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A Sabermetric Case for Jack Morris

January 23, 2013
 
I have never had a particular interest in supporting Jack Morris for the Hall of Fame. There are six likely causes for this:
 
a.       There is a massive plot against Morris, orchestrated by Bill James and carried out by the liked of Neyer, Posnanski, and myself. It’s actually a two-part plan: first we keep Jack Morris out of the Hall-of-Fame. Then we’ll abolish tip jars and hotel taxes.
b.       Steroids. I only support players who used steroids.
c.        I hate wins. And games. And sunlight. I live in my mother’s basement.
d.       Secret Padres fan. Ain’t over the ‘84 World Series.
e.        I cannot grow a convincing of facial hair, and I’m jealous of Morris’s ‘stache.
f.        There are a few other pitchers who are objectively better than Morris, who aren’t in the Hall-of-Fame.
 
Okay....so my take is actually (f.), with maybe a little bit of (e.) thrown in.
 
That said, I am at least sympathetic to the candidacy of Jack Morris, who clearly meets the ‘fame’ qualification that the BBWAA guidelines detail. (Note: there is actually no ‘fame’ qualification in the BBWAA guidelines.)
 
Whether or not Morris is a worthy entrant into Cooperstown, there’s no doubt that most people who watched baseball during the 1980’s thought he was an ace pitcher. For instance, the 1988 Bill James Baseball Abstract has individual columns about players, in which Bill grades each player and sums them up in a word:
 
Darrell Evans: Efficient
Carlton Fisk: Forty
Dwight Gooden: Recovering
Jack Morris: Ace
Dale Murphy: Cooperstown
Kirby Puckett: Adorable
Cal Ripken: Regular
 
Bill ranks Jack Morris as the #2 right-handed pitcher in baseball, behind Clemens. And as numbers 3-8 were Gooden, Mike Scott, Mike Witt, Orel Hershiser, Bret Saberhagen, and Rick Sutcliffe, it’s safe to say that the stock wasn’t particularly deep that year. The lefties ain’t much better: Higuera, Viola, Key, Leibrandt, Langston, Dravecky, Bannister...there wasn’t a bumper crop of ace pitchers in 1988.
 
I loved 80’s baseball. So, out of affection for  Jack Morris and the amazing decade that he played in, I’d like to present a case for Jack Morris’s election to the Hall-of-Fame.
 
The Sabermetric Case Against Jack Morris
 
First, let’s get this out of the way:
 
-Morris had a staggeringly high ERA: 3.90. Among ranking pitchers, this is good enough for the 743rd best career ERA of all-time. Morris is a few ticks behind Mike Flannagan, and a few ticks ahead of Bruce Hurst.
 
-Morris’s ERA would be the worst among any pitcher in the Hall-of-Fame. His career ERA is higher than the career ERA of Hall-of-Famer Red Ruffing (3.78). It is also higher than the career ERA of Hall-of-Famer Wade Boggs (3.86). It is drastically higher than the career ERA of Hall-of-Famer Jimmie Foxx (1.52, over 23.2 IP).
 
-Morris’ career WAR is also pretty low: 39.2 according to baseballreference. This ties him with Hall-of-Famer Lefty Gomez. It also ties him with non-Hall-of-Famer Tom Candiotti. WAR rates him as the 145th best pitcher of all-time, which is really, desperately low.
 
-He had a lot of good teammates. The Tigers were really good for most of the 1980’s. The Twins won a World Series with him. The Blue Jays won two World Series. He played on good teams.
 
-He never won a Cy Young Award, nor did he get particularly close. If everyone thought he was an ace, no one seemed to think he was the best pitcher in baseball.
 
-Wins are a stupid stat.
 
Now that that’s out of the way....
 
The Sabermetric Case For Jack Morris
 
The sabermetric argument for Jack Morris demands exactly one assumption: that we don’t have it perfect, either. That those of us who favor advanced metrics don’t have it 100% right. We don’t know everything we could know. We could be wrong.
 
As happy as I am that a statistic like WAR has gained considerable traction in the wider discourse, I worry that we’re forgetting that WAR, like Win Shares or Fielding-Independant Pitching, is just a step forward in our understanding of baseball. It is not a final answer: it does not prove anything.
 
I say this as someone who cites WAR constantly: I have no doubt that I’ve been as guilty as anyone else about using catch-all stats like WAR and Win Shares as being the end of the conversation. I’m a sinner, too.
 
But I am willing to consider the possibility, at least, that the advanced statistics I love might be missing something. Actually, I’ll go further: the advanced metrics are missing something. They have to be. No statistic measure yet invented is a perfect measure of ability. This is true of misleading statistics like wins and RBI’s, and it’s true of advanced metrics like WAR and Win Shares. None have it exactly right.
 
We have a tendency to look pityingly on older assumptions: how did all those MVP writers vote for Mickey Cochrane over Lou Gehrig in 1934? Why are Rabbit Maranville and George Kell in the Hall? How come no one noticed how good Arky Vaughn was? What’s with the obsession about batting average? How come no one thought about walks?
 
This is good: we’ve advance our knowledge of the game in positive ways. Kudos to us.
 
 But it’s important to remember that the future generations of baseball fans will view our perceptions of the game as being just as limited and narrow and occasionally stupid as we look on earlier generations. It is possible that two decades from now baseball writers will write about how stupid the 2012 AL MVP vote was, because in all the hullabaloo about Trout and Cabrera, we missed the fact that Justin Verlander was really the best player. It is likely that we’ve gotten some things wrong. Not sort-of wrong, but staggeringly wrong. Dawson MVP wrong.  
 
We’re going to look like holy fools, too. Just warning you.
 
So...let’s leave the door open a crack. Let’s not assume that WAR, or Win Shares, or FIP, is at all definitive. Let’s hold our truths, our assumptions, as lightly as we can.
 
And let’s talk about Jack Morris.
 
Or first: let’s talk about Bert Blyleven. The Beast from Zeist was born in 1951. The standard and advanced number agree that Blyleven is a clear Hall-of-Famer. Blyleven ranks 12th in career WAR for pitchers, 5th in career strikeouts, 14th in innings pitcher, 9th in shutouts, and 27th in wins. There is little doubt that he is one of the twenty-five best pitchers of all-time. He was the best pitcher born in 1951.
 
Roger Clemens was born in 1962. His career, too, is clearly past the standard for the Hall-of-Fame, whether you’re looking at basic or advanced metrics.
 
There is gap of ten years betweenthe birth of Bert Blyleven and Clemens. I’d argue:
 
a.       It is likely that at least one Hall-of-Fame pitcher was probably born during that decade, and
b.       Jack Morris is probably the best, or at least the second-best, candidate.
 
Going year-by-year.
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1952
John Denny
28.9
123-108
3.59
1146
0
 
We’re not off to a terrific start. John Denny, the 1983 NL Cy Young Award winner, is probably not anyone’s idea of a Hall-of-Famer. He does not compare favourably to, say, Bert Blyleven. He has more wins that Babe Ruth (123 to 94), but Babe Ruth did a few things beyond pitching that snuck him into the hall.
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1953
Frank Tanana
52.6
240-236
3.66
2773
3
 
Frank Tanana, the best pitcher born in 1953, had two careers: he was a hard-throwing ace for the Angels during much of the 1970’s, and, after suffering an arm injury, he became an effective junk-ball specialist for much of the 1980’s. While he compiled some impressive numbers over his long career, the arm injury probably cost him any chance of making the Hall.  
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1954
John Tudor
32.2
117-72
3.22
988
0
 
Dennis Eckersley was also born in 1954, but to call Dennis Eckersley a Hall-of-Fame starter is disingenuous. He is in the Hall-of-Fame because of his relief pitching with the Oakland A’s. As a starter, Eck was 149-130, which would not get him in the Hall. And no, John Tudor isn’t getting in either.
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1955
Jack Morris
39.3
254-186
3.90
2478
5
1955
Dennis Martinez
45.1
245-193
3.70
2149
4
 
Jack Morris was born in 1955, as was Dennis Martinez. It is possible that Dennis Martinez was a better pitcher than Jack Morris, but only the most die-hard Expos fan would say that Martinez’s 5.8-edge in WAR is any kind of definitive proof. They’re really close. Considering their closeness, I think the general perception of qualified observers should get weight. Most writers and fans thought Jack Morris was an elite pitcher. Dennis Martinez was not viewed as being on quite that level.
 
(Interesting side-note: Martinez and Jack Morris led their respective leagues in wins in 1981, with 14 each. Also: Dennis Martinez is Jack Morris’s closest comparable according to Similarity Scores).
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1956
Bob Welch
39.9
211-146
3.47
1969
2
 
Bob Welch had a fine career ERA, but he was aided by friendly home parks (LA, Oakland) for the entirety of his career. That he tallied a WAR parallel to Morris’ in 800 fewer innings suggests that, as with Dennis Martinez, there’s an argument that Welch was better than Morris, but I’m not inclined to make it. Aside from his fluke-ish (and undeserved) Cy Young season, Welch has little black ink on his career record: he led the league in shutouts in 1987 and in games started in 1991. A fine workhorse pitcher, but I don’t think the Tigers would’ve traded Morris for Welch in their respective primes.
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1957
Dave Stieb
53.5
176-137
3.44
1669
7
 
This is the first real challenge to Morris: Dave Stieb was a very good, and very underappreciated pitcher. According to WAR, Stieb was the best pitcher in the American League in 1982, 1983, and 1984. He was the second-best in 1981 and 1985. Win Shares reaches a comparable conclusion. Jack Morris doesn’t do nearly as well: WAR ranks Morris as just the 8th best pitcher in 1981, and the 10th best in 1985. He is outside the top-ten for 1982-1985.
 
It’s probable that Dave Stieb, pitch-for-pitch, was better than Jack Morris. But Stieb’s career numbers do not seem the numbers of a Hall-of-Famer. He won 176 games, which isn’t a terrifically huge number. He led the league in ERA once, in innings pitched twice, and in complete games once. He never led the league in wins, or won 20+, He didn’t finish higher than 4th in a Cy Young vote. And his career is short: he pitched close to 2900 innings.
 
Stieb is a weird case: his six-year peak between 1980-1985 (37.0 WAR) compares favourably to Greg Maddux from 1990-1995 (38.9 WAR). Maddux went 105-55 and won four straight Cy Young Awards, three ERA titles, and led the NL in wins three times....Maddux has tons of black ink. His advanced metrics are supported convincingly by the non-advanced statistics. Stieb, by comparison, went just 87-72. He had one ERA title, and showed up at the bottom of three Cy Young ballots.
 
In other words, WAR says that Stieb dominated the league. But the wider statistical record – and the subjective measures of success such as CY voting – do not support this assumption.    
 
I don’t think that the traditional metrics of wins and ERA give an accurate view of how good Dave Stieb was, but I ‘m not really sure that WAR is anymoreaccurate: I believe that Dave Stieb was a very good pitcher, but I’m not convinced that he was quite the dominant pitcher that WAR views him to be. 
 
Trying a different tack: consider Jack Morris’ 1982 season. In 1982, Jack Morris posted a 17-16 record. He threw 266 innings and posted a 4.06 ERA, which is about league-average (100 ERA+). He completed seventeen of his thirty-seven starts.
 
WAR considers this performance as being exactly one win better than a replacement-level player would’ve provided the Tigers. One. 
 
Do you buy this? Does this, objectively, seem like an accurate measure of his contribution to the Tigers in 1982? Do you think it is reasonable to assume that had the Tigers given Morris’s 266 innings to a replacement-level pitcher, they would’ve won just a game less than they did with Morris on the mound?
 
Do you buy that Milt Wilcox was more valuable to the 1982 Tigers than Jack Morris? Just looking at them side-to-side:
 
Year
Team
Name
W-L
ERA
IP
CG
K
BB
WAR
1982
DET
J. Morris
17-16
4.06
266.1
17
135
96
1.0
1982
DET
M. Wilcox
12-10
3.62
193.2
9
112
85
1.5
 
Wilcox threw seventy-one fewer innings than Morris, and posted similar walk and strikeout rates. Yet he ranks as being more valuable than Morris. Does this seem, again, a reasonable conclusion?
 
Does WAR get Morris right?
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1958
Orel Hershiser
48.0
204-150
3.48
2014
3
 
Orel has a similar case to Stieb; WAR rates him as the best pitcher in the NL in 1988 and 1989, and the second-best pitcher in 1987. Orel’s supporting claims are slightly stronger than Stieb’s: he won a (deserved) Cy Young in 1988, broke a big record (Drysdale’s consecutive shutout innings), and was widely regarded as an elite pitcher. But the sabermetric case for Orel is weaker than the case for Stieb. WAR aside, I don’t know that I’d take the shorter career of Hershiser over Morris’s longer one.
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1959
Mike Morgan
25.9
141-186
4.23
1403
1
 
Mike Morgan, the best starting pitcher born in 1959, is a worse pitcher than Jack Morris.
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1960
Mark Langston
46.9
179-158
3.97
2464
4
 
Fernando Valenzuela and Frank Viola were also born in 1960....but Langston had the better career than either of them.
 
Mark Langston has a higher cumulative WAR than Jack Morris: 46.9 to 39.3. This is true despite Morris pitching about 800 innings more than Langston, over his career. Per 162-games, WAR rates Langston as being worth 4.1 wins, and Morris being worth 3.0 wins.
 
Looking at their stats per-162 games, it is difficult to see where Langston gets the edge:
 
Morris: 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 242 IP, 225 H, 25 HR, 88 BB, 157 K.
Langst: 3.97 ERA, 107 ERA+, 228 IP, 209 H, 24 HR, 99 BB, 189 K.
 
These stats seem identical. Actually, they are identical. Morris walked slightly fewer hitters (3.3 to 3.9, per 9 IP), and Langston got slightly more strikeouts (7.5 to 5.8).
 
They seem like the same pitcher to me. Yet WAR rates Langston as being 35% better than Morris, per 162 games. Where is the advantage? How does Mark Langston, a pitcher whose only substantive difference is pitching 800 fewer innings than Jack Morris, and winning seventy-five fewer games than Morris, somehow rate as being drastically better than Morris?
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1961
Jimmy Key
46.1
186-117
3.51
1538
4
 
Jimmy Key threw 2600 innings over his career, in which he accumulated a higher WAR than Jack Morris gathered in a 3800-inning career. Have we failed to appreciate Jimmy Key, too, or is WAR perhaps underselling Jack Morris.
 
I think it’s a little of both. Jimmy Key was really good....he has an ERA+ of 122, and was a reliably good starter for most of his career. But I remember Key: no one ever thought he was that good. He was never considered an ace, or a likely Hall-of-Famer. He was a good pitcher on good teams. I don’t know that his 2600 innings pitched are more valuable than Morris’ 3800 innings pitched.
 
*              *              *
 
One of the reasons that I think Bonds and Clemens will eventually get elected to the Hall-of-Fame is consistency: the museum in Cooperstown tells the story of baseball. The steroid era, as unsightly as it seems to our eyes, was a segment of the game’s history, and the museum will eventually come around to recognizing the great players of that era, just like they’ve done with the controversial eras before.
 
A decade stretches between the births of Bert Blyleven and Roger Clemens. Right now, there isn’t a single starting pitcher in Cooperstown who represents that decade. From the many pitchers born in that decade, the best careers are: 
 
Born
Name
WAR
W-L
ERA
K
ASG
1955
Jack Morris
39.3
254-186
3.90
2478
5
1955
Dennis Martinez
45.1
245-193
3.70
2149
4
1957
Dave Stieb
53.5
176-137
3.44
1669
7
1958
Orel Hershiser
48.0
204-150
3.48
2014
3
1961
Jimmy Key
46.1
186-117
3.51
1538
4
 
If we rely exclusively on WAR, Jack Morris ranks well behind Dave Stieb, and  pretty comfortably behind the other four pitchers listed.
 
But Morris ranks ahead of Stieb in Black Ink (statistical categories where he led the league) and Grey Ink (statistical categories where he was in the top-ten in the league). And Morris is drastically closer to the standards of the Hall of Fame than Dave Stieb.
 
Name
WAR
W-L
Black Ink
Grey Ink
HOF Standards
Jack Morris
39.3
254-186
20
197
39
Dave Stieb
53.5
176-137
17
146
27
 
Comparability Scores aren’t definitive proof of a player’s ability, because they don’t make adjustments for league contexts. But, in the case of Stieb vs. Morris, comparability scores are interesting:
 
Jack Morris
Dave Stieb
Dennis Martinez
Virgil Trucks
Bob Gibson *
Ken Holtzman
Luis Tiant
Bob Buhl
Jamie Moyer
Rick Sutcliffe
Red Ruffing *
Tommy Bridges
Amos Rusie *
Kevin Appier
Chuck Finley
Fernando Valenzuela
Burleigh Grimes *
Dave Stewart
Bob Feller *
Frank Viola
Jim Bunning *
Bob Shawkey
 
Jack Morris’ career statistics are very comparable to six players enshrined in Cooperstown, and one player (Luis Tiant) who has a strong case. Dave Stieb has no Hall-of-Famers on his list, and no one who is likely to ever reach the Hall of Fame.
 
The lists for each player go back a far way: I doubt many of you remember seeing Amos Rusie or Red Ruffing or Tommy Bridges toe the rubber. Both lists have players from many generations in baseball history, many eras. It is the clear consensus, in all of those eras, that pitchers who had careers like Jack Morris are better than pitchers who had careers like Dave Stieb. Feller is better than Virgil Trucks. Tiant is better than Holtzman. The consensus, across generations, is that player like Jack Morris is better than a player like Dave Stieb.
 
This might not be correct: I am in no way certain that Morris is better than Stieb. If I had to pick a side, I’d probably lean to Stieb. But....I recognize that this opinion breaks considerably from about seventy years of opinion. I recognize, too, that it is at least possible that our new perspective isn’t right, either. Maybe Fernando was the best pitcher of the era, and no one noticed.
 
Jack Morris, at the very least, is the starting pitcher most central to baseball during that era. He won seventy-eight more games than Dave Stieb. He threw 900 more innings than Hershiser and Key. Maybe he wasn’t a better pitcher – pitch-for-pitch - than those pitchers, but he outlasted them by a considerable margin.  
 
I would love a Hall of Fame where a pitcher like Dave Stieb is recognized. But I am happy to have a Hall of Fame that does recognize pitchers like Jack Morris, who left an indelible mark on the game. Someone should represent the starting pitchers of that era. There are many choices worse than Jack Morris; I don’t know if there are many better.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggests here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (26 Comments, most recent shown first)

RoughCarrigan
I have never thought of Jack Morris as a hall of famer. Not when he was playing and, like most hall of fame voters the first TEN times he was on the ballot, not afterward. He was a good pitcher and he pitched a lot of innings but the idea of Jack Morris - Hall of Famer! - just never entered my head.

A part of my personal thoughts in this regard are probably related to this game:
www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS198408071.shtml

It was the first game of a doubleheader played on August 7, 1984 in Fenway. I went to see it with my buddy Tom. We were a pair of high school wiseasses.

After Morris's previous start, in which Jack had, not uncharacteristically, stomped around on the mound when his teammates muffed a couple plays, the Tigers' pitching coach was quoted in the papers saying something to the effect of "Jack's gonna hafta stop being such a baby about stuff like that."

My buddy and I made a handful of copies of that newspaper article. We handed them out to other fans in the bleachers just beyond the visiting team's bullpen in Fenway. When Jack came out to warm up he was greeted by 10 or 20, later swelling to 30 or so, fans shouting "Waaa! Waaa! My teammates didn't make every play! Waaa! Waaa!" Eventually the more sophisticated part about teammates was dropped in favor of more imitation baby sounds.

Morris did not overtly respond. But he looked like he had smoke coming out his ears. This only emboldened everyone. Waaa! Waaa!

He showed us. He went in there and gave up TWO grand slams. Two.
5:15 PM Feb 6th
 
PeteRidges
There have been a lot of pitchers who won at least two Cy Young awards, but none made his debut between 1967 (Tom Seaver) and 1984 (Roger Clemens). One-time winners from those years were Randy Jones, Ron Guidry, Steve Stone, Fernando Valenzuela, Rollie Fingers, John Denny, LaMarr Hoyt, Rick Sutcliffe, Willie Hernandez, Mike Scott, Steve Bedrosian, Orel Hershiser, Frank Viola, Mark Davis, Bob Welch, Dennis Eckersley. Blyleven made his debut in 1970 but didn't win a CYA. Maybe it was just a thin decade or so...
3:22 PM Jan 29th
 
Brian
I don't think of Morris as a Hall of Famer, but some points in his favor:

1) Postseason 7-4 3.80, no unearned runs, 5 complete games, 7 innings per start. He had 2 great postseasons, 1984 & 1991. And he has the extreme peak value argument. Is there any one game ever pitched by anybody that advances a Hall of Fame argument any more than Game 7 in 1991?

2) He was allowed to pitch almost 300 innings at the end of career with an ERA over6.00 !!! That added about .2 runs to his final ERA without really having a lot to do with his actual Hall of Fame worthiness.

3)His ERA was also affected by his and Sparky's efforts to have him pitching old-school workloads where conditions had changed. Usually it would come in the form of an annual midseason slump that would ruin his Cy Young candidacy.

Let me save you the counter-arguments:

1) Don Larson isn't in the Hall.
2) Everyone's ERA goes up at the end of a career.
3) If the workload hurt him that much, he shouldn't get so much credit for being a bulldog.

Still, on balance these points work in his favor and adjusts the WAR upward some.

But Dave, the real point of the piece was very well expressed. The people on this site generally don't do it, but those using WAR or even win shares as the only measure of a player will ultimately hurt the public's perception of the usefullness of their work. Especially WAR, where player wins don't have to add up to the team total. The Brett Lawrie example was a great one, and was essentially Nap Lajoie 30 years later.

Great article and follow-up comment!
3:41 PM Jan 28th
 
those
Part of the best case for Morris -- and frankly I'm surprised no one brought it up (well, some I'm not surprised) -- is that Morris pitched his entire career in the DH league. So naturally, that's going to affect his ERA. If you compare his ERA with Blyleven, for example, you have to consider that Blyleven pitched five full seasons in a non-DH league.
8:09 AM Jan 26th
 
studes
Most of the best articles I've read about Morris, and I've read a lot, don't blindly cite WAR or any other stat. They take a lot of time and look pretty deeply into his record. Joe Sheehan wrote a classic several years ago; Bill wrote one here a couple of years ago.

You're right to criticize people who reflexively cite any stat as the be-all and end-all for their Hall of Fame selection, but I don't think Morris suffers from that--at least not from the writers I tend to read.
9:32 PM Jan 25th
 
DaveFleming
Wow….I think there are more words in the comments section than I’ve ever had. Who knew Jack Morris was such a divisive figure?

Just a brief comment about the origins of this….my brother posted a ballot in which he voted for Jack Morris, and did not vote for Curt Schilling. I mocked him for this, because I think it’s absurd to rate Morris ahead of Schilling. I still think this, by the way.

But…in talking to my brother, I realized that my position on this was pretty set in stone: I wasn’t willing to consider the other side; a differing opinion.

This is, I think, a generally bad tendency; to be sure of things. To be certain that you’ve got it right. I think a lot of the discourse in American politics is stunted by our certainties, on either side of the aisle. I think a lot of problems in general are caused by this.

My intention, successful or not, was to try to be a little bit less certain about Morris; to try to see his career in a way that challenged my certainty about it. This led me, sometimes, down a line of thinking that was sometimes non-objective.

Anyway, just thought I’d give a sense of the origins of this essay.

***
A few people have suggested my argument is not particularly sabermetric: to be clear, the only ‘sabermetric’ point I intend to make is that we need to be mindful that the advanced measures have flaws, too. We haven’t solved the puzzle: we don’t know everything, either.

Maybe that’s not sabermetric, but it is a rational point: we don’t have it figured out, and we should be willing to admit that we might be missing things.

And: it’s a good tendency. We tend to disparage anyone who cites wins or RBI as a definitive measure of a player’s ability as a holy fool, but citing WAR or Win Shares as the final word in a discussion is not a drastically better way to come to a conversation. Both are arguments of certainties: I think the better advances in sabermetrics come from places of questioning, not certainty.

Just to illustrate what I’m getting at: until about June or July of the 2012 season, the AL leader in WAR on the baseball-reference page was Brett Lawrie.

I remember seeing this and being startled by it: Lawrie was having a tough year at the plate, and though he was making some stunning plays at third, he sure didn’t seem like the best player in the league. I think Josh Hamilton had hit 30-odd homers at the time...

The folks at bb-reference noticed this. They could’ve decided that their numbers, based on objective analysis, were correct. But upon realizing that Lawrie’s WAR didn’t jibe with perception, they had the good sense to consider the possibility that their analysis was incorrect.

They realized, quickly, that they were giving Lawrie extra credit for playing the ninja position in the outfield (short right on the left-handed hitters). Their defensive metrics had Lawrie as being basically Ozzie Smith + Roberto Clemente on defense. They fixed this.

Is this a ‘sabermetric’ solution? No….it is a rational solution. It is a solution that demonstrates the best impulse of the best thinkers: an uncertainty of all conclusions. A recognition that nothing is ever perfect.

With Morris: I am suggesting that maybe…maybe there’s a glitch. It’s not like it was sportswriters in Detroit who thought he was an ace: everyone thought he was an ace. Bill James. Me. Lots of close observers.

Maybe we all missed something, but it seems rather short-sighted to out-and-out reject the conclusions drawn by so many people, on the basis of a statistic.

Anyway…continue the discussion.

7:33 PM Jan 25th
 
tangotiger
Baseball Reference also looks at quality of opposing hitters, and if you compare Petry to Morris, Morris had a 0.26 RA9 advantage in facing easier batters. That works out to about 7 or 8 runs. So, Petry goes from being a bit better than 20 runs better than Morris to close to 30 runs better than Morris.​
4:20 PM Jan 25th
 
jemanji
... looking at Morris' 1982 by the way, it was an odd season. His gopher rate that year was a sky-high 1.3; the two years previous his HR rate was 0.6 and 0.7, and the three years after it was back to well below zero. Here we get into the philosophical discussion about xFIP and whether you want to normalize Morris' homers-per-flyball when you calculate WAR.

The 1982 Tigers had Underwood and Paschnick as their #5-6 starters behind a 4-man rotation, and they had gopher rates of 1.5 and 1.6, respectively. Still, their ERA+ were 86 and 101, so I suppose folks would probably theorize that Underwood and Paschnick would have won the same games that Morris did.

Morris, Underwood, Paschnick, and Ujdur (3.69 ERA despite 1.5 homer rate) as a group had solid ERA's that year, despite catastrophic homer ratios. I guess the 1982 Tigers were making three diving catches a night ...
.
1:52 PM Jan 25th
 
jemanji
Studes - thanks amigo.

1. If 2 WAR is what Morris gets in 1982, fine. We started off here saying that Morris was worth only 1 WAR. To me it's *feasible* to call a workhorse, average ERA, a 2-WAR player; 2 WAR is nominally "league average." It's the concept of 1 WAR that was weirdin' me out.

2. Of course the fielders get credit, in the abstract sense ... still. Do you and Tom believe, intuitively, that if the Tigers' 1982 starters 6 + 7 replaced Morris' innings -- playing in front of the same defense -- that the Tigers would have won 2 fewer games?

I'm cool with WAR. I'm simply in favor of maintaining a sense of proportion about what *any* data is leading us to believe.

Cheers, J
1:39 PM Jan 25th
 
KaiserD2
I'd like to broaden this out with a brief comment or two.

1. Because of how pitchers are used--the relatively low number of innings that they throw--individual pitchers are less and less important to the overall success of their teams. Since drug use is surely down, though I suspect hardly eliminated, since testing started, this trend will continue. It creates a huge challenge for determining truly appropriate HOF standards for pitchers as opposed to hitters.

2. Because wins seem to be the most important HOF category, the prime determinants of getting in for pitchers are 1) longevity and 2) being lucky enough to play for superior offensive teams. Not only that, but those two factors are correlated: you will look more effective for longer if your team is contending every year.

3. If you are interested in designing sabermetrically valid criteria for Hall of Famers--especially pitchers--you had better accept right away that your opinions are going to be very different from those of the BWAA and the Veterans' Committee.

DK
10:20 AM Jan 25th
 
tangotiger
I started following baseball in 1977. What you just said is revisionist history. Jack Morris happens to have the numbers that appeals to voters, and Dennis Martinez does not. He has staying power because he made a good first impression and was able to build on that. Martinez needed a second date, and they didn't give it to him.
9:03 PM Jan 24th
 
mskarpelos
Generally speaking, I'm much more confident in offensive WAR than I am for either defensive WAR or pitching WAR, so in that sense I can see the case against using WAR in this context. Still a 3.90 ERA is a lot to overcome. People like Dan Patrick, who despise the advance metrics, argue that Morris "pitched to the score" giving up runs when they didn't matter, hence the ERA is misleading. We have enough situational data to determine systematically to what extent (if at all) this is true. I haven't seen such an analysis, but my guess is that it would pretty much debunk this notion of pitching to the score.

To answer Tango's question, Morris was the best pitcher on many teams that won many games. He pitched a lot of innings each year, and he did so consistently over many years, so he compiled a large number of career wins. He also pitched a ten-inning 1-0 shutout in the seventh game of a world series. Fans currently in their 40s and 50s (who form the bulk of baseball's demography) saw all of this first hand and remember Morris in a very positive light. That's why he has such staying power on the HOF ballot.

I'm not saying this is right. I'm just reporting the news. Personally, I can think of at least a half dozen pitchers who are eligible (or nearly so) for the HOF whom I would put in ahead of Morris.
2:00 PM Jan 24th
 
joedimino
He also pitched much better with 3-5 runs of support (.667 OPS against) than with 0-2 (.710) or 6+ (.711). That's a sign in his favor in terms of the pitching to the score argument. Compared to himself that is (105/93/105). The lower the middle number the better you are with 3-5 runs of support. Glavine (91/97/111), Maddux (96/100/104), Clemens (100/94/107). So you could make the case that Morris got lit up more in games where he wasn't likely to matter in, because his offense couldn't score, or scored enough that it didn't matter.

In late and close (7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck) games he was much better (.652) than overall (.693). That's a point in his favor too - although there's probably selection bias there - you don't get to pitch in a late and close game as a SP if you aren't pitching well already. But relative to himself, he was much better (88) than Glavine (98) Maddux (91) or Clemens (95) on this split.

There is probably a little something to Morris pitching to the score. More than other studies have found (before this type of aggregated data was available I think). I don't think it's enough to push him over the top.
1:52 PM Jan 24th
 
joedimino
Sorry for flooding the comments, but there's no edit function . . . Morris's OPS+ for his career was not 100. That's just the number BB-ref uses to compare splits to the pitcher's overall numbers.
1:39 PM Jan 24th
 
joedimino
Random thoughts . . . I looked up Morris' 1982 . . . Hitters overall had a 100 OPS+ against him. With the bases empty compared to a league average (for bases empty) of 100 his OPS+ was 87. With runners on it was 126 and with RISP it was 115. This is already adjusting for the fact that all pitchers are a little worse with RISP. Really unclutch that year by this metric.

With runners on 3rd and less than 2 out it was 134, with 2 out it was 208. That's terrible.

Then again, in high leverage situations, his OPS+ adjusted to the situation was 53, despite everything I said above. Low leverage it was 118.

So who knows?

For his career Morris' OPS+ against was 100 in high, average or low leverage situations. I checked against other pitchers to see if this just wasn't calculated, but others show variance. His OPS were .695, .692 and .693 - he did not pitch any better or worse depending on leverage. I am not sure what league averages are - maybe not losing anything in high leverage situations is a plus compared to the league?

Tom Glavine, for example was much better in low leverage situations .706/.708/.679. Maddux was too .678 in high leverage vs. .645/.642 in average/low leverage. Just pulling random names. Anyone know the overall numbers?

If Morris was better than average in high leverage situations that is a bump for him. That is something we should consider. But I doubt it's enough of one.


1:37 PM Jan 24th
 
joedimino
Are the 1980s very underrepresented? We take this is a main argument for Morris, but . . . here are the Hall of Fame (F) vs. Hall of Merit (M) for everyone who appeared on a Cy Young ballot in the 1980s. For players in both we'll use (B).

1980 - Carlton (B), Gossage (B)
1981 - Fingers (B), Gossage (B), Seaver (B), Ryan (B)
1982 - Carlton (B), Palmer (B), Stieb (M)
1983 - Ryan (B)
1984 - Gossage (B), Blyleven (B), Stieb (M)
1985 - Saberhagen (M), Stieb (M)
1986 - Clemens (M)
1987 - Reuschel (M), Ryan (B), Clemens (M)
1988 - Eckersley (B), Clemens (M), Cone (M)
1989 - Saberhagen (M), Blyleven (B), Ryan (B), Eckersley (B), Maddux (B), Reuschel (M)

That's a total of 28 mentions for the Hall of Merit on the 1980s Cy Young ballots, 17 for the Hall of Fame. Add Dave Stieb, Bret Saberhagen, David Cone, Rick Reuschel and Roger Clemens to the Hall of Fame and suddenly the 80s aren't so underrepresented.

Several of the best pitchers of the 80s ended up with shorter careers for some reason. Mario Soto was great for a few years, but flamed out. Mike Scott didn't figure it out until he was 30 and didn't last as long as Dazzy Vance. Same for Dave Stewart. Ron Guidry, Dwight Gooden, Frank Viola and Orel Hershiser come up just a bit short. In a different universe a couple of them may have lasted as long as Perry or Sutton. They didn't.

I'll try the 70s now for a comparison:

1970: Palmer (B), Gibson (B), Perry (B), Jenkins (B), Seaver (B)
1971: Jenkins (B), Seaver (B), Gibson (B), Marichal (B)
1972: Perry (B), Hunter (F), Palmer (B), Ryan (B), Carlton (B), Jenkins (B), Seaver (B), Sutton (B), Gibson (B)
1973: Palmer (B), Ryan (B), Hunter (F), Blyleven (B), Perry (B), Seaver (B), Sutton (B)
1974: Hunter (F), Jenkins (B), Ryan (B), Perry (B), Niekro (B), Sutton (B)
1975: Palmer (B), Hunter (F), Fingers (B), Gossage (B), Seaver (B), Sutton (B)
1976: Palmer (B), Fingers (B), Sutton (B), Carlton (B), Seaver (B)
1977: Palmer (B), Ryan (B), Carlton (B), Reuschel (M), Seaver (B)
1978: Palmer (B), Eckersley (B), Gossage (B), Jenkins (B), Perry (B), Niekro (B), Fingers (B)
1979: Eckersley (B), Seaver (B), Niekro (B)

In the 1970s the average was 5.6 mentions for Hall of Famers and 5.3 for the guys in the Hall of Merit. Sure that's a lot more than the 1980s.

But if you look, most of those mentions are for easy choices. Guys like Palmer, Carlton, Ryan, Seaver, Perry, Niekro, Marichal, Gibson, Jenkins, Blyleven, Sutton. Gossage and Fingers are easy choices if you think a few relievers should be in, and they straddle the two decades anyway.

In the 1980s there just weren't any of those guys, except for Clemens. The marginal candidates from the 1980s have done slightly worse than those from the 1970s, in that Catfish Hunter is a marginal candidate from the best pitchers of the 1970s that is in. Adding Dave Stieb would equalize this. Adding Morris would be like adding Mickey Lolich.

I'd check the 1960s, but voters only voted for one during those years, so that ballots aren't nearly as deep.
1:13 PM Jan 24th
 
joedimino
The Hall of Merit elected Stieb, Cone and Saberhagen fairly easily. Morris hasn't received much of a sniff, he's lower end on a few ballots every year. Personally I see him as similar to Martinez or Tanana, but behind them, way behind Martinez. Way behind guys like Burleigh Grimes who are borderline Hall of Famers (he's not in the Hall of Merit).

I think he's very similar to Jim Kaat, who gets discussed a lot, but isn't really close when you look deeper. Tommy John would be a MUCH better choice than either Morris or Kaat, for example.

If not Morris, why not Ron Guidry? Take Guidry and add 1500 replacement level innings and you have Morris. If Morris, why not Charlie Hough? Or Sad Sam Jones? Or Paul Derringer?


11:55 AM Jan 24th
 
slemieux99
A valiant effort, but for reasons I discuss at greater length here [http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/01/jack-morris-and-arbitrary-endpoints] I don't buy it. The short version: even if we use FanGraphs WAR and put Morris a little ahead of Martinez and Stieb and Key rather than a little behind them, it's not enough because it's just arbitrary endpoints. Pitchers "from that era" aren't underrepresented; just "pitchers who accumulated most of their value from 1980-89." I don't see how the fact that the real Hall of Famers from the era debuted in the middle of the decade rather than the beginning makes Jack Morris (who wouldn't even be in the discussion had his best years been in the mid-70s or mid-90s) a Hall of Famer.
11:22 AM Jan 24th
 
rgregory1956
Between 1899 (Traynor) and 1931 (Mathews), a 31-year gap, there were no obvious HOF-quality third basemen born (tho some version of a VetCom gave us Lindstrom and Kell, when they could have given us Hack or Groh or Elliott or Rosen as well). For whatever reason, sometimes there's just no overwhelming candidate for a particular position in an era.
11:04 AM Jan 24th
 
tangotiger
There's really not much separating Jack Morris from Dennis Martinez or Frank Tanana. And, you can make a case to preferring the career of Orel Hershiser and Dave Steib to Jack Morris. And if you want to include younger contemporaries, you have Finley and Appier and Cone and Saberhagen. You can even make the case that Jack Morris is ahead of all of them (and you can make just as convincing a case that he should be at the bottom of all of them).

But, the problem with the Hall of Fame selection process is that ONLY Jack Morris gets to have those arguments. That's really where the problem lies. It's hard to separate Morris from the rest, but to the extent that you want to argue for / against Morris, it would be nice if we can continue to have those same arguments for all the other pitchers I mentioned.

As it stands, you get an initial sniff, and except for Orel, I think all the others were one-and-done. And after a second sniff, Orel was gone. But, Morris smells good from the outset, like a cheap cologne on Canal St. After a while, it stinks terribly, while the good stuff, the stuff you didn't give a good enough chance, still smells good. But, it's too late to bring it back.

The anti-Morris sentiment is really a sentiment against Jack Morris being talked about for 15 years, while everyone else got one or two ballots.

10:55 AM Jan 24th
 
SkeptiSys
"There is gap of ten years betweenthe birth of Bert Blyleven and Clemens. I’d argue:

a. It is likely that at least one Hall-of-Fame pitcher was probably born during that decade, and
b. Jack Morris is probably the best, or at least the second-best, candidate."

For 'a', I am not sure why you didn't bother to explain why you think a HOF pitcher had to be born during that time, but I did my my own checking and found:

No pitcher has been elected to the HOF that began his career after 1976. Morris began his career in 1977, so if he were elected it wouldn't change this by much.

I think one reason no pitcher has been elected from this time is that the voters are slow to change from using older standards to elect pitchers. Using older standards Morris is one of the best candidates (remembered as a 'tough' player with an easy to remember data point; 250 wins) although not as good as his predecessors, but is not at all a good candidate using newer standards. Likely HOF voters will eventually correct this, but not before some more silly election results.

As for 'b', I don't buy your argument that Morris may be the best candidate during those 10 years. Some reasons:
1. as you state, he is only 6th best during this time using the cumulative stat total WAR.
2. other saber metrics do not favor Morris. Using win shares, Bill James ranks Steib 74th best all time in his historical book, and Morris nowhere in the top 100.
3. You use non-sabermetric methods to discount his challengers.

for #3, I want to use Dennis Martinez as an example. Your argument for making up 5.8 WAR (15% of Morris' total) is that most people thought Morris was better. Is there a more anti-sabermetric argument available?

Martinez won 9 fewer games than Morris, but had a better ERA, ERA+, postseason ERA, more win shares, better WAR. To discount that Martinez may have been a more valuable pitcher than Morris solely because most people think so is exactly the non-sabermetric argument for Morris' election, that we should elect him because we remember him as a great pitcher.

Another example is your use of Comparability Scores, Morris vs. Stieb. Morris' list is full of players with better ERA+ (9 of the 10 have better ERA+ than Morris with Moyer only slightly behind 104 - 103). Stieb's list has 9 with worst ERA+ than his, many much worse. This is a quirk in the system, comparing only superficial numbers. Morris has a list of pitchers much better than he is because he is worse than his superficial numbers appear, and Stieb the opposite. That argument is based on Morris actually being comparable to Bob Gibson and Bob Feller in value, and I don't buy it.

I hope this comes across as constructive. Personally, I think the starting point of 'here is evidence that player A is a HOF' or even 'is player A a HOF?' will lead to faulty conclusions more frequently than starting with 'how do we determine who is a HOF?'


10:47 AM Jan 24th
 
CWright
The data exists and and is readily available to answer the question about whether Morris's ERA was inflated by pitching so often deep in the game.

Was he less effective in the 7th inning on? No, in fact the opposing batters OPS was over 30 points less than in the first 6 innings.

Was his effectiveness declining as the season went along? No, exactly the opposite. His second half ERA in his career is actually much better than what he did in the first half. And after August he was generally at his best.

It is interesting that you mention Red Ruffing as currently having the highest career ERA in the Hall. He had the same kind of uphill climb in his HOF voting that Morris has had. In fact, Ruffing would never have been elected by the BBWAA under their current process. He was elected in his 15th year on the ballot through a runoff vote, which they no longer do. (He got 72.6% in the first ballot.)

But there are big differences between Ruffing and Morris and they clearly favor Ruffing. In the context of their eras, Ruffing's ERA is considerably better than the ERA of Morris. Ruffing played in a heavy hitting era when the league ERA was over a quarter of a run higher than during the career of Morris.

Ruffing's ERA was also inflated by his early years when in the big leagues way before he was ready because he was the property of a horrible Red Sox team that was desperate for pitching. That's one of the reasons his peak value argument for the Hall of Fame is so much better than you would expect from his career numbers.

Here are the top half-dozen seasons of Ruffing in Win Shares Above Replacement Level compared to the top 6 for Morris.

Ruffing 16.9 15.5 14.4 14.2 12.7 12.2
Morris 13.0 12.0 11.4 10.7 10.6 10.5

The only argument that holds water on Morris is that probably some starting pitcher from that brief era should be in the Hall and Morris is the best of the lot. But he is not. He is simply the one with the types of numbers most appealing to HOF voters. Like you I would lean to Stieb as the best, even the HOF voters thought very little of him. He at least can make the case he was an All-Star pitcher more often in that era despite his career being shortened considerably by shoulder and back trouble.

I incidentally grew up in Michigan as a big Tiger fan. I really appreciate what Morris did and what a great pitcher he was. I was paying close attention to the best years of his career, and in none of those years could I argue he was the best in the maors or even his league. That does not feel like a Hall of Famer to me, and I never felt I was watching a Hall of Famer.
9:39 AM Jan 24th
 
studes
As an example of how we shouldn't rely on one specific version of WAR too much, Fangraphs gives Morris two WAR in 1982, Wilcox 2.3. Close enough to call even.

Regarding jemanji's question, WAR gives credit for preventing runs to both fielders and pitchers. That's how Morris can have fewer than three WAR. He gets two while the fielders get one. This split is similar to Bill's Win Shares split, and it seems appropriate for Morris, given his low strikeout rate that year.

Dave, I think your basic argument is...we should include a pitcher from the '80's in the Hall, and Morris is arguably the best choice from the '80's. I'm not sure that's a sabermetric argument, but it is an argument. :)
9:09 AM Jan 24th
 
KaiserD2
To begin with, Dave Fleming, we were in the midst of a lively argument about win shares and WAR in the Hall of Fame thread, and I asked you (who spend most of your waking hours on this stuff) to explain how they could be so inconsistent, both from season to season for the same player, and for different players. That is, the same number of win shares can translate into substantially different WAR. Since both, at least as I understand it, are supposed to be measurements of total value, this has to mean that something is wrong with one measurement or the other, and I still would like your opinion on this. It's certainly related to your broader point that we may eventually conclude some of what we think we know is false. I've already concluded that but I don't know WHAT is suspect, win shares or WAR.

But continuing, I have to say, having watched the development of sabermetrics for more than 30 years and participated in my own small way, that your argument represents a setback from its original purpose. The point of Bill James's early works was that most judgements about baseball were based upon emotion, not data. He created a cadre of people who cared more about data. But here we have you presenting pretty unarguable data that Morris isn't a Hall of Famer and then spending a lot of words trying to find a way around it.

I'm not sure how you reached the conclusion that there had to be a Hall of Fame pitcher born in any decade, but that became the basis of your argument. In fact it seems to me that with a rigorous definition of Hall of Famer, it's at least as likely that you could NOT expect such people to be born at such regular intervals. And this is especially true because there are huge changes in how pitchers are used from decade to decade that affect their final statistics. You are suggesting Morris should go in the Hall, essentially, because he was the most durable pitcher of his era. True, but he actually performed at only slightly better than average all that time.

Now the way you described generational interplay is accurate. After a lifetime in academia, I'm quite convinced that each generation has a powerful emotional incentive to disbelieve what previous generations thought. And sadly, that incentive is stronger than the incentive to respect rational evidence. To take an example from another walk of life, there are far more people in the US today, both absolutely and percentage-wise, who believe in the literal truth of the Bible than there were fifty years ago--and I certainly can't explain that based on the emergence of new evidence for that position.

The question for full-time sabermetricians like yourself is whether you want to "go with the flow" and find a sabermetric way to justify the prejudices of the era you live in, or stick to the data, however lonely that might be. In my own profession of history I chose the latter course. It has been rather lonely, but it has its own rewards.

David Kaiser
8:57 AM Jan 24th
 
jemanji
Excellent article Mr. Fleming!

One of the most compelling insights there ... the idea that Morris' 1982 was worth 1.0 WAR. If that's accurate, then it's a black mark for WAR, not Morris.

But something doesn't add up: his ERA+ was 100 that year. He threw 266 innings, almost exactly 30 games, if you call a "game" innings 1 thru 9.

Replacement pitching is supposed to be at least +1.00 ERA worse than ML average. So even 1 run per 9-inning game, times 30 games, that's 30 runs or three wins -- 3 WAR.

How do you pitch 30 games at league average and have that add up to only 10 runs better than a AAA pitcher? Hm. Wonder where the horsepower is getting lost going to the back wheels of WAR here.
.
5:40 AM Jan 24th
 
RonMock
Dave --

Thanks for this article. I am a big Jack Morris fan, and keep hoping someone will find a way to make a case for him. I'd like to see him in the Hall, but I want him to deserve it.

You articulate my puzzlement about why Morris doesn't seem more like a Hall of Famer, given the role he played for over a decade as an ace pitcher, and the way he piled traditional Hall of Fame credential without amassing WAR or keeping his ERA down.

I wonder if the answer to the puzzle might lie in all those innings Jack pitched. Take 1982 and his comparison to Milt Wilcox. No one in Michigan thought Wilcox was the more valuable pitcher. Morris pitched those 17 complete games, averaging almost 2 extra innings a game compared to Wilcox. Sparky Anderson rode Morris. By comparison, Wilcox was coddled. The result was that Morris pitched more innings fatigued than Wilcox did.

I don't have the means to study this, that I know of, but isn't it possible that, had Morris been protected from all those additional innings, his ERA (and FIP and WAR and so on) would be better than Wilcox's? Even if we assumed the extra innings took no toll over the season, and only tired him during the game, what does Morris' ERA look like in the two extra innings per start he was pitching? If his pitching deteriorated in those late innings, is it fair to give him a break for the extra work his manager made him do?

Or to put it another way, shouldn't Morris get credit for taking so much of the load off the bullpen? Shouldn't some of the bullpen's ERA/WAR success be credited to Morris for doing more than his share to protect them? I'd love to know what Detroit's bullpen's ERA was on days he pitched as compared to the days he didn't. But even that would mask the benefit the Tigers got from all his extra innings, since the rested bullpen would perform better all the time.

And it seems to me this question repeats itself for just about every one of Morris' seasons -- he consistently took on more than his share of the workload. If his later innings (or maybe even his late season starts) score poorly in WAR/ERA/FIP etc, that should be recognized, I suppose. But so should the corresponding benefits to the bullpen his managers bought at his expense.

Anyway -- I don't know if you get us all the way to giving ourselves permission to let Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame, but I sure appreciate the effort.

-- Ron Mock
Dundee, Oregon
1:51 AM Jan 24th
 
 
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