November 20, 2017

If Not Jack Morris, Then Who?

January 14, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

The sabermetric question that remains with Jack Morris left out of the Hall of Fame

Jack Morris supporters frustrate the sabermetrically inclined because he is a symbol of the anecdotal evidence they have fought hard to eliminate from their analytic process. One of the first rules of sabermetric analysis is raw statistics of players from different eras cannot be compared. Sabermetric stats are tailored, not to compare players of different eras, but to compare how much better players are than the league average or replacement level player of their own eras. Then, that comparison is compared to the difference of players within other eras. WAR, OPS+, wOBA, ERA+, wRC+, xFIP and on and on . . . The stats most quoted by sabermetricians are all numbers that compare a player to the season or era they are playing in.

These stats define greatness within eras, and provide a contextual framework for understanding greatness. Counting and anecdotal stats outside the context of era can justify almost any belief.

Non Sequitor:

Gavvy Cravath, who is not in the Hall of Fame, hit 119 career home runs, and won six single season home run titles. Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds combined for only six. Rafael Palmeiro hit 569 career home runs and never won a home run title.

There’s nothing like using counting stats to justify the invalidity of anecdotal stats, but you see my point. JAWS, the widely quoted Hall of Fame rating system developed by former Baseball Prospectus writer Jay Jaffe, relies heavily on these comparative stats. And indirectly, in a way, provides proof for the anecdotal argument that many Jack Morris supporters use as justification: “The best pitcher of his generation.” JAWS defines Hall of Fame averages by how good the player is compared to the players of his own era, generation, and season.  The JAWS number and other sabermetric numbers, however, prove Jack Morris was in fact not the greatest pitcher of his era, but this begs the question, should the Hall of Fame induct every generation’s greatest players regardless of how their comparative sabermetric numbers compare with other generations? Is the fact that no pitchers from Morris’ era measure up to Hall of Fame standards an indictment of the pitchers, or is it just a product of the era? Should the best pitchers of the era be included, just because they are the best pitchers of the era?

Starting in 1901, and breaking the distribution into decades, an average of five Hall of Fame starting pitchers debut every 10 years. The decade previous to the debut of Jack Morris having the most with 10, but it also was the 1960s, a historically poor hitting decade, truncated by expansion, rule changes, and historical pitching narratives in the postseason.

HOFSP

If you define a baseball era as 10 years, and arbitrarily choose 1974-1983, then the only pitchers inducted to the Hall of Fame during this era are Dennis Eckersley and Bruce Sutter; two pitchers who gained their elite reputations as relief pitchers. Eckersley started 95% of his appearances from 1975-1986 and accrued a 45.7 bWAR. This places him among the greatest starting pitchers of his era, but I think it can be fairly universally agreed that he would not be a Hall of Famer without his second career as the dominant one-inning reliever. Sutter began his career the season after Eckersley, and is one of the worst choices by the BBWAA in the history of the vote. Sutter never started a major league game, and has a career bWAR of 24.6, placing him behind relievers like Turk Farrell, Stu Miller, and Syl Johnson.

Pitcher IP bWAR Saves ERA+
Eckersley 1975-’86 2496.0 45.7 3 111
Sutter 1042.0 24.6 300 136
Eckersley 1987-’98 789.2 16.8 387 136

As previously noted, you can see Sutter has no business in the Hall of Fame. If it wasn’t for a 1979 Cy Young Award that should have gone to Phil Niekro, or Rick Reuschel, or J.R. Richard, and some other out of proportion top Cy Young finishes, I doubt he would be included. His career bWAR is lower than infielders Randy Velarde, Corey Koskie and Casey Blake. His 24.5 career bWAR is exactly the same as former Orioles outfielder Al Bumbry, who received zero votes in his only year on the ballot. During last year’s vote, Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton combined to receive 37 votes, and were taken off the ballot. Sutter received 400 votes in 2006 alone, his 13th year on the ballot. If you would take Sutter’s career over the career of Williams or Lofton, I have a Strat-O-Matic league I would like you to join. So, including Sutter and Eckersley, below is a table of pitchers who debuted between 1974 and 1983 who finished with over 40 bWAR:

Pitchers Debut bWAR JAWS ERA+ HOF%*
Average HOF SP NA 72.6 61.4 123 NA
Dennis Eckersley 1975 62.5 50.5 116 83.2%
Dave Stieb 1979 57.2 51.0 122 1.4%
Orel Hershiser 1983 56.8 48.6 112 11.2%
Dennis Martinez 1976 49.3 41.4 106 3.2%
Ron Guidry 1975 48.1 43.1 119 8.8%
Frank Viola 1982 47.4 44.4 112 0.4%
Bob Welch 1978 44.2 37.3 106 0.2%
Jack Morris 1977 44.1 38.4 105 67.7%
John Candeleria 1975 42.4 36.7 114 0.4%
Fernando Valenzuela 1980 42.1 38.0 104 6.2%
Tom Candiotti 1983 41.5 37.8 108 0.4%
Danny Darwin 1978 40.5 34.1 106 0.0%
Bruce Sutter 1976 24.5 24.6 136 76.9%

 

Looking at this table, you can see that Eckersley, Stieb, and Hershiser are sabermetrically speaking, far ahead of the bunch. Interestingly, Welch’s and Morris’ careers look almost identical on this table, except Welch only got one writer’s vote, ever, and Morris got hundreds of votes for 15 years. And for the anecdotally inclined, no one has won more games in a season than Welch did in 1990 since the Johnson administration. Welch appeared in eight postseasons, and Morris appeared in only four. Welch also has more Cy Young awards, and a higher career winning percentage.

Sutter, the other Hall of Famer of the era, is by far the worst pitcher on this table, and before you say it’s unfair to compare Sutter to starting pitchers, I would point you back to the first paragraph, and say that sabermetric pitching stats are designed to measure run prevention compared to league averages without bias, and secondly, while he may not compare with the starters of his era, he is not much better than any of the other great relievers of his era.

Reliever Debut bWAR JAWS ERA+ Saves HOF%
Kent Tekulve 1974 26.3 23.0 132 184 1.3%
Gary Lavelle 1974 19.4 18.6 126 136 0.0%
Greg Minton 1975 17.9 17.4 118 150 0.0%
Bruce Sutter 1976 24.6 24.6 136 300 76.9%
Willie Hernandez 1977 17.2 16.7 119 147 0.4%
Bob Stanley 1977 24.3 23.7 118 132 0.0%
Dan Quisenberry 1979 25.4 24.2 146 244 3.8%
Jeff Reardon 1979 19.2 16.7 122 367 4.8%
Jesse Orosco 1979 23.9 20.9 126 144 0.2%
Lee Smith 1980 29.6 25.4 132 478 50.6%

 

Quisenberry’s career numbers are very comparable to Sutter’s, but he only spent one year on the ballot.  Only 18 members of the BBWAA thought Quisenberry was a Hall of Famer. To repeat, in 2006 alone, 400 voters thought Sutter was a Hall of Famer. And once again for the narrative inclined, Quisenberry and Sutter both led their league in saves five times. Sutter did win the NL Cy Young in 1979, but he only finished in the top 5 of the voting four times, Quisenberry finished in the top 5 five times, with two 2nd place finishes. Quisenberry played on four playoff teams and two World Series teams, while Sutter only played on the 1982 World Series Champion Cardinals.

The era in question not only seems to be underrepresented, it is not clear that the pitchers who have received the most votes are any more distinguished than pitchers who only spent one year on the ballot. But the true gap in the Hall of Fame pitcher election starts with Bert Blyleven, who debuted in 1970 and was elected in 2011, and ends with Greg Maddux, who debuted in 1986 and was elected in 2014. This gap may be more in step with an actual “generation” than the previous arbitrary 10 year period used above.

Pitchers Debut bWAR JAWS ERA+ HOF%*
Roger Clemens 1984 140.3 103.3 143 37.6%
Average HOF SP NA 72.6 61.4 123 NA
Rick Reuschel 1972 70.0 57.0 114 0.4%
Dennis Eckersley 1975 62.5 50.5 116 83.2%
Bret Saberhagen 1984 59.2 51.3 126 1.3%
Frank Tanana 1973 57.9 48.2 106 0.0%
Dave Stieb 1979 57.2 51.0 122 1.4%
Orel Hershiser 1983 56.8 48.6 112 11.2%
Doc Gooden 1984 53.2 46.1 111 3.3%
Mark Langston 1984 50.7 46.2 107 0.0%
Jimmy Key 1984 49.6 43.2 122 0.6%
Dennis Martinez 1976 49.3 41.4 106 3.2%
Ron Guidry 1975 48.1 43.1 119 8.8%
Frank Viola 1982 47.4 44.4 112 0.4%
Steve Rogers 1973 45.1 41.1 116 0.0%
Bob Welch 1978 44.2 37.3 106 0.2%
Jack Morris 1977 44.1 38.4 105 67.7%

 

According to bWAR and JAWS, Clemens is the 3rd best starting pitcher in history, and he remains outside of the Hall for other reasons, but the table places Morris well behind many pitchers of his generation. The website www.BaseballThinkFactory.org elects players to its “Hall of Merit” every season, and the Hall of Merit includes Clemens, obviously, and it also includes Reuschel, Saberhagen and Stieb, who combined to receive 16 total votes from the BBWAA. The Hall of Merit also includes Kevin Brown and David Cone, who debuted after Maddux, and did not receive enough votes to remain on the BBWAA ballot.

The Morris supporters’ claim of “greatest pitcher of his generation” is clearly inaccurate, but their willingness to put in the best pitchers of a generation regardless of comparative analysis may not be. The Hall of Fame voting is broken for many reasons, and the BBWAA has left a mess for future generations and The Veterans Committee. It seems unlikely to be solved anytime soon, and without any major advocates for pitchers like Reuschel, Saberhagen and Stieb, it could be a long time before this era receives any justification.

Follow James on Twitter @jamespfarris #seamheads

Comments

One Response to “If Not Jack Morris, Then Who?”
  1. Ted Leavengood says:

    In Tim Wendel’s book on the 1991 World Series, in which Morris pitched to a 1.17 ERA over three games where he won Game 7 by a 1-0 margin by pitching a ten inning shutout, Wendel makes two salient points about why Morris is not in Cooperstown. The first that he was a grouchy bastard who was not liked by the press. The second is that he was a money pitcher who rose to the occasion and often failed to rally to the mundane, which was not good for his statistical profile. The Morris statistical profile is totally undone by the awful seasons he had where he kept right on pitching. In 1989-90 when the Tigers were horrid, Morris pitched to the mean. If you take out those two seasons along with the final two when he probably should have retired, his numbers look better: 3.65 ERA. It’s not Bob Gibson nor Sandy Koufax, but Koufax is certainly in the HOF for his good seasons, not his overall statistical profile or his length of tenure at the top of his craft. When Morris was good, he was great as in the 1984 and 1991 World Series games that he pitched. Had he quit the next season after losing two games for Toronto against the Braves and admitted he was no longer the same pitcher, he would more likely be in Cooperstown on the strength of those games in 1991.

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