Morris deserves to be judged based on the era he pitched in

Jack Morris won four World Series titles, and  was the ace on three of them.

Jack Morris won four World Series titles, and was the ace on three of them.

I like to look at baseball through statistics. I also like to look at baseball through the lens of history and through non-statistical methods. I don’t think of myself as being in the sabermetric camp or the traditional camp. I straddle both worlds.

However, I know I am in the minority among my stat-minded friends when it comes to Jack Morris and the Baseball Hall of Fame. I also recognize that my opinion is colored a bit by my growing up in Michigan and following the Detroit Tigers my entire life. I came of age as a baseball fan in 1975-76. The 1980s Tigers are the “golden era” for me. I am a big fan of those players, most of whom came up through a rich Detroit organization, players like Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Morris. I’m sure I wouldn’t be writing as many words as I have about Morris and the Hall of Fame (Trammell and Whitaker too) if I hadn’t been a pre-teen and teenager when they made their debuts and hit their primes. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion. I’m far from a “my guy, do or die” fan.

In two days we’ll find out the results of the 2014 Hall of Fame voting. Morris is in his 15th and final year on the ballot. I don’t expect him to be elected, for several reasons. First, the ballot is packed with very qualified candidates, many of whom were better players and/or met criteria that baseball writers don’t ignore.

Second, Morris has still not received enough support from all sides to garner enough votes to crack the 75%. “Traditional” writers, those who look at Morris as an old school ace in the mold of Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson, support Morris. They saw him pitch and they saw how consistent he was, and how he was a #1 pitcher on his staff for about 15 years, leading multiple teams to the World Series.

But baseball writers who didn’t see him much, and younger sabermetric followers who are more likely to judge candidates based solely on the black-and-white of the numbers, are adamantly opposed to Morris being in the Hall of Fame. Some, on websites like baseballthinkfactory.com, a very good baseball site with thoughtful analysis, have gone as far to say that they don’t take seriously any ballot that has a vote for Morris.

Critics, as I wrote two years ago:

… point out that Morris’s ERA (3.90) would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall. That he never led the league in ERA, finishing in the top ten just five times in his long career, and he never once had a season where his ERA was under 3.00. His detractors also point out that Morris pitched most of his career in a park that was beneficial to hurlers (that’s Tiger Stadium believe it or not). His ERA+ (that’s his ERA relative to his league, era, ballpark) is 105, meaning his ERA is 5% lower than that of an average pitcher. Not low enough, his critics say.

But, looking at Morris through the lens of 2013-14 is wrong.

When Morris came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1977 to make an emergency start for the injured Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, a starting pitcher was expected to finish what he started. This was the era of Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan – workhorses who started 40 games per and completed 20-25. When the ace of the staff was on the hill he was expected to give the bullpen a rest, and if he got into trouble he was supposed to pitch his way through it. It had been that way for generations. Morris followed in the cleat steps of those aces who came before him. He was the ultimate workhorse. Morris became the last pitcher to do his job that way. As he’s said, “I know I’m a dinosaur.”

During his 18-year career, Morris completed 175 games, which was 68 more than any other pitcher during that span. If you extend the time frame to ten years before Morris debuted until today, Morris’s 175 complete games are surpassed only by Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer, both Hall of Famers. High ERA, you say? The more innings a pitcher tosses, the harder it is to keep the ERA down.

The quality start (at least six innings and three earned runs or less) has become one of the standard measurements of starting pitchers in the modern era. It’s a stat that first came into vogue in the 1980s, but Morris came up through the minor leagues being taught to go deep into games. Even so, he has some interesting numbers when it comes to the quality start:

Of his 527 career starts, Morris threw 297 quality starts. More than half his starts were quality starts, but they were not the sort of quality starts we see today. A deeper look into the numbers shows that Morris had an exceptional number of long-inning quality starts. For example, in 1981, Morris had 13 quality starts of nine innings, and one of 10 innings. The next season he had 12 nine-inning QS and an 11-inning QS. The next year he had 15 such quality starts, and 22 of eight innings or more! In fact, at his peak, Morris was pitching more nine-inning or longer quality starts than many pitcher’s were pitching quality starts of any length. From 1981 to 1987, his best stretch, Morris had 168 QS, of which 90 were of nine innings or longer. For his career, one in every four starts he made was a quality start of nine innings or longer. When he took the ball, he held it and didn’t come out of the game unless it was pried from his hands.

For those of us who watched Morris almost his entire career, we know that one of the reasons his ERA was as high as 3.90 is because he was expected to pitch through trouble, to log innings. Often he was pitching eight or nine innings while allowing four earned runs. In his era, when scoring was on the rise, he was doing his job – eating up innings, resting the pen, and giving his team a chance to win. His ERA wasn’t drastically higher than other good pitchers of his era, but he threw more innings, made more starts, and had a longer career. Others, like Dave Stieb, Ron Guidry, and Fernando Valenzuela, had lower ERA’s, but they were top of the rotation starters for fewer seasons. Youtube has several videos of Morris in his prime, if you watch those games you are surprised to see Morris go back out to the mound in the 8th inning of a 3-3 game, something you won’t see in today’s game. Or when he allowed four runs in four innings but then buckled down and finished the game for a 6-4 victory. That wasn’t a quality start and it inflated his ERA, but Morris was doing something few pitchers were doing then, and no pitcher is doing it now.

Morris was an ace forever (made 14 opening day starts), pitched deep into games even when he didn’t have his good stuff, and did it regularly for a decade and a half. No other pitcher comes close to Morris from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s in complete games, innings pitched, quality starts, starts, or wins. With Blyleven’s long overdue election a few years ago, Morris is the second starting pitcher who debuted in the 1970s who should be so honored. How can the baseball writers justify ignoring clearly the most durable, dependable, efficient pitcher of that entire era?

If all a player can do is compete in his own era under the expectations of that era, Morris did that with flying colors.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.