A Cooperstown case for Jack Morris

Jack Morris

Many stat-heads insist Jack Morris doesn't have the statistical chops for the Hall of Fame, contending that the managers, players and writers who highly regarded him during his career were just plain wrong.

Are the stats guys right? And the managers who named Morris their opening day starter for 14 seasons, the All-Star Game starter three times and the World Series Game 1 starter another three times wrong? Well, here's what Bill James wrote about Morris in his 1987 Baseball Abstract:

"Morris may not be the best pitcher in the majors, but he's got to be the most consistent. Last year I talked about Morris doing something every year to solidify his credentials as a potential Hall of Famer. Last year he did a couple of major things to solidify his credentials, winning 20 games for the second time and striking out 200 batters for the second time. He's probably three or four good years away from the Hall of Fame now. Morris and Fernando (Valenzuela) have got to be the best anchors for a starting rotation in baseball today."

In other words, the father of modern baseball statisticians -- a man whose opinions I greatly respect -- considered Morris close to Hall of Fame level when the pitcher still had eight seasons remaining in his career. And Morris indeed followed up with at least three good seasons in which he finished in the Top 10 in Cy Young voting (including two Top 5 finishes).

Does this mean he is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer? No. Years later, James didn't rank Morris among his top 100 pitchers of all time. So he's definitely borderline. But borderline doesn't mean you don't belong in Cooperstown. It means you either just make the cut or just miss it. Morris should make it. I fear he won't though, at least not via the BBWAA.

This is Morris' 15th and final year on the writers' ballot. He has been gaining rather steadily over the years -- he received 67 percent of the vote last year, just 42 votes shy of election. But he faces considerable obstacles in his final chance.

First, 300-game winners Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are on the ballot for the initial time. That should not affect Morris' candidacy, but it will, since Maddux and Glavine likely will both be voted in and many BBWAA members are satisfied with electing only a few players -- or none -- each year.

Second, the 10-player voting limit is becoming an even more frustrating dilemma with even more worthy candidates on the ballot. There are at least a dozen eligible players who were better than Morris -- including Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina and the PED-suspected Roger Clemens -- which means some writers who consider Jack worthy of the Hall could wind up leaving him off their ballots because there simply isn't enough room. (I know of at least one voter who did so.)

I think both those obstacles will keep Morris from election this week, which is too bad. I completely understand why some people think Morris wasn't good enough for the Hall and I respect their votes. But I voted for him because this was his last chance and he belongs in.

His critics are too focused on the high ERA (3.90) and WHIP (1.296) to consider other important statistical criteria. And no, I'm not just talking about wins or his 10-inning, 1-0 Game 7 shutout in the 1991 World Series.

In a great piece last month, Tom Verducci pointed out how Morris pitched eight or more innings in more American League games than any pitcher since the DH era began. He was as dependable as any starter of his era. And as driven. Sparky Anderson once told me that when he removed Morris from a game by reaching out for the baseball, Jack would bruise his hand angrily slamming the ball into his palm.

He also used to wear a t-shirt with an American flag on the front along with the words: "Try Burning THIS one!"

This defiant, confident attitude was important -- and not just in the games he pitched. It had a carry-over effect as well.

I covered the Twins in 1991 and saw first-hand how Morris' competitive fire bettered the performance of his fellow starters. Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani were very good pitchers without Morris, but the highly competitive three-man rivalry he stirred among them raised all of their games just that much higher. It made the Twins Word Series champs with Morris a year after they finished in last place without him.

Further, those who insist that electing Morris will cheapen the Hall or lower its standards need not worry. To the contrary, writers have elevated the bar for starting pitchers in recent decades. Players in general from the 1970s and '80s are under-represented in the Hall -- and starting pitchers are grossly under-represented. Maddux and Glavine will change this next note, but as of right now, Bert Blyleven is the only starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame who was born after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

We are overlooking virtually an entire era of starting pitchers. And Morris was one of the best of that era.

I love and value statistics. I respect and usually agree with the analysis of the many smart statistical experts. But while numbers don't lie, they don't always tell us absolutely everything. There is a reason managers, teammates and opponents valued Morris so highly. And it is a reason James recognized as well at the time.

To paraphrase the Voice in "Field of Dreams," Morris went the distance.

I just hope that one day, he goes all the way to Cooperstown.

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