I’ve covered this territory before, and I realize I’m mostly preaching to the choir here. Still, it needs to be written again: Jack Morris did not have a Hall of Fame career.
The funny thing is that the writers once knew this. When Morris debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2000, he received 22 percent of the vote. His support dipped to 20 percent in 2001, and he only reached 30 percent on his sixth try in 2005. Now he’s all of the way up to 66.7 percent, still for no good reason that I can see.
Morris’ backers say he was the best pitcher of the 1980s and that he pitched one of the greatest games of all-time to clinch the 1991 World Series for the Twins. I take no issue with the latter statement; Morris’ stellar duel with the Braves’ John Smoltz in which he went the distance for a 1-0, 10-inning victory was a true masterpiece and should never be forgotten. And it won’t be.
The rest of the case for Morris is weak.
Morris is only a candidate for “best pitcher of the 1980s” because it just so happens that no elite starters showed up during that 1975-1980 timeframe and had their peak years during the 1980s. No one would ever think of Morris as the top pitcher of the 1970s or 1990s had his 1980s happened in another decade.
Also, one can put together a pretty good argument that Dave Stieb was actually the best pitcher of the 1980s. Morris topped Stieb in wins 162-140, but it was closer in winning percentage (.577 to .562), even though Morris played for superior teams. Morris had a 3.66 ERA and a 109 ERA+ for the decade, while Stieb came in at 3.32 and 126.
Even if you still want to give Morris “best pitcher of the 1980s” honors, he certainly wasn’t the best pitcher of the first half of the decade (Steve Carlton, 88-47, 2.91 ERA; Morris 86-62, 3.66 ERA) or anywhere near the best pitcher of the second half of the decade (Roger Clemens 86-41, 2.92 ERA; Morris 76-57, 3.67 ERA).
And Morris wasn’t the best pitcher in any season of the decade. Not only did he never win a Cy Young Award, but he never even finished second.
It’s the Cy Young balloting that is particularly telling, in my opinion. Some of those who argue for Morris like to tell us that we weren’t there, that we didn’t see Morris when he was winning all of those big games.
Well, look at the people that were there. Morris pitched for 18 seasons, all of them in a 14-team American League. During that time, there were 504 ballots cast for the Cy Young Award. Morris received a first-place vote on five of those ballots. One percent. He got two first-place votes in 1983, when he finished third in the balloting behind the immortal LaMarr Hoyt and a reliever in Dan Quisenberry. He got the other three in 1991, when he finished fourth behind Clemens, Scott Erickson and Jim Abbott.
And while I wasn’t covering baseball in those years, I was there, at least for the latter half of Morris’ career. I think everyone respected Morris. I don’t think anyone was afraid of him. No opposing fan ever went to the ballpark and said “we’ve got no shot today, Morris is starting.” Morris was a workhorse, a battler. There’s no evidence to support the pitching to the score argument, but Morris worked deep into games and usually gave his team a chance to win. And his team did more often than not (it helped that those Tigers had two guys who really should be in the Hall of Fame in Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker).
Of course, having to be the game’s best pitcher shouldn’t be the standard for the Hall of Fame. Bert Blyleven and Don Sutton were never the best in their leagues. Tom Glavine and Curt Schilling weren’t either, yet both of them should be enshrined.
Morris, though, still doesn’t compare. His 3.90 ERA would be the worst in Cooperstown. Even in seemingly weak fields, his best AL ERA finish was fifth place. He led the league in wins twice; once in the strike-shortened 1981 season with 14 and later in 1992 when he went 21-6 with a 4.04 ERA. He led the league in innings and strikeouts once apiece. His win total of 254 is pretty good, but it’s still behind that of 41 other starters in history and it’s really the strong point of his case. Also, it should be noted that the AL was the weaker of the two leagues during Morris’ career. He was facing easier competition than his NL counterparts.
Jack Morris was a very good pitcher, one of the last to average 250 innings and 10 complete games per season in his prime. He turned in one of the greatest postseason starts in history. That’s how he should be remembered. He just doesn’t come all that close to meeting the current standards for Hall of Fame enshrinement, and voting him in would be a mistake.