The Case for Jack Morris, Hall of Famer

A few weeks ago, I took an hour and a half and watched 12 Angry Men. The whole move — all one hour, 36 minutes, and 14 seconds of it — is up on YouTube, and having seen it a few times before, I wanted to experience it again.

The movie is fiction but that doesn’t make it untrue. Of particular note is how bad the eyewitness testimony is — not one but two eyewitnesses, under penalty of perjury, recite memories which are closer to fantasy than reality. Reality echoes this, and that shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Our minds of a way of fitting our memories to a narrative all while convincing us that we’ve actually fit the narrative to our memories.

The strange debate over Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame credential is, to a large degree, this type of battle. (Sure, there are many other factors in play, some perhaps more nefarious than Morris’ supporters would otherwise admit.) Guys like Jon Heyman — who I’m assuming have supported Morris’ candidacy from the first time he could vote for him — believe that their memories of Morris’s career trump any further analysis, and if the stats say otherwise, the stats are flawed.

I disagree with Heyman et al, but that’s besides the point. Let’s look at their memories.

First, some context. Morris’ career began in 1977 and ended in 1994. The media landscape during the majority, if not all, of Morris’s career is foreign to what is available today. (To put that in perspective, ESPN debuted in 1979 and didn’t have Major League Baseball games until 1990; New York’s flagship sports radio station WFAN first broadcast in 1987; and Google didn’t incorporate until 1998.) Most of Morris’s games were on local broadcast television, with highlights few and far between — and, even then, just that: highlights. On the other hand, Morris, unlike most pitchers of his era, had a lot of national TV exposure. He was selected to five All-Star Games. He pitched in four post-seasons, including in the World Series three times. He threw a no-hitter on live, national TV.

By and large — the 1993 World Series aside — his appearances before the nation as a whole reflected positively on his abilities and fame. Of the five All-Star Games he played in, he started three and was the second pitcher out of the gate the other two times. He was the MVP of the 1991 World Series, having pitched one of the greatest games in Major League history, and threw two complete games in the 1984 Series. (He won the Baseball Writers’ Association’s version of the World Series MVP, the Babe Ruth Award, in both 1984 and 1991.)

And when he appeared in headlines or highlight shows, those, too, were by and large positive. All those Opening Day starts bandied about suggest that he was looked at by his team as the ace of the staff, whether it be in Detroit, Minnesota, or Toronto. Similarly his two 20-win seasons and his status as the highest-paid AL pitcher in four different seasons certainly made headlines.

Taken together and it’s easy to see why guys like Heyman believe Morris is a no-brainer Hall of Famer. The writers had lots of exposure to his league-leading 14 wins in the strike-shortened 1981 season, his league-leading 293 strikeouts in 1983, his no-hitter and World Series title in 1984, his second All-Star start in 1985, his 21-win season in 1986, and his 18-win season leading the Tigers to the AL East pennant in 1987. Many memories of his greatness — or very-good-plus-ness — were formed during that period in the minds of BBWAA members near and far.

Memories also have a habit of ignoring the bad stuff. Morris was mediocre at best for the next three years, sure. But 1991 and 1992 allow our minds to pave over that.

And then comes the peculiarity of the ballot. When Morris first became eligible in 2000, he only received 22.2% of the vote, and stayed in the 20s (dipping into the teens even) until 2005, when he hit 33.3%. Since then, he’s been mostly climbing, breaking 50% in 2010 and two-thirds in 2012.

I think a major cause of this is, again, our memory’s fragile grasp of reality, and inability to confess to that flaw.

Ask most current BBWAA voters about Jim Kaat, Tommy John, and Jack Morris, and by and large, they’ll tell you that Morris had something special, even though it’s hard to see in the stats. But they finished 11th through 13th, respectively, on the 2003 ballot. Kaat, in his final year of eligibility, received 130 votes; John 116, Morris 113. (The only starting pitcher above them was Bert Blyleven, which I’ll get to in a second.) The 2004 season took care of that narrative issue — Morris picked up 20 votes while John actually lost five, and Kaat was off the ballot. In 2005, John rebounded slightly, picking up 11 votes. But Morris separated from him, and for good. Morris had established himself to be the best of the three.

Emerging from this triumvirate of very good pitchers isn’t immaterial, either.  From 2000 — Morris’ first eligible year — until 2011, no other starting pitcher made it to the third year on the ballot. Morris had established himself, somehow, as the clear second-best pitcher of these Hall of Fame ballot classes. (The fact that that group is, in and of itself, not cohesive really doesn’t matter, because it lends itself to the narrative created by selective memories.) Not a single starting pitcher was inducted from 2000 to 2010, inclusive. And the only starting pitcher thus far inducted to the Hall during Morris’ 14 years on the ballot is Blyleven, who doesn’t have the Camelot-esque career highlights that Morris does. The end result is that each of these four pitchers helps further Morris’ case, because it’s easy for our faulty memories to insist that Morris was simply better — much better — than John or Kaat or Blyleven.

And, unfortunately, that’s how guys like Jon Heyman define “fame.” A decade and a half full of memories of triumphs, with failures unseen or ignored. Another decade compared to guys who simply weren’t as triumphant, with objective measures unimportant. It’s not hard to see how this happened.

But it’s very hard to see how it could be avoided. We’re human, all of us, and we have tendencies to favor our guts even in spite of evidence to the contrary. We let our biases override reason and create legends which defy reality. We testify against teenage Hispanic kids on trial for murder because somehow, we become convinced that’s what happened, and 11 of us assume that we’re telling the truth even when Henry Fonda suggests otherwise — at least at first.

The problem is that the voting rules and, more importantly, the voting pool, are constructed in such a way that this outcome is too likely. The voters, by and large, share the same experiences, same backgrounds, and same biases. They all define “fame” in a very similar way — by relying on their memories even though memories are unreliable.  So long as the Hall of Fame gives the BBWAA dominion over that definition, Jack Morris is a border-line Hall of Famer. Even though he shouldn’t be.

Originally published on January 14, 2013