|Two fine pitchers...two Hall of Fame mustaches.|
I have only recently entered into the annual Hall of Fame debate conducted by thousands of people, most of which have no significant influence on the vote (including myself). And already I have grown weary of the vitriolic arguments for or against certain players. In researching for this post, I quickly tired of the argument I was going to make against Jack Morris for the Hall of Fame. The guy was a very good pitcher who is now being dragged through the ringer that results from straddling the fence between an older generation that evaluates the game and its players with archaic measures and a narrow range of focus, and the new generation that takes advantage of all available tools to better understand baseball and all its intricacies. The old generation remains stubborn in the face of progress because there is a lot more work involved now, and I imagine a creeping feeling that what they've always known about the game amounts to not nearly as much as prided upon. And they don't like it. Gut vs. Brain. The game pulls at both but should lean more heavily on the brain. And the new generation, the stat-heads, as we are so derisively regarded, fuel this ongoing fire in part because it is so damn frustrating to have all these resources that provide clearer, more interesting representations of the game that are all but ignored by the baseball mainstream, from ESPN to broadcasts to the BBWAA. The new generation is winning the war, which will make baseball better in the long run, but the old curmudgeons don't like it one bit. And Jack Morris is the man chosen to represent that older generation's outlook on the game.*
*Old generation doesn't necessarily refer to one's age, but rather the ancient thought process employed in enjoying the game. Plenty of old men can see beyond wins, BA, saves, ERA, etc. And baseball needs and loves old men. I hope to be one.*
Many BBWAA writers love Jack Morris. 66.7% of them in fact, a very large number. In all likelihood, Morris will be entering the Hall of Fame next year, which I suppose is fine. He might not be the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame, but he'll have the unpleasant honor of being a part of the argument. Because there will of course be an argument. I don't love Jack Morris. I like him fine. I don't love his win total (254) and I don't love his ERA (3.90) and I don't love that he allegedly "pitched to the score". I do however admire the competitor, the ballplayer. I don't think he was good enough for Cooperstown, however.
It seems to me, a primary reason so many writers do is tied into their age and their growing distaste for the new generation of fan/writer/analyst that is pushing them out the door, slowly but surely. Jack Morris is representative of all those intangible qualities that causes older writers to salivate (new ones as well, we just also round out our envy with a glut of stats). Morris has grit. Guts. As Grant Brisbee over at SB Nation would write, some of that good 'ol je ne sais quoi. I think this older generation is worried that these qualities won't be recognized or rewarded in the coming future by the sabernerds, and so they are damn well hell bent on over-reaching to do so now. Advance stats are all about gaining a widespread understanding of how well a player performs, taking every possible angle into consideration. They are about eliminating selective memory. Selective memory exists for the fan, to preserve those crystalline moments that mold us into baseball lovers. And that is not going anywhere. But selective memory has no place in analysis and certainly not in awards voting, and most definitely not in Hall of Fame voting. All other awards can be thrown away, fine by me. But the Hall of Fame is an important symbol of all that was great, and can be again.
Jack Morris gets a lot of support, and I have no doubt this has something to do with selective memory. Everybody remembers Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. I certainly do, just coming of age as a baseball fan growing up in Atlanta. Morris was unbelievable that night. But nobody seems to remember Game 5 of the 1992 World Series. I most definitely do, because my father had somehow managed to acquire tickets to Game 6 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and being down 3-1 in the Series, the Braves had to win. Jack Morris's implosion allowed me to attend my first World Series game. John Smoltz got the better of Morris that night.
I fear the selective narrow vision is in fact clouding the Hall of Fame voting. The men and women writers (though mostly men) who came of professional age during Jack Morris's career so badly want him to be better than he was because he is one of the last of their guys. He is one of the last players they can claim to know more about than the new generation of analysts. And it's too bad for Morris, because the result is an overwhelming dismantling of his entire career in the effort to prove he's not worthy of baseball's highest honor. I spend listless hours daydreaming of having a career like Jack Morris. But I'm sure he has an easy enough time ignoring it. Those four World Series rings should certainly help.
The Hall of Fame argument from Morris's proponents that wrankles my ass most is his status as the winningest(not a word) pitcher of the 1980s. One sees this tossed around a lot as if it should mean something. Of course, many of us are coming around to the fact that wins don't tell much of the story. Some (and many that have Hall votes) try increasingly harder to ignore the rest of the story. They love wins. It takes a good pitcher to win 20 games in a season. But a pitcher that manages only 13 could be significantly better. Refer to the 2010 AL CY Young results, if it helps. Also, claiming someone is the best pitcher of a given decade is an arbitrary exercise in selective endpoints, you know, a year that ends in 0 to a year that ends in 9. Looks better on paper but makes little sense.
A writer that uses selective endpoints and team stats to justify a Hall of Fame vote for Morris would probably be inclined to provide a list such as the one below, followed by a snarky "you're an idiot if you don't see the trend" remark.
Most Wins by Decade
1900s : Christy Mathewson 236 Hall of Famer
1910s : Walter Johnson 265 Hall of Famer
1920s : Burleigh Grimes 190 Hall of Famer
1930s : Lefty Grove 199 Hall of Famer
1940s : Hal Newhouser 170 Hall of Famer
1950s : Warren Spahn 202 Hall of Famer
1960s : Juan Marichal 191 Hall of Famer
1970s : Jim Palmer 186 Hall of Famer
1980s : Jack Morris 162 The Fuck?!?
1990s : Greg Maddux 176 Sure 1st Ballot Hall of Famer
2000s: Andy Pettitte 148 It Ain't Bad being a Yankee...Blah Blah Blah
There are eight great pitchers on this list and three very good ones. The problem is dechipering the difference. Fortunately this is made pretty easy with a stat called WAR, a stat that many of us have grown to love and on which we lean our forward thinking minds. However, there are still many who refuse to acknowledge this wonderful stat, in part because the math is a bit confusing, but mostly because it rips apart much of what we thought we knew. And self-important writers and fans hate to confront the fact that none of us know nearly as much as we thought we did. I've had difficulty coming around to WAR because some of my favorite players growing up were exposed as not being nearly as dynamic as I once had imagined. But it's okay, Mark Grace* is still my favorite all-time player despite the fact that, according to WAR, he only had one All-Star caliber season.
*Mark Grace had the most hits of the 1990s, an arbitrary honor that doesn't make him any better than he actually was. The BBWAA agreed, as he was dropped from the Hall of Fame ballot after his first year of eligibility. He will be the only 'selective decade endpoint' leader in hits not to be elected to the Hall of Fame. And I'm cool with that. It was still a joy watching him play the game.*
Now of course WAR is not the end-all-be-all of statistics. It should be taken in consideration with all the other stats. But it does offer the best overall interpretation of a given player's value. Here's a list of the above pitchers' value in WAR for those ten seasons, in descending order.
Walter Johnson 90.8
Lefty Grove 69.4
Greg Maddux 61.1
Christy Mathewson 61.1
Warren Spahn 58.6
Juan Marichal 56.7
Jim Palmer 52.5
Hal Newhouser 50.0
Burleigh Grimes 32.4
Jack Morris 27.9
Andy Pettitte 26.8
This list paints a much clearer picture of how these so-called 'best decade' pitchers match up. In case you didn't already know, Walter Johnson was really, really good. Notice the 17.6 WAR difference between the top eight and bottom three. To put it in perspective, a 5.0 WAR in a season equates to All-Star status. Jack Morris averaged under 3 WAR during the 1980s, which points to the overall quality of the Detroit Tigers and their offense. Jack Morris was a good pitcher on a very good team. He did in fact have the most wins in the 1980s, but he certainly was not the best pitcher in the 1980s. For what it's worth, that honor belongs to Dave Stieb, who posted a 45.2 WAR and was bolstered by his Blue Jays teammates to 140 wins.