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  • Jack Morris has become the poster child for old-school vs. new-school Hall of Fame debates. His candidacy gets another inspection, and it's plenty complicated.
By Jay Jaffe
November 15, 2017

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the 2018 Modern Baseball Era Committee Hall of Fame ballot, which will be voted upon by a 16-member committee of writers, executives and Hall of Fame players at the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla,, with the results to be announced on Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. ET. Originally written for the 2013 BBWAA election cycle and revised in subsequent years, it was later incorporated into The Cooperstown Casebook. For a detailed introduction to the Modern Baseball ballot, please see here, and for a fuller introduction to JAWS, see here.

On Oct. 27, 1991, Jack Morris put together what many consider the greatest pitching performance in postseason history, throwing 10 shutout innings in in Game 7 of the World Series, a 1–0 victory over the Braves. Remember, a championship wasn't directly at stake when Don Larsen threw his perfect game for the Yankees in 1956—that was a Game 5. Nine pitchers had thrown shutouts in Game 7s before Morris, most recently Bret Saberhagen for the Royals in 1985, but that was an 11–0 blowout. Ralph Terry did so in a 1–0 game for the Yankees in 1962, but he threw "only" nine innings. No pitcher had ever taken a shutout beyond nine innings in the deciding game of the World Series.

In conjunction with his 254 regular season wins, that stellar performance garnered Morris nearly enough votes to reach the Hall of Fame, thanks to a slow climb mirroring that of Bert Blyleven. In 2011, Blyleven was elected by the BBWAA in his 14th turn on the ballot, breaking a 19-year string in which the voters hadn't elected a single starter with fewer than 300 wins. He benefited from a long grassroots campaign that owed a debt to the growth of advanced statistics that weren’t appreciated during his career.

Morris’s candidacy started slowly. He debuted at 22.2% of the vote in 2000, didn't reach 30% until 2005, and took another five years to break 50%. But thanks to a backlash against “the vigilante sabermetric brigade” (to use Bill Madden’s term) that propelled Blyleven, Morris’s candidacy turned into one front of the culture war that unfolded in the wake of Moneyball. As I chronicled in The Cooperstown Casebook (excerpt here), the reactionary campaign’s emphasis on wins, gritty intangibles and insider-ism brought out the worst in many, including multiple Spink Award-winning writers who were reduced to hurling schoolyard-level insults at those questioned their authority.

After receiving 66.7% in 2012, his 13th year of eligibility, Morris’s election appeared inevitable. But amid a flood of controversial candidates on the 2013 ballot—Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa—he gained just three additional votes, finishing at 67.7%, then slipped to 61.5% in his final year in front of the writers.

His story isn’t over. Morris aged off the ballot with more voter support than any candidate since Orlando Cepeda (73.5% in 1994). Cepeda, like Nellie Fox (74.7% in 1985), Enos Slaughter (68.8% in 1979) and Jim Bunning (63.7% in 1991) before him, was eventually elected by the Veterans Committee. In fact, the only player to age off the ballot after receiving at least 60% and not eventually get elected was Gil Hodges (63.4% in 1983). Particularly in front of a panel that’s more likely to be sympathetic to Morris’s old school charms than the BBWAA minority that kept him out, it should be no surprise if he’s the first living ex-player elected by a small committee since Bill Mazeroski in 2001. Brace yourselves.

Pitcher

career WAR

Peak WAR

JAWS

W-L

ERA

ERA+

Jack Morris

44.1

32.8

38.4

254–186

3.90

105

Avg. HOF SP

73.9

50.3

62.1

 

 

 

A native of St. Paul, Minn., Morris attended Brigham Young University and was drafted by the Tigers in the fifth round in 1976, a banner draft by general manager Jim Campbell and scouting director Bill Lajoie that also yielded Morris's future Cooperstown ballot-mate Alan Trammell in the second round and rotation-mate Dan Petry in the fourth—one of the greatest draft hauls of all time. Morris started his professional career at Double-A Montgomery and made just 29 minor league starts before debuting with the Tigers on July 26, 1977. In his second start, he struck out 11 Rangers over nine innings while allowing just four hits (the game went into extra innings). In September, Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish joined Morris in making their big league debuts. That quartet became a fixture by the following season, and would hold together through 1986, when Parrish left via a collusion-throttled free agency.

Early struggles in the rotation led to Morris spending the bulk of the 1978 season in the bullpen and beginning the next year in the minors, but when he was promoted in mid-May of '79, he was up for good. He went 17–7 with a 3.28 ERA (133 ERA+) and accumulated 5.8 WAR. The latter mark ranked fifth in the league and would stand as his career-high.

That was the first of 12 full seasons Morris spent in Detroit's rotation, a span during which he averaged 33 starts, 13 complete games, 241 innings, 5.9 strikeouts per nine, a 3.71 ERA (109 ERA+) … and just 3.1 WAR. He reached 20 wins in 1983 and topped that with 21 in 1986. He dipped below 30 starts only three times in those 12 seasons: in 1979, ’81 (a strike-shortened season) and ’89, when he spent two months on the disabled list. Amid all this, he made four All-Star teams.

Morris learned a split-fingered fastball from pitching coach Roger Craig in 1983 and led the league in strikeouts (232) and innings pitched (293 2/3), the only time he would do so in either category. His 4.0 WAR didn't crack the AL's top 10. He finished third in the Cy Young voting for the second time in three years; though he received votes in seven different seasons. He received first-place votes only in 1983 and ’91 (when he placed fourth).

Morris no-hit the White Sox on April 7, 1984, the signature moment in Detroit's 35–5 start en route to a world championship. Through the end of May he was 10–1 with a 1.88 ERA, but a rough stretch following that—a 6.30 ERA over 14 starts from June through mid-August—led to criticism in the media about his level of intensity. At one point, Morris stopped talking to the press. Craig told him to “quick acting like a baby” and finally manager Sparky Anderson ordered him to end his boycott. Morris finished 19–11 with a 3.60 ERA (109 ERA+), then went 3–0 with a 1.80 ERA in three postseason starts as Detroit steamrolled the Royals in the ALCS and the Padres in the World Series.

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Morris tried to test free agency after the 1986 season, in which he'd gone 21–8 with a 3.27 ERA (127 ERA+) and a league-best six shutouts, but because of collusion, he drew very limited interest; even Yankees owner George Steinbrenner toed the line when presented with Morris's demands. He wound up returning to the Tigers on a one-year, $1.85 million deal via arbitration instead of getting the three-year deal he sought and deserved. While it worked out well in the short term, that sorry saga would eventually lead to his departure from the Motor City. With another strong season in 1987 (18–11, 3.38 ERA, 126 ERA+, 5.1 WAR), he helped Detroit to 98 wins and the AL East flag. Facing Blyleven and an 85-win Twins team in the ALCS, he was rocked for six runs in eight innings in Game 2, and didn’t get a chance to redeem himself during the five-game trouncing. After the season, he signed a two-year, $4 million deal that gave him the highest average annual salary for a pitcher.

Morris's final three years in Detroit (1988–90) weren't pretty. Though he was still durable enough to average 218 innings even with his DL stint in 1989 due to an elbow injury, his ERA for that stretch was 4.40 and was worse than league average in all three seasons. When the collusion scandal was settled, the 35-year-old was allowed to declare free agency. He spurned the Tigers' three-year, $9.3 million offer and signed a one-year, $3.7 million deal with the Twins with incentives and two player options that could escalate it to $11 million.

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Morris rebounded from a 15–18, 4.51 ERA showing in 1990 to go 18–12 with a 3.43 ERA (125 ERA+) and 4.3 WAR for the Twins in '91, earning his fifth and final All-Star appearance. Knocked out after just 5 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays in the ALCS opener, he threw eight strong innings in Game 4, and Minnesota prevailed in five. They won the World Series opener against the Braves behind his seven innings of two-run ball, but lost Game 4, in which Morris was pulled after six innings. He gave up one run and threw 94 pitches that night, a relatively light outing by his standards, but then again, he was on three days' rest. He would make his Game 7 start on three days' rest as well, throwing 126 pitches to complete the job. The Twins won on Gene Larkin's pinch-hit single in the bottom of the 10th.

Despite the championship and the hometown-boy-makes-good narrative, Morris opted out of his contract that winter, signing a two-year $10.85 million deal (plus an option) with the Blue Jays. He went 21–6, albeit with a 4.04 ERA (101 ERA+). The Blue Jays won the AL East, the ALCS and the World Series, but Morris couldn't duplicate his postseason magic; chased before completing five innings in two of his four starts, he was roughed up for a 7.43 ERA with 15 walks in October 23 innings.

That was the beginning of the end for Morris. Terrible with Toronto in 1993 (6.19 ERA), he missed the postseason due to a strained elbow ligament, then was knocked around for a 5.60 ERA with the Indians in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He made 10 starts for the hometown St. Paul Saints in the independent Northern League in 1995, but couldn't find a major league deal, then declined one with the Yankees in 1996 because the club wanted him to make two starts at Triple A instead of one. At 41, his career was over.

Morris's Hall of Fame candidacy rests largely on his win total, now tied for 43rd all-time. He reached 20 wins three times, and won at least 18 six times. While supporters like to point out that he racked up more wins in the 1980s (162) than any other pitcher, those arbitrary endpoints aren't any more special than others except for shorthanded stereotypes about the period—skinny ties, trickle-down economics, etc. While Morris leads the pack in wins for most rolling 10-year periods during his career, he falls to third in the 1984–93 period behind Clemens and Frank Viola, both of whom had 163. Note that even with a Cy Young to his credit—something Morris never won—as well as some big postseason moments including a Game 7 World Series win in 1987, Viola never got any kind of Hall of Fame support, falling off the ballot with 0.4% in 2002.

The exaltation of high wins totals comes because in a more modern era, they’ve become an endangered species thanks to five-man rotations and the systematic use of specialized bullpens designed to take advantage of late-inning matchups. Morris's considerable durability (175 complete games, the 16th-highest total of the post-1961 expansion era and the highest of any pitcher whose career began after the introduction of the DH in 1973) is a counter to the more modern, sabermetrically-driven view of pitcher wins as products of adequate offensive, defensive and bullpen support.

Morris received above-average run support from his teams over the course of his career. We can express that figure in normalized form just as we can ERA+, with 100 representing the park-adjusted league average. Morris's 106 mark in that run-support category (call the stat SUP+) is no small advantage. Via the Pythagorean Theorem, each extra percentage point difference in run support translates roughly to a .005 gain in winning percentage, or an extra win for every 200 decisions.

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All else being equal, Morris' 6.4% advantage would translate to a record of 234–206 over the course of his total of 440 decisions, assuming average run prevention ability. Blyleven, by comparison, received run support four percent worse than league average (96 SUP+), Dave Stieb and Clemens three percent worse (97). Among the cohort of durable hurlers who won 300 games in careers that ran from the mid-1960s into the '80s (Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton), only Carlton (105) and Sutton (104) had better-than-average SUP+, which is to say that that run prevention had plenty to do with the big win totals as well. Of the 62 Hall of Fame starters, only 21 had support better than Morris, with Catfish Hunter (112, 10th) and Jim Palmer (108, 16th) the only ones whose careers overlapped that of our subject.

Particularly in the DH league, run support is entirely out of a pitcher's control. Run prevention, on the other hand, is not, though it certainly requires defensive support. Morris’s .272 batting average on balls in play was 14 points better than the league average during his career (thank you, Trammell and Whitaker) and ranked 32nd among the 200 pitchers with at least 1000 innings from 1977 through 1994. Just to cherry-pick a few comparisons, Stieb yielded a .262 BABIP (eighth), Clemens .281 (78th), Blyleven .285 (117th) and Viola .287 (128th). That support was important, because Morris didn't strike out hitters with exceptional frequency. His career 5.8 K/9 ranks 62nd out of those same 200 pitchers, while his 1980–89 rate of 6.0 per nine ranks 28th out of 99 with 1,000 innings in that span; his 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was 46th during that latter period.

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Even with that above-average defensive support, Morris's run prevention ability wasn’t exceptional. His 3.90 ERA would be the highest in Cooperstown, supplanting Red Ruffing's 3.80, compiled from 1924–47. Morris's 105 ERA+ would be the third-lowest among Hall of Famers, ahead of only Hunter's 104 and Rube Marquard's 103. Just nine Hall of Fame pitchers have an ERA+ lower than 110; Ruffing, who played in a higher-scoring era, is at 109.

To choose one pitcher whose career overlapped with Morris's, David Wells was an exceptionally durable pitcher who finished his career with 239 wins and an ERA nearly a quarter of a run higher at 4.13. His ERA+ was 108. For all of his big-game ability (10–5, 3.17 ERA in the postseason), Wells went one-and-done on the 2013 ballot, with 0.9%.

Morris's supporters dismiss his high ERAs by noting that they're distorted by the end of his career. He put up a 5.91 mark over his final two seasons; through 1992, he stood at 3.73, with a 109 ERA+ but "only" 237 wins. Cut him off after 1988—before his legendary Game 7 performance—and he's at 3.59, with a 113 ERA+ but just 177 wins. This is hardly unique, even among Hall of Famers; take Hunter (4.52 ERA and an 86 ERA+ while battling injuries over his final three seasons), Carlton (5.72 ERA over his final three seasons) and Niekro (6.30 ERA in his final year), for example. Blyleven posted a 4.35 ERA and a 90 ERA+ over his final four seasons, a span that included a full year missed with injury; he had one stellar year (17–5, 2.73 ERA) and two with ERAs above 5.00 in that span. All of those pitchers elevated their win totals by hanging on, but with the possible exception of Blyleven, none enhanced their Hall of Fame cases. Even if one merely focuses on his good seasons, Morris cracked the top 10 six times in raw ERA, but never ranked higher than fifth, and only four times ranked in the top 10 in ERA+, never higher than fourth.

Supporters have tended to dismiss Morris's high ERAs with claims that he "pitched to the score." The research efforts of Greg Spira and Joe Sheehan have long since put the lie to this claim. In studying his won-loss record through 1993 (his second-to-last season), Spira found that Morris was just four wins ahead of his projected record based upon run support. Sheehan, who pored over Morris’s career inning-by-inning via Retrosheet, concluded: "I can find no pattern in when Jack Morris allowed runs. If he pitched to the score—and I don't doubt that he changed his approach—the practice didn't show up in his performance record." Morris’s record, therefore, is more a product of strong run support than it is special strategy.

As for Morris’s postseason performances, while his Game 7 shutout is certainly impressive, his overall line (7–4, 3.80 ERA in 13 starts) is a reasonable distillation of his regular-season performance, with good starts and bad ones. Teams won it all with his help (1984 Tigers, 1991 Twins), but teams also fell with his struggles (1987 Tigers), won in spite of them (1992 Blue Jays) or entirely without him (1993 Blue Jays). He was not exceptionally clutch in the grand scheme of his postseason résumé.

Morris's mediocre run prevention and hitter dominance costs him dearly with regards to WAR and JAWS. He ranked among the AL top 10 in WAR four times during his career, but never higher than fifth. His 30.5 WAR for 1980–89 is tied for 11th with Nolan Ryan, just below Charlie Hough (30.6) and significantly below Saberhagen, who didn't even reach the majors until 1984, with Stieb (48.5) first and Blyleven (38.1) second. Morris's 44.1 career WAR is 149th among starting pitchers, surpassing just five out of 62 Hall of Famers. His peak score ranks 186nd, tied with Ray Caldwell and 0.4 below Jamie Moyer, who stuck around forever and won 269 games with a 103 ERA+. Among enshrined starters, only Marquard (29.0) had a lower peak. Via JAWS, Morris is tied for 163rd, surpassing just four Hall starters.

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According to this view, that's not a Hall of Fame pitcher. Morris was gritty, gruff and exceptionally durable, and he saved his bullpens a whole lot of work, but he simply didn't prevent runs in the manner of an elite pitcher. Any modern reckoning of his value illustrates that point definitively. For all of his extra wins and postseason success, his case rests on outmoded barometers and a distortion of the value of one shining moment.

Will he get in? His election appears to be an inevitability given his level of BBWAA support alone; as noted, only Hodges has topped the 60% threshold and never gotten in via small committee. Add to that Morris’s potential frequency for consideration, given that the Hall’s schedule calls for three more Modern Baseball ballots within this decade (2020, ’23 and ’25), and the likely tilt against any kind of sabermetric viewpoint on that panel of eight Hall of Famers, four executives and four senior BBWAA members — whose median age is somewhere in the 60s — and we can at least concede that Morris deserves a Most Likely To Succeed award in this context. 

If Morris does get elected, will it mean the battles of the late 2000s over his exclusion and Blyleven’s inclusion were for naught? I don’t think so. “The War on WAR” has largely been won, analytics has permeated every front office in baseball, and subsequent elections have solidified the incorporation of advanced statistics into Hall of Fame debates (last year’s election of Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell proved this). The BBWAA electorate continues to evolve, as older, long-inactive voters are being replaced by younger ones who’ve had greater exposure to Bill James, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, JAWS and much more. The impact of the small committee processes, notoriously retrograde even when they were funneling multiple candidates a year into the Hall, has been reduced, but sooner or later, a candidate not endorsed by “the vigilante sabermetric brigade” will break through, whether it’s Morris or somebody else.

Beyond that, there’s no real joy in turning away Morris. Many of us who devoted time and energy to arguing against his case grew up watching his no-hitter, Game 7 shutout and other highlights from his 18-year career. We know he was a very good pitcher for a long time, an intense competitor and a sturdy workhorse. It takes a hard heart to avoid acknowledging the man’s pain in being close enough to taste his inevitable election, yet falling short due to forces unforeseen at the outset of his candidacy. He didn’t ask to become a battlefront in a cultural war.

But if Morris gets in, the bar for Hall of Fame pitchers will be demonstrably lower, and his election will serve as a slight to numerous contemporaries such as Saberhagen, Stieb, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser and David Cone. Win totals aside, all have far fuller résumés than Morris from a Hall standpoint, better run prevention combined with Cy Young awards and their own shares of records and postseason heroics. They’ll deserve an equally thorough airing in this context. In light of the scarcity of viable starting pitcher candidates in the coming years, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

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