Monday, January 13, 2014

On Jack Morris

Another year of voting for induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame has come to a close. Stellar pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux fittingly entered together, as did Frank Thomas, the “Big Hurt,” probably the best designated hitter in history of the game. And what a solid class of 2014 this is. These were the players I remembered most from my formative years of watching baseball. But this was not a year without controversy. This year also marked the final year Jack Morris was eligible for consideration. 75% of the vote is required for the induction; he received just north of 60%.

First and foremost, let me make some disclaimers. One: I was born in 1991. Jack Morris threw his last game in 1994. I never saw Morris pitch, and if I did, I would not remember it today. Anything I know about Morris is what I have read or seen in video. The sharp drops of his splitter would mean a whole lot more to me had I been around to see him pitch, to be sure. Now, I have to resort to looking objectively at stats as opposed to watching him live (which is much more boring).

Second disclaimer: I am a staunch Tigers fan, through and through. I feel I need to get that out of the way before I make the argument for Morris’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame. I’m sure there are people who could make just as valid arguments about players from 29 other teams, and I feel for them, as well. All I can say is that Jack Morris stands among the top in players missing out on the Hall. It is a travesty that he was not elected. Perhaps it is not as grossly unfair as Pete Rose’s situation, but quite tragic all the same.

Morris’s career was an illustrious one, to say the least. For 18 years, from 1977 to 1994, Jack Morris was winning games for four different ball clubs. The bulk of his time was spent in Detroit, but his final four years were spent in Minnesota, Toronto, and Cleveland. During this time, he was not simply the ace of a staff; he was arguably the best pitcher of the 1980s.

Impressive accolades begin to look like a laundry list. Morris was elected to five All-Star games and started three of them. He led three teams to four World Series championships, winning an impressive seven postseason games and boasting a sub-3.00 ERA in the World Series. In 1983, probably his most successful season, he led the league in strikeouts with 232 on his way to winning 20 games. The 1984 season picked up right where he left off with a no-hitter—in the fourth game of the season. This proved to be his first World Series year where we was a perfect 3-0 in the postseason. He led the league in wins in 1981 and 1992, an incredible eleven years apart. Perhaps most unbelievable was that 162 wins came in the 1980s, making him the winningest pitcher of the decade. 1 That bears repeating: no pitcher had more wins in the 1980s than Jack Morris.

So, why is he not Hall of Fame material? Several issues seem to hold him back. True, he never captured the elusive Cy Young trophy, given to the year’s best pitcher in each league. In his 1983 season, he finished 3rd in the voting, with a 27% share of the vote. This was the nearest he came to being a Cy Young winner. But surely the absence of this award does not outright merit exclusion from the Hall? A second complaint against his stats was a disappointingly high ERA. His ERA was never below 3.00 during the regular season. He simply faced a lot of batters and gave up a lot of runs. And with the elevated ERA naturally came more losses. In fact, his last six years, during which his ERA was at its highest, he had three losing seasons. His control suffered, too, throughout his years pitching. He led the league in wild pitches an amazing four times in the 1980s.

All in all, of course some of his stats could have been improved. But throughout his career, he consistently did two things: he threw a lot of innings and he won a lot of games. From 1979 to 1989, his lowest win total for a season was 14 games. And his durability was exceptional as well. He led the league in Innings Pitched in his spectacular 1983 season. Of his starts, nearly a third of them ended up complete games. Both of his wins in the 1984 World Series (Games 1 and 4) were complete games. This type of inning economy is rarely seen in baseball today.

The closest Morris came was in his 14th time on the ballot in 2013, when he received 67.7% of the vote, about 40 votes short. For a team as filled with history as the Detroit Tigers, it is a shame that not one player is recognized from their most recent championship. Alan Trammell, shortstop of that 1984 team, is still on the ballot for two more years, but his vote hovers around 20% or 30%. Then-manager, Sparky Anderson, was inducted in 2000, but as a Cincinnati Red. But that is neither here nor there. The fact remains that one of the most complete Tigers teams in history—leading the division from the first game of the season to the final game of the World Series—does not have a representative from the team in Hall of Fame. Jack Morris should have been that person.

1 By comparison, Nolan Ryan had 40 less wins during these years.