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.