Friday, January 4, 2013

Numbers Don't Lie - Morris Not HOF Material

Jack Morris had a nice career, but was it really a Hall of Fame career?  His won-loss record (254-186 - .577) is just slightly below average for all pitchers who have been enshrined (251-176 - .588).  What should keep him out is his mediocre career ERA of 3.90, which is nearly a run per nine-innings higher than the average ERA for Hall of Fame hurlers (2.96).  In fact, Morris never even had a single season (he played for 18 seasons) when he was able to post an ERA under 3.00.  Those don't sound like Hall of Fame numbers to me.

His supporters tout him as the Pitcher of the Eighties because he happened to win more games in that particular decade than anyone else.  However, that was attributable more to his durability (and stellar defense behind him) than his pitching ability.  Yes, he was a workhorse, but Morris never won a Cy Young Award (his best finish was third-place) and that high ERA is barely better than what an average run-of-the-mill pitcher posted during the time he played (1977-1994).  It's not surprising that his ERA+ of 105 is likewise, only slightly above average (100).  So far, he seems to be a good candidate for the Hall of Above Average to Pretty Good But Not Great.

Digging deeper into the sabermetric evidence, we find that his career WAR of 39.3 is lower than such above-average-to-pretty-good-but-not-great pitchers as Brad Radke, Kevin Brown and Kevin Appier - all solid performers with flashes of excellence who will never, ever  be enshrined in Cooperstown.

It seems that the Morris Hall of Fame candidacy really comes down to that one legendary postseason game - Game Seven of the 1991 World Series - when Morris, pitching for the Minnesota Twins, squared off against a young John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves in a truly classic duel.  Morris would pitch ten shutout innings - good enough for the win - as the Twins finally broke through for the only run of the game in the bottom of the tenth-inning.  As valiant as that effort was, Morris also had more than just a little bit of luck going for him, when the Braves hit him hard in the eighth-inning, but came up empty-handed - thanks in large part to a base-running gaffe by Lonnie Smith.  Still, this effort by Morris on the grandest of all stages was certainly his most noteworthy episode - or flash - of excellence.

In the end, Morris became the iconic hero, as Minnesota won its second World Championship in five seasons; they've yet to win their third.  The perception that Morris was a great postseason pitcher is largely based from that one sensational flash-in-the-pan performance; otherwise, his postseason career amounted to a fairly run-of-the-mill 7-4 record with a 3.80 ERA.  Once again, not exactly Hall of Fame worthy.

If Morris does get the necessary support this year (2014 is his final year of eligibilty), he will supplant Red Ruffing (3.80 ERA) for the dubious distinction of having the highest ERA for any enshrined hurler.  The fact that he managed to win 254 games (I thought 300 was the magic number?) is more a testament to the strength of the teams he spent time with - namely, three World Series champions - Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto.

In Detroit, where he spent the early years of his career, he had the good fortune of having one of the greatest (if not "the" greatest) double-play combinations of all-time playing behind him:  Alan Trammell & Lou Whitaker - both of whom deserve more Hall of Fame consideration than Morris.

With all the controversy surrounding this new batch of Hall of Fame candidates emerging from the dreaded Steroids Era, the time may be right for Morris to sneak in the back door of Cooperstown; no doubt steroid-free and a pretty darn good pitcher with an engaging personality who was a fierce competitor, to boot. 

Another fierce competitor - Roger Clemens - is on the ballot for the first time this year, along with a few others that have been linked to performance enhancing drugs.  It's highly unlikely for Clemens to get voted in this time around; however, it's interesting to note that he managed to win exactly 100 more games than Jack Morris, and he also managed to lose two fewer games than Morris.  Clemens' ERA is almost a point lower (3.12), and his ERA+ is a very Hall-of-Fame-like 143.  I don't know how much of all that is inflated by any possible steroid use; but here's a guy who won seven Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award, and is perhaps the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

How strange it would be to see Morris getting voted into the Hall of Fame while Clemens is forced to wait; possibly for more than fifteen years.

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