Last year on the ballot: Breaking down Jack Morris' Hall of Fame case

By Mike Axisa | Baseball Writer

This is the BBWAA's last chance to vote Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame.
This is the BBWAA's last chance to vote Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame. (USATSI)

Hall of Fame: Cox, La Russa, Torre get in | Miller snubbed | Steinbrenner's complicated case| One-and-done candidates | Luis Gonzalez's case | Moises Alou's case | Lee Smith's case | Fred McGriff's case | Don Mattingly's case

The BBWAA Hall of Fame announcement is less than a month away, and since the hot stove figures to cool down during the holidays, we're going to take advantage of the downtime by analyzing each of the Hall of Fame candidates individually.

The idea is simple: we'll attempt to paint an argument as each player being a Hall of Famer and then create an argument as to why the player is not a Hall of Famer. Some will be easier than others but most are not obvious. When we're done, you can decide for yourself if the player is Cooperstown worthy.

Today we're going to cover right-hander Jack Morris.

THE BARE ESSENTIALS

Morris pitched in parts of 18 big league seasons from 1977-94, mostly with the Tigers. He also played for the Twins, Blue Jays and Indians. Morris went 254-186 with a 3.90 ERA (105 ERA+), a 1.30 WHIP and a 1.78 K/BB in his career, winning World Series titles with the 1984 Tigers, 1991 Twins and 1992-93 Blue Jays.

This is the 15th and final year on the ballot for Morris, who has gradually received more and more support over the years. After appearing on 22.2 percent of the ballots in his first year of eligibility, he has seen his vote total rise to 67.7 percent last year. As a reminder, a player needs to appear on 75 percent of the ballots for induction.

THE CASE FOR INDUCTION

No pitcher won more games (162) or threw more innings (2,443 2/3) than Morris during the 1980s. In fact, we can expand that to include his entire career. Morris won 36 more games and threw 291 more innings than any other pitcher in baseball from 1977-94. Dennis Martinez is second in both categories (218 and 3,533, respectively).

Morris, who threw a no-hitter in 1984, was not just along for the ride during those three World Series runs, he was a key component of each team, especially the 1984 Tigers and 1991 Twins. He threw two-run complete games in Games 1 and 4 of the 1984 Fall Classic, then allowed a total of three runs in three starts during the 1991 Series. Morris, as you probably know, hurled 10 shutout innings against the Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series on three days' rest. Few players have a "signature moment" that memorable.

Among all pitchers in history, Morris ranks 32nd in strikeouts (2,478), 36th in starts (527), 43rd in wins (254), 50th in innings (3,824), 133rd in WAR (43.8), 134th in shutouts (28), 180th in compete games (175), 195th in winning percentage (.577), 295th in strikeouts per nine innings (5.83), 484th in ERA+ (105) and 748th in ERA (3.90). Only Tom Seaver (16) started more opening days than Morris (14).

Morris never did win a Cy Young Award but he did receive votes in seven different seasons. He finished as high as third in the voting twice (1981 and 1983) and finished in the top five five times. Morris also received MVP votes in five different seasons (topped out at 13th in the voting in 1991 and 1992) and was an All-Star six times.

THE CASE AGAINST INDUCTION

No current Hall of Famer has a career ERA as high as Morris. Red Ruffing currently holds the dubious honor of "highest career ERA in Cooperstown" at 3.80. Only two current Hall of Famers have a lower career ERA+: Rube Marguard (103) and Catfish Hunter (104).

The argument most often made in defense of Morris' high career ERA is that he pitched to the score -- pitching more aggressively and attacking hitters in the strike zone to get quick outs in blowout games -- which is kinda silly at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. Do pitchers pitch differently in blowout games than they do close games? Absolutely. Does that explain a 3.90 ERA over 3,824 (!) innings? No way. That assumes his teams played blowout games way more often than not when Morris was on the mound.

The wonderful thing about the internet is that we have instant access to stats (aka the factual record of what actually happened on the field) that can shed some light on the "he pitched to the score" argument. Courtesy of Baseball-Reference:

ISplitPARH2B3BHRBBSOSO/BBBAOBPSLGOPSBAbiptOPS+
Tie Game47194681043174241004337191.66.249.319.373.692.276100
Within 1 R898193419553154220579614141.78.244.313.371.684.27198
Within 2 R117111236258140364269103317891.73.247.315.375.691.27399
Within 3 R135011439297846974319117320641.76.247.314.377.691.272100
Within 4 R146061555322251886346127022441.77.247.314.379.693.272100
Margin > 4 R1514156345545431202341.95.249.310.389.699.272101
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/22/2013.

The difference in Morris' performance between close games and blowout games is along the lines of 15 OPS points and three OPS+ points by opposing batters. Pretty much negligible. The results were the same in tight games as they were when the score was out of hand. Morris had a career 3.90 ERA and 105 ERA+ simply because he was only good and not great at preventing runs, a pitcher's number one job.

In addition to the high ERA, Morris was a below-average strikeout pitcher (career 5.8 K/9) who was a little liberal with the walks (career 3.3 BB/9). During his best season (1983), he had a 7.1 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9, leading to a 2.80 K/BB. That's a tick below contemporary Ron Guidry's career mark (2.81), for example. Some visual aid:


Source: FanGraphs -- Jack Morris

Morris was a very good pitcher for a very long time, but he was far from dominant.


Morris has been the most polarizing Hall of Fame candidate on the ballot in recent years. His support has grown stronger as sabermetrics have become more popular and it's not hard to think the two are somehow related. Maybe there's an "old guard" among the voters trying to take a stand against the new way of evaluating pitchers. Who knows. Either way, this is Morris' last chance to be elected to Cooperstown by the BBWAA.

Monday: The cases for and against Rafael Palmeiro.

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