Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame

Jack Morris Detroit Tigers

From 1977 to 1994, Jack Morris won 72 more games than any other pitcher in baseball, and he went at least nine innings in one out of every three of his starts.

There was nothing Jack Morris wanted more than to be in control when he was on the mound. That’s why it’s so ironic that he’s powerless to do anything about the debate surrounding his election to the Hall of Fame.

One of baseball’s most fierce competitors when he was active, all Morris can do now is sit and watch.

Anyone who watched Morris during his prime knows that the right-handed hurler was usually in command when he took the ball for his club.

“There’s no one I’d rather have pitch a big game for me than [Morris],” Sparky Anderson said.

He pitched his share, including his famous masterpiece in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, the game that many of his supporters point to as evidence that Morris belongs in the Hall.

But one game, even in such a bright spotlight, does not make a Hall of Famer. Fortunately Morris, who awaits the results of the 2012 Baseball Hall of Fame voting, his 13th time on the ballot, has many other impressive credentials.

First, a glance at what his critics have used to argue against his election. They point out that Morris’s ERA (3.90) would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall. That he never led the league in ERA, finishing in the top ten just five times in his long career, and he never once had a season where his ERA was under 3.00. His detractors also point out that Morris pitched most of his career in a park that was beneficial to hurlers (that’s Tiger Stadium believe it or not). His ERA+ (that’s his ERA relative to his league, era, ballpark) is 105, meaning his ERA is 5% lower than that of an average pitcher. Not enough, his critics say.

Much of the argument against Morris is based on numbers. Therefore, it only seems fair that the defense that I’ll mount also relies on statistics. Fight fire with fire, I say.

When Morris came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1977, a starting pitcher was expected to finish what he started. This was the era of Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan – workhorses who started 40 games per and completed 20-25. When the ace of the staff was on the hill he was expected to give the bullpen a rest, and if he got into trouble he was supposed to pitch his way through it. It had been that way for generations. Morris followed in the cleat steps of those aces who came before him. He was the ultimate workhorse.

During his 18-year career, Morris completed 175 games, which was 68 more than any other pitcher during that span. If you extend the time frame to ten years before Morris debuted until today, Morris’s 175 complete games are surpassed only by Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer, both Hall of Famers. High ERA, you say? The more innings a pitcher tosses, the harder it is to keep the ERA down.

The value of Morris’s endurance can further be illustrated through quality starts. A quality start is any start of six innings or more where a pitcher allows three earned runs or less. Since the early 1990s, the expectations for starting pitchers were dimmed – just go six innings, anything beyond that is gravy. Roger Clemens made a second career of that, for example, pitching six innings before turning it over to the bullpen. Morris was the exact opposite.

Of his 527 career starts, Morris threw 297 quality starts. More than half his starts were quality starts, but they were not the sort of quality starts we see today. A deeper look shows that Morris had an exceptional number of long-inning quality starts. For example, in 1981, Morris had 13 quality starts of nine innings, and one of 10 innings. The next season he had 12 nine-inning QS and an 11-inning QS. The next year he had 15 such quality starts, and 22 of eight innings or more! In fact, at his peak, Morris was pitching more nine-inning or longer quality starts than many pitcher’s were pitching quality starts of any length. From 1981 to 1987, his best stretch, Morris had 168 QS, of which 90 were of nine innings or longer. For his career, one in every four starts he made was a quality start of nine innings or longer. When he took the ball, he held it and didn’t come out of the game easily.

For those of us who watched Morris almost his entire career, we know that one of the reasons his ERA was as high as 3.90 is because he was expected to pitch through trouble, to log innings. Often he was pitching eight or nine innings while allowing four earned runs. In his era, when scoring was on the rise, he was doing his job – eating up innings, resting the pen, and giving his team a chance to win. His ERA wasn’t drastically higher than other good pitchers of his era, but he threw more innings, made more starts, and had a longer career. Others, like Dave Stieb, Ron Guidry, and Fernando Valenzuela, had lower ERA’s, but they were top of the rotation starters for fewer seasons.

Morris was an ace forever (made 14 opening day starts), pitched deep into games even when he didn’t have his good stuff, and did it regularly for a decade and a half. No other pitcher comes close to Morris from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s in complete games, innings, quality starts, starts, or wins. With Blyleven’s long overdue election last year, Morris is the second starting pitcher who debuted in the 1970s who should be so honored. If all a player can do is compete in his own era, Morris did that with flying colors.

So that’s the numerical argument. I haven’t even mentioned Morris’s clutch value. All he did was start, dominate, and win seven games in 1984 and 1991 as the Tigers and Twins won the World Series behind his right arm. In ’91 he allowed just three earned runs in 23 innings in the World Series. At one point he had a 7-1 post-season record before struggling in four starts for the Jays in 1992. He wasn’t quite Bob Gibson or Curt Schilling in the post-season, but he wasn’t  far off, and he was a huge reason that two of his teams won World Series titles. He won post-season honors as Series MVP in 1984 and 1991.

Two years ago, Morris made a cat like jump to over 50% support from the baseball writers. He was again just a tick over 50% last year. This ballot is his best chance to jump over the 60% mark and get within shouting distance of the 75% needed. He has two more chances after this ballot, and it will be tough, but Morris deserves the honor.

For close to 15 years, he took the ball every four or five days, pitched deep into games, and won big games. What else do the writers want?