Weighing the Hall of Fame chances of Morris, Biggio and Schilling
Those who keep arguing the Hall of Fame is in danger of becoming irrelevant (translation: unless their guys get in) have helped make the Hall more topical than ever. The Hall chatter has become so noisy that it's a shame that Marvin Miller, after a life's work as a pioneer, was in death widely reduced in most media outlets to being famous for not being in the Hall. He deserved better.
The noise grows more chaotic with this week's release of the latest Hall of Fame ballot, which has caused much debate and nearly as much convenient forgetfulness about what steroids are and what they did to the game. Take a timeout, folks. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa will be around for more ballots to get people worked up into a lather. So take a calm moment to cut through the cacophony to consider three less controversial guys who actually have a chance of getting elected this ballot:
He has been miscast as benefiting too much from one overrated distinction (most wins in the 1980s) and the game of his life (1991 World Series Game 7). This is the greatest Hall of Fame case for Morris: He is the most reliable workhorse ace since the American League adopted the DH four decades ago.
I always considered Morris on the wrong side of borderline because of his high ERA (3.90) and lack of elite seasons at keeping runners off base (never in the top four in ERA and only once in WHIP). His peripherals are uninspiring.
But having covered Morris through his prime, I knew the way baseball people (especially managers and opposing players) valued him while he was pitching and not in the autopsy of numbers: as a prototypical ace and one of the best pitchers in baseball -- not just as a good pitcher. It made me think, why had people in uniform valued Morris more while he was playing than I did after he was done?
As I crunched more numbers, I realized I underestimated the value of having an ace who takes the ball deep into games not just start after start but also year after year -- and not just as any "innings-eater" pitcher, but as the guy who wants the responsibilities of starting Opening Day, starting Game 1 of a postseason series, saving a bullpen, stopping a losing streak, setting an example for an entire pitching staff and all those reasons why a No. 1 is a No. 1.
I was surprised how much better Morris looked when viewed through that prism. Think about the AL since the DH was instituted (1973) -- and as the five-man rotation became conventional wisdom. In those 40 seasons, here are the pitchers with the most starts of eight innings or more:
1. Jack Morris: 248
2. Bert Blyleven: 242
3. Roger Clemens: 227
Wow. Nobody has pitched deep into AL games in the history of the DH more often than Morris. Now consider all games, including the NL, from 1973-2012:
1. (tie) Nolan Ryan: 272
1. (tie) Bert Blyleven: 272
3. Jack Morris: 248
4. Steve Carlton: 237
What if we take the timeline back even further, to the days before the DH, to introduce even more pitchers into the sample? Go back all the way to 1961 and the advent of the 162-game schedule and long before Tony La Russa began dreaming about the specialized bullpen. Look at this:
1. Jim Palmer: 289
2. Bert Blyleven: 287
3. Jack Morris: 248
4. Catfish Hunter: 237
There's Morris again in the elite company of Hall of Famers. In more than half a century of the 162-game schedule, Morris pitched deep into AL games more than anybody except two pitchers, Palmer and Blyleven.
What happens if you include all MLB games, not just AL? From 1961-2012, Morris ranks 12th in most games pitching eight or more innings. Every one of the 11 pitchers ahead of him is in the Hall of Fame.
Mind you, I haven't even compared Morris to his contemporaries. When you measure Morris against the aces of his prime, nobody is close to him for such reliability. From 1979-92, Morris logged 18 percent more innings than anybody else in baseball, earned 20 percent more wins than anybody else and pitched eight innings or more an astounding 45 percent more often than anybody else (241 starts to the 166 of Charlie Hough).
Over 14 seasons Morris went at least eight innings in more than half his starts (52 percent). Think about that stat again, but this time as if you were the manager: when you gave the ball to Morris you were more likely to get eight innings from him than not -- for almost a decade and a half.
It started to come into focus: what made Morris Morris was that three different teams made him the definitive ace of the staff and he filled that role unlike anybody else in his era and in the company of the best workhorses of the past half century. His value is in the reliability he gave the manager and the responsibility he carried well and willingly.
Maybe, I wondered, Morris simply benefited from an era, the 1980s, in which few starting pitchers held up well. (Charlie Hough?) So I picked four unquestioned workhorses from across eras -- Bert Blyleven, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Justin Verlander -- and wondered how Morris' reliability measured against theirs. Take a look: here are the percentage of starts in which each pitcher threw a complete game, at least eight innings and at least seven innings:
Morris measures up very well. In fact, the enshrinement of Blyleven, a similar workhorse, becomes a boost for Morris. In the history of the AL with the DH, only three pitchers have thrown 250 innings in a season six times: Blyleven (seven times) and Morris and Clemens (six times). Blyleven (189) and Morris (175) rank 1-2 in complete games in the DH era.
Perhaps the most astounding element to Morris' iconic Game 7 in 1991 was not that he threw 10 shutout innings for the Twins with the World Series in the balance on every pitch, but that he did so at the end of throwing 283 innings that year at age 36. From ages 35-37, including the postseason, he averaged 265 innings per year -- essentially giving whatever was left in his right arm.
What about "most wins in the 1980s"? Overrated, yes. But how about this: most AL wins in the DH era:
1. Clemens: 316
2. Mike Mussina: 270
3. Morris: 254
I get the skepticism. The high ERA. The Dennis Martinez-like career numbers. I don't buy into the idea that Morris "pitched to the score." I do buy into the idea that Morris prided himself on a hard-headed determination to stay in the game as long as he could, fatigue and score be damned. There have been 123 pitchers who pitched at least eight innings 100 times or more since 1961. Morris has the highest ERA in those games among those 123 pitchers (2.38).
He didn't dominate with stuff. Appropriately enough in that 1991 game, he seemed to pitch out of the stretch all night. His value comes mostly from reliability and length -- and not as just another "innings eater" but as an undisputed ace. It's not an easy call on Morris, who has one more year on the ballot if he does not get in this year. If you want the impressive peripherals, he's not your guy. But if you manage a major league team, in any era, yes, he is a Hall of Famer.
He has 3,000 hits so he must be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, right? He does compare closely to Robin Yount:
Not so fast. Yount did get elected on the first ballot -- but barely so. He needed 373 votes for election and received 385. Biggio is a slightly worse candidate than Yount if only because his on-base skill was inflated by his creative use of an elbow pad (he was hit by pitches only 36 times in his first seven years, and then 205 in the next nine) and because his career numbers were themselves padded as a below average player. More than a third of his career hit total occurred in the eight years after he turned 33, when he batted .266 and posted a 95 OPS+. Criticized for hanging on too long, Biggio, to his credit, kept himself fit enough to play such a long time.
Biggio's value resides not so much in his 3,000 hits as much as it does a seven-year prime that began soon after he moved to second base and his power suddenly spiked (.303/.397/.473). He also was an exceptional baserunner and adept fielder. Like Yount, Biggio figures to fall right around the 75 percent threshold. (Roberto Alomar and Barry Larkin were better players, and neither made it on first ballot.) It's a close call, but if he does have to wait, it won't be for long.
Say what you will about Schilling, but these facts are not in dispute:
• He is one of the best postseason pitchers of all time (11-2, 2.23 ERA in 19 starts).
• He took the ball five times in postseason elimination games. His team went 5-0 in those games while Schilling was 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA.
• He owns the greatest strikeout-to-walk rate since the mound was set at 60 feet, six inches in 1889 (4.4 punchouts for every walk).
• He is one of only four pitchers to strike out 300 batters three times (Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax are the others).
• He is one of only two pitchers to win more than 20 games with seven or fewer losses three times (Roger Clemens is the other).
• In 2002, while striking out more than 300 batters, he had fewer walks (33) than starts (35) -- one of three times in four years he finished as the Cy Young Award runnerup.
Does all of that offset "only" 216 career wins? Yes. Schilling basically is Don Drysdale (209 wins) with a better postseason career. That means Hall of Fame -- eventually. Drysdale debuted at just 21 percent on the Hall of Fame ballot and needed 10 tries to get in. Schilling won't have to wait that long, but a first-ballot election would be an upset.