Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven, and responding to a tweet

I had planned on ignoring the ongoing kerfluffle over Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven, and the Hall of Fame, particularly since it appears that Blyleven will be getting in this year, and Morris in a few years.

I do agree with those who say that there's no rational reason for leaving Blyleven out and putting Morris in, though.  And in response to Joe Posnanski's article earlier this week, Jon Heyman sent out the following tweet:

i bugged @JPosnanski. http://tinyurl.com/3xgutp8. question, joe: why was morris ace of great teams and bert no. 2 on good/bad/soso teams?

 

Heyman later tweeted:

@zenbreetai the point is, morris was ace of three WS teams. its possible to be second fiddle and a hall of famer, yes. drysdale was.

I think these are not unreasonable points to make, and in reality, the main argument for Jack Morris was that he's a Hall of Famer because he was perceived as being a great pitcher when he pitched, particularly by his managers.  The Opening Day starts, the glowing comments by Sparky Anderson (who, it should be noted, had a touch of the Dick Vitale disease...Sparky was the type who would have 27 guys in his top 10 list), the fact that, as Heyman says, he was the "ace" of three World Series teams.

That means something, right?

The problem with that argument, though, is that it simply assumes that the perceptions at the time are definitive.  Steve Garvey was viewed when I was growing up (which was also the time Garvey was in his prime) as a sure-fire Hall of Famer.  Steve Wulf said this about Garvey:

Anyone who regularly saw Steve Garvey play knew, just knew, that he was going to Cooperstown. (He was Cal Ripken before Cal Ripken.)

In another piece for ESPN, Wulf wrote:

The most feared hitters in the game were Jim Rice and Dave Parker. The most feared pitchers were Jack Morris and Rich Gossage. I don't think there was a baseball fan alive in 1984 who didn't think Steve Garvey was a surefire Hall of Famer. I remember a Royals teammate asking George Brett what he was going to do after an afternoon game, and Brett replying, "I'm going home to watch Ryne Sandberg play on TV."

Guys I think belong seem almost laughable now: Larry Bowa, who never made an error and hit about as well as Ozzie Smith; Dan Quisenberry, who pushed save totals into the 40s and led the AL five years in a row; Al Oliver, who hit every ball hard for 18 seasons.

* * *

Jim Caple's right: Most of the voters take their responsibility very seriously. But if in 50 years, Elmer Flick is in the Hall of Fame and Steve Garvey is not, not enough of them did their job.

Wulf's isn't, I don't think, a minority view...Garvey was one of those guys who, at the time, was perceived as one of the best players in the game, as a sure-fire Hall of Famer.  He's like the hitting version of Jack Morris in that regard...and like Morris, his candidacy is based in large part on a discredited stat (RBIs for Garvey, wins for Morris).

In any case...Heyman's question is legitimate.  If Morris was the ace of great teams, and Blyleven a middle of the rotation starter for mediocre teams, how can Blyleven be better than Morris?

Here's the problem, though.

Look at the first of the World Series teams, the 1984 Tigers, one of the dominant teams in history.  White-hot start, 104 wins, thumped the Padres in the World Series.

But was Morris even the best starter on that team?

Morris went 19-11 in 240 innings with a 3.60 ERA and a 3.73 FIP that year.

Dan Petry went 18-9 in 233 innings with a 3.24 ERA and a 3.59 FIP that year.

If you look at the traditional stats, Petry was better than Morris.  If you look at WAR, whether B-R or FanGraphs, Petry was better than Morris.

(This also ignores Juan Berenguer, who had a 3.48 ERA in 168 innings for the '84 Tigers).

Morris was the second-best starter on the 1984 Tigers.  If you want to call him the "ace" because he was the guy with the swagger and the reputation, the guy whole pitched game 1, well, that's fine.  But he wasn't the best starter on that team, and he wasn't one of the two best pitchers on that team (Willie Hernandez, who won the MVP and Cy Young that year, was probably their best pitcher).

Looking at the second World Series team Morris was on, the 1991 Twins, we see that Morris went 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA in 246 2/3 innings.

Kevin Tapani, meanwhile, was 16-9 with a 2.99 ERA in 244 innings.  Tapani had a better ERA than Morris and a better winning percentage than Morris while pitching the same number of innings.

Scott Erickson, meanwhile, went 20-8 with a 3.18 ERA in 204 innings for that same Twins team.

Erickson and Tapani were better in the traditional stats than Morris.  Erickson is only slightly ahead of Morris in WAR (mainly because of Morris's big edge in innings), but Tapani is almost 2 wins ahead of either of them.

And yet, Morris is remembered as the ace of the staff, and Tapani and Erickson the guys who gravytrained behind him.

Same story in 1992 with the Blue Jays.  Morris was the "ace," the grizzled vet who was the #1 pitcher on the staff.  He also had a 4.04 ERA in 240 innings pitched.  Jimmy Key had a 3.53 ERA in 216 innings that year, for the Jays, though, and Juan Guzman had a 2.64 ERA in 180 innings. 

In terms of WAR, Morris traded Guzman by almost 2 1/2 wins, and trailed Key and reliever Duane Ward, as well.

With those teams, though, the narrative was already in place.  Morris was in Minnesota, and in Toronto, in the role of "veteran ace."  He was there to lead his team to the title.  And when the Twins, then the Blue Jays, won the World Series with Morris as their Opening Day starter, it simply served to add to his legend.

The fact that he wasn't as good as Kevin Tapani, or Juan Guzman, or Jimmy Key, didn't fit the narrative, and thus has been forgotten.

The one arguably "great" team that Morris was the best pitcher on was the 1987 Tigers, although in that case, he didn't have a lot of competition.  Morris was better than Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana that year for a Tiger team that largely rode its powerful offense to the A.L. East title.

But even then, there's an asterisk...Doyle Alexander, acquired by the Tigers in exchange for a minor leaguer named John Smoltz, went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts for Detroit down the stretch. 

The '87 Tigers, of course, were knocked out of the playoffs by the Minnesota Twins, and Morris contributed to that with a bad outing in his one start that postseason.

And he only got one start that postseason because Alexander got the ball in Game 1.

So...as to Heyman's question of "why was morris ace of great teams and bert no. 2 on good/bad/soso teams?"

The answer is...Morris wasn't the ace of great teams.  At least, he wasn't the ace of the three World Series teams he played on, if you define "ace" as being the best pitcher on the team.

Which leads to another question...why do people keep saying it?

I don't know, other than to say, the media believed it, and to a large extent still believes it.  It doesn't mean they are right, of course.  We saw that this past season, when there were those in the D/FW media who argued that Tommy Hunter should be in the Ranger playoff rotation instead of Colby Lewis.  Hunter had the wins and makes a good story.  It doesn't mean that Hunter was the better pitcher last year.

It is like the "Jack Morris pitched to the score" trope that members of the mainstream media continue to hammer, even though that has been thoroughly de-bunked, and doesn't really make any sense anyway, because it presumes that it is a good thing to give up runs when you have a big lead.

In any case...Morris was a very good, very durable pitcher for a lot of years.  But he wasn't better than Bert Blyleven, and there's no way to justify Morris being in the Hall and not Blyleven.

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