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Jack Morris won more games in the 80s than anyone. So what?

Dec 22, 2010, 8:26 AM EDT

Jack Morris

So much of the Hall of Fame support for Jack Morris is premised on the idea that he won more games in the 80s than anyone.  FanHouse’s John Hickey wrote about that just yesterday. There are many others who have and will as well.  Question: why does that matter?

Any single decade is an arbitrary measure. Sure, “the 1980s” is a decade. But so is “1995-2004.”  So is “1977-1986.”  Just because the nostalgia industry and the tyranny of the base-10 numbering system gives special significance to decades with catchy names doesn’t mean that those given ten-year periods are worth more than any other.  There are a great many pitchers whose careers overlapped Morris’ on either the front end or the back end who were better than him for their own ten-year chunks. To give credit to Morris for “the 1980s” is more a function of us being more comfortable with round numbers than his abilities as a pitcher.

But even if “the 80s” mattered, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that the 80s was probably the weakest decade for starting pitchers in the 20th century?  It was a brief bubble between two generations of elite starters, with the Seaver/Palmer/Carlton/Perry/Niekro/Ryan crown winding down and the Clemens/Maddux/Johnson crowd cranking up (or in Johnson’s case, about to).  Being the best starting pitcher of the 80s is like being the strongest football team in Alaska. The best vaudeville performer of the 21st century. The most skilled archer in an artillery division. The finest restaurant in all of  Saginaw, Michigan.

Someone has to hold that title, sure, but does it mean anything? Should it be honored?

Here are the winningest pitchers by decade.  Tell me: are any of their Hall of Fame cases premised on being the winningest pitcher of the decade? Or was their value more apparent?

1900s – Christy Mathewson
1910s – Walter Johnson
1920s – Burleigh Grimes
1930s – Lefty Grove
1940s – Hal Newhouser
1950s – Warren Spahn
1960s – Juan Marichal
1970s – Jim Palmer
1980s – Jack Morris
1990s – Greg Maddux
2000s – Andy Pettitte

Another question: was Morris better than any of them? Probably Burleigh Grimes, who is actually a hell of a lot like Morris but had the added benefit of being able to throw a legal spitball when his competition could not. An argument could be made regarding Newhouser, whose Hall of Fame case was greatly aided by pitching against 4-F rosters during World War II, though he was effective and successful after the war too. I’d say that Pettitte is better than Morris even if I don’t really think he’s a Hall of Famer either.

Over the course of 110 years, I’m pretty comfortable leaving a couple of the decade wins leaders out. There’s no rule that says they all have to be in.  And Morris is clearly at or near the bottom of that class.

  1. craftylefty318 - Dec 22, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    Funny you point out “1977-1986″; over that period, Ron Guidry led all pitchers in wins. And he has better post-season numbers than the “big game” Jack Morris.

  2. Panda Claus - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:03 AM

    I don’t have a problem with Jack Morris getting in the Hall. Nor for that matter, Mike Mussina, Jim Kaat or Bert Blyleven. You could add a few others to that list too.

    Was he a dominant guy at his position for a number of years? Check. Was in the top 3 or 4 at his position during his career? Probably not.

    Guess I’d fall into the “Bigger Hall” category. Over MLB history there have been somewhere near 18,000 or so players to have been in the league. There are around 300 people in the Hall of Fame, some of which weren’t even players. That’s about 1.5%, which most would agree is quite selective. A few more fringe players might push that up to 2%. So is that such a big deal?

    • Mark - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:27 AM

      Actually Morris wasn’t really a dominant guy. He was a league average pitcher. The 105 ERA+ tells us that he was average compared to his peers.

      The guy I think compares best to Morris funny enough is Jamie Moyer. Heh, just checked BR and Moyer is fourth on Morris’ list. Both of them pitched a ton of innings, they had identical K rates (although Moyer had a better BB rate), and were both league average pitchers (105 ERA+ for Morris, 104 for Moyer). Considering Moyer pitched in a tougher offensive period, it might even be possible to argue that Moyer is better than Morris. Or he’s at least his equal.

      But somehow Morris gets thrown out as this dominant pitcher because he had high win totals and won in the post season. If you cover the names of the 2 pitchers, you’d actually find that Moyer was arguably equal, if not better than Morris. And when you’re being compared to Jamie Moyer, I think it’s kind of ridiculous to argue that Morris is a HoF guy.

  3. BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:14 AM

    Wow. Juan Marichal? I would have guessed Bob Gibson for the 60′s.
    PS. If you’re ever in Saginaw, try this place:
    http://saginaw.citysearch.com/profile/5314875/saginaw_mi/tony_s_original_restaurant.html

  4. bmuschel - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:15 AM

    Oh good god in heaven, if this means 10-15 years from now we’re going to be having this discussion about Andy Pettitte, I quit.

    • Panda Claus - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:22 AM

      I think you only have to join the BBWAA (BaseBall Writers Association of America) and write for ten years on the sport in order to become a Hall of Fame voter. If you get started now you save Pettitte’s fate now.

    • Kevin S. - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:31 AM

      Actually, if Morris gets in, we aren’t going to be “having this discussion.” Pettitte beats Morris by any measure we look at, and typically blows him out of the water. W/L record? One more healthy season in front of that offense, and he’s tied him in wins. He also has nearly fifty fewer losses. ERA? Sure, it’s only 3.88 to 3.90, but Andy pitched in the offensive explosion that was the past fifteen years – ERA+ is 117-105, and FIP is 3.75-3.94. Peripherals? Pettitte bests Morris in all three true outcomes. WAR? Whatever your flavor, Pettitte obliterates him. 67-52 in fWAR, 50-39 in bWAR. Postseason success? Pettitte is matched only by John Smoltz in postseason pedigree among starting pitchers.

      • BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:41 AM

        Pettitte also has him beat in another category. Pettitte is a career .137 hitter with 1 HR and 13 RBI. Morris is a career 0-for-1. Oddly though, Morris has 4 runs scored as a pinch-runner.

      • paulie102704 - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:43 AM

        Have to agree. I believe Pettitte is a fringe candidate, but he is certainly more worthy of induction than Morris ever will be. The whole wins argument and hsi one glorious Game 7 start should not be enough. If Morris gets in (and I think he will), Pettitte is a near mortail lock, even with the PED cloud surrounding him….Jack Morris was never once the best pitcher in his own league in any given season! I am sorry but a guy with an ERA+ approaching replacement level and a sub standard k rate should never be considered, one great game be damned….

  5. fquaye149 - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    Posnanski has a post up showing pretty conclusively that Morris, despite being the supposed “best pitcher of the 80′s” probably wasn’t even in the top 5 in any single year in the 1980′s and was more often than not in the middle of the pack.

  6. billtpa - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    Dave Stieb was the best pitcher of the 1980s.

    Frank Viola was the winningest pitcher of the decade from 1984-1993.

    Both have better Hall cases than Morris.

    • BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:40 AM

      I often wonder what Viola would have ended up accomplishing if he arm didn’t fall off….

  7. Chipmaker - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:45 AM

    The the “most wins in the 80s” factoid keeps getting cited in support of Morris indicates how deeply and desperately the Morris proponents must reach to try and present a compelling argument in his favor.

    It doesn’t work, hasn’t for years, and never will, but they’ve got nothing else.

    Can’t wait for the “Blyleven got elected, why not Morris?” screed to start up after Bert gets his due next month. Completely irony-free, too.

  8. Chipmaker - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:45 AM

    That the “most wins in the 80s” factoid keeps getting cited in support of Morris indicates how deeply and desperately the Morris proponents must reach to try and present a compelling argument in his favor.

    It doesn’t work, hasn’t for years, and never will, but they’ve got nothing else.

    Can’t wait for the “Blyleven got elected, why not Morris?” screed to start up after Bert gets his due next month. Completely irony-free, too.

  9. wonkypenguin - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:46 AM

    If Maddux doesn’t sign with the Braves and stays on the Cubs, he probably doesn’t make 300 wins. And that doesn’t change a single solitary thing about any of the rest of his numbers since that was HIS performance, not the team’s. /realizes the difference between Leo Mazzone and Larry Rothschild is the difference between a 5-star restaurant and McDonald’s but let’s throw that out

    • Kevin S. - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:55 AM

      Man, I’m not so sure about that. Maddux was with the Braves 11 years (including two partial years) between his Windy City stints. He won 355 games. You think he loses five wins a year, every year, by not pitching for the Braves? Over that span, the Braves scored 400 more runs than the Cubs – 36/year. While that could have been assymetrically distributed towards screwing Maddux even more, he’d have lost approximately seven runs/year in support. I rather doubt that those seven runs translate to five wins, every single year.

      • wonkypenguin - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:14 AM

        Yeah – it may have been a gross over-calculation. Thanks for the better analysis :-)

        Just gut reaction coupled with leftover angst of breaking my 13-year-old heart when the Cubs didn’t sign him again in 1993. Oh and a chance to slam Larry Rothschild. And advanced anger at the one or two sportswriters who will leave him off the initial ballot because of some cockamamie’d anti-unanimous belief.

    • fivetoolmike - Dec 22, 2010 at 11:05 AM

      Larry Rothschild has actually been an excellent pitching coach. And he wasn’t the Cubs pitching coach until 2002, so I’m not really sure what you’re talking about. Why don’t you like him?

  10. diamondduq - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    I agree Morris isn’t a HOFer but as I was reading through Craig’s tweets I found it interesting that if you were to replace Jack Morris with Edgar Martinez the arguments are eerily similar however the same people blasting Morris are pushing for Martinez and I’d like to ask why?

    Here are some of Craig’s tweets with the name excluded:

    “No one ever said ‘oh noes! ________ is coming to town!’”

    “Kids didn’t pretend to be _______. Even in (Seattle). They still talked about (Griffey). _______ was thought of as solid, not spectacular.”

    “Not saying any of that matters — my memory is just as singular and unimportant as anyone else’s — but _______ was not considered dominant.”

    I’m just saying but bring on the “they’re not even close to the same” comments.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Dec 22, 2010 at 9:58 AM

      Martinez does at least have the benefit of a strong, strong argument that he was the best ever at his position. We can argue whether that is worthy in and of itself, but it’s a better argument than Morris has.

      • Kevin S. - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:02 AM

        And, you know, providing tangible value to his team. Morris gets mocked in that fashion because that’s the only argument he has. People don’t say that about Edgar because he actually did the things that make a hitter good (nay, great) – get on base at phenominal rates and hit for excellent power. He didn’t provide baserunning or fielding skills, but those are secondary. Morris didn’t provide getting-people-out or run-preventing skills, which are kind of primary.

      • youcantpredictbaseball - Dec 22, 2010 at 11:14 AM

        Martinez also hit .300/.400/.500 for his career. Only 18 players have ever done that over a 6000+ PA career.

        11 are in the Hall of Fame (Ruth, Williams, Cobb, Gehrig, Speaker, Musial, Hornsby, Ott, Foxx, Greenberg, Heilmann), and the other seven are Albert Pujols, Chipper Jones, Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, and Todd Helton.

      • largebill - Dec 22, 2010 at 11:20 AM

        Craig,

        C’mon, you’re better than that. DH is not a position. DH is the absence of a position. I can see an argument in favor of Edgar’s election based on his hitting. However, we are getting in silly territory when we claim best at his position. If a claim is made about a primary DH being best in some time span the player should be compared to 1b’s & corner OF’s not solely players who didn’t play the field for whatever reason.

    • billtpa - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:00 AM

      I just don’t think that’s accurate, except the part about Griffey. Edgar was a pretty terrifying hitter and was definitely considered “dominant.”

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:47 AM

        As a yanks fan, my [unfortunate] first memory is Martinez knocking in 2 runs to beat the Yanks in the ’95 ALDS to knock them out of the playoffs and keep Mattingly from getting a WS title. Yes it’s confirmation bias, but after that I was always nervous about Martinez coming to the plate.

  11. BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:06 AM

    OK. I like to stir things up. Here we go.
    Here is an illustration of how ridiculously numbers can be used to manipulate opinion.
    Player A: 12 years, .318 BA, 207 HR, 1085 RBI, 3 100-RBI years, 6 Gold Gloves
    Player B: 13 years: .307 BA, 222 HR, 1099 RBI, 5 100 RBI years, 9 Gold Gloves
    Which player was a first ballot HOF’er and which will never sniff the HOF?
    And if you can name them, even better.
    (Thanks to my brother for this one)

    • billtpa - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:09 AM

      Without checking, Puckett is A and Mattingly is B?

      Numbers can be used to manipulate opinion to that extent only if you use numbers that don’t matter (like BA and RBI) and withhold really important information (like that one was a CF and one a 1B, among other things).

      • BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:53 AM

        YOU ARE THE WINNER!

    • Kevin S. - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:09 AM

      Kirby and Donnie? That of course ignores position, circumstance, some rather significant statistics… but I’m pretty sure you are indeed talking about Puckett and Mattingly.

    • paperlions - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:19 AM

      That argument is already boring. Sorry. I think most people considered Puckett a borderline HOF that was an emotional pick more than anything.

      • BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:56 AM

        I suppose you could argue that both of them would have accumulated a lot more numbers if not for health reasons. But Puckett was clearly still an all-star level player when his eye malady forced him to retire. He’s kind of a Gale Sayers or Earl Campbell case.

    • halfthemoney - Dec 22, 2010 at 10:05 PM

      I like this game…..compare Killebrew to McGwire…..I wonder if Killer would have gotten in under the same scrutiny players numbers receive these days?

  12. BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 11:12 AM

    Back on the most-wins-in-a-decade thing…. I’m trying to find the most obscure pitcher who won the most games in a single ten-year stretch. This is a good research project for someone.

    • largebill - Dec 22, 2010 at 1:50 PM

      Over at BTF someone did that research. Look through some of the HoF threads.

  13. fivetoolmike - Dec 22, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    Mark Grace had the most hits (and doubles) in the 1990s, and he’s the only eligible person to lead a decade in hits and not be in the Hall of Fame (Pete Rose did it but is ineligible). Hits are a lot more meaningful statistic than wins, but I don’t see anyone making his case. In fact, he fell off the ballot his first year and he even has a World Series ring! I’m by no means making the argument he should be in the HoF; he was one of my favorite players and was very good for a long enough career, but he doesn’t deserve enshrinement. While “most wins in the ’80s” is not the end of Morris’ case, predicating any argument based on that is facile and useless. Quick (and easy) trivia: who had the most hits from 2000-09? (Hint: he only played 9 of those seasons)

    • BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 12:13 PM

      I’m guessing 2000-2009 was Pujols.

      • fivetoolmike - Dec 22, 2010 at 12:33 PM

        Good guess, but he comes in 9th. If we give him an extra year with his average hits from 01-09, he ends up in 3rd place.

      • BC - Dec 22, 2010 at 1:03 PM

        Yeah, that probably wasn’t that good of a guess. Pujols walks a lot.
        Only other guy that comes to mind is Ichiro.

      • fivetoolmike - Dec 22, 2010 at 1:16 PM

        Yup, Ichiro it is. Biggest surprises of the top ten (to me) were Miguel Tejada coming in 3rd and Carlos Lee coming in 10th. Also, Ichiro, Derek Jeter, Tejada, and Todd Helton all had more hits in that decade than Mark Grace had to lead the ’90s. Unsurprisingly, all four of those players are more Hall-Worthy than Grace. On a related note, I love baseball-reference’s play index.

  14. fribnit - Dec 22, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    Jack Morris was a good pitcher for a number of years. But that is all he was, a good pitcher. As someone else pointed out he was about league average over the course of his career. He has neither the longevity numbers (300 wins, 3000 SO etc) nor the Peak Brilliance numbers (3-4 years of 20+ wins consecutive, 2-3 CY Young awards) that make one a HOF pitcher. He never finished better than 3rd in the CYA voting, won 20 in a season 3 time spread out over the course of 8 seasons.
    Morris belongs in the Hall of Very good with Jim Katt & Tommy John.

    • billtpa - Dec 22, 2010 at 6:06 PM

      He was certainly better than “about league average.” An ERA 5% above average over a long career for a starting pitcher — remember, ERA+ includes relief pitchers, who have an easier job and put up lower ERAs — is hard to maintain. He’s just “good,” that’s all — no better (and in some cases much worse) than Appier, Cone, Key, Viola, Radke, Saberhagen, Stieb, Koosman, Lolich, Guidry, John, Kaat, etc., etc.

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