The Dave Stieb vs. Jack Morris Hall of Fame Debate

Moment of truth. Jack Morris and Dave Stieb share a cubicle for an eye examination during medicals at dunedin. seconds later; the former enemies stared hard at each other; then began to chuckle.

Hall of Fame voting is almost here, and again the case is being made for Jack Morris to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Jack Morris’ career is being compared to the careers of pitchers in and outside of the Hall, but the only comparison that really matters is the one to Dave Stieb.

Dave Stieb was first eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot in 2004, and in that year he received only seven votes; he was subsequently removed from the ballot.  Jack Morris was first eligible in 2000 and received 111 votes for 22% of the vote (incidentally, he finished higher than current Hall-of-Famer Bert Blyleven, who received only 87 votes). Since then, Morris’ candidacy has gained momentum steadily, peaking at 53.5% last year.

The argument I’ve heard most for Morris is that he won more games than any pitcher in the 1980s.  While Morris did rack up more pitcher wins than any other player from 1980-1989, he certainly wasn’t the best pitcher. Baseball Reference’s fantastic blog, High Heat Stats, compiled a list of rolling three-year WAR leaders for pitchers over the course of the last century.  In the 1980s, Dave Stieb had a four-year run in either first or second place.  Jack Morris did not make the list.  While WAR is far from a perfect statistic, it provides a useful reference point when comparing players.  Of all pitchers who played in the 1980s, Dave Stieb leads them all with a 45.2 WAR.  Jack Morris is ranked at #12 with 27.9 mark.

Staying in that 1980s vein, from 1980-1989, Jack Morris led all of baseball with 2443.2 innings pitched.  There were 11 pitchers who had at least 80% of Morris’ innings.  Of those 11 pitchers, Morris places 7th in ERA+ with a 109 mark.  Who was #1?  Dave Stieb, of course, with an ERA+ of 127.  Stieb also had the most innings pitched of those 11.

If we shift our analysis by one year from 1980-1989 to 1981-1990, Morris is again the innings leader with 2443.1.  With the same innings threshold, Stieb’s ERA+ moves up to 129 while Morris’ drops to 108.

It’s arguable that Stieb played on worse teams than Morris did (more on that later*), but if we want to bring wins and winning percentage into the argument, we get an interesting outcome.  From 1980-1989, Jack Morris’s win-loss record was 162-119, for a win percentage of .577 (second in all of baseball). Stieb’s winning percentage was third at .562. Moving one year forward, from 1981-1990, Stieb’s win percentage is .593, slightly ahead of Morris’s .569.

So then, who is the better pitcher?  Is it the #1 player (by far) in ERA+, #2 in innings pitched , and #3 in win percentage (Dave Stieb), or is it the player who is #1 in innings, #2 in winning percentage, and #7 in ERA+ (Jack Morris)? Well,  that’s just, like,  your opinion, man. (h/t to Tom Tango for doing the legwork).

Jack Morris apologists often point to the fact that he “pitched to the score” and “knew how to win” and as a result, Morris’ ERA was artificially inflated. This pitching to the score myth implies that because a pitcher is handed a lead by his teammates, he will coast for the rest of the game because he has extra run support and a large margin for error.  This theory has been debunked by the late, great Greg Spira.  Joe Sheehan performed a similar study, concluding: “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.” Morris’ record is more a product of strong run support than it is special strategy. For all of his extra wins and post-season success, his case rests on a distortion of the value of one shining moment (more on this later too**) rather than a well-rounded career.”

Sorry, Jack.

The talented Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus wrote an article comparing Jack Morris to first-time eligible candidates Brad Radke and Terry Mulholland.  For the sake of argument, I’ll rip off his comparisons by subbing in Dave Stieb where Brad Radke/Terry Mulholland originally stood:

A brief explanation for the table headings: AS is All-Star and CY is Cy Young Awards won; 3C is a tally of leagues led in the Triple Crown categories for pitchers (wins, ERA, and strikeouts); HoFS is the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards score.

As we can clearly see, Morris’ win total is much greater than Stieb’s.  However, one problem with celebrating Morris’s win total is that it ignores the level of offensive support that he received. Borrowing a concept from Jay Jaffe, who borrowed the concept from Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette in the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia (a book for which the previously mentioned Greg Spira served as an associate editor), we can express a pitcher’s run support in normalized form as a percentage of the league average:

Dave Stieb’s career run support, relative to league average: 94.6%
Jack Morris’s career run support, relative to league average: 107.1%

A league-average pitcher with Dave Stieb’s run support would have a .472 career winning percentage.  For Stieb, that translates to a record of 148-165.  His actual record? 176-137.
A league-average pitcher with Jack Morris’s run support would have a .532 career winning percentage.  For Morris, that translates to a record of 234-205.  His actual record? 254-186.

Stieb accumulated 28 wins above average, while Morris was 20 wins above average.  Yet Stieb had 115 fewer starts to work with.

*Both pitchers received good defensive support in their careers (Hello Tony Fernandez!), but as you can see, their offensive support was by no means similar.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

**Another point that Morris supporters continue to bring up is his remarkable 10-inning shutout performance in Game 7 of the World Series (“that one shining moment”):


This epic performance is viewed by many as the shining moment in Morris’ career – a moment that pushes him over the top into Hall of Fame contention.  Stieb doesn’t have a similar playoff performance, and he never really did elevate his game during the playoffs.

With that said…

Stieb had a few “shining moments” of his own.  In fact, he has a no-hit ballgame to his name:

Stieb also had a remarkable five one-hit games In 1988, Dave Stieb lost two no-hitters with two outs in the ninth inning in consecutive starts!  The following year, in 1989, Stieb lost a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning. If just one or two of those one-hitters were no-hitters, how would that affect the popular view of him? Obviously, two hits here and there don’t mean anything in assessing Stieb’s overall value, but I do wonder about that perception.

Neither Jack Morris or Dave Stieb won the Cy Young award, but Morris does have three seasons where he reached the *magical* and arbitrary 20-win mark.  Stieb’s season-high total was 18.  I don’t like to play the revisionist-history game, but for the sake of argument, in 1985 Stieb led the league with a 2.48 ERA (173 ERA+), yet only had a 14-13 record.  Stieb finished 7th in AL Cy Young voting that season, mostly due to his lacklustre win-loss record.  That year, Stieb was credited with a win in six games decided by either one or two runs. But the Blue Jays still lost 15 games that he started by either one or two runs. Stieb took the loss in eight one-run games, losing 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 1-2, 3-4, 3-4, 5-6, and 1-2 — and all in games where he gave up three or fewer runs (earned or unearned). Had he been just a little luckier, he could’ve won 20 and won the Cy Young award. Would that push Stieb over the top?  It’s unlikely, but I think that it would have went a long way to changing his perception, and as a result, his Hall of Fame vote totals.

In my opinion, neither Jack Morris nor Dave Stieb belong in the Hall of Fame.  I am a “small Hall” kind of guy: I’d rather see the Hall filled with solely great players and not include the “very good” ones.  Some will say that Morris belongs ahead of Stieb because he had the longevity and Stieb doesn’t.  True, Morris pitched far longer than Stieb, although career longevity has not been a precedented reason for keeping pitchers out of the Hall of Fame. The Hall is full of players who had high statistical peaks for shorter periods of time:  Stan Covaleski, Dazzy Vance, Bob Lemon, Rube Waddell, Rick Ferrell et al. That Dave Stieb was effectively “washed up” at the age of 33 is not significant in and of itself, just as Dazzy Vance’s pre-age 30 stats are not significant to his case. Is a player who was great for 10 years equal to a player who was very good for 15? Do either of them belong in the Hall? Well, again, it’s just like, your opinion, man.  In my mind, if you’re going to put Jack Morris in the Hall of Fame then Dave Stieb better go in right beside him.  It’s unfortunate that a player like Stieb is written off after a single year of eligibility with an embarrassingly small vote total while a similar player in Morris continues to build steam.  It’s the age-old conundrum: quality or quantity?

For more on Dave Stieb, check out:

The Dave Stieb Slider:  With video of the pitch that Stieb used to put away hitters and hold LHB to slugging percentages of .336 in 1982, .307 in 1981, and  .296 in 1985!

Dave Stieb: Squeezed Out Of A Perfect Game? With video of Stieb’s no-hitter as well as blown perfect games.  Includes a highlight reel as well.

Best Toronto Blue Jay Pitcher:  Dave Stieb or Roy Halladay?  An in-depth comparison of the two pitchers.

Photos courtesy of the Associated Press (Tony Dejak), screencaps from Twitter

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