Oct 16, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers former player Jack Morris waves to the crowd before game three of the 2012 ALCS between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
I don’t like to get too wrapped up in Hall of Fame debates – who gets in or doesn’t get in is of relatively little interest to me – but I do find some of the arguments to be fascinating. What I enjoy most about the conversation is that it gives us cause to look more deeply at some of the players of the past to see if our perception lines up with reality.
For former Detroit Tiger Jack Morris, the typical debate goes something like this.
Person 1: Jack Morris should be in the Hall of Fame.
Person 2: I don’t think so; he had a career 3.90 ERA.
Person 1: But he won a lot of games.
Person 2: I don’t really care for pitcher win-loss record.
Person 1: Yeah, but he won the most games in the 1980’s, that has to mean something, right?
That’s really the conversation surrounding Morris. Sure, his longevity helps him out, and his playoff performances are brought up as well, but usually the conversation focuses around the decade of the 1980’s in which he had more wins than any other pitcher.
By ERA you would never argue that the 1980’s were anything special for Morris – he ranked #131 among qualified pitchers for the decade – but his name atop the wins leader board is apparently hard to ignore. Because, when it comes down to it, you want a pitcher that can win you games, not just put up a sparkling ERA. Morris, it is said, would take a hit to his ERA by pitching to the score or pitching deep into games. He was more concerned about the team, and less concerned about himself. That’s the legend anyway.
But did Morris really win so many games because he was a winner, or did he win so many games because he pitched for a winning team? Morris was credited for more wins than any other pitcher that decade, that much is true, but the Detroit Tigers – who he played for all decade long – finished the 1980’s with the second most team wins. Were the Tigers good because they had Jack Morris, or was Jack Morris good because he was on the Tigers?
The answer is most certainly a resounding “both”, but I think Morris is the beneficiary of more credit than he deserves. Not that he doesn’t deserve some credit, but Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, Lou Whitaker, Chet Lemon, and Lance Parrish (to name a few) all played a big role for the organization that decade and, to my knowledge, none of those guys ever received a single win.
Here are some numbers that are more to the point.
The “Morris W%” column represents Jack Morris’ Win/Loss percentage in each year of the decade. The “Not Morris W%” represents the Tigers’ Win/Loss percentage for all games not started by Morris. The “Wins Added” column represents how many victories he added to the team by virtue of having a better percentage than the team had in an average non-Morris start.
So we see that Morris was a good pitcher. By being himself and not an amalgam of the Tigers’ other pitchers, he added nearly 14 victories to the franchise total over the course of the decade. That’s pretty good, but his decade wins lead over Dave Steib was 22. So if Jack Morris wasn’t “Jack Morris” and instead was some average version of the team’s other pitchers, he would still be the 1980’s decade leader in wins. The key for Morris was making a lot of starts on an otherwise very good team.
Morris did win a lot of games in his time – and he won a lot of games in part because he was a pretty good pitcher – but he also won a lot of games because he played on some pretty good teams. If part of your Hall of Fame argument in favor of Morris is his 1980’s win total, then you’re also arguing that the Tigers’ other pitchers, on average, produced Hall of Fame numbers for the decade.