Big Game Pitchers

January 20, 2014

                Was Jack Morris, in fact, a Big Game Pitcher?

                I will answer that question, at length—not today and not tomorrow, not this week, actually, but eventually.   I have done research that provides a clear and convincing answer to that question, but first there are quite a number of things that I have to explain, starting with this.

                It is important for us not to be arrogant.    Our field, I mean. . .sabermetrics, analytics, whatever you want to call it.    It is important for us not to be trapped by the progression of the argument into thinking that we understand the issues better than we do.

                And second, Jack Morris’ credentials for the Hall of Fame are actually not half bad.  

                Jack Morris has become a Whipping Boy in the Hall of Fame debate, and this happened because of Bert Blyleven.   I assume most of you know this, but. …recapping quickly.   People in our field tend not to put much weight on pitchers’ won-lost records, and at least one of our crowd is campaigning to get rid of them entirely.    Bert Blyleven has a strong Hall of Fame case in terms of Games Started, Innings, ERA, Strikeouts, Walks, Shutouts and analytical stats (and practical jokes; let’s not forget the practical jokes.)   Despite these assets, Blyleven was not elected to the Hall of Fame until 2011.   He was not elected to the Hall of Fame until late in his eligibility largely because his won-lost record was not as good as his other stats.   We don’t much believe in won-lost records, so while he was Not Being Elected Blyleven became the poster child of the analytics community.   

                As Blyleven became the favorite of our side of the debate, Jack Morris became the standard bearer for the Traditionalists.   Morris has the opposite qualifications:  fewer starts and innings pitched, a higher Earned Run Average, many fewer strikeouts, more walks, and less than half as many shutouts.   Morris pitched a thousand fewer innings than Blyleven, but still issued more walks.   He does, however, own a better won-lost log than The Nasty Dutchman—33 fewer wins, but 64 fewer losses.    Since Traditionalists believe in the Won-Lost records of pitchers, they believe in Jack Morris.  

                Or is it not quite that simple?   Always dicey when you try to represent a set of views you don’t actually believe in, but I’m sincerely trying.   To Traditionalists, the argument can be boiled down to "Who do you want on the mound when you have to win a Big Game:   Morris, or Blyleven?"    Since Traditionalists advocate for Jack Morris, they thus advocate the position that Morris was a Big Game Pitcher.    Morris did make 13 post-season starts and was 7-4 in the Post-Season (although even there his ERA was an unimpressive 3.80.)     He pitched in three World Series, and won four games in those World Series, and of course he pitched a tremendous game in the 7th game of the 1991 World Series. 

                Of course, while Morris was 7-4 in post-season, Bert Blyleven was 5-1 with a much better ERA, 2.35, and while Morris led the Twins to a World Series championship in 1991, Blyleven did the same in 1987, so. ..that’s not actually all that helpful, but back to Jack.   According to Mike Ozanian in Forbes, just last week "I saw a ton of his games, as I did two hurlers who did get the nod for the Hall (this year), Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Let me tell you something: if I to pick one of these three to win a game that my life depended on I would pick Morris in a heartbeat."  

                Well. . .I’d take Bret Saberhagen over any of those guys, too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a Hall of Famer.   When he was on his game, Saberhagen was better than any of those guys including Morris, but I am trying to be conciliatory here, rather than argumentative.  Ozanian casts the debate not as Analysts against Traditionalists, but as Winners against Fantasy-League Stats.  

Morris credentials’ for the Hall of Fame are not half bad.   Let me make a Hall of Fame argument on his behalf:

                1)  While Won-Lost records of pitchers are often misleading for a single-season, they are also often instructive—and accurate.    If you list the ten best starting pitchers in a league by Won-Lost records, and also by whatever analytical stat you prefer, they will sometimes be different, but normally six or eight of the ten are going to be the same guys.   

                2)  A won-lost record is much more reliable as an indicator of the pitcher’s ability over the course of a career than it is in a single season.   Over the course of a career, all of the things that trouble won-lost records in a season tend to become less of a problem.

                3)  Winning is the object of the game.  

                4)  Historically, most pitchers who have career won-lost records similar to Jack Morris have been elected to the Hall of Fame.   Morris was 254-186.   If you take Red Ruffing, Burleigh Grimes, Jim Palmer, Eppa Rixey, Bob Feller, Ted Lyons, Red Faber, Carl Hubbell, Bob Gibson, Vic Willis, Amos Rusie, Herb Pennock, Three Finger Brown, Clark Griffith and Waite Hoyt, their won-lost records average 252-182, and all of them are in the Hall of Fame.   If you throw Mordecai out of the group, their average record is actually 254-186, the same as Morris’. 

                5)  Below that group of Morris comps there is another group of Hall of Fame pitchers whose won-lost records are distinctly LESS impressive than Morris’.    Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning, Rube Marquard, Dazzy Vance, Ed Walsh, Rube Waddell, Stan Coveleski, Chief Bender, Jesse Haines, Don Drysdale, Hal Newhouser, Bob Lemon.

                6)  If elected to the Hall of Fame, Morris would certainly not be the worst pitcher in there, although the same can also be said of many other pitchers such as Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant, Ron Guidry and Mike Mussina.   

                7)  Morris’ seven post-season wins are certainly a meaningful credential.   What is the ratio of value, one post-season game to one regular-season game?   Five to one?   Ten to one?   Twenty to one?     Put enough value on the Post Season, and Morris goes over the line or, if you prefer to think of it that way, further over the line.

                8)  Pitching perhaps the greatest World Series 7th-game start of all time is not an insignificant accomplishment.  

                OK, but we circle back to the argument that Morris was a Big Game pitcher, in general, rather than merely a Big Game pitcher in the 1991 post-season.  Traditionalists assert that Jack Morris was a Big Game pitcher, because they have to assert this to defend Morris, and Analysts sneer and scoff at that because there is no general evidence for it, and also because sneering and scoffing are what we are best at.   

                We reject the argument that Jack Morris was a Big Game pitcher because there is no evidence for it beyond a few World Series starts, but think about it.   Is there any evidence that it isn’t true?   Have you ever seen any evidence that it isn’t true?  What if it is true?

                This is what started me off on this two-week research tangent, neglecting my wife, my personal habits and the Boston Red Sox.     What if it is true that Jack Morris was, in fact, a Big Game pitcher?   How would we know?

                I am old enough to remember sabermetrics before some younger guys developed the concept of a leverage index, and one thing I remember is older analysts sneering at the value of relief pitchers, because the number of runs they save is small (relative to the number of runs saved by a starting pitcher.)     What if there is a similar effect here: a Big GAME effect rather than a Big INNING effect, but we have not been seeing that because we have not been looking for it? 

                I decided to look.   More on this tommorrow, and the next day, and the next, and on and on.   It’s going to run in to next week.


COMMENTS (31 Comments, most recent shown first)

Tangotiger wrote:

The real issue with Morris is that he remained part of the conversation for 15 years, while Hershiser had only two years, and El Presidente and his other peers only had one. If Martinez, and Reuschel, and Tanana, and Guidry et al could have remained part of the conversation, Morris would not have been elevated so much, and became the focal point.

Sort of like saying if I was only taller I'd be a giant.

But Guidry, Tiant, El Presidente, etc DIDN'T stay on the ballot. That's the point. SOMETHING kept Morris on for 15 years. That something was that the writers saw him pitch and they saw him make start after start and contribute significantly to two teams in Detroit that had the best record in baseball, a team in Minnesota that wons the WS, and two more teams in Toronto that won the WS. Morris dominated for two starts in the '84 Series and did it again in the '91 Series. He was a great pitcher. Not enough writers thought he was a HOF pitcher, but they thought he was better than Guidry and Tiant, etc. And he was. whatthe Analysts don't "get" is that baseball is not a math test. It's not played on a spreadsheet. Yes, numbers in baseball are fantastic to argue about and look at. But the game isn't all about the stats. There are real people playing the games and sometimes there are players, like Catfish Hunter, like Rabbit Maranville, like Dizzy Dean, like Morris, who don't have the most glossy resume, but they have enough and they have the extra something that can't be defined by numbers alone. The rest of us embrace that (and the HOF rules actually demand that these non-numbers factors be considered). Why the Sabrmetrics guys still want to decide the HOF based on charts and lists of WAR and defensive metrics is beyond me. That's part of the discussion. But confining the debate to that is like driving to the grand canyon and parking in the lot but never getting out to look at it. You still went there, but you didn't really.
4:25 AM Jan 2nd
bit of a laugh there. "i'll take saberhagen over maddux." baseball is about consistency, isn't it?
7:40 AM Jan 29th
Mike: I think you missed the point.

Having the same numbers in the post-season as you do in the regular season IS taking your game to a higher notch!
(See my prior post. On the average, offensive numbers in the post-season are lower than in the regular season. So, if a player just maintains the same numbers, he's taking his game to a higher notch. It's sort of like grading on a curve.....or, maybe more relevantly, like if a player moves from a team with a hitter's park to a team with a pitcher's park, and his numbers don't go down.)
10:25 PM Jan 22nd
To Marisfan:
I did not mean that as a knock at Jeter in any way, shape or form. But we hear, as those it's gospel truth, that he "takes it to another level in the postseason," and that simply isn't true. His career batting average is .312 in the regular season, .308 in the postseason. His on-base drops by seven points in the postseason, and his slugging goes up by 19 points. That is virtually no change at all. So, yes, he is a great postseason player - because he is able to play at the same level in the postseason as he does during the regular season. Very few players can match his consistently strong play over the course of a long career.

10:06 AM Jan 22nd
I did not want to get into this in a big way, but. . .every game in the season counts equally in the standings. If Bobby Thompson could have hit one more home run to win one other regular season game--either in the first week of the season or the last--the Giants would have won the 1951 pennant without a playoff. As dramatic? No. As valuable? Yes. Lots of pennants have been won in the first half of the season. As for the post season, I don't think I'll ever be convinced that great performances within short series are anything but chance. That's what makes those games so exciting!

9:15 PM Jan 21st
BTW.....I'd love to know what was Bill's exact quote on that MLB show about "Top 10" current CF's (I think this might have been about Austin Jackson). The way I have it, which is approximate, I imagine it might look like he was being sarcastic, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't. I'm hoping someone else saw the show and might be able to tidy up how I put it.
5:23 PM Jan 21st
About the Don Larsen/Bobby Thomson thing: I see it a bit differently than said below. It's not just whether they had other over-the-top moments; it's whether they did enough other 'whatever' and of course they didn't. I think Morris arguably did do enough other 'whatever' for the Game 7 to put him over the top.
12:02 PM Jan 21st

good point. I ought to have looked that up.
11:59 AM Jan 21st
Edward, I love Smoltz, and he pitched brilliantly that night, but he also pitched seven and a third innings, not nine. Morris retired 30 batters. Smoltz retired 22. That's a 36 percent difference, which isn't "the smallest of margins."
11:52 AM Jan 21st
Regarding the comment below about Jeter:
You didn't take into account what we might call the "control" factor.

Sure, Jeter's post-season numbers mirror his regular season numbers.. (Actually they're a bit better, especially on power which I think is especially significant, but let's say they mirror them.) The thing is, offensive numbers on the average are lower in the post-season than in the regular season, I suppose because of better pitching and less hitting-conducive weather (maybe especially for power). Taking that into account, we can see that Jeter's post-season reputation is completely deserved.
11:36 AM Jan 21st
Bill, you'd take Saberhagan over Maddux?

Okay. Take him. I guess when he was 'on' he was very good. Maddux was 'on' for about ten years, and he had a turbo button for several of them.

I can't wait for a discussion of 1991 Game 7 if there will be one. Morris pitched a wonderful, wonderful game, which everyone here knows. Lots of folks gloss over that Smoltzie matched him for 9 of those innings before the bullpen gave it up in the 10th.

So Morris's performance was the best pitching performance of that game only by the smallest of margins.
11:33 AM Jan 21st
Kaiser - I think the point of the "big game" discussion is not that Don Larsen or Gene Tenace should be in the Hall of Fame. It's the question of whether any player or pitcher - in this case, it's Jack Morris who is being discussed - showed a CONSISTENT ability to perform well in big games OVER THE COURSE OF HIS CAREER. Lots of players get credit for it, but when you examine it you see that Jeter's postseason stats are mirrors of his regular season stats, and Don Drysdale never once time in his career beat the Dodgers' key opponent in the heat of a pennant race (as Bill wrote in "Politics of Glory").
I believe it would be fair, if you could definitely prove that a player had an established pattern over the course of his career of coming up big in the most important games, that this information could be used as a point in his favor in a Hall of Fame discussion.
10:52 AM Jan 21st

3for3, the W/L record of HOF pitchers in the post-season is 188-147, a .561 winning percentage, with a 2.69 ERA.

9:34 AM Jan 21st
I think the comments below me here--especially the one immediately below--have been extremely insightful and echo some of my own thoughts, but I want to add a few things.

To begin with, I will shortly start systematically doing the same analysis for pitchers I've been doing for hitters--analyzing who were the greatest, based on how many seasons over 4-5 WAA they had. (This will be easier than hitters because all available data is readily available on By that measure there is no comparison between Blyleven and Morris. Blyleven was FAR superior, and the main reason it isn't reflected in his won-loss record, of course, is the teams he played with, something Bill hardly mentions at all.

Secondly, overhanging all this is the question, who does belong in the Hall of Fame? In the original abstracts, and in The Politics of Glory, Bill made it clear he thought there were far too many people in the Hall of Fame. I certainly still believe that's the case. It doesn't do any good, of course, and it's ungracious, to complain about people, especially living people, who are still in; but that doesn't change the fact that many of them are not great. I heard a talk about the Hall by Peter Gammons yesterday, and I was tempted to suggest to him that he and every other voter make a list, privately, of people in the Hall whom they don't think should be there, and use it to help them in future voting. But I didn't and I doubt he would have appreciated it. I think the problem we face is that most people want to argue for their favorite candidate, and doing so is easier if there are plenty of worse players to point to. My personal feeling is that we should be out to raise, not lower or maintain, the current standard of what it takes to get into the Hall. But since that will work against, not for, many people's favorite candidates, that idea isn't going to go very far. (By the way--I am absolutely convinced, at this point that the most unfairly treated hitter born before 1961 (that is, before the PED era) is Bobby Grich. Bill argued in the early 1980s that he was a great player, and he was right. Very great, a greater, for instance, than Barry Larkin.)

Lastly, I am . . .astonished. ..that the big-game (in the sense a 7th World series game) argument could be taken seriously. Should Bobby Thompson, Gene Tenace, Mickey Lolich, or Howard Ehmke be in the Hall of Fame? Lolich did a hell of a lot more to win the 1968 WS than Morris did to win the 1991 one. (Incidentally, Gammons yesterday said the greatest world series pitching performance he ever saw was Luis Tiant in Game 4 of the 1975 World Series. I would rank it as the luckiest, myself.) Isn't it more important to ask who, on your team, did the most to GET you into the World Series in the first place? Isn't any good pitcher whose team is good enough to get him into a few world series likely to throw a shutout sometime--perhaps,. depending on the luck of the draw, in game 7?

I am looking forward to the remainder of the series.
8:32 AM Jan 21st
A couple of things:

Bill, I wonder, are you sort of 'moving toward the center'? Like Steve161, I also loved "sneering and scoffing are what we are best at," and that sure sounds semi-anti-sabermetric, but then again you've never hesitated that much to give yourself and sabermetrics the business. But what struck me more was something you said on the MLB channel last week, when they were doing "Top 10" guys at each position. I think this was about the CF batch, and on 1 guy (don't remember who -- I was so stunned by what you said that I immediately forgot everything), when they asked you, what about the guy's so-so defensive metrics, you really said something like, "Well, just from watching him I know he was real good out there."

On the subject at hand: Something that seems like an assumption in sabermetrics but which I don't share -- and I think much or most of the public in general doesn't -- is the idea that "greatness" is sort of synonymous with total overall contribution and subtraction to winning. Like, if we give Jack Morris huge credit for pitching a spectacular World Series game, we have to take some away for when he was bad. Well, no. Maybe usually, but at least for me, while for the most part it does work that way, there are some few over-the-top kinds of achievements that soar above all that, and that you don't subtract from. (No accident that a Maris fan feels this way, even though I wouldn't much argue his HOF case.)

I feel intuitively that Morris is a fairly obvious Hall of Famer, but I would agree that the 1991 Game 7 in itself isn't enough to do it for Morris. I look forward to the rest of this study to see how he comes out. But I think the way I'll be looking at it is, how great and how plentiful were his great big games, rather than how much he wasn't great in other big games.
2:55 AM Jan 21st
(Was that a Casablanca moment in the second line?) :-)
2:32 AM Jan 21st
I wonder what the all time post season record for HOF pitchers is...
2:32 AM Jan 21st
The problem with the Jack Morris for HOF argument isn't that he was a bad pitcher -- he was a damn fine pitcher. But so were lots of others. People who say that opponents of Morris were mean-spirited never fess up to how mean-spirited they are to deny comparable or better candidates like Hershiser, Tiant, Kaat, Reuschel, Cone, etc. etc. etc. (ad infinitum almost) entry.

If you want a 500 person HOF, fine, but make sure you're on the barricades for all 500, not just one.

8:56 PM Jan 20th
Around the time that the vote was announced, I had a debate with a jack Morris fan who kept using the phrase "big game pitcher" like a mantra. I pointed out his postseason stats, and the (markedly better) postseason stats of Schilling and Smoltz, and I said, "If you give Morris credit for being a big game pitcher, you must think these two guys are deities." He responded that Schilling was a great big game pitcher, but he dismissed Smoltz because - I am not making this up - because Smoltz used the services of a sports psychologist. That fact counterbalanced everything else Smoltz did. I argued that if Smoltz found a way to make himself a better pitcher by focusing on his mental approach to the game, that should be a point in his favor, not a point against him. The other guy told me I was wrong, that using a sports psychologist made Smoltz a "wussy" who couldn't get it done on his own.
3:46 PM Jan 20th
But it is reasonable to argue that pitchers could be clutch even if hitters are not, because pitching is planned, whereas hitting is reaction. It is difficult to see how hitting CAN be clutch, because it is based on a twentieth-of-a-second reactions. Pitching. . .not as much.
2:52 PM Jan 20th
sounds a lot like the flipside of trying to identify clutch hitters, which as we have all learned by now.....
2:40 PM Jan 20th
Here's one way to determine big game effectiveness.

1. Define what qualifies as a big game.
2. Assign multipliers to the importance of the game. Elimination games receive higher multipliers than pennant race games. Clinching games also receive higher multipliers. Playoff games receive higher multipliers than non-elimination playoff games. Elimination world series games receive the highest multiplier.
3. Record the game scores for all of the big games as defined. Apply the approprite multiplier to each game.
4. Add up the totals and you have a career big game score and a big game score per start.

My guess is that Smoltz is number one for career score and Mathewson or Gibson is number one for per start score.
2:21 PM Jan 20th
You guys go have fun with the big-game study, don't mind me... but is his big game ability really the issue? If you ask me, it's not some esoteric, immeasurable ability that makes his Hall of Fame case, but some real, easily measurable accomplishments. He did win the seventh game in 1991, he did dominate the Padres in 1984, and so on and so forth. It's not the height of his ability that's in question, but rather the height of his accomplishments. Are they enough? personally I think he's right at the border between a C and a D level Hall of Famer, and as such perfectly placed as a future early VC choice. I'm just one opinion, though.
12:46 PM Jan 20th
David Kowalski
Bill has said it before and undoubtedly will say it again. The case for any individual player comes down as to where you would set the line for entry into the Hall of Fame. Is it the top 30 players of all time? In that case none of the players we talk about routinely should make the Hall. It is reserved for Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays and the few who come close. Do we draw the line at the worst player in the Hall of Fame. In that case we might have well over a thousand members. Is it the worst player who isn't a joke? Does Phil Rizzutto become the measure of a Hall of Fame shorstop? If that is the case, a dozen more shortstops and 200 more players should be in and we are looking at a 500 player Hall of Fame.

Essentially, a Hall of Famer becomes what the Hall of Fame says is a Hall of Famer. It's probably closer to the Rizzutto line than the 300 player line but trending strongly towards the 300 player line. Eliminate ythe Veteran's Committe and various special elections and the results, as everybody notes, are a lot more stringent. Roger Clemens comes in as the third best pitcher in baseball history and Barry Bonds as the second best position player, about equal to Babe Ruth. We know why they are out. We don't have a clue on why Tony Fernandez gets no consideration.
12:46 PM Jan 20th
Bill did an article some years back (couldn't find it after 15 mins of looking) about pitchers W-L record against good and bad teams. I remember a goodness-of-fit test didn't find anything significantly non-random about the performance of the group as a whole. I think Bret Saberhagen had the largest pro-good split, and it was pretty much what random chance would have predicted the largest split to be in a dataset that size.
12:43 PM Jan 20th
You know what's interesting? Hershiser and Bob Welch have practically identical career statistics--in fact I think they may the two most statistically similar pitchers in history who had significant careers--but Hershiser comes in with 8 more WAR. They both played their careers mostly in pitchers' parks, they both had a very famous Cy Young season (and probably neither actually deserved the award the year they won it, though Hershiser could have won it in a couple other seasons), they were teammates for a couple years in LA.
11:55 AM Jan 20th
Hershiser actually has a non-absurd argument for the Hall of Fame. Baseball-Reference has him worth 52 wins as a pitcher (plus another 5 wins as a hitter), which puts him ahead of several Hall of Famers. Add to that his great postseason record (2.59 ERA in 132 innings), and he's got a case.

11:41 AM Jan 20th
Right, I'm all fine with giving Morris credit for "big gaminess". But that has to apply to all pitchers. Orel Hershiser, Bret Saberhagen, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Andy Pettitte. And we can't give him huge credit for one game (1991) and not knock him down for another game (1992).

The real issue with Morris is that he remained part of the conversation for 15 years, while Hershiser had only two years, and El Presidente and his other peers only had one. If Martinez, and Reuschel, and Tanana, and Guidry et al could have remained part of the conversation, Morris would not have been elevated so much, and became the focal point.
10:23 AM Jan 20th

I've noticed that the pitchers that Traditionalists like, that Analysts don't, have a much lower ERC/CERA than their ERAs (not that Traditionalists know anything about ERC/CERA). Nolan Ryan's ERA was 3.19; his ERC was 2.90. Don Sutton's ERA was 3.26; his ERC was 2.90. Jim Hunter's ERA was 3.26; his ERC was 2.97. And Jack Morris' ERA was 3.90; his ERC was 3.62. (Blyleven's and Hershiser's were 3.31/3.24 and 3.48/3.42) I wonder if those with Big Game reps don't have significantly lower ERCs.

I am not saying the ERC is a better indicator of greatness than ERA. What I am saying is that ERC is another tool. ERC, like ERA or Wins or Black Ink or Win Shares, has uses in determining HOF worthiness.

9:46 AM Jan 20th
I cannot fathom how in the world Jack Morris could be a worthy Hall of Famer if Orel Hershiser is not. I'll be interested to see what Bill's come up with here.
8:49 AM Jan 20th
"Analysts sneer and scoff at that because there is no general evidence for it, and also because sneering and scoffing are what we are best at."

Loved that.

I'm of the school that believes Jack Morris won a lot of games because he pitched for good teams and that his ERA is too high for a HOFer. I also have argued that, if what Jack Morris did in 1991 is HOF-worthy, so is what Orel Hershiser did in 1988.

I wouldn't have believed there was a way to identify a big game effect, but I'm willing to be persuaded by the evidence, if any.

Very much looking forward to the rest of this series.

8:42 AM Jan 20th
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