Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Jack Morris, the DH rule and the Hall of Fame

Jack Morris's 1987 card.
He went 18-11
for the Tigers that year.
He also led the
American League
in wild pitches.
The veteran baseball writers who make up the Hall of Fame electorate are wrapping up their ballots for the Hall's Class of 2012.

This election, as I said here almost a year ago, probably represents Jack Morris' last best shot at the Hall via the front door. It's the one year in which Black Jack is certainly the best starting pitcher on the ballot; there's always been Bert Blyleven on the ballot in his previous years, and next year there'll be Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, and for the 2014 class there'll be Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

I regard Morris as a dubious candidate. A good pitcher, absolutely, just not rising to HoF status. The ERA is a bit too high, and the claim made by his supporters that he "pitched to the score" just doesn't hold water when examined closely. Almost every post-1901 pitcher with 250 or more career wins is in, but (a) that's drawing a line just after Morris and (b) by that standard, Jim Kaat and Tommy John have better claims that remain ignored (neither is on the writers' ballot).

But here's something that occurred to me last week as I was setting the blog on autopilot for the holiday weekend:

The American League established the DH rule in 1973. That's almost 40 years ago. I will now list the starting pitchers to debut since then who have made the Hall of Fame:


That's right. Zero.

Now, as a practical matter, we're basically saying there were no HoF starters to debut between 1973 and the mid-80s, when guys like Maddux and Clemens started showing up. Call it a 12-year drought if you will. That's still historically large.

The institution of the DH was the single biggest help-the-hitters rule change since the abolition of the spitball (1921). In the 10 years that followed the spitball ban, future Hall of Fame starters Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Red Ruffing, Ted Lyons and Lefty Gomez debuted. Make it 15 years, and we pick up Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller. There's nothing like that wave of talent in the wake of the DH rule.

Dave Stieb — 176-134 with a
3.44 ERA for his career — had
his last good season at age 32.
He was one-and-done on
the writers ballot.

There were plenty of quality pitchers beside Morris (who debuted in 1977) to enter the majors in 1973-1985. Fernando Valenzuela and Mark Fidrych. Ron Guidry and Doc Gooden. Frank Tanana and Don Gullett. Mike Flanagan and Dennis Martinez. Dave Stieb and Bret Saberhagen and Teddy Higuera and Frank Viola and Orel Hershiser and Rick Rueschel ...

They all fell short. Most had full careers, but some got hurt, some blunted their lives on chemical abuse, some blunted their talents on overuse. None of them got elected to the Hall; none drew enough support to stay on the writers' ballot.

The coming wave of big-number pitchers from the Selig Era (aka the Steroid Era) -- Clemens, Maddux, Glavine, Schilling, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz -- differ from the Morris era group thusly:

  • They worked in five-man rotations;
  • Had pitch counts for much of their careers;
  • Spent much, if not all, of their careers, in the non-DH league.

Look at the 14 guys I listed in the 1973-85 debut category. Nine of the 14 established themselves in the DH league. Look at the second list. Mussina spent his entire career in the AL. Clemens (who debuted in 1984) spent most of his in the AL. Johnson established himself in the AL (but had his best years in the NL). But Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Martinez and Schilling all established themselves as starters in the National League, with Maddux and Glavine spending their entire careers in the senior circuit.

I'm not convinced, even after going through that, that Jack Morris is/was the best Hall of Fame choice from that period. Guidry or Rueschel might be better picks. But Morris appears to be the consensus pick as the best career among starters to debut in the immediate DH era, a period of time that took a tremendous toll on young starters. That counts for something.


  1. Ed
    Off the top of my head...Eckersley debuted as a starter. 1975? Wasn't a closer till the late 80's...HOF 2004 and certainly went in as a closer. There must be others...

  2. Eck clearly wasn't on a HoF path before LaRussa made him a reliever. There are doubtless others I could have put in the list on good-but-note great starters, like Steve Rogers,but there are NO pure starters from that era in the Hall.