It’s Hall of Fame Season!

Jan 11, 2013

It’s Hall of Fame Season!

Baseball Writers – Commence Stupidity

By Michael Larrenaga

As a sports fan in general, and baseball fan in particular, Hall of Fame season is always enjoyable.  It has lots of lists that are easy to consume and debate – “How do you have Player X on here but not Player Y?” It also reminds us of our favorite players of the past, and Americans love few things more than nostalgia (hence all of the Hollywood remakes of old movies).

Of course, it also brings to the forefront terrible baseball writing.  Or, to be more specific, terribly-researched baseball writing.  While the sabremetric vs. scouting debate of the early 00’s has more or less ended with sabremetrics winning – Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was actively discussed during 2012’s MVP debate and GMs are generally pretty stat-savy – HOF voting is always full of aging scribes talking about players who “played the game the right way” and who “hustled” and “got their uniforms” dirty (note: these are all just popular euphemisms meaning the player was white, but getting into the race descriptor debate is an article for another day).  Frankly, I could care less how dirty a player gets his uniform – if the guy was a great baseball player, he should be in the hall.

A few years back, there was a great blog called FireJoeMorgan.com dedicated to tearing apart lazy sportswriting and espousing facts and statistics.  I credit FJM for opening my eyes to advanced statistics and generally making baseball more entertaining.  While the contributors have since moved on to bigger and better things, the archives are still out there and remain a very enjoyable read.  So with a hat tip to FJM, I’m going to go through Tom Verducci’s latest article on HOF candidates.  Words in bold are the original article, my analysis is in standard font:

The noise grows more chaotic with this week’s release of the latest Hall of Fame ballot, which has caused much debate and nearly as much convenient forgetfulness about what steroids are and what they did to the game. Take a timeout, folks. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa will be around for more ballots to get people worked up into a lather.

Actually, if every writer decided just to leave these guys alone, they would not get the minimum support and would fall off the ballot.  See: Palmeiro, Rafael.

So take a calm moment to cut through the cacophony to consider three less controversial guys who actually have a chance of getting elected this ballot:

I love how he notes this like these guys are not controversial – one of them has been on the ballot for 13 year – if there wasn’t a controversy, he already would have been in.

1. Jack Morris
He has been miscast as benefiting too much from one overrated distinction (most wins in the 1980s) and the game of his life (1991 World Series Game 7).

Let’s start off with the fact that Wins is the most arbitrary pitcher stat around.  Cliff Lee had 6 of them this year because it was an off year for the Phillies.  He also pitched 211 innings with a 127 ERA+ (i.e. 27% better than league average ERA), a 1.11 WHIP and 8.8 K/9, along with a league leading 7.4 K/BB.  Would you rather have Cliff Lee or Bud Norris (7 wins, 168.1 IP, 86 ERA+, 1.37 WHIP, 8.8 K/0, 2.5 K/BB)?  At best, you can say Wins should be considered in the whole picture of a pitcher.

On top of that, “most wins in the 1980s” is a pretty arbitrary timeframe.  Morris happened to be entering his prime at the beginning of the 80s, so he racked up the majority of his wins during that 10 year period.  The fact that that 10 year period happened to be 1980 – 1989, instead of 1987 – 1996, has no bearing on a HOF argument.

So, Verducci references an arbitrary statistic and an arbitrary timeframe.  Great start, Tom.

He also mentions the 10 inning shutout in game 7 of the World Series.  It is truly an amazing feat – one of the greatest “clutch” pitching performances ever.  I’m sure the Hall of Fame already has his cleats or glove or something from that game, so it is already immortalized.  One game does not a career make.  If it did, then start crafting Pablo Sandoval’s bust because of his 3 HR game in the 2012 WS.

Verducci doesn’t mention Morris’s 1984 no hitter.  This is generally cited by writers because it happened to come in a nationally televised game, at a time when that was rare.  If Morris had been pitching the next night and thrown a no hitter without the cameras, it would not have been mentioned nearly as often.

This is the greatest Hall of Fame case for Morris: He is the most reliable workhorse ace since the American League adopted the DH four decades ago.

That is a hell of a statement.  Particularly considering that we have seen pitchers like Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, and Pedro Martinez, and that’s really just since 90’s.  I’m excited to see Verducci’s argument here.  He’s got a lot of work to do.

I always considered Morris on the wrong side of borderline because of his high ERA (3.90) and lack of elite seasons at keeping runners off base (never in the top four in ERA and only once in WHIP). His peripherals are uninspiring.

Not off to a good start, Tommy.  These are all very good points, but they’re working AGAINST your case.  Since Tom is essentially writing my case right here, I’ll elaborate a bit.

Verducci mentions his ERA of 3.90 – that would actually be a pretty good ERA in the steroid era.  The 1980s were not the steroid era.  Thankfully, we have a statistic that accounts for time period played and ballpark effects – ERA+, which tells us how a player performed relative to his peers (100 = average, 101 = 1% better than average).

Let’s look at Pedro Martinez – he had a career ERA of 2.93, already pretty impressive.  When you further consider that he pitched in one of the greatest offensive eras of all time, it’s even more impressive.  How impressive?  His career ERA+ was 154.  For his career, Pedro was 54% better than the average pitcher in his league.  He had 5 seasons with ERA+ over 200 (291, 243, 219, 211, and 202).  In 2000, he had an ERA of 1.74, and his 291 ERA+ means that he was 191% better than league average.  That is mind boggling.

Now, Jack Morris.  Career ERA+ 105.  Hmm, only 5% better than league average for his period.  Best season? 133 in 1979, his 3rd season in the league.  Jack Morris’ best year was worse than Pedro’s average year.  Pedro was an all-time great, so it’s a bit unfair to use him as a comparison, but it is worth noting for reference.  Overall, Morris had an ERA+ over 120 6 times.  The lowest ERA+ of the last five AL Cy Young winners: 149.

Morris did pitch a ton of innings, and getting a lot of innings from a pitcher, even at a slightly above average rate, has value to a team.  Fortunately, there is a way to quantify that value – Wins Above Replacement (WAR).  For his career, Jack Morris had 39.3 WAR (2.2 WAR/season).  That’s pretty solid, particularly considering that his yearly average was pulled down by having -1.7 WAR in his last 2 years.

Let’s look at his 4 most similar pitchers per Baseball-Reference.com:

  1. Dennis Martinez: 45.1 WAR (2.0 WAR/season)
  2. Bob Gibson: 77.5 WAR (4.6 WAR/season)
  3. Louis Tiant: 61.8 WAR (3.3 WAR/season)
  4. Jamie Moyer: 44.8 WAR (1.8 WAR/season)

I think B-R’s algorithm might be on the fritz selecting Gibson as a comparable, but let’s go with it.  These guys were all solid pitchers for a long time (some a VERY long time), but only Gibson is in the HOF, and he nearly doubled Morris’ WAR.

Of course, writers love to bring up that Morris was “clutch” and reference the 1991 WS.  While he did pitch well, one playoffs is a very small sample size – lots of abnormalities can come up in a small sample size.  For his postseason career (13 games and 92.1 IP, not exactly a full sample, but better), Morris 3.80 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP, 6.2 K/9 and 2.0 K/BB, very much in line with his career 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 5.8 K/9 and 1.8 K/BB.

When you look at the larger sample, Morris’ postseason performance looks a lot like his regular season performance – a good pitcher who would occasionally have a great game.  He was an all-star, deservedly so, but he’s not a hall of famer.  That’s my case, what does Verducci have to say?

But having covered Morris through his prime, I knew the way baseball people (especially managers and opposing players) valued him while he was pitching and not in the autopsy of numbers: as a prototypical ace and one of the best pitchers in baseball — not just as a good pitcher. It made me think, why had people in uniform valued Morris more while he was playing than I did after he was done?

How was he an ace?  Did he have a steely gaze?  Did he routinely bean opposing batters to instill fear (doubtful – only 58 career HBP)?  WHERE’S THE PROOF TOM?!

Oh, guys in baseball said he was good.  Baseball players also said that they thought David Eckstein was good.  Baseball players are not exactly the most rational lot.  They are generally superstitious and buy into the same mystical BS that writers propagate.  They believed Cabrera was the 2012 MVP when Trout had the better year all-around.  They certainly know the game, but aside for reading sports articles and hearing scribes talk about other players, if they aren’t playing someone that day, they could not tell you much about them – particularly in the 1980s.  Some players actively avoid reading more into their sport (Joe Morgan famously refused to read Moneyball and demonstrated his lack of knowledge on the topic when he said he thought Billy Beane wrote it).

As I crunched more numbers, I realized I underestimated the value of having an ace who takes the ball deep into games not just start after start but also year after year — and not just as any “innings-eater” pitcher, but as the guy who wants the responsibilities of starting Opening Day, starting Game 1 of a postseason series, saving a bullpen, stopping a losing streak, setting an example for an entire pitching staff and all those reasons why a No. 1 is a No. 1.

OK, so you’re saying he’s not just an “innings-eater.”  What is the proof for this?  How about talking about ERA or strikeouts?  Or are you avoiding those because they don’t help your argument?

Livan Hernandez is the definition of the modern innings-eater, with roughly 3,200 IP over his 17 year career (10 seasons with 200+ IP – 11 if you include the season he has 199.2 IP – and led the league in IP three times).  He had a career ERA+ of 95 compared to Morris’ ERA+ of 105.  Livan was 5% worse than average, Morris was 5% better than average.  Livan had a great 1997 postseason, winning the WS MVP; Morris had a great 1991 postseason, winning WS MVP (he also won a WS in 1984).  One of these pitchers is being considered for the HOF, the other won’t last 2 seasons on the ballot.

As for “Opening Day starter,” as a fact, there will be 30 of them ever year (26 in 1980).  Every team will need an opening day starter.  Not every team has a good pitcher for this title.  A sample of 2012 opening day starters:

-          Brandon McCarthey

-          Colby Lewis

-          John Danks

-          Justin Masterson

-          Bruce Chen

-          Carl Pavano

-          Jake Arrieta

-          Jeremy Guthrie

-          Edinson Volquez

-          Wandy Rodriguez

-          Erik Bedard

-          Kyle Lohse

Congratulations gentlemen – you’re all aces.

I was surprised how much better Morris looked when viewed through that prism. Think about the AL since the DH was instituted (1973) — and as the five-man rotation became conventional wisdom. In those 40 seasons, here are the pitchers with the most starts of eight innings or more:

1. Jack Morris: 248

2. Bert Blyleven: 242

3. Roger Clemens: 227

Hmm, something about era might be said here.  Something about modern pitching theory and reliever usage.  Also, something might be said about quality of these 8 IP outings.  Let me add a few things to this list:

1. Jack Morris: 248  (1977-1994, 105 ERA+)

2. Bert Blyleven: 242  (1970-1992, 118 ERA+)

3. Roger Clemens: 227  (1984-2007, 143 ERA+)

Wow. Nobody has pitched deep into AL games in the history of the DH more often than Morris. Now consider all games, including the NL, from 1973-2012:

1. (tie) Nolan Ryan: 272

1. (tie) Bert Blyleven: 272

3. Jack Morris: 248

4. Steve Carlton: 237

1. (tie) Nolan Ryan: 272 (1966-1993, 112 ERA+)

1. (tie) Bert Blyleven: 272 (1970-1992, 118 ERA+)

3. Jack Morris: 248 (1977-1994, 105 ERA+)

4. Steve Carlton: 237 (1965-1988, 115 ERA+)

What if we take the timeline back even further, to the days before the DH, to introduce even more pitchers into the sample? Go back all the way to 1961 and the advent of the 162-game schedule and long before Tony La Russa began dreaming about the specialized bullpen. Look at this:

1. Jim Palmer: 289

2. Bert Blyleven: 287

3. Jack Morris: 248

4. Catfish Hunter: 237

1. Jim Palmer: 289 (1965-1984, 125 ERA+)

2. Bert Blyleven: 287 (1970-1992, 118 ERA+)

3. Jack Morris: 248 (1977-1994, 105 ERA+)

4. Catfish Hunter: 237 (1965-1979, 104 ERA+)

There’s Morris again in the elite company of Hall of Famers. In more than half a century of the 162-game schedule, Morris pitched deep into AL games more than anybody except two pitchers, Palmer and Blyleven.

He did pitch deep into games; there is no doubt about that.  He just did so at a slightly above-average level.  Similar to Livan Hernandez.

Looking at his statistics, I might need to start a campaign against Catfish Hunter.  He was as above-average as Morris.  Better ERA, worse ERA+, better K/BB, worse K/9, better WHIP.  32.1 career WAR (2.1/year).  They’re actually pretty similar, but we don’t need to make the same mistake twice.

He probably got in because he had the fortune of playing on some great A’s and Yankees teams while winning five WS.  And because he had a great nickname.  And a sweet moustache.  Look at that thing – it’s magnificent.  He and Rollie Fingers were quite the tandem.  God bless Charlie Finley and his policy of awarding bonuses for growing moustaches.  Why can’t modern owners do that?

What happens if you include all MLB games, not just AL? From 1961-2012, Morris ranks 12th in most games pitching eight or more innings. Every one of the 11 pitchers ahead of him is in the Hall of Fame.

This is Verducci’s best argument.  A bit obscure and required a lot of research resources that I don’t have.  He didn’t publish a list, but if he did, I’d be willing to bet that all 11 ahead of Morris would have better ERA+ numbers.

If nothing else, Verducci has proven that Morris pitched a lot of innings and gave his relievers a day off.  Huzzah!  More time for tossing sunflower seeds into buckets in the bullpen!

Mind you, I haven’t even compared Morris to his contemporaries. When you measure Morris against the aces of his prime, nobody is close to him for such reliability. From 1979-92, Morris logged 18 percent more innings than anybody else in baseball, earned 20 percent more wins than anybody else and pitched eight innings or more an astounding 45 percent more often than anybody else (241 starts to the 166 of Charlie Hough).

The 1980s were generally a bad decade for pitcher health.  Perhaps logging a ton of innings is bad for pitchers’ arms.  Particularly when rehab comes down to having a smoke and taking it easy for a few days.

Cocaine might have also played a role here, right Doc Gooden?

Over 14 seasons Morris went at least eight innings in more than half his starts (52 percent). Think about that stat again, but this time as if you were the manager: when you gave the ball to Morris you were more likely to get eight innings from him than not — for almost a decade and a half.

Now he probably would have given up about 4 runs in those 8 innings (3.47 actually, if you go by his 3.90 ERA), so I hope you had a good offense.

It started to come into focus: what made Morris Morris was that three different teams made him the definitive ace of the staff and he filled that role unlike anybody else in his era and in the company of the best workhorses of the past half century. His value is in the reliability he gave the manager and the responsibility he carried well and willingly.

Three teams selected an above average pitcher to start the first game of their season.  Let’s look at Morris’ ERA and ERA+ the season before each of his opening day starts.  I’ll also list the name and ERA of his #2 starter.  I’m sure that ACE MORRIS put up ridiculous numbers every year ahead of the 80′s equivalent or Schilling and Johnson.  That’s the only way to say that this argument is valid:

1979: 3.28, 133 (Milt Wilcox, 4.35)

1980: 4.18, 99 (Milt Wilcox, 4.48)

1981: 3.05, 124 (Milt Wilcox, 3.03)

1982: 4.06, 100 (Dan Petry, 3.22)

1983: 3.34, 117 (Dan Petry, 3.92)

1984: 3.60, 109 (Dan Petry, 3.24)

1985: 3.33, 122 (Dan Petry, 3.36)

1986: 3.27, 127 (Walt Terrell, 4.56)

1987: 3.38, 126 (Walt Terrell, 4.05)

1988: 3.94, 98 (Doyle Alexander, 4.32)

1989: 4.86, 79 (Frank Tanana, 3.58)

1990: 4.51, 89 (Frank Tanana, 5.31)

1991: 3.43, 125 (Kevin Tapani, 2.99)

1992: 4.04, 102 (Jimmy Key, 3.53)

The main takeaway I have from this whole (painful, annoying) exercise is that the 1980′s Tigers position players, particularly Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker, were quite good.  None of the pitchers that he was being selected to start ahead of were particularly good.  Sometimes, they’d had better seasons than Morris (6 times actually), but because managers started Morris because they were just conditioned to have him as the opening day starter (because sports writers were always talking about how he was an ace).

Maybe, I wondered, Morris simply benefited from an era, the 1980s, in which few starting pitchers held up well. (Charlie Hough?) So I picked four unquestioned workhorses from across eras — Bert Blyleven, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Justin Verlander — and wondered how Morris’ reliability measured against theirs. Take a look: here are the percentage of starts in which each pitcher threw a complete game, at least eight innings and at least seven innings:

Pitcher CG 8+ IP 7+ IP
Morris 33% 47% 68%
Blyleven 35% 46% 66%
Ryan 29% 41% 59%
Clemens 17% 33% 63%
Verlander 9% 25% 55%

Blyleven is the only comparable pitcher here in terms of era.  Nolan Ryan pitched forever, so he probably didn’t have a lot of long outings later on, which lowered his percentages.  Morris pitched when he was 22 to 39, Ryan pitched from 19 to 46.  Not a lot of 40 year olds tossing 120 pitches.

Clemens played a large portion of his career after the use of relievers became more and more common, particularly his later years (he also had 5 years of pitching after he turned 39), so he also has outside factors working against him.  Comparing Verlander is just laughable, considering that Morris pitched in an era before LOOGYs (Lefty One Out Guys).

Morris measures up very well. In fact, the enshrinement of Blyleven, a similar workhorse, becomes a boost for Morris.

AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!  I had to interrupt his paragraph.  This comparison is mind numbing.

Morris:            254-186, 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 105 ERA+, 2,478 Ks, 5.8 K/9, 1.8 K/BB

Blyleven:         287-250, 3.31 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 118 ERA+, 3,701 Ks, 6.7 K/9, 2.8 K/BB

Blyleven is much better.  Better stuff (more Ks), better control, fewer baserunners, fewer runs.  He just happened to play for some bad teams.

In the history of the AL with the DH, only three pitchers have thrown 250 innings in a season six times: Blyleven (seven times) and Morris and Clemens (six times). Blyleven (189) and Morris (175) rank 1-2 in complete games in the DH era.

This continues to be an argument founded entirely on pitching forever.  I think Livan Hernandez can throw 250 pitches in an outing and not feel tired.  He can also eat an entire plate of tamales in 60 seconds.

Perhaps the most astounding element to Morris’ iconic Game 7 in 1991 was not that he threw 10 shutout innings for the Twins with the World Series in the balance on every pitch, but that he did so at the end of throwing 283 innings that year at age 36. From ages 35-37, including the postseason, he averaged 265 innings per year — essentially giving whatever was left in his right arm.

ERA plus in those seasons: 89, 125, 101.  Aside for 1991, he was average or worse for those 265+ innings per year.

Fun fact about Morris’ postseason performance: a year after tossing “the greatest game ever pitched in the world and totally the most clutch outing, let’s put him in the hall,”TM Morris stunk up the joint in the 1992 WS, going 0-2 with a 8.44 ERA.  Clutch.  I’m sure that Toronto was so happy they brought in an ace to blow the WS for them.

What about “most wins in the 1980s”? Overrated, yes. But how about this: most AL wins in the DH era:

1. Clemens: 316

2. Mike Mussina: 270

3. Morris: 254

The Tigers were very good in the 1980s.  The Twins were good in 1991, and the Blue Jays were good in 1992-1993.  Jack Morris is getting credit for this.  Let’s play a game with two guys who led their league in wins:

Player A: 21-6, 4.04 ERA (101 ERA+), 1.26 WHIP, 132 Ks, 4.9 K/9, 1.65 K/BB

Player B: 20-7, 4.41 ERA (109 ERA+), 1.33 WHIP, 164 Ks, 6.8 K/9, 2.10 K/BB

Impressive W-L records, everything else is less so.  Player B had better strikeout numbers and command, Player A had fewer baserunners and runs.  Player A is 1992 Jack Morris, Player B is 1998 Rick Helling.  Crazy things happen when you have amazing offenses.  Helling’s Rangers scored 940 runs with I-Rod (OPS+ 120 @Catcher), Will Clark (126), Juan Gonzalez (149), and Rusty Greer (115).  They were good.  They got bad pitchers lots of wins.  Morris’ Blue Jays were also fantastic, socring 780 runs (2nd most in the league) behind Dave Winfield (138 OPS+), Roberto Alomar (130), John Olerud (127), Candy Maldonado (125) and Joe Carter (120).  They were also very good.

I get the skepticism. The high ERA. The Dennis Martinez-like career numbers.

Fun fact: Dennis Martinez is not a Hall of Famer.

I don’t buy into the idea that Morris “pitched to the score.” I do buy into the idea that Morris prided himself on a hard-headed determination to stay in the game as long as he could, fatigue and score be damned. There have been 123 pitchers who pitched at least eight innings 100 times or more since 1961. Morris has the highest ERA in those games among those 123 pitchers (2.38).

Ah, so he pitches a lot of innings, but he has the highest ERA of those who pitch a lot.  That stat tells me that he probably should not have pitched that many innings and, instead, should have been replaced by a reliever.

He didn’t dominate with stuff. Appropriately enough in that 1991 game, he seemed to pitch out of the stretch all night.

He gave up 7 hits and 2 walks – a little less than 1 baserunner per inning and retired the side in order 5 times.  Not really out of the stretch all night, but not exactly a clean slate.

His value comes mostly from reliability and length — and not as just another “innings eater” but as an undisputed ace.

How would you describe an undisputed ace?  I would say low ERA, high strikeout guy.  Neither of which describes Morris.  He’s a fantastic innings eater (note: Verducci dropped the hyphen from earlier), but that’s not a HOF pitcher.

It’s not an easy call on Morris, who has one more year on the ballot if he does not get in this year.

I can’t wait for him to fall off, just so writes can stop crafting these articles.  That will be a happy day for me.

If you want the impressive peripherals, he’s not your guy. But if you manage a major league team, in any era, yes, he is a Hall of Famer.
Let me rephrase that last bit here:
If you want a good pitcher, he’s not your guy.  But if you are in charge of winning games, then you want this above-average guy.
The logic does not carry.  If he was a HOF pitcher, he would have the stats to back him up.  If you are a manager, your entire job is to win games.  To win games, you need pitchers who will prevent the other team from putting runners on and scoring.  Morris has 3,824 innings of proof that he is merely an above-average pitcher at preventing runs.  If my other options were sending out Milt Wilcox or Dan Petry, I’d probably send out Morris too, but I wouldn’t be thrilled about it unless I had a great offense out there.

Verducci talks about voting in Biggio and Schilling as well.  Schilling is actually a great postseason pitcher with a long career of postseason success, unlike Morris, who just had a few good series.  I think they both deserve to be in, so I’ll let them be (especially since I’m already at over 4,000 words).


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