Jack Morris deserves spot in Hall of Fame that would end Dark Ages

Tuesday December 3rd, 2013

Jack Morris had a durability and success rate that may never be seen again in the American League.
John Iacono/SI

From 1971 through 1983, 615 pitchers made their first start in the major leagues. None of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame as a starting pitcher. It is baseball's Dark Ages for superb starting pitchers.

It is, by far, the longest and deepest drought in baseball history when it comes to the debut of a Hall of Fame starting pitcher. The previous drought ran only from 1931-35 and involved only 150 starters.

The modern drought technically extends to today, but will end with the election from this ballot of Greg Maddux (debut: 1986), who will be the first starting pitcher elected who debuted since Bert Blyleven (1970). The drought should have ended with Roger Clemens (1984) but his association with performance-enhancing drugs has kept him out. The 13-year starting pitcher drought between Blyleven and Clemens does not include Dennis Eckersley (1975), who established his Cooperstown credentials as a reliever.

The Dark Ages has one last chance: Jack Morris, who gets his 15th and final opportunity on the baseball writers' ballot. The best of the rest of his contemporaries are long gone from the ballot: Dennis Martinez, Frank Tanana, Bob Welch, Rick Reuschel, Dave Stieb and Fernando Valenzuela, all of whom fell off the ballot after one or two years for failing to gain the minimum five percent support.

Morris is the last chance from an era of enormous change in how the game was played. The widespread use of the five-man rotation, the accepted wisdom of using relief specialists and the adoption of the designated hitter in 1973 combined to jump-start a trend that hasn't stopped its course: starting pitchers were asked to throw fewer starts, fewer complete games and fewer innings.

The Dark Ages began with starters completing 28 percent of their starts in 1971. By 1983 the completion rate was down to 18 percent. By the time Morris threw his last pitch, in 1994, it was down to 8 percent. Today it is down to 2.6 percent.

As the game changed -- especially in the DH-infused American League -- no starting pitcher who debuted in that transitional era held up better than Morris. Plenty of pitchers posted better individual years, more than a few posted better peaks and many have Cy Young Awards or boast better run prevention metrics. But none of the 615 starting pitchers who debuted between 1971 and 1983 had the staying power that Morris did.

Among all starting pitchers who debuted between Blyleven and Clemens, Morris won the most games (254) and completed the most games by far (175, or 22 percent more than the next closest pitcher, Tanana) and posted the second best winning percentage (.577, trailing only Bob Welch and his .591 among pitchers with 400 starts) and the second most strikeouts (2,478, second to the 2,773 of Tanana).

The strength of Morris' candidacy derives mostly from the volume of his work measured against his peers through this transitional period. He was a workhorse who gobbled up innings as an ace, not just as a rotation filler. Nobody else in his era equaled him in that regard, especially when you talk about the harsher duty in the American League. The Hall of Fame voting, in which Morris has gained support while all others fell away quickly, has reflected this singularity.

The problem with Morris' candidacy, however, is that he gave up so many hits and runs that you don't find the superior quality of pitching you typically associate with a Hall of Famer. In his 14-year peak (1979-92), Morris ranked tied for 17th in adjusted ERA (109) among pitchers with 1,500 innings. He never finished among the top four in his league in ERA or WAR and only once did so for WHIP.

Morris is a classic borderline Hall of Fame candidate and the voting has reflected such. In his first year on the ballot he received more votes than Blyleven (111-87). In 13 ballots since then, his support has gone down twice and up 11 times, including each of the past six ballots, including one in which he received more votes than future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. But Morris' long climb stalled last year with a gain of only three votes on a weak ballot, leaving him 42 votes short of enshrinement. It is unlikely he can pick up so many votes on a very strong ballot this year.

Many of the baseball writers I know invest significant research and some angst in filling out their ballots. The accessibility and spread of information has served to create more informed ballots. But more than 500 baseball writers vote, and despite all the number crunching available on everything from park effects to platoon splits, I have come to believe that getting enough votes for election (75 percent) comes down to one simple question: How well can you sum up his candidacy in one sentence?

The preferred candidates are those (non-PED-stained) guys who belong to the "magic number" clubs (i.e.: 300 wins, which will serve Tom Glavine well, and 3,000 hits, which will get Craig Biggio in). You get imprimaturs such as "most home runs by a second baseman (first Ryne Sandberg, and eventually Jeff Kent), "best at his position" of a certain era (Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Gary Carter) and "franchise player associated with one team" (Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Larkin, Sandberg, Biggio). Deserving players without those easy identifiers, especially Tim Raines and Fred McGriff, are woefully undersupported. It actually takes some context to appreciate their greatness.

With Morris, attempts to shrink his narrative to a sentence have done more harm than good. People rightly have derided labels such as "he has the most wins in the '80s" (overrated), "he pitched to the score" (not entirely true) and "he threw a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the World Series" (hello, Don Larsen).

You have to be brutally honest with Morris' candidacy and avoid the hagiography: He was a plowhorse who lived up to the demands of an ace like nobody else in his transitional era. He was a manager's dream for fulfilling that role, especially pitching exclusively against DH-loaded lineups, not for superlative rate statistics. If you still want a one-sentence summation of Morris, you can pick from among these:

• He won and completed the most games among all starting pitchers who debuted from 1971-83, by far the longest period without a Hall of Fame pitcher in baseball history.

• He pitched eight or more innings in AL games more times than any pitcher in the history of the DH (248), a record unlikely even to be approached. (The active leader, Roy Halladay, has just 84 such starts.)

• Over a 14-year peak (1979-92), Morris gave his manager eight or more innings more than half the time he took the ball (52 percent of his 464 starts).

• In AL history since the DH debuted, Morris ranks first in Opening Day starts (14), first in starts of eight or more innings, second in starts of seven or more innings (to Clemens), second in complete games (to Blyleven) and third in wins (to Clemens and Mike Mussina, a deserved Hall of Famer).

Now you begin to understand that his 10-inning shutout in the 1991 World Series was about more than just one historic game. You have to go back to the first day of spring training that year, when Morris, signed the previous month by Minnesota as a free agent, walked into the camp of a team that finished in last place the previous season and announced, "Men, I'm going to get you guys to the World Series. I'm going to throw the most innings on this team, have the best ERA and win the most games. I will lead you."

As it turned out, Scott Erickson had the most wins and Kevin Tapani had the best ERA, but Morris threw the most innings and was the undisputed leader.

By then Morris owned a reputation as one of the best, if not baddest, dudes in the game. He was so stubbornly competitive that once in 1982 Tigers manager Sparky Anderson started walking to the mound to remove Morris on what would have been his second visit that inning. Morris ran over and stopped Anderson before he could cross the third-base line.

"Get the hell out of here," he told Anderson. "What you've got warming up is no better than what I've got right now."

"You're nuts," Anderson said.

The manager turned around and walked back to the dugout.

And so there was no way Morris was letting Tom Kelly take him out of a scoreless Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Morris was 36 years old at the time. He was making his fifth start of the postseason, including three of the last four on short rest. It was his third start in eight days. The 10 innings pushed his season total to 283 -- and none of the final eight batters he faced managed to get the ball out of the infield.

Twins GM Andy MacPhail called it "the most impressive pitching performance I ever have witnessed."

It wasn't just about the 10 innings Morris pitched that day. It was about a career of fulfilling the responsibility of an ace and refusing to give in. After that series, Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Morris had compiled a career similar to Hall of Famers such as Catfish Hunter, Herb Pennock and Jesse Haines, only with more superlative World Series numbers (4-0, 1.54 ERA). "It is a distinction that will probably send him to Cooperstown one day," wrote Carchidi.

Morris was never the same after 1991, which is to be expected when a 36-year-old pitcher throws 283 innings. He did lead the AL in wins the next season with 21 for Toronto, but mostly because the Blue Jays rolled out the second-highest scoring offense in the league. He also went 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA in the 1992 World Series for the Jays.

After the '91 World Series, Morris pitched to a 5.07 ERA in his final 84 regular season starts. The three-year decline phase raised his career ERA from 3.71 to 3.90, causing the "future Hall of Famer" Carchidi wrote about in 1991 to be recast dubiously as "the pitcher with what would be the highest ERA of any Hall of Famer," displacing Red Ruffing and his 3.80 mark compiled against an AL that was neither integrated nor turbo-boosted by the DH.

(Ruffing, in fact, is the best Hall of Fame doppelganger for Morris. He was an innings-eater for great Yankees teams, which translated into 273 wins, and he excelled in the World Series, going 7-2 with a 2.63 ERA. Ruffing fell short of election on his 15th and final ballot with 73 percent, but the rules of the day allowed for a runoff election. Ruffing was elected to the Hall in the runoff with 87 percent.)

Since his third year on the ballot, Morris has gained 288 votes. (Blyleven gained 393 over his time on the ballot.) His gain of only three votes last year does not portend well toward picking up the 40 or so he needs on his last try. It is possible that Morris, after a 71-vote leap the previous year, simply has neared his ceiling of support, though it is also possible that the most mean-spirited campaigning against one player in the history of the Hall of Fame ballot has cost him votes. I am both baffled and saddened to see how people continually lampoon Morris and those who support his candidacy.

It's not like we're talking about some schlub who is getting six percent of the vote. Morris has received 2,873 votes, the most ever by anyone on the wrong side of election. As the classic borderline candidate, there is a case to be made on both sides, but no room for personal vitriol.

If you prefer a statistical autopsy to determine your Hall of Famers, you probably will find Morris lacking. Many of the rate numbers aren't pretty enough.

But, using another set of numbers, there is no denying the volume and impact of what Morris did. Set narrative and opinion aside. The facts show that Morris was the most reliable ace of his generation whose ability to continually take the ball deep into AL games was unmatched and may never be seen again. What also is true is that he altered baseball history by going 7-0 with a 2.05 ERA in the 1984 and 1991 postseasons, pitching the Tigers and Twins to world championships. Neither franchise has won a World Series since then.

The object of Major League Baseball is to win games and championships. The job of a manager is do whatever he can to make that happen, which is why Billy Martin liked to say he would have played Attila the Hun at second base if it helped his team win. If you view baseball from the viewpoint of the manager, as I like to do, Morris is a Hall of Famer. Just imagine you are the manager, and for nearly a decade and a half -- in the AL, with the DH -- when you give the ball to Morris more times than not he is going to give you a minimum of eight innings, and over his career and from the inception of the DH to this day he will win more AL games than anybody except Clemens and Mussina.

Morris has a strong Hall of Fame argument, but now he is fighting not only a campaign against him but also voting history. Since runoff elections were eliminated and the current rules put in place in 1969, the most players elected in one year is three. Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas should be expected to clear 75 percent this year. If you get an unprecedented fourth player elected, it could be Biggio rather than Morris. Biggio finished ahead of Morris last year by three votes and has no one campaigning against him.

If Morris fails to gain election, he drops off the writers' ballot. Under current rules he would have to wait until December 2016 for a 16th try at enshrinement. That's when he would be eligible for consideration by the 16-person committee chosen by the Hall of Fame to vote on the next Expansion Era ballot.

It shouldn't have to come to that. Jack Morris deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and he has my vote.

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