August 05, 2022

Jack Morris revisited


The following is an updated version of an article I first wrote in 2013 and was published on an earlier version of the “Hall of Very Good” site.

Jack Morris is widely considered to be the greatest pitcher of the 1980s, and no one will ever forget his Game 7 complete game in theWorld Series. He was very durable and consistent. Yet, he was on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years (2000 – 2014) without getting elected, and it took a Veteran’s Committee (VC) vote in 2018 to get him inducted.  Why is that?

Well, first of all the “fact” that he was the best pitcher of the 80s, is sort of an arbitrary measuring point. Would anyone know off the top of their head, who was the best pitcher from 1974 to 1984? Or 1987 to 1997? What is special about a 10 year period that starts at the beginning of a decade? Mark Grace led the majors in hits throughout the 1990s. That didn’t stop voters from dropping him off the ballot after his first year of eligibility. Besides, he probably wasn’t even the best pitcher in his own division. A cursory look at the stats will show that recognition should go to Toronto’s Dave Stieb (who also dropped off the ballot after one year) and his decade ERA of 3.32 to Morris’ 3.66. His contemporaries included Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Jim Palmer, Ron Guidry and others who just didn’t have the good fortune to start their careers prior to 1980 and finish after 1989.

Morris’ raw numbers may seem good looking back, because he pitched in a much lower scoring environment than we have now. He had a very respectable 3.90 career ERA, but never once had a season below 3.00. In fact during his playing years 37 times pitchers posted seasonal ERAs better than his career best. This is borne out by his barely above average career ERA+ of 105. Even during his peak during the “greatest pitcher of the decade” 1980s, his ERA+ was 109. For comparison sake, that’s what Mark Gubicza, who pitched at that same time had for his whole career. For those of you who don’t remember Gubicza, current pitchers Carlos Carrasco or Alex Wood, (who are both decent starters who’ve received a few Cy Young votes throughout their careers, but nobody is thinking Cooperstown for them) beat that with their current career 110 ERA+. If you want to get more sabermetric all of the following pitchers whose careers overlapped with Morris had career WARs above 50 and have been excluded from the Hall of Fame: Rick Reuschel, Kevin Brown, Luis Tiant, David Cone, Tommy John, Bret Saberhagen, Chuck Finley, Jerry Koosman, Frank Tanana, Kevin Appier and the aforementioned Dave Stieb. Jack Morris fell short of 40 for his career.

Sidebar: Dave Stieb WAS much better than Morris and it wasn’t particularly close. This four part DORKTOWN documentary by Jon Bois is a must watch for any baseball fan. (He also makes the case against Jack Morris pretty persuasively here).

To be fair, Morris was very consistent and threw a lot of innings. He threw over 200 innings 11 times, peaking at 293 in a season where he threw 20 complete games. This is unheard of in today’s game (the league leaders had three CGs last season, and only four pitchers threw over 200 topped by Zack Wheeler’s 213), but was quite common in the 1980s. During his playing years, 17 times a pitcher threw 20 or more CGs in one season. Over 80 times pitchers threw more than 230 innings while having an ERA lower than 3.00. Of course Mr. Morris never once accomplished this feat.

With Morris' VC election, there are now 87 pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Of those, 86 had better career ERAs than Mr. Morris.  

The real question isn’t why it took so long to get into the Hall of Fame. It’s why did he at all? And it’s largely due to his heroics in pitching a Game 7 complete game shutout in the 1991 World Series for the Twins. Aside from that game, his playoff record is 6-4 with a 4.26 ERA, but that game was enough to give him the reputation of a great clutch post-season warrior who pitches to the score. And that game… well, suffice it to say that if Lonnie Smith doesn’t make a baserunning blunder, we’d all be talking about how Terry Pendleton was the hero of that Fall Classic instead.

Without this mistake, Morris does not get a shutout or even a win in this game.

Morris was a good pitcher. Maybe he does deserve induction into the Hall of Very Good. But he certainly shouldn’t be a Hall of Famer.

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