18 seasons. 3,824 innings pitched. 2,478 strikeouts, 254 wins, a 3.90 ERA. Jack Morris had a great career. A majority of sportswriters (52.3%) believe he is a Hall of Famer and have expressed their support through their ballots. But there is a vocal minority led by sportswriters like Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski and Jay Jaffe that believes that Morris doesn't belong in the Hall. The title of this piece is kind of a dead giveaway, but I'm more inclined to support the minority in this case. Morris's numbers just aren't good enough to put him in the Hall.
I will be examining Morris' case primarily through traditional statistics like wins, strikeouts and ERA, but expect things like ERA+ and WAR to influence my decision. Just because WAR wasn't around when Morris was pitching does not mean I won't use it when available. First, I'll examine Morris's career as a whole. Then I'll go ahead and provide links and evidence to debunk some of the major claims that supporters make regarding Morris.
Let's start with Morris as a whole. Jack Morris pitched 18 seasons and racked up 254 wins to 186 losses. His winning percentage of .577 is good for 192nd all time, and his 254 wins are good for 42nd all time. Morris led the league in wins in both 1981 and 1992, won 20 games three times (1983, 1986 and 1992) and was in the top 10 for wins 12 times in his career. His career ERA was 3.90, and he was in the top 10 in his league five times in his career, peaking at the 5th best ERA in 1979. Morris led the AL in strikeouts in 1983 with 232, and struck out 200 three times total in his career. His lifetime total of 2478 strikeouts is 31st all-time. Morris had a career ERA+ of 105, and only placed in the top 10 in ERA+ in four seasons, though never higher than fourth. Morris accrued 39.3 wins above replacement player according to Baseball Reference, good for 140th all-time among pitchers. He was in the top 10 for WAR five times in his career, but never higher than fifth. Morris never won a Cy Young, though he finished 3rd in 1981 and 1983.
As a whole, this paints a picture of a very good pitcher who was well above league average for a very long time and one of the top 10 pitchers in the league for about 8 years (1981-1988). The problem I have with Morris's career is that he was good, but not quite elite. He never led the AL in anything other than wins, and he only led in wins twice. He only struck out 200 in three seasons. He only had an elite ERA in a few seasons, he never won a Cy Young and while he racked up a ton of wins and strikeouts, he didn't rack enough to be considered a Hall of Fame candidate. His resume is missing an impact statistic- something like 3000 strikeouts, 300 wins or a really good WAR score. His peak wasn't incredible either- between 1981 and 1988, he racked up 30.8 WAR according to Fangraphs (they have him at 52 WAR for his career, which is higher than Baseball Reference, but it still only puts him 0.1 WAR above Javier Vasquez for his career.). Morris just doesn't make the cut.
Of course, he still racked up over 50% on the BBWAA ballot last year. So why? Pro-Morris voters make several arguments. First, Morris had a great post-season resume and played a vital role in two World Series (1984 and 1991). Second, Morris was an ace on three World Series teams (the 1984 Tigers, the 1991 Twins and the 1992 Blue Jays). Third, Morris was the winningest pitcher in the 1980's. Fourth, Morris's high ERA is easy to explain away since he "pitched to the score".
The first argument is the easiest to disprove. Sure, Morris's shutdown postseason in 1984 was critical to the Tigers winning the World Series, and his performance in the 1991 World Series was incredible. Yet his postseason ERA is 3.80 over 92.1 IP, which falls right in line with the rest of his career numbers. And baseball shouldn't reward players for individual instances of greatness. Does Kirk Gibson belong in because of his World Series home runs in 1984 and 1987? If we're rewarding individual milestones, where is Roger Maris, the man who broke Babe Ruth's home run record? Morris's performances certainly bolster his case, but they cannot form the backbone of it. Instead, they should be viewed as supplemental.
Second, Morris was a very good pitcher on three World Series teams, but was he their ace? Adam J. Morris at Lone Star Ball seems to think he was not.
Morris was the second-best starter on the 1984 Tigers. If you want to call him the "ace" because he was the guy with the swagger and the reputation, the guy whole pitched game 1, well, that's fine. But he wasn't the best starter on that team, and he wasn't one of the two best pitchers on that team (Willie Hernandez, who won the MVP and Cy Young that year, was probably their best pitcher).
Looking at the second World Series team Morris was on, the 1991 Twins, we see that Morris went 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA in 246 2/3 innings... [Scott] Erickson and [Kevin] Tapani were better in the traditional stats than Morris. Erickson is only slightly ahead of Morris in WAR (mainly because of Morris's big edge in innings), but Tapani is almost 2 wins ahead of either of them.
Same story in 1992 with the Blue Jays. Morris was the "ace," the grizzled vet who was the #1 pitcher on the staff. He also had a 4.04 ERA in 240 innings pitched. Jimmy Key had a 3.53 ERA in 216 innings that year, for the Jays, though, and Juan Guzman had a 2.64 ERA in 180 innings.
So Morris's reputation was that of ace, but he was really more of a #2 or #3 starter on these playoff teams. Sure, a #2 can get in the Hall of Fame (Morris brings up Don Drysdale) but you've got to be a darn good #2. Morris really wasn't (see his career numbers).
The third argument is perhaps the most arbitrary. Sure, Morris had the most wins in the 1980s. But, leaving aside for the moment that wins are a flawed metric, it really isn't that impressive. Sure, he had a lot of wins in the 80s. But does it matter that Morris was the winningest pitcher in the 1980s as opposed to any other 10 years? The statement "Morris was the winningest pitcher in the 1980s" implies that he dominated his competition while his other numbers do not. Morris only led the AL in wins once during the 1980's: 1981, a strike shortened season. He only won 20 games 3 times. His win totals don't even scream "dominant pitcher". Instead they read "good pitcher that played on a few good teams".
Finally, a lot of writers go to one final argument to justify voting for Morris. They say that he didn't have to be a dominant strikeout or ERA pitcher because he was wily. Instead of going out with his ace stuff every day, he would pitch to the score- thus allowing him to rack up tons of wins while his rate stats suffered. To disprove this, I turn to Joe Sheehan, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, who examined every one of Morris's 527 career starts to test this hypothesis. His conclusion?
I can find no pattern in when Jack Morris allowed runs. If he pitched to the score-and I don't doubt that he changed his approach-the practice didn't show up in his performance record.
So the evidence certainly isn't there to indicate that Morris attempted to or successfully pitched to the score.
In conclusion, Jack Morris was a fantastic pitcher. He won three rings, one of which was for Detroit, and had a long, successful career. But a good career does not equal greatness. Jack Morris falls short of the standards of the Hall of Fame. He was very good for a long time. But very good doesn't get you to Cooperstown.