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. Comparisons are being made to both 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 7 votes and 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 87 votes). Since then, Morris’ candidacy has gained momentum steadily, peaking at 53.5% in 2011.
The argument I’ve heard most for Morris is that he was “the best pitcher of the 80s.” That’s not entirely true. Baseball Reference’s fantastic Blog, High Heat Stats, compiled a list of rolling 3-year WAR leaders for pitchers for the last century. In the 1980s, Dave Stieb had a 4-year run in first or second place. Jack Morris was not listed. While WAR is far from a perfect statistic, it is useful and gives food for thought in this instance. Of all pitchers in the 1980s, Dave Stieb leads MLB with 45.2 WAR. Jack Morris checks in all the way down at #12 with 27.9
Staying in that vein, from 1980-1989, Jack Morris led the league with 2443.2 innings. There were 11 pitchers who had at least 80% of Morris’ innings. Among 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 was also 2nd in innings pitched of those 11.
If we shift our analysis by 1 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’ goes down to 108.
It’s arguable that Stieb played on less-talented teams than Morris did (more on that later*), but if we want to include wins/winning percentage into the argument at face value, we get an interesting outcome. From 1980-1989, Jack Morris’s W/L record was 162-119, a win percentage of .577 and 2nd in all of baseball. Stieb was 3rd at .562. Moving one year forward, from 1981-1990, Stieb’s win percentage is .593 – ahead of Morris’s .569. So then, which is better? The #1 player (by far) in ERA+, #2 in innings pitched , and #3 in win percentage (Dave Stieb), or the #1 in innings, #2 in win percentage, and #7 in ERA+ (Jack Morris)? Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. (h/t to Tom Tango for doing the legwork)
Morris aplogists 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 then put far less effort into his pitching because he has extra run support. 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’s 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.”
This week 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 would go:
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 see, Morris’ win total is much greater than Stieb’s. 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%
An 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.
An 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 was 28 wins above average Morris was 20 wins above average. Stieb also has 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 his career that pushes him over the top into Hall of Fame contention. Stieb doesn’t have a similar playoff performance, in fact, he never really did elevate his game during the playoffs.
Stieb had a few “shining moments” of his own. In fact, he has a no-hit ballgame to his name:
He also had a remarkable 5 one-hit games! In fact, in 1988, he lost two no-hitters with two outs in the ninth inning… in consecutive starts! If just one or two of those one-hitters (in 1989 he lost a perfect game with 2 outs in the ninth) were no-hitters, how would that affect the popular view of him? Obviously, two hits here and there don’t mean anything in assessing his overall value, but I do wonder about that perception. Regardless, he deserves to be knighted or sainted or something for the fact he didn’t murder anyone as a result of his hard luck.
Neither Jack Morris or Dave Stieb have any Cy Young awards to their names, but Morris does have 3 seasons where he reached the *magical* 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 chitter-chatter, 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 lackluster Win/Loss record. That year, Stieb got the win in 6 games decided by either one or two runs. But the Blue Jays lost 15 games that he started by one or two runs. Stieb took the loss in 8 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. 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 this has not been a reason for discarding pitchers in the HOF’s history. The Hall of full of players who had high peaks for shorter periods of time: Stan Covaleski, Dazzy Vance, Bob Lemon, Rube Waddell, Rick Ferrell et. al. . We have many peak/prime type pitchers, just as we have many career type pitchers. Stieb shouldn’t be compared to Morris in this way. That he was “washed up” at 33 is not significant in and of itself, just as 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. And that is why we have the Hall of Fame voting. However, 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 embarassing 7 votes 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