The debate about Jack Morris' Hall of Fame worthiness may not end this year. (Icon SMI)
As has been noted both here and elsewhere, there's a very real possibility that when the BBWAA announces the results of the 2013 Hall of Fame voting at 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, none of the 37 candidates on the ballot will have gained the necessary 75 percent for election. The latest Baseball Think Factory poll among voters has Craig Biggio leading the pack at 71.1 percent through 179 ballots (31.9 percent of last year's vote total), and while that may seem dire, he would still need only 76.4 percent of the remaining ballots to reach Cooperstown, a reasonable possibility given that his 3,000 hits and the lack of steroid-related allegations make him a near-automatic choice for some. The odds are longer for the rest of the pack; Tim Raines, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza are clustered together between 58.7 percent and 60.3 percent in the BTF poll, and all need somewhere around 79 to 80 percent of the remaining vote to reach the magic mark — less likely given their similar lack of magic round numbers.
Should it occur, a shutout won't be the end of the Hall of Fame by any means; the institution hasn't dealt with one from the BBWAA since 1996, and before that 1971, but further back than that, such a result wasn't uncommon. The 1958, 1960, 1964 and 1967 votes all failed to elect a single player, the first three coming at a point when the writers were voting on a biennial basis, meaning nobody got in for two years except via the Veterans Committee. The institution and the town of Cooperstown, both of which depend upon the tourist dollars generated by the annual inductions, have survived such droughts before, and one more blank alone isn't going to push the Hall board to alter its voting rules to help break the logjam on the ballot.
To be sure, the process could use some reform, and I have my own ideas about that, which I'll share in a future piece. Gazing over the landscape and evaluating the public discourse over the past weeks, it's apparent that there's a lot of outrage over this ballot. The outrage from a certain number of writers at the players who allegedly used performance-enhancing drugs is hard to stomach from my vantage point, because many of those writers are the same people under whose noses the so-called Steroid Era took place. Instead of questioning what was going on to produce so many home runs — which were a product not only of PEDs but also of rapidly changing conditions throughout the game — they simply glorified the big sluggers and workout zealots, and are now attempting to apply a retroactive morality to an era where all sides reinforced the status quo. Whether it's the public handwringing or the blank-ballot protests, some of them have made the process about themselves rather than the candidates, sometimes to the point of performance art, which isn't a good thing. Outrage from fans over that lapse in coverage lingers as well; many have stopped caring about the Hall of Fame, or want only the squeaky clean players elected, pretending that we have perfect information about what went down with regards to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and so many others, and that previous eras of baseball were somehow more pure and free of corrupting influences.
In addition to those rifts is an old school/new school one. Whether it's painted as print media versus electronic media, traditional statistics versus sabermetrics or narrative and belief versus facts and evidence, it encompasses interested observers as well as voters. Anyone with a blog or a Twitter account can weigh in with their views on who deserves to be a Hall of Famer, and anyone can call up a player's Baseball-Reference page and wade through the statistics themselves to build a case for or against a candidate. I am, of course, part of this process, having spent more than a decade doing so, first as mere hobby, now as a meal ticket. Thanks to persistence and exposure via Baseball Prospectus, SI.com, Baseball-Reference and MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential, my JAWS system has gained some traction both with the public and actual voters, and I've been pleasantly surprised to see it used when one of the latter cites it in their methodology or suggests that I'm worthy of casting an actual vote (though I'm a BBWAA member, I'm still eight years away from reaching the necessary 10 years needed to participate).
Having written in favor of the more sabermetrically sound candidates — some of them several times — I've become invested in the results; for better or worse, I have "my guys," candidates about whom I'll argue until the cows come home. Because I'm reasonably sure I'll be interested in this stuff a year from now, and have outlets to continue sharing my views, I take a longer view than fans for whom rejection of a given candidate produces disinterest in the institution or suggests invalidation of the process. Biggio and Mike Piazza are the type of players who in a different era would easily be elected on their first ballots, but if they don't get in this year, they will almost certainly do so next year with a minimum of kicking and screaming, just as Roberto Alomar did on his second ballot in 2011, and their accomplishments will be just as worthy of celebration.
While the slower recognition of Jeff Bagwell or Tim Raines produces a fair bit more frustration, the former has already crossed the 60 percent threshold and should be in by mid-decade, and the latter's climbing vote share — from 24.3 percent on his ballot debut in 2008 to what would appear to be a crossing of the 50 or even 60 percent thresholds this time — in his sixth year on the ballot assures me he's bound for bronze before the decade's end. I can only hope that other players whose merits have convinced me but less than a majority of the voters, such as Edgar Martinez and Alan Trammell, continue to climb as well, though the latter is running out of time. The long, slow ascent of Bert Blyleven, whose merits I covered through no less than 10 cycles, stands as assurance that it ain't over 'til it's over, even for players who are languishing below 20 percent of the vote through multiple cycles.
Perhaps more than any other recent candidate, Blyleven was driven by the growing influence of sabermetrics; many an old-school voter came around to the idea that his merits as a pitcher could be detached from simple won-loss records to a broader recognition of his run prevention skill and his ability to miss bats. It's hardly surprising to see some amount of backlash from those who didn't come around, as reflected in the similarly slow climb of Jack Morris, a pitcher with very different merits that center around one stellar outing in the deciding game of the World Series. On Monday, I taped a two-part Hall of Fame roundtable for Clubhouse Confidential in which host Brian Kenny picked my brain as well as those of two veteran voters, the New York Daily News' Bill Madden and the New York Post's Ken Davidoff. Madden, who is in his 60s and has covered baseball since the early 1970s, is a former Spink Award winner, while Davidoff, who's in his early 40s and has covered baseball for around 20 years, was recently president of the BBWAA, and their views on the merits of Morris couldn't have been more diametrically opposed. Asked by Kenny as to why Morris' candidacy is so polarizing, Davidoff, who consulted JAWS in filling out his ballot, said, "I think it's because he's an emotion-driven candidate, a narrative-driven candidate and the numbers don't support him."
Madden, who last month professed not to understand WAR and referred to the opposition to Morris' candidacy as "the vigilante sabermetric brigade," unintentionally confirmed that view with his response. "I think Jack Morris is one candidate where you just got to overlook the statistics. You can't let the statistics dominate Jack Morris. For me Jack Morris passes the smell test, or more importantly, the eye test. I covered the guy at least 40 times and he was never not the best pitcher on the field."
The rest of us almost fell off our chairs at that one. Davidoff and I, roughly the same age, grew up watching Morris as kids and as fans, could remember his 1984 no-hitter as well as his 1991 Game 7 shutout, yet we have been able to cultivate a detachment from those highlights to take more objective views of the whole cloth of his candidacy. Madden, whose career in the no-cheering-allowed press box spanned the entirety of Morris' time in the majors, is the one with the emotion invested. When he went on to cite numbers on the show — after dismissing the need for them in his previous statement — it was with regards to opening day starts and All-Star appearances, information that collectively constitutes trivia rather than evidence of a player's Hallworthiness. Does anybody know how many Opening Day starts any other pitcher in Cooperstown has made? Has anyone justified voting for another candidate on that basis? If so, I've yet to see it.
I wish I had been able to counter with a fact I unearthed on Tuesday evening with regards to the way Morris' importance has become exaggerated over time. In the four years in which he pitched in the postseason (1984, 1987, 1991 and 1992) and exhibited so much grit and intestinal fortitude, the AL Cy Young votes in three of those years featured teammates who received more votes — who were judged more outstanding and/or essential to the team's winning than he was. In 1984, Tiges reliever Willie Hernandez won both the Cy Young and the MVP award for his 1.92 ERA and 32 saves over 140 1/3 innings, while Morris (19-11, 3.60 ERA) tied for seventh. In 1987, Doyle Alexander's 9-0, 1.53 ERA showing in 11 starts for Detroit after his mid-August acquisition from Atlanta were enough to place him fourth in the voting, while Morris (18-11, 3.38 ERA) placed ninth. In 1991, the Twins' Scott Erickson (20-8, 3.18 ERA) placed second to Roger Clemens, while Morris (18-12, 3.43 ERA) placed fourth. Only in 1992, when no other Blue Jay received a vote, was Morris judged to be the most important pitcher on the team, and even after a 21-6, 4.04 ERA season he placed fifth in the voting; unlike the previous three seasons, he was torched in his four postseason starts. The point is this: He wasn't held as the paragon of pitching excellence in his day then, and the perception that was then held about him – a good-not-great workhorse — is more accurate than the old-schoolers' belated exaltation of him now.
Morris, who reached 66.7 percent of the vote last year, appears as though he might not get over the top this time around, but based on the recent precedent of Jim Rice, he's still likely to do so next year, his final one on the ballot. If and when he does, I'll be happy for the man, who provided me as a fan with some of my most memorable moments even if he didn't quite earn my "vote." I'll be even happier for the handful of more recent pitchers on the ballot whose arguments to go into Cooperstown become that much stronger with the lowering of the starting standards. Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Mike Mussina don't have 300 wins either, but they were elite run preventers who dominated for long stretches and produced strong postseason resumes. The Hall will be stronger for their eventual admission, whether Morris is there or not.
Beyond some resolution of the Morris debate, I look forward to the next cycle, when the PED issue won't loom quite so large. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the reality is that if Bonds and Clemens debut around 45 percent as the polls suggest, they will eventually gain their bronze plaques with or without further intervention from MLB and the Hall of Fame itself. McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro will have tougher rows to hoe, but once some PED-related candidates are in, resistance to the others may soften. The voting demographic will change over time, and the Steroid Era will be recognized for what it is: a part of baseball history, warts and all, necessary to recognize before we can move on. The debate will shift back to less polarizing candidates, and the Hall of Fame season will be that much more fun.