Oct 11, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) pumps his fist as he returns to the dugout after the eighth inning of game five of the 2012 ALDS against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

Jack Morris Was No Justin Verlander


Jack Morris is scheduled to throw out the first pitch of tonight’s ALCS Game Three, which is cool because he was a very good pitcher for the Tigers in the 80’s, but the fact that Morris is doing this tonight – on a night in which Justin Verlander starts for the Tigers – is drawing out all sorts of comparisons between the two pitchers, and that’s not cool. Because Justin Verlander is twice the pitcher Morris was.

Full disclosure: I was born in 1986 so my only memories of Jack Morris actually pitching were when I was still very young and he was getting quite along in years, so my firsthand insight into a potential comparison would be nothing short of laughable. But I am able to still look at each player’s career statistics, and the statistics tell us that calling Verlander “this generation’s Jack Morris” is a big slap in the face Verlander and all that he’s accomplished so far.

Directly comparing numbers such as ERA and strikeout rate would be fruitless. The game has changed over the past 20-30 years, so the two pitchers didn’t pitch in the same environment. The league average ERA during Morris’ career was typically in the mid-to-upper threes while the league average ERA during Justin Verlander’s career has been typically in the low-to-mid fours (it’s been coming down following the “steroid ERA”). The league average strikeout rate has relentlessly risen from about 4.8 per nine innings in 1980 to about 7.5 per nine innings this past year.

The simplest way to boil down their relative pitching worth would be to compare their run-prevention ability to that of the league average pitcher during their respective career windows. Luckily for us we don’t have to do the leg work. FanGraphs does this for every player in every season, calling it “ERA-“. The league average for a given season is set to an ERA- of 100. An ERA- of 105 would mean the player’s season ERA was 5% worse than average. Conversely, an ERA- of 95 would indicate his ERA was 5% better than the average pitcher. It doesn’t care what each player’s ERA actual was, it only cares what it was in relation to the typical pitcher of his day.

During Morris’ 16-years in which he started 20 or more games (so everything 1979 and beyond), Morris posted an ERA- of 80 or better four times. He did it with the Tigers in 1979, 1986, and 1987 and once with the Blue Jays in 1991. His best year was 1979 with a 75 ERA-.

Verlander, in years in which he started 20 or more times, has posted an ERA- of 80 or better six times. That is to say, he’s done it every year except 2008. His best year was his MVP year in 2011 when his ERA- was 58, but this year wasn’t much worse at 64. That’s two peak years in a row (and counting) that were significantly better than any season Morris had in his career.

Sure, the 80 cutoff is completely arbitrary, and Morris did have three additional seasons of an ERA- between 81 and 83, but it’s a nice round number that probably does a good job of separating the good seasons from the very, very good seasons. For some context, three pitchers that had an ERA- of 80 or 81 this past season were Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, and Felix Hernandez.

Verlander, in his seven years, has a career ERA- of 78. Morris (career ERA- of 95) pitched a lot longer and faded significantly as he aged (as anyone would expect), but even if we try to cherry pick his best prolonged stretch of 1983-1987, we get an ERA- of 82. Still very good, but not Verlander good, and we even had to carefully choose the date range to get there. If we wanted to cherry pick something similar for Verlander, we would see his ERA- of 69 from 2009 through the present stand out significantly.

Of course we should cheer Morris when he throws out the first pitch, he was a big piece for some very good Tigers teams in the 1980’s, and a very good player over the course of his career (if not quite Hall of Fame worthy), but let’s avoid making the direct comparison between him and Verlander because they’re hardly on the same planet. Morris was really good, but Verlander is really, really, really good.

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Tags: Detroit Tigers Jack Morris Justin Verlander

  • whitaker

    All true….but Jack was the #1 starter on three W Series champions in three different cities. I love to watch J Verlander; he probably has better command and better stuff than Morris ever did. But until I have more data, if I absolutely had to win one game, I’d want Morris on the mound. I very much look forward to having Verlander change this opinion.

    • Robert Bayer

      Perfectly said .. to be honest .. I think the comments at this site are FAR more on target than the articles ..

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.patten.7 Todd Patten

    You are too young to know what you are talking about. Lets see what Verlander does…he ain’t Jack just yet, but he has a chance of getting there. Quiet down, young man.

    • http://tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com Matt Snyder

      I’m to0 young to know that Justin Verlander has been much better when it comes to preventing runs from scoring?

      • Dan

        Let me try to put the “you’re too young to know” sentiment on firmer ground.

        Back then, workhorse starters like Morris went every fourth day and often pitched deeper. I don’t think ERA- takes that into account fully, since it tends to bring the workhorse pitchers back to the pack a bit (which is why, along with tragedies like Mark Fidrych, managers stopped doing that). By the time he was Verlander’s age, Morris had six seasons with at least 9 CG, whereas Verlander (through no fault of his own) has yet to top 6.

        But the other thing with Morris that gets lost in the stats is how clutch he was. He was the original “I got this” pitcher in Detroit. (Well … we’ve had some pretty good pitchers before that, too, but it definitely fits.) Take Game 1 of the 1984 World Series: a complete game 3-2 victory, with 9 strikeouts. Or Game 4 – not Game 5 – another complete game 4-2 victory. Eighteen innings, 4 runs, both in close games, and that’s on the biggest stage of them all.

        If you saw him pitch in those big games, you would have no doubt he was a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest pitchers of his day. Unfortunately, that reality is getting lost in the mists of baseball history. That said, Verlander is rapidly establishing himself as another of the great ones Detroit has been blessed to call their own. No need to tear down one to build up the other.

        • http://tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com Matt Snyder

          Morris had better ERA numbers on three days’ rest than four days’ rest. Which I just found to be interesting.

      • J.M.Chapa

        Who cares, if he does not win the game?

  • mossed75370

    Born in 86,’ LOL, I stopped reading right there. You have NO CLUE what you’re talking about.

  • NorthLeft12

    Come on sonny, give Jack his due. He was The Workhorse for every pitching staff he was on. Detroit, Minnesota, and Toronto. He was the guy you wanted on the mound when it was a big game. People point to his world series games [and rightly so] but who can forget the classic duel in 1987 against Flanagan of the Jays on the second last game of the season? Jack did not get the win, but held the Jays to two runs over nine innings. The Tigers won in 12 innings.

    • J.M.Chapa

      Plus, how about his duels in the WorLd Series with Atlanta.
      Minnesota could not have won without Morris! Verlander
      is a Monster. But, to me, does not look like a Big Game
      pitcher. Unfortunately, for now, that is his legacy. I am
      looking forward to him changing it. Hopefully, we do not
      have another John Elway, who won Superbowls in his
      last two years in the NFL.

  • hhcrane

    You’re right about Morris and that damned ERA-. What he shame all he could do for us was win games. More games than anyone in that decade, surpassing everyone with better ERA-. What a revealing statistic that is. It’s really amazing, isn’t it, that a pitcher with such an average ERA- could actually win more games in a ten year period than ANYONE else. I mean, wow. Of course Verlander is better. He’s more talented and if he has as long a career as Jack, he should easily make the Hall Of Fame. But Morris was a winner. EVERYWHERE he went, championships followed. Verlander has yet to scale that peak.

    • J.M.Chapa

      We need to enjoy Verlander, the pitcher, for what he is, a very
      talented pitcher! Morris was probably not compared to other
      accomplished pitchers, as Verlander has been. There are
      some that you’re going to have to get to early, if you want to
      beat them. Greg Maddox, and John Smoltz were like that.
      Yet, they were both great pitchers. Maybe Verlander is in
      that group. We’ll know by the time he retires.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cgabel2 Chris Gabel

    Saying Morris wasn’t as good as Verlander isn’t really saying much, since that’s true of 99.99% of all the pitchers in the history of the game. But Morris was dammed good, as some of the other commenters have pointed out. I’m old enough to remember not only Morris, but all the way back to the ’68 squad. I’d say there have only been a handful of pitchers in Tigers history in his class or better, so hats off to him!

    • J.M.Chapa

      How about Mickey Lolich, who won 3 games in the 1968
      World Series against the Cardinals, effectively stealing
      the show from Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, and Denny
      McLain (who was 31 – 5, during the season for Detroit),
      and rode his Motorcycle to the ballpark everyday! He
      pitched a 4 – 1 gem, for the seventh game of the Series.

  • Robert Bayer

    Jack Morris won 3 World Series .. Verlander has not even won 1 game .. no comparison ..

    • J.M.Chapa

      One thing to consider, in Verlander’s case, Morris had a better Pen!

      • http://www.facebook.com/jason.castillo.5496 Jason Castillo

        The ‘pen comprison doesnt equate b/c when Morris pitched starters went further and when they did go to the pen they had two guys that they trusted and used them when needed (det- hernandez/lopez, min aguilera/bedrosian, tor- henke/ward), now a majority of the time teams will use 3 or 4 relievers to close out a game, meaning more fringe mlb/aaa pitchers that means teams have worse ‘pens now which in no way should go against morris. 3 game one starts, 4 w.s titles (watched from the bench when Joe Carter homered in ’93). while j.v is not proven to be able to win the big 1, (0-3 in w.s) and for all of his regular season success he could play 20 years and never have a game like morris did when he pitched a 10 INNING SHUTOUT IN GAME 7 against the Braves. also the columunists in err says morris played for the Blue Jays in ’91 when anybody who was older than 5 at the time or knows more about baseball than what is forced fed by the local media which includes the like of rod allen, rod allen?!! would know.

  • Robert Bayer

    It is just like Rick Sutcliffe said during the 10th inning of game 4 concerning Justin Verlander: “You can’t be the greatest pitcher in the MLB if you cannot win even 1 game in the World Series (3 losses, no wins). No single failure to play…
    well hurt the Tigers more than Verlander in the 2012 Series. For all he did in the regular season and the division and league series, much thanks, but … he has to take the next step or the Tigers will NOT likely ever become World Series Champions without JV pitching well over the next 8 years.

  • Scott Rutherford

    I’m a big V fan, but he has a few years to go before we say he’s that much better than Jack. Statistics don’t tell the whole story. Never have and never will. I’ve watched the careers of both pitchers (I was 8 or 9 when Jack first put on the Olde English D) and have plenty of respect for both.