The Case Against Jack Morris

Miguel JoseContributor IAugust 14, 2008

Is Jack Morris a great pitcher?  His 254-186 record is pretty similar to Hall of Famers Bob Gibson (251-174), Red Faber (254-213), Vic Willis (249-205), and Herb Pennock (240-162).  Of the four 20th century pitchers who have won at least 250 games and not been elected to the Hall, Morris has the best winning percentage (.577), easily better than Bert Blyleven’s (.534), Jim Kaat’s (.544), and Tommy John’s (.555).  That’s awesome.  When you look at just win-loss record, Morris is surrounded by Hall of Famers. 


This leads into my next question:  Is a pitcher’s win-loss record a logical way to evaluate pitchers?  No, I can’t see that it is.  Baseball is a team game.  Teams win games, not pitchers.  A pitcher could pitch 12 perfect innings – no runs, no hits, no walks, no hitter getting on base whatsoever – and still lose the game if his offense does not score and he gives up one run in the 13th (this actually happened to Harvey Haddix in 1959).  A pitcher could give up 6 runs in the first inning and still get the win if his team’s offense has an amazing game.  A pitcher could pitch 8 innings of scoreless ball, leave the game with the lead, and then not get the win because his bullpen blows it (this has happened to Johan Santana 6 times this season.  Not the 8 innings of scoreless ball, but the Mets’ bullpen blowing a potential W for Santana 6 times.  Sucks for him).


To me, a pitcher’s job is pretty simple:  prevent the other team from scoring.  The offense’s job is to score runs.  A pitcher’s won-loss record pretends that the pitcher is solely responsible for both runs allowed and runs scored.  How does that make sense?  Pitchers’ win-loss records are a poor reflection of a pitcher’s true value, especially if the pitcher is on a great offensive team or a terrible offensive team.


Back to Morris.  Great win-loss record, but win-loss records are overrated.  His ERA, a much better statistic for pitchers since it has nothing to do with offense, is 3.90.  If Morris is elected, he would have the worst ERA for any pitcher in the Hall.  In the context of the league and parks that Morris pitched in, his ERA was only 5% better than average.  By comparison, Blyleven’s ERA was 18% better than average over his career, even though he pitched over a thousand more innings than Morris.  Kaat was 7% better.  John was 10% better.  Dennis Martinez, who has about as much chance of making the Hall of Fame as I do, was 6% better than average pitching 175 more innings than Morris.  That doesn’t seem like greatness to me.

Morris's career ERA falls way short of the Hall's standards, and his peak seasons aren't exactly on Koufax's level either.  The best ERA he ever posted was a 3.05 in the strike-shortened 1981 season.  He never had an ERA better than 3.00, although he did have 8 seasons with an ERA worse than 4.00.  He never finished higher than 3rd in any season's Cy Young voting despite baseball writers' devotion to a pitchers' win-loss record.  He never had a dominant season.  To be fair, he did have an incredible 10 seasons pitching at least 240 innings.  To me his huge amount of innings is more impressive than his deceptive win-loss records.


This leads to another, obvious, question:  If Morris wasn’t a great pitcher, then why does he have a great record?  Did he pitch to score, as in coasting when his team had a big lead and giving 100% when the game was close?  Was Morris such an amazing and awe-inspiring presence that his team actually hit better when he was pitching?  Maybe.  Joe Sheehan over at Baseball Prospectus examined every game Morris has ever pitched to see whether Morris won more games than you would expect given the runs he gave up and the hitting ability of his teams, specifically his ability to “pitch to score.”  Here’s what Sheehan said:


‘Of everything I've presented here, I believe this is the one point that best refutes the arguments for Jack Morris as a Hall of Famer. We know his raw numbers don't stack up, and we know he has some bonus markers-a no-hitter, Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, three other championship rings. What we now know is that instead of "pitching to the score," as his supporters claim he did, Morris actually put his team behind in 344 of his 527 career starts. All told, Morris blew 136 leads in 527 starts, or about one every four times out, and that's using a generous definition of "blown lead." ’


Here’s Sheehan’s entire article:


The teams that Morris pitched for generally had outstanding offenses.  In his 18 seasons, 8 of his teams were top 3 in the American League in runs scored including 4 seasons where they led the league.  Morris only pitched for one team in the bottom 3 in runs scored in his career, and he went 6-14 that season.  Morris only pitched for two teams with losing records in his career, and he went 6-14 and 15-18 in those two seasons.  I’m going to repeat that:  He pitches for only two bad teams in his entire career and goes a combined 21-32 in those seasons.  I think it’s pretty hard to argue that the amount of runs his teams scored for him did not affect his win-loss record.  Why is this guy considered a great pitcher? 


Well, there was that Game 7.  That was pretty good.  Actually, that was brilliant and amazing and any superlative you can think of.  However, Steve Blass, Mickey Lolich, and Ralph Terry also pitched dominating Game 7 performances and never got close to the Hall.  Mickey Lolich was a 200-game winner and dominant workhorse in his day with bigger peak seasons than Morris.  He peaked at 25% in the Hall of Fame voting.  Morris’s overall postseason record (7-4, 3.80 ERA) isn’t that impressive.


I don’t personally dislike Jack Morris.  He’s a tough guy who pitched a lot of innings, performed well under pressure, and had above average ERAs.  I respect that and would love to have a guy like him on my favorite team’s staff.  That doesn’t make him a Hall of Famer, but it does make him a very good pitcher.