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Evaluating the Inevitable Hall of Fame Election of Jack Morris, the Pleasant Surprise of Alan Trammell and More

The Modern Baseball Era committee voted Jack Morris and Alan Trammell into Cooperstown off a 10-man ballot, announcing their selections Sunday night.

For all of the contentious debate that surrounded Jack Morris' 15-year run on the BBWAA ballot, his election to the Hall of Fame via the Modern Baseball Era Committee—whose results were announced Sunday evening, from the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Florida—was inevitable, given the history of candidates who fell just short of 75% from the writers. On the other hand, the election of Morris' longtime teammate, shortstop Alan Trammell, was a pleasant surprise given the lackadaisical support he received during his ballot tenure.

Those two stars of the Tigers’ 1984 World Series-winning squad as well as their '87 AL East winners were the only candidates among a 10-man slate to receive at least 75% of the vote from a 16-member committee comprised of Hall of Famers, major league executives and veteran media members. What's more, they're the first living ex-players elected to the Hall by any small-committee process since 2001, when the election of Bill Mazeroski produced such an outcry that the Hall began a seemingly endless series of overhauls to the Veterans Committee.

The election of Morris has something in common with that of Mazeroski. The latter, a longtime Pirates second baseman who was one of the best defenders ever at his position, was a substandard hitter who owed a great deal of his fame to one swing of the bat that produced a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series against the Yankees. The legend of that home run—the first Series-ending homer in history—papered over the flaws in Mazeroski's candidacy. Similarly, Morris' 10-inning complete game shutout for the Twins opposite Hall of Famer John Smoltz and the Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series overshadowed the gruff righty's 3.90 ERA, which becomes the highest among the 63 Hall of Fame starters. Morris never led his league in ERA, led only once in strikeouts, and never won a Cy Young award, with a pair of third place finishes as close as he came

Jack Morris, Alan Trammell Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame By Modern Era Committee

The battle over Morris during his 15-year run on the ballot (2000-14)—which I chronicled for The Cooperstown Casebook, released this past summer (excerpt here)—centered around a reevaluation of old-school statistics, and a backlash to the introduction of new-school ones that helped his contemporary, Bert Blyleven, get elected in 2011. The reactionary campaign turned into one front of the culture war that unfolded in the wake of Moneyball. Its 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.

While Morris won 254 games for the Tigers, Twins, Blue Jays and Indians in his 18-year career—the 43rd highest total in history and seventh among those outside the Hall—his win total is a reflection of the great work of his teammates. He got excellent support from his defense, which included Trammell and his longtime double play partner Lou Whitaker, in the form of a .272 batting average on balls in play, 14 points better than league average. Relative to his leagues, the offensive support he received was six percent better than average (better than 41 of the 62 other Hall starters), while his rate of run prevention was just five percent better than league average. Among Hall of Famers, his 105 ERA+ tops only those of Catfish Hunter (104) and Rube Marquard (103). By comparison, Red Ruffing, whose 3.80 ERA was previously the highest among Hall of Fame starters, had a 109 ERA+, as he pitched during a higher-scoring era (1924-47).

Via Wins Above Replacement, Morris's 44.1 career WAR is 149th among starting pitchers, surpassing just five of the 62 enshrined starters. His seven-year peak score of 32.8 WAR ranks 186th, ahead of just one Hall starter. His 38.4 JAWS, the average of those two figures, is tied for 163rd, surpassing just four Hall starters.

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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 unforgettable term) that propelled Blyleven to election, Morris gained steam, and after receiving 66.7% in 2012, his 13th year of eligibility, his 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.

Even then, it was clear that Morris' story wasn't over. Since the BBWAA returned to annual voting in 1966, five players besides Morris aged off the ballot after receiving at least 60%, namely Nellie Fox (74.7% in 1985), Orlando Cepeda (73.5% in 1994), Enos Slaughter (68.8% in 1979), Jim Bunning (63.7% in 1991) and Gil Hodges (63.4% in 1983). All but Hodges were subsequently elected by the Veterans Committee.

That Morris has been as well is no surprise, as the panel, with a median age well above 60, was always more likely to be sympathetic to Morris’s old-school charms than the stat-savvy BBWAA minority that kept him out. This year's committee consisted of Hall of Famers George Brett, Rod Carew, Bobby Cox, Dennis Eckersley, John Schuerholz, Don Sutton, Dave Winfield and Robin Yount; major league executives Sandy Alderson (Mets), Paul Beeston (Blue Jays), Bob Castellini (Reds), Bill DeWitt (Cardinals) and David Glass (Royals); and veteran media members/historians Bob Elliott, Steve Hirdt and Jayson Stark.

That Morris, who understandably expressed some bitterness at the BBWAA outcome, gets some peace is a positive. He didn’t ask to become a battlefront in a cultural war that's largely been won, as analytics has permeated every front office in baseball, and subsequent elections, such as those of Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines last year, have solidified the incorporation of advanced statistics into Hall of Fame debates. Still, his election lowers the bar for Hall of Fame pitchers and serves as a slight to numerous contemporaries such as Bret Saberhagen, Dave 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 now deserve an equally thorough airing in this context, particularly in light of the scarcity of viable starting pitcher candidates in the coming years.

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As for Trammell, a six-time All-Star who spent the entirety of his 20-year career (1977-96) with the Tigers, he was an outstanding two-way shortstop whose solid offensive numbers (2,365 hits, 185 homers, and a .285/.352/.415 line for a 110 OPS+) were overshadowed by Hall of Fame contemporaries Cal Ripken Jr. and Yount, both of whom won multiple MVP awards during their careers (the latter's second came after a shift to centerfield). Trammell himself was robbed of the 1987 AL MVP award by the Blue Jays' George Bell, whose 47 homers and 134 RBIs overshadowed Trammell's .343/.402/.551 line with 28 homers and 21 steals. Bell's Blue Jays dropped the final seven games of the season, gifting the AL East to Trammell's Tigers, who despite their 98 wins fell to the 85-win Twins in the ALCS. Had Trammell won that award, and/or had the Tigers claimed a second pennant during that period, he might already be enshrined.

When Trammell reached the BBWAA ballot in 2002, he instantly became a forgotten man. While fellow shortstop Ozzie Smith breezed into Cooperstown with 91.7% of the vote, Trammell polled just 15.7%, lower than any post-1966 candidate ever elected by the BBWAA (Duke Snider’s 17.0% in 1970 is the low-water mark). Whether it was the patchiness of his late career, or his disastrous stint managing the Tigers from 2003–05—three sub-.500 seasons including a 43–119 crater in his first year—he remained below 20% until 2010, sinking as low as 13.4% in 2007, when Ripken and Tony Gwynn sailed in. Even after his minor surge to 36.4% percent in 2012, when Barry Larkin was elected on his third try, his support receded once the ballot grew more crowded, though he did finish with a high of 40.9% in 2016.

Trammell's raw numbers and his advanced ones bear a striking similarity to those of Larkin, the longtime Reds shortstop who himself was the centerpiece of a World Series winner (1990) but did win an MVP award ('95). Thanks to excellent defense as well as offense, Trammell finished among the AL's top five in WAR four times, with two more in the top 10; in an 11-year stretch from 1980-90, his 59.3 WAR ranked third in the majors, behind only Rickey Henderson (80.7) and Wade Boggs (63.1), with Yount (57.6) and Ripken (57.5, albeit with just 23 games before 1982), just behind him. Trammell’s 70.4 career WAR ranks 11th among all shortstops, ahead of 14 of the 21 enshrined including Larkin (70.2). His seven-year peak total of 44.7 ranks eighth, ahead of 15 of the 21 enshrined shortstops, while his 57.0 JAWS ranks 11th, ahead of 13 of 21 inductees. He’s a worthy addition to Cooperstown.

Trammell deserved to be in years ago, and now the committee—which meets again in two years—needs to take a long look at Whitaker, who ranks 13th in JAWS but fell off the writers’ ballot after just one year because he received less than 5% of the vote. Whitaker has never been considered in a small-committee context, in part because he didn't become eligible until after his 15-year run would have expired in 2015. Still, his omission here felt like a slight.

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Of the good news to be had from among the other eight candidates, the fact that Ted Simmons, who similarly fell off the writers' ballot after just one try, finished just one vote short of election, counts. A switch-hitting catcher who starred for the Cardinals, he ranks 10th in JAWS. That the voters could give him a long enough look to take him seriously in this context offers hope for candidates such as Whitaker, Bobby Grich and Kenny Lofton who similarly went one-and-done.

On the other hand, the fact that Marvin Miller, the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, received just seven votes is inexcusable, the absolute nadir of the Hall of Fame process. Time and again, it’s been a bloc of executives, many of whom have links to labor wars past, such as the 1981 and '94 strikes, who have prevented his election, though some of the blame also lies with players who benefited via free agency not advancing his cause forcefully enough. Miller, who oversaw the game's biggest change since integration by dismantling the reserve clause and therefore shifting the century-old balance of power from the owners to the players, is the candidate with the strongest case of any individual outside Cooperstown, and perhaps the strongest case of any non-player in the game's history.

Via the Hall of Fame, the other six candidates—Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker and Luis Tiant—each received fewer than 7 votes. Those candidates spent 15 years on the writers’ ballot, with Garvey the only other one besides Trammell and Morris to receive more than 32% of the vote.