from the 90s are actually “better” than Morris.

My one overriding opinion on the whole “Hall of Fame” worthiness argument is that the stat-inclined seem to be missing the whole point of the “Hall of Fame.”  It isn’t defined as the “Hall of the Best  Statistically Significant players above some arbitrary benchmark.”  If it were, then arguments comparing Morris to Rick Reushel or Brad Radke (both of whom have higher career WARs than Morris) would be important.  (side note: Ironically, this is the same distinction that these people generally also miss when talking about the “Most Valuable Player” award; it isn’t the “Best Player” its the “Most Valuable,” and therefore you can’t just give me a gazillion stats that tell me why Mike Trout had a better season than Miguel Cabrera and call me an idiot for saying that Cabrera was the MVP this year.  How can you be the MVP of a 3rd place team that would have still been a 3rd place team with or without you?  How can you be the “most valuable” player in the league but have zero impact on your team’s standings or the playoffs?  But I digress).

No; its the Hall of FAME (emphasis mine).  It should be the Hall of the most FAMOUS people in the game’s history.  And inarguably Jack Morris is more famous than either Reushel or Radke (since these two pitchers are often used in comparison).  And since its baseball writers themselves that a) remember Morris as being better and more famous than he was according to specific career-measuring stats like WAR, and b) do the voting themselves, its likely that Morris may very well get into Cooperstown despite other people feeling that he’s a lesser pitcher.  Its why a pitcher like Catfish Hunter has been elected already, despite his having even worse career numbers (in the sabre-slanted statistical categories that the new-wave know-it-all bloggers constantly refer to) than Morris.  I can’t recall ever reading one single article talking about how bad it is that Hunter is in the hall of fame, but it seems that EVERY single baseball blogger and columnist out there under the age of 30 has written multiple times about how its the death of the legitimacy of the Hall of Fame if Morris makes it in.  I just don’t get it.

A lot of these arguments seem to be driven by one stat: Career WAR.  People look at that one overriding stat and make their arguments.  My biggest problem with career WAR is its “accumulator nature.”  It rewards a healthy, mediocre pitcher who makes a ton of starts and accumulates a ton of strikeouts and wins and innings pitched. Meanwhile a better pitcher with a higher peak who ends his career earlier won’t “score” as high in career WAR.

The two pitchers in particular i’m looking at in the above paragraph are Bert Blyleven (career bWAR of 89.3) and Pedro Martinez (career bWAR of 80.5).  There is not one person in their right mind that would say with a straight face that Blyleven was a “better” pitcher than Martinez.  But, if you look at the WAR without context you’d argue that was the case.

Blyleven during his career, for those of us actually old enough to have seen him play, was a mediocre pitcher.  Plain and simple.  In 22 seasons he made 3 All Star teams and received Cy Young votes only 4 times, never coming close to sniffing the award.  Morris on the other hand, received Cy Young votes in 7 of his 18 seasons and started the All Star game 3 times.  Morris STARTED more all-star games than Blyleven ever made.  Blyleven was traded for relative nobodies a number of times in his career, and the prevailing press of the day referred to him as a middling pitcher.  Only after he’s retired, when we “discovered” statistics like ERA+ and FIP and realized he was better than his numbers at the time indicated did we make the push for him into the HoF.

Why do I point out All Star appearances and Cy Young voting?  Because in the context of the Hall of Fame discussion, they’re important.  You can quibble about the meaning of all star appearances (certainly they’ve been diluted in the last 20 years) and cy young votes all you want, but the fact is this: if you REALLY want to know who the writers felt were the best players of their day, then all star appearances and Cy Young/MVP voting is vitally important.

But here’s my main point: why can’t the Hall recognize BOTH the likes of Blyleven (better than people realized at the time) AND also recognize Morris (overrated statistically but still historically significant and thus “famous” enough for enshrinement)?  Why do people devote so much time towards disparaging the case for Morris?  Yes, Morris gets undue credit for his fantastic 1991 World Series Start, for leading the 1984 Tigers, for leading the 1980s in Wins.   If you ask any player or manager in the game at the time, they’d likely tell you Morris was one of the best.   But these are all the same aspects that make him “Famous” and thus a likely candidate for the Hall of FAME.  These are the same reasons why a fine pitcher like Curt Schilling, who also was part of some iconic moments in the game’s history, also should be in Cooperstown (in my opinion).

I just feel like the nature of sports writing has come to the point where people use statistical measures as the be-all, end-all proof of everything in baseball.  And then they forget that the game is played by humans, that there are ALWAYS some things that cannot be measured, and just because some statistic has been cheapened in today’s game (I’m thinking of the pitcher Win) does not mean it was always cheapened.  I know there’s people out there who wrote doctoral thesises about how Morris never “pitched to score.”  But how do you measure a pitcher who knows he’s gotta go 9 innings, who knows he’s not getting pulled in the 6th inning for a lefty-on-lefty matchup, who knows he’s more likely to throw 160 pitches than 95?  I absolutely think there’s something in the “pitching to score” arguments, if only because I have played with pitchers who absolutely would coast through games when they got a lead, or who would “take innings off” against in order to preserve their arm to go 9 full innings.  Unless you had a biometric measure on every single pitch Jack Morris ever threw, correlated to the weather, the score, his team’s bullpen status and his manager’s whims, you can NOT tell me that Morris did or did not pitch to score, let up with a big lead, or cruise through innings knowing he may have to go 9 on a 100 degree day.  Just because you can’t prove something mathematically doesn’t mean it still doesn’t exist.  Tom Verducci did an excellent piece recently on Morris and his innings pitched and complete games in context, somewhat related to this topic.

Morris comes from a transitionary time in baseball, before specialized relief pitchers, before the power of the 90s and before PEDs.  He comes from a time severely under-represented in the Hall (think of players like Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell, Denny MartinezOrel Hershiser and Bret Saberhagen: these were the stars of the 80s and some of them barely got 2% of the HoF vote), a side-effect of the ridiculously talented players we saw in the 90s and thus victims of the inevitable comparisons, falling wanting.  He holds an important place in the history of the game, in the narrative of the 1980s, and of the fantastic 1991 World Series.  Cooperstown is a museum, not a spreadsheet.

Call me ignorant, call me old school.  Whatever.  Maybe I’m just tired of the negative rhetoric.  I say “Elect Jack Morris.”

9 Responses to 'Jack Morris, Statistics and the meaning of the Hall of Fame'

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  1. One of the best essays on the Hall of FAME I’ve ever read.

    Forget stats… the question is did they have an impact on the game. And for that reason people like Leo Durocher or Don Drysdale or Dizzy Dean or many others get in.

    Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer

    Sec 314

    19 Dec 12 at 12:34 pm

  2. Thanks.

    Todd Boss

    19 Dec 12 at 1:10 pm

  3. Todd – you are on a roll, dude. Thanks for the great posts.

    I find this topic fascinating, so, sorry for this really long comment. Well, not really the HoF discussions, per se, because it doesn’t mean that much to me (although the family trip to Cooperstown when I was 8 was a huge deal). But the whole issue of the use of stats v. our more emotional (or traditional) way of looking at the game. And my conclusion, which is totally a cop out, is that I like them both.

    The stats guys have come up with some great stuff, both in terms of thinking about what actually happened and trying to predict what will happen. I mean, I am 40ish now, but I played baseball for a long time, into college, and even had a couple of tryouts (LAD and dreaded Phillies) and was squarely old school in my thinking. Walks seemed like a failure, some people were clutch and others weren’t, all of that. But over the last 10 years, thinking about a lot of these theories, has been an eye opener and really broadened my understanding, and enjoyment, of the game. And I think, in one sense, the evolution of the statheads was because the mainstream guys were getting a fair amount of things wrong (either intentionally through bias, or unintentionally). The clearest example to me aren’t the pitchers, but Tim Raines. I remember very well how fantastic I thought that guy was; he was a force and you never wanted to see him up or on base. But he never really took with the mainstream writers, either because of the cocaine problem, playing in Montreal, whatever, so I think he was undervalued. I think the stat guys calling him out are right to bring attention to him. So I can’t agree with Sec 314 and say ‘forget the stats’.

    But stats are data points to consider, not answers (as you said well) and I think that is where they are being misused. Also, the statheads give off the feeling that they care more about the math and probabilities than the actual game being played. It is almost like if an older guy hit a homerun off somebody like Craig Kimbrel in Game 7 of the NLCS, the stat guy would try to tell you ‘don’t feel good about that, it shouldn’t have happened’. To me, the most important part of this is watching and enjoying the actual games.

    But I struggle with your ‘Hall of FAME’ argument, because it seems like FAME is decided by the mainstream writers or outlets like ESPN, which I have grave misgivings over, and the worry is that they decide what we should like and value. Tim Raines probably doesn’t meet your definition of Hall of FAME only because the writers decided not to promote him (my opinion, obviously). He had everything else. So I see the statheads as a valuable hedge against the mainstream guys.

    As for Morris and HoF, I thought that he was good, not great, but that was from watching, not reviewing stats. I thought Schilling was better. But I wouldn’t be upset if either was in. I actually feel the same about Catfish (good not great) but I don’t remember him all that well firsthand.

    Wally

    19 Dec 12 at 1:39 pm

  4. Great comments. Here’s some thoughts, in no particular order.
    - I’m (finally) reading the Joe Torre book, “The Yankee Years” and am in the section where Torre talks about the battles over whether to retain Bernie Williams after the 2006 season. Clearly Torre was taking an “old school” approach, thinking about Williams’s possible veteran influence, his ability to switch hit, and the great pinch hitting matchup elimination ability he’d offer the yankees in the twilight of his career. Cashman didn’t want Williams, he wanted a more sabre-approach to building the bench and basically forced two role players with high career OBPs on Torre instead (believe it was Mientkiewicz and Phelps).
    - I’ve always felt that Raines’ big problem with voters was that he really took a massive step backwards in terms of on-the-field impact after he turned 27. Up til 27, he was a perennial all star and perenially getting at least top 10 MVP votes. After age 27? Nothing. So then he plays another 12 seasons after that, waits 5 years to be HoF eligible, and then you have a whole slew of voters who just have plain “forgotten” how good he was from ages 21-27. I wonder if the same thing isn’t about to happen to Vladimir Guerrero, who was SO good for so long then in the past couple of seasons has become a lesser player. And he may be out of the game (I dont’ believe he’s signed yet for 2013).
    - That being said about Raines, just as what happened with Blyleven a groundswell of support seems to be rising for Raines now. raines30.com isn’t a greatly designed site but it definitely designed to make the 100% case that Raines belongs.

    I can’t remember who it was (either Posnanski or Bill James) who talked about an “eyeball” test for potential hall of famers. Was the player generally the best on his team? Was the player someone who “scared” you as an opposing fan if he was batting or pitching? Was the player a “destination player” (meaning, would you buy a ticket to a game JUST to see him)? That’s a hard way to quantify “fame” but it does help identify why some players get more voting support than other, better players (guys like Raines).

    I do agree with concerns over “Fame.” In the pre ESPN days it was entirely sportswriters who made someone famous or not. Now ESPN does tend to elevate certain players more than they should be (has more ink ever been spilled over a backup quarterback than Tim Tebow? Is it just because he’s playing in New York or because he’s such a compelling story?

    Todd Boss

    19 Dec 12 at 4:08 pm

  5. I like the eyeball test. I don’t recall reading it, but it has the sound of something Posnanski would say. It kind of fits how I’d think about it: for a Hall of Fame vote, the guy should be one of the top 5 or so players of his generation. I’d look at stats, awards, All Star games, etc and then just go with my gut. And I agree with you that I’d pick peak over longevity, but the peak would have to have some minimum time frame, like 8-10 years.

    I also wouldn’t knock people for PEDs, although I know that is controversial. I agree that they were cheaters, but baseball has had a lot of that in one form or another over the years. And I don’t think any of us know really who did (well, maybe just who else did), and how much it impacted performance.

    Wally

    19 Dec 12 at 9:47 pm

  6. Speaking of peak vs longevity; would Sandy Koufax be elected in today’s baseball climate? Retired at 30, albeit with 4 straight seasons of some of the best pitching ever seen. Imagine if Trout did what he did in 2012 for four more seasons, was run-of-the-mill for another 7 and quit at 30; is he a hall of famer?

    PEDs: thank god i’m not a voter. I honestly have no idea how to judge some of these players if I had to do a HoF vote for real. I have a “my hypothetical ballot” post mostly written where I kinda have to do that, and i’m not happy with the results. For example; Sammy Sosa is one of the toughest cases. He went from 36-40-36 homer seasons to 66-63-50-64. 36 homers one year, 66 the next. 609 for his career. How do you judge that? That’s nearly 300 homers in just 5 seasons, when at best he should have had about 200 given his typical production based on seasons just prior. And he’s out of baseball after age 38 despite a decent final season. Guys like Clemens and Bonds were hall of famers even before their “enhanced” late-career seasons, but Sosa is tougher.

    Todd Boss

    19 Dec 12 at 10:49 pm

  7. Bill James once wrote about various definitions or categories of Hall of Fame players. The first, category A, were the all-time greats, like Ruth, Williams and Mays. They were obvious choices.

    The second, category B, were players who ranked among the best all-time at their positions. An example would be Joe Morgan or, say, Eddie Matthews. While what constitutes “among the best all-time” is a matter of debate, this group isn’t that hard to define.

    The problem is that A and B, by definition overlap and also constitute, at most, 50-100 players. So, that leaves us with a third category, C, which consists of players who were, if not all-time greats, among the best players of their time or generation.

    Here’s where things like MVP/Cy Young votes and all-star appearances matter. By these measures, Morris belongs in the HOF.I would argue that Dale Murphy warrants more consideration than he has gotten.

    As for PEDs, I would agree that Bonds and Clemons were already HOF-worthy prior to the steroids era, so as much as I dislike what they are alleged to have done, I hold my nose but not Sosa.

    Roberto

    20 Dec 12 at 10:25 am

  8. Bert Blyleven vs. Tom Seaver

    Tom Seaver is arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation. Certainly in any comparison between the two he should completely blow away a “mediocre” pitcher like Blyleven

    What stats do you like Todd? Let’s separate the men from the boys and look at how many SEASONS these two were in the top 5 (not top 10) in various major stats

    WAR for pitchers
    Blyleven – 9
    Seaver – 10

    ERA
    Blyleven – 7
    Seaver – 7

    WHIP
    Blyleven – 7
    Seaver – 9

    Strikeouts
    Blyleven – 13
    Seaver – 9

    Complete Games
    Blyleven – 6
    Seaver – 6

    Shutouts
    Blyleven – 9
    Seaver – 7

    ERA+
    Blyleven – 7
    Seaver – 9

    Is Blyleven a better or even equal pitcher to Seaver? Of course not, but wouldn’t you think that the pitcher with the highest HOF vote percentage, a no doubt hall of famer, considered to be one of the best pitchers ever, would blow away a “mediocre” pitcher like Blyleven? You would think so, wouldn’t you?

    I don’t know why Blyleven was underrated when he was pitching, but he was. I do know that he stacks up just fine against virtually ANY HOF pitcher. He didn’t sneak in. He was always deserving

    Don’t make blanket statements that a pitcher was clearly mediocre, when they are simply untrue. We evaluate players differently now. Things change. Maybe you’ve heard…we now know cigarettes can kill!! WOW!

    Tony

    1 Jan 13 at 10:16 am

  9. I could do a similar analysis using all these varied statistics to show (as an example) why Nolan Ryan was probably no better on a season-to-season basis than a mediocre pitcher of today. He was barely above .500 for his career, he almost never was in the top 5 in ERA but certainly led the league in walks a dozen times. His career ERA+ was 112, which currently ties him with the likes of obvious future first ballot hall of famers (sarcasm) Ubaldo Jiminez, Bartolo Colon and Erik Bedard. But that’s the nature of any set of statistics; you can use them to prove or disprove anything you want.

    If Blyleven was so amazing; why did he fail to get a single Cy Young vote in 18 of his 22 professional seasons? If Blyleven was so amazing, why did he only make two all star teams in his entire career? If Blyleven was so amazing, why did he get barely 18% of the HoF vote his first ballot and take a monumental internet uprising to get him elected? To me, these are important factors; the writers and players of his time barely rated him in his time, so why is he now revered as one of the game’s best? Are you going to tell me that for nearly two DECADES every single evaluator in the game was wrong when it came to Blyleven??

    But that wasn’t the point of this article; my opinion is that (as I’ll state more succintly); the Hall of Fame should honor BOTH the likes of Blyleven (who history has shown is better than he was remembered) AND the likes of Morris (who history now shows is overrated but who still holds an important place in the game).

    “We evaulate players differently now.” Fine; I’m assuming the “we” in that statement is the current set of bloggers and writers who have come onto the scene in the last few years. But what’s interesting is that “we” generally didn’t play the game, certainly didn’t play the game professionally, and don’t cover the game on a day-in/day-out basis like the writers who generally encompass the electorate of the BBWAA, and I find the disconnect between the opinions of those two groups somewhat troubling. Yes, I’m well aware of new ways of evaluating players. But I’m also aware that the 1980s was a different time, a transitionary time away from 4-man rotations and less of a power game, and that inarguably the great players of that era are severely shortchanged in the current Hall roster.

    I’m also aware that generally speaking the opinions of those who covered Morris and those who played with/against him are almost unanimously in favor of his
    inclusion. How do you correlate that fact with the “knowledge” that Morris’ career ERA would make him one of the worst pitchers ever to be put into the Hall? I don’t know; I’m not prepared to judge an entire generation of baseball professionals (players, executives and long time beat writers) as being antiquated because they “remember” the Morris of the 80s differently than “we” analyze him now, without context, without the understanding of the game at the time.

    Morris led the decade in Wins; most of the “we” would argue “Wins are a useless stat.” Yes; TODAY the interpretive value of a pitcher Win is less, thanks to specialized bullpens, lefty right matchups, pitch count limits and closers. But in the time of Morris, when starters were EXPECTED to finish games and thus pitched each outing as if they were going 9 innings, the Win was more important. The Win was more indicative of whether or not the starter really “won” the game for his team. I’ll tell you this: its a HELL of a lot easier to have a 3.90 ERA when you only go 6 innings/100 pitches and only have to get through the order twice. Try keeping your ERA under 4.00 when you’re facing the heart of the opponets order in the 9th inning for the fourth time and you’re sitting on 140 pitches. THAT was what Jack Morris (and the leading starters of his time) did time and again. I don’t know how to statistically account for this; it isn’t as easy as just holding for Morris’ first 6 innings for his career, because if you’re pitching for 9, you’re managing your arm strength from the first inning onwards.

    Whatever. I’m honestly tired of arguing about Blyleven and Morris. Its like arguing with a partisan gun-rights advocate; no matter what god-awful thing happens related to gun violence, you can’t convince them that their stance is even the slightest bit assailable.

    Todd Boss

    2 Jan 13 at 10:31 am

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