If Not Jack Morris, Then Who?
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.
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.
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.
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:
|Average HOF SP||NA||72.6||61.4||123||NA|
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.
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.
|Average HOF SP||NA||72.6||61.4||123||NA|
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