Don’t Know Jack

The increasingly acrimonious debate over the Hall of Fame seems to have grown in intensity yet again this year, with Jack Morris once again taking center stage. A good forum for addressing the tenor and scope of the debate this year is Tyler Kepner's recent New York Times column, which attempts to at least be fair to both sides while reaching completely the wrong conclusion.


The column opens by noting Morris has robust but ultimately insufficient enough support to gain induction, and that the support he does get makes a lot of people very angry.

In some ways, it is hard to believe people are so passionately negative about Morris. He never did anything to make people dislike him, personally. Some writers found him difficult to deal with, but generally mainstream writers are the ones defending him, promoting his case.

The anger over Morris, who pitched for Detroit, Minnesota, Toronto and Cleveland from 1977 to 1994, probably has more to do with a mistrust of writers as arbiters of the Hall of Fame. A large segment of fans and bloggers doubt that voters realize the statistical truth about Morris: he just wasn’t as good as we remember.

But writers in general have done a remarkably capable job of electing the right candidates. Sometime within their maximum 15 years on the ballot, the most deserving players make it. Last month, the restructured veterans committee considered eight candidates from the era starting in 1973 who had not been elected by the writers. The committee rejected them all.

So there's some truth here. Statistically minded baseball fans get angry over Morris because his supporters are arguing from memory and anecdote when, as Kepner notes, those memories are flawed and the anecdotes unrepresentative of his actual body of work. That gets frustrating to people. 

But the real problem is what Kepner addresses in his next paragraph:

But the Morris case really touches a nerve, partly because some writers vote for Morris and not Bert Blyleven. (The New York Times does not permit its writers to vote.) Numerous studies clearly prove that Blyleven was a lot better, so the point is not worth debating. One has nothing to do with the other.

Wait, what? If the Morris case "touches a nerve" because "some writers" vote for him over the clearly superior Blyleven, then they have everything to do with each other. What Kepner utterly fails to point out, however, is that those who vote for Morris over Blyleven have tended to be outspoken, provocative and aggressive about doing so; Jon Heyman is a prime example, dismissing Blyleven supporters as "Internet zealots."

But Kepner also misses a broader concern: If the Hall voters were truly doing a good job electing deserving candidates and letting a few undeserving ones in, too, there would be a lot less acrimony. But how do you justify voting for Morris (and Jim Rice and Tony Perez) when much more qualified players such as Dwight Evans and Lou Whitaker didn't even last three years on the ballot, or when Alan Trammell and Tim Raines are languishing well down in the mix, or when players who deserve more than a single year's consideration, such as Kevin Brown, are likely to be denied even that much because of an enormous backlog of candidates far more deserving than Morris (and a ridiculous set of rules limiting ballots to 10 names and forcing players off the ballot if they don't receive 5 percent of the vote)?

His argument that the Veterans Committee hasn't seen fit to induct anyone else ignores the limited nature of that committee's mandate or the ballot on which they're voting, and it takes no notice of the fact that the most significant points of contention concern players whose time in the game was more recent than the VC's mandate.

Kepner actually makes a better case against Morris' induction than he does in favor, knocking down the "most victories in the 1980s argument" then going on to bring up the Game 7 shutout in the 1991 World Series, which Morris' supporters often point to.

Yet Kepner knocks this one down, too:

It is often written that without his 10-inning shutout for the Twins in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Morris would not get nearly as much support. But he did pitch that game. That’s the whole point. Moments of greatness matter a lot, even though, as tiny slices of time, they rarely say much about the breadth of a player’s career.

That, I think, is what bothers so many people about his candidacy. Did Morris’s Most Valuable Player award in the ’91 Series make him overwhelmingly reliable in the clutch? No. He lost twice in the next World Series, when his earned run average was 8.44.

After pitching well and losing Game 1 in Atlanta, Morris started Game 5 in Toronto with a chance to clinch the title for the Blue Jays. Lonnie Smith, of all people, chased him with a grand slam in the fifth inning.

A year before, in that famous seventh game, Smith’s base-running gaffe probably cost the Braves the championship. Had Smith scored from first on Terry Pendleton’s eighth-inning double, instead of falling for a decoy by Twins infielders, Morris might have lost, 1-0. It was the most important play of the game, and Morris lucked out.

So Morris got lucky by having a career that did not fully overlap with any of the much better starters who either began or ended their careers in the 1980s, and in the one postseason start for which he is legendary, he was also the beneficiary of luck. He was not the best starter of the 1980s, nor was he an excellent postseason pitcher. Kepner does not dispute any of this.

So why does Kepner think Morris is a Hall of Famer?

How many pitchers in the history of baseball have thrown an extra-inning shutout in the final game of the World Series? Only Morris. Just two others have thrown an extra-inning shutout in any World Series game (the Dodgers’ Clem Labine in 1956 and the Giants’ Christy Mathewson in 1913), but their teams did not win in the end.

That sets Morris apart; the fact that his shutout capped what might have been the most thrilling World Series only helps his cause. He is a borderline candidate with a 3.90 E.R.A., higher than any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. But that game — and his two complete-game victories for Detroit in the 1984 World Series — should push him in.

Really? So what about Kirk Gibson? Joe Carter? Roger Maris? Bucky Dent? Aaron Boone? Don Larson? Kepner's argument would be that those guys aren't borderline. But, here's the rub: Neither is Morris. As Kepner notes, his career 3.90 ERA would be higher than any other pitcher in the Hall of Fame, and he pitched in a pitcher-friendly era! His career ERA+ is 105, barely above average. His career high ERA+ was 133. He broke 125 four times in an 18-year career. He has neither the career numbers nor the peak to justify induction. He's simply not on the border.

But he has 254 wins. 

Yes, Morris’s numbers somewhat contradict his sterling reputation. But he had 254 victories and was the Game 1 pitcher for three World Series winners. Six of his 10 most statistically comparable pitchers, as defined by Baseball-Reference.com, are in the Hall of Fame.

Morris benefited from circumstance for sure. He played for a very good Tigers team and chose wisely by signing as a free agent with the Twins and the Blue Jays. When he pitched his no-hitter, in 1984, he did it on the NBC “Game of the Week,” with Vin Scully at the microphone. He looked like the guy you wanted on the mound in a big game, and his pitching often backed it up.

So, again Kepner knocks down a key part of the Morris Hall of Fame case: his 254 wins are largely the result of the fact that he played his career for teams that gave him plenty of run support. Witness his 21-win season despite a 102 ERA+ in 1992, 15 wins (against 18 losses) in 1990, when he posted an 89 ERA+. Morris won 15 or more games in a season with a 105 ERA+ or lower five times. 

Instead, Kepner's argument is: Yes, he was terrible in the postseason apart from three key games. Yes, his wins total is not as good as it looks. Yes, he was nowhere near as good as any of the Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers who pitched in his primary decade. But, darn it, he looked that good!

It’s a feel thing with Morris, and that’s not always wrong. Emotions mean a lot. We watch the game because we care about it and we want to see who wins the World Series. And if you cared about baseball in Morris’s era, you probably wanted him on the mound when it mattered. In Game 7 in 1991, he rewarded that belief with one of the greatest pitching performances, given the stakes, in modern history.

And in other playoff games, he failed utterly to reward that belief. So what? Here's the thing: If the Hall of Fame case for Morris is truly that you had to be there to understand, then shouldn't he have received more than 25 percent of the vote a mere five years after he retired? Shouldn't he have finished higher than third in the Cy Young voting at least once?

Now, those aren't standards by which I judge whether someone is worthy of the Hall of Fame — if someone is worthy, it doesn't really matter what Cy Young voters or HOF voters thought years ago. But if the player's only real case is that he seemed like a Hall of Famer at the time, then shouldn't there actually be some evidence of the sportswriters treating him that way at the time?

Most of the voters think Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer. It should not be so hard to accept.

Yet not a single one of those voters can give a cogent argument for why they think Jack Morris was one of the best pitchers of his generation.

Kepner will have to forgive us if we remain reluctant to accept an irrational attachment to Morris' candidacy when better candidates are in danger of falling off an already-crowded ballot.

8 comments… add one

  • this is by no means an opinion one way or the other about morris, but number of career wins and a couple of clutch outings, even in the post season, are debatable criteria…so, i think we agree paul…

    dc January 4, 2011, 3:08 pm
  • Well deconstructed, Paul. This article was a train wreck, to me. Like Kepner wanted to explain the debate moderately and fairly, but somewhere along the way he couldn’t help but buy into the idiocy of his professional cohorts.
    As for buried ledes, what’s up with the Times not allowing their writers to vote?!

    SF January 4, 2011, 5:12 pm
  • I think they prohibit voting for year-end awards, too. Conflict of interest, and all that. Sportswriters are supposed to be objective, not passing judgment on the people they cover.
    At this stage in the journalism industry, it’s something of an obsolete rule, given that Kepner, a beat writer, can write a column advocating for the candidacy of a player but couldn’t actually cast a ballot for him.

    Paul SF January 4, 2011, 6:03 pm
  • I’d think year-end awards might be reasonably excluded. But Hall-of-Fame voting? Years after a player retires?
    I don’t get that, it seems counter to the Hall’s idea that the writers who cover players are best suited to judge those players. Wait, maybe the Times is onto something!

    SF January 4, 2011, 6:14 pm
  • I think the NYT’s rule makes sense and don’t believe it is particularly obsolete, at least no mo than is the entire profession of journalism. The point you make Paul that the NYT writers still have influence in that they can write articles about something and – in that fashion – have just as much if not more influence on it than if they were voting, doesn’t seem to me to be as relevant. That’s what comes with the jobs they have and they are not supposed to use those jobs unethically or in a quid pro quo arrangement with, for instance, a company/athlete/official/etc who wants to curry their favor. The papers have rules in place against writers making such deals. The rules against voting on award committees or sitting on org-boards/etc are simply an extension of that same logic and I think a sensible one.

    IronHorse (YF) January 5, 2011, 2:12 am
  • Does the Times forbid any writer of any sort, or photographer, or any other such contributor to their paper (graphic designer, etc.), from being on any kind of jury whatsoever?
    For example, the AIGA has annual competitions for design excellence, and has anyone from the Times ever served as a juror for one of these?
    I very much wonder about this rule, and whether it is applied equally.
    Also, I still don’t understand the conflict in a writer voting on the Hall of Fame for a former player – what is the conflict? As you say, IH, they have an ethical responsibility as journalists as it is to avoid quid-pro-quo scenarios. In the case of the Hall, the players are no longer even being covered as active participants. To me it is strange, and I am all for caution on this kind of conflict avoidance – the appearance of a conflict is often as damaging as a conflict itself. So I am sympathetic to these rules. But this one I am having a hard time understanding regarding the HoF. Though I do realize there is value in entering the Hall, so ex-players have a financial interest in this accomplishment, etc.

    SF January 5, 2011, 11:17 am
  • I could understand forbidding them from voting for the MVP/Cy Young awards, since often times players have incentives built into their contract with regards to these votes (Curt Schilling wrote a great article on it years ago, about how a former teammate buddied-up with a writer who promised to give him at least one MVP vote in exchange for a percentage of the incentive money). But it doesn’t make much sense with regards to the HOF.

    Atheose - SF January 5, 2011, 11:36 am
  • Of course, Schilling’s clause was illegal under baseball rules at the time he signed the contract, but no one noticed it until too late.
    I agree, it makes more sense to avoid voting for MVP/Cy Young/ROY. In fact, voting while you’re actively covering the players makes no sense at all. How often do you hear speculation about writers not voting for players because they were not media-friendly. That calls the objectivity of the writers into question. You also hear this regarding Hall of Fame voting, but I’m not sure if this is a real effect or not. There ARE some deserving candidates who were grouches that have been denied induction, but also some undeserving candidate-grouches who have been inducted.

    Paul SF January 5, 2011, 12:23 pm

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