So much of the Hall of Fame support for Jack Morris is premised on the idea that he won more games in the 80s than anyone. FanHouse’s John Hickey wrote about that just yesterday. There are many others who have and will as well. Question: why does that matter?
Any single decade is an arbitrary measure. Sure, “the 1980s” is a decade. But so is “1995-2004.” So is “1977-1986.” Just because the nostalgia industry and the tyranny of the base-10 numbering system gives special significance to decades with catchy names doesn’t mean that those given ten-year periods are worth more than any other. There are a great many pitchers whose careers overlapped Morris’ on either the front end or the back end who were better than him for their own ten-year chunks. To give credit to Morris for “the 1980s” is more a function of us being more comfortable with round numbers than his abilities as a pitcher.
But even if “the 80s” mattered, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that the 80s was probably the weakest decade for starting pitchers in the 20th century? It was a brief bubble between two generations of elite starters, with the Seaver/Palmer/Carlton/Perry/Niekro/Ryan crown winding down and the Clemens/Maddux/Johnson crowd cranking up (or in Johnson’s case, about to). Being the best starting pitcher of the 80s is like being the strongest football team in Alaska. The best vaudeville performer of the 21st century. The most skilled archer in an artillery division. The finest restaurant in all of Saginaw, Michigan.
Someone has to hold that title, sure, but does it mean anything? Should it be honored?
Here are the winningest pitchers by decade. Tell me: are any of their Hall of Fame cases premised on being the winningest pitcher of the decade? Or was their value more apparent?
1900s – Christy Mathewson
1910s – Walter Johnson
1920s – Burleigh Grimes
1930s – Lefty Grove
1940s – Hal Newhouser
1950s – Warren Spahn
1960s – Juan Marichal
1970s – Jim Palmer
1980s – Jack Morris
1990s – Greg Maddux
2000s – Andy Pettitte
Another question: was Morris better than any of them? Probably Burleigh Grimes, who is actually a hell of a lot like Morris but had the added benefit of being able to throw a legal spitball when his competition could not. An argument could be made regarding Newhouser, whose Hall of Fame case was greatly aided by pitching against 4-F rosters during World War II, though he was effective and successful after the war too. I’d say that Pettitte is better than Morris even if I don’t really think he’s a Hall of Famer either.
Over the course of 110 years, I’m pretty comfortable leaving a couple of the decade wins leaders out. There’s no rule that says they all have to be in. And Morris is clearly at or near the bottom of that class.