“The Cooperstown Casebook” Excerpt: The War on WAR

What follows is an excerpt from Chapter 6 — “The War on WAR” — of Jay Jaffe’s new book, The Cooperstown Casebook, which is out in stores today. You can also read Paul Swydan’s review of the book over at The Hardball Times.

In the early years of the new millennium, the view of That Seventies Group — the nine Hall of Famers from the 1960s to ’80s — plus Kaat, John, Morris, and Blyleven began to change, increasingly cast in the light of sabermetrics. Though the Bill James Baseball Abstract annuals and John Thorn and Pete Palmer’s The Hidden Game of Baseball had already introduced many to the field, further interest was stoked by the Internet, which offered far more flavors of baseball-related news and analysis than had ever been available before. Those looking beyond traditional media coverage now had access to the daily work of ESPN’s Rob Neyer, a former research assistant to James, as well as the Big Bad Baseball Annual and Baseball Prospectus, two books that arose out of the rec.sport.baseball newsgroup. They also had the baseball blogosphere, an informal network of Web sites largely written by hobbyists wanting to connect with those who shared similar interests, from gripes about the home nine to explorations of the Hall of Fame voting and other deep statistical dives, though not all blogs were of a sabermetric bent. The most popular were aggregated at a site called Baseball Primer (later Baseball Think Factory), as was more mainstream baseball content.

(via St. Martin’s Press)
Baseball Primer cofounder Sean Forman also founded the Baseball-Reference. com Web site, which came online in February 2000 and offered comprehensive year-by-year statistics for every player and team, as well as leaderboards and more. Among the stats the site popularized was one from Thorn and Palmer’s Total Baseball encyclopedia called ERA+, which adjusts for the vast historical and environmental differences in scoring throughout baseball history, normalizing each pitcher’s ERA to a scale where 100 equals league average, with 120 translating to 20% better than the league and 80 to 20% worse. In that light, pitchers like Phil Niekro (3.35 ERA, 115 ERA+) and Blyleven (3.31 ERA, 118 ERA+) look superior to Don Sutton (3.26 ERA, 108 ERA+) and Hunter (3.26 ERA, 104 ERA+), the latter of whom bears a strong resemblance to Morris (3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+).

In 2001, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract introduced a value metric called Win Shares that not only incorporated the type of adjustments built into ERA+ but also the extent to which a pitcher relied upon his defense. Building upon a distinction he made in the 1985 edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract between career value and peak value, James created top 100 rankings at each position using not only total Win Shares but also a player’s best three seasons at large, his best run of five consecutive seasons, and a prorated per-season measure. James ranked Blyleven 39th on his pitchers list while lumping Morris in among his unranked “second 100” with a jumble of good non–Hall of Famers such as Chuck Finley, Jerry Koosman, Frank Tanana, and Allie Reynolds.

Win Shares didn’t click with the statheads, given a methodology that was difficult to understand (a year later, he delivered a highly technical 700-page tome devoted to it), and some very odd choices, such as each Win Share representing one-third of a win, or a 52-48 split for pitching and defense versus offense. Even so, the notion of comprehensive metrics to estimate a player’s contribution on offense, defense, and/or pitching resonated. In late 2002, Baseball Prospectus’s Clay Davenport introduced Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), which estimated each player’s total value above that of a theoretical “replacement player,” a freely available minor league call-up.

In 2003, sabermetrics was thrust into the spotlight via Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s bestselling profile of the Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane. As a small-market team that lacked the financial resources of the powerhouse Yankees or the division rival Angels, Beane and his protégés incorporated cutting-edge statistical analysis into their process, discarding a good deal of the received wisdom that passed for baseball knowledge along the way. Those A’s won 296 games from 2000–02, making the playoffs in all three seasons despite shoestring budgets.

Lewis’s book transcended baseball and particularly resonated with Fortune 500 companies and Wall Street firms, given its portrayal of the A’s emphasis on remaining ahead of the curve in exploiting market inefficiencies. Within the game, however, it was both widely misunderstood and extremely polarizing — particularly for the way that Lewis’s streamlined narrative portrayed the A’s rejection of and contempt for the value of traditional scouting and, by extension, the grizzled, underpaid lifers who beat the bushes in search of raw talent. “Stats versus scouts” became the shorthand for a culture war that hinged upon a false dichotomy pitting the use of objective data and quantification against the subjective expertise of “baseball men” who believed in what their eyes told them, and that immeasurable intangibles played critical parts in individual and team success. As Baseball Prospectus’s Dayn Perry wrote, scouts-or-stats was no more an either-or choice than beer or tacos. The proper answer? “Both, you fool.”7

In his epilogue (first published in Sports Illustrated and then included in the paperback edition), Lewis characterized the conflict Moneyball created within the baseball industry as a religious war, “or like the endless, fruitless dispute between creationists and evolutionary theorists. On the one side, parrying half-baked questions and insults, was the community of baseball fans who thought hard about the use and abuse of baseball statistics. On the other side, hurling the half-baked questions and insult were the Club members, who felt a deep, inchoate desire to preserve their status.”8 For Lewis, the Club “includes not only the people who manage the team but also, in a kind of Women’s Auxiliary, many of the writers and the commentators who follow it and purport to explain it.”9

While Beane and Moneyball received a great deal of heat, elsewhere an even more successful union of sabermetrics and baseball management was unfolding. In November 2002, mere months before the book’s publication, Red Sox owner John Henry (who had bought the team a year earlier) hired Bill James as an advisor, and nearly poached Beane from the A’s before appointing 28-year-old assistant general manager Theo Epstein to the GM job. By augmenting the application of similar principles with considerably more cash than the A’s could muster (“Moneyball with money”), the Sox won the World Series in 2004, their first in 86 years, and again in ’07 and ’13, with James still on board. By that point, nearly every front office had integrated quantitative analysis into its decision making, with small-market teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates using it to turn their fortunes around — and Moneyball had been made into a successful movie starring Brad Pitt as Beane.

As sabermetrics found footing in front offices, it also entered into debates over the BBWAA’s annual MVP and Cy Young awards. The 2009 AL Cy Young award, which went to Zack Greinke (16-8, 2.16 ERA, 9.5K/9) over Felix Hernandez (19-5, 2.49 ERA, 8.2 K/9) in a landslide, “might have been a watershed moment in baseball’s statistical revolution,”10 wrote the New York Times’s Tyler Kepner, for the way that win totals were overlooked in favor of run prevention and, in particular, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), an ERA estimate based on strikeout, walk, and home run rates. The next year, it was Hernandez (14-12, 2.27 ERA, 3.04 FIP) beating out David Price (19-6, 2.72 ERA, 3.42 FIP).

The incorporation of sabermetrics into awards discussions hit a speed bump in 2012, when Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown via a .330 batting average, 44 home runs, and 139 RBI. Via subpar defense at third base, he totaled 7.2 WAR, very respectable but well below the 10.8 of 20-year-old rookie sensation Mike Trout, who in addition to hitting .326 with 30 homers stole a league-high 49 bases and played outstanding centerfield (+21 runs). No player had won a Triple Crown since 1967, but no rookie position player had ever posted a 10-WAR season. That the old-school numbers won out, with Cabrera receiving 22 out of 28 first-place votes, was less surprising than the schoolyard-level anger vented by his supporters.

“In a battle of computer analysis versus people who still watch baseball as, you know, a sport, what we saw with our Detroit vision was what most voters saw as well,” gloated Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, celebrating Cabrera’s award as “a win for fans, defeat for stats geeks,” before taking time to parade his ignorance of WAR (“Honestly, who comes up with this stuff?”) and deride “nerds” who “want to reduce [baseball] to binary code.”11

“In basements across America, Mike Trout groupies are crying in their mother’s meat loaf,”12 tweeted the Washington Times’s Thom Loverro, echoing a deathless stereotype proffered by high-profile media members—Bob Costas, Tony Kornheiser, Rick Reilly, and Dan Shaughnessy, to pull a few names from a 2009 Deadspin inventory13—to denigrate anyone sharing an opinion from outside the mainstream, generally depicted as a blogger in his underwear. By that point, name-calling had become an all-too-familiar feature within the Hall of Fame debates.

As Moneyball was making waves, JAWS was born. Built on BP’s WARP, which used a lower replacement level than current formulations of WAR, and first deployed for the 2004 ballot (albeit without the catchy, self-conscious acronym), it was an opening salvo in the use of all-encompassing advanced metrics to sketch out the Hall of Fame standards at each position. Its most startling finding — at least to its inventor — was that Blyleven was well above the bar set by the average enshrined starting pitcher, while Morris was significantly below it.

That conclusion remained the same even as JAWS evolved, first from a definition of peak that used a player’s best five consecutive seasons (with allowances for injuries and military service) to his best seven at large, and then from a measure whose currency was WARP to one using Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR (introduced in 2010). In 2012, after I left Baseball Prospectus for Sports Illustrated, Forman agreed to add a WAR-based JAWS to every player page on Baseball-Reference, building position-by-position sortable leaderboards and giving the metric far more reach.

In its current conception, Blyleven’s 95.3 career WAR ranks 13th among all starting pitchers, a hefty 21.4 wins above the average Hall of Famer. Of the enshrined pitchers from That Seventies Group, only Seaver (110.5) and Niekro (96.6) are above him — a radical conclusion, given the short shrift Blyleven received with respect to awards. His peak score of 50.7 isn’t as robust, ranking 38th, 0.4 WAR above the standard but behind Seaver, Niekro, Carlton, Perry, and Jenkins. Overall, Blyleven’s 73.0 JAWS ranks 16th, again behind only Seaver and Niekro. That’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer, not a borderline one, particularly when augmented by Blyleven’s postseason contributions and his exceptional strikeout and shutout rankings.

As for Morris, he was not tremendously adept at preventing runs relative to his league; his 105 ERA+ is tied for 110th all-time among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings (Blyleven’s 118 is tied for 40th). Nor did he strike out batters at a particularly impressive clip, save for a brief stretch in his career (1983–88, when he was in the top 10 five times); his total of 2,478 is 34th all-time, but his rate of 5.8 per nine is 18th among the 35 pitchers who accumulated 3,000 innings from 1961– 2000. That means that a relatively larger share of the credit for his workload belongs to his fielders, in particularly the BBWAA-slighted double play combo of Trammell and Whitaker.

Morris’s 44.1 career WAR is nearly 30 wins (!) below the standard (73.9), ranking 148th all-time, ahead of just three enshrined starters (Addie Joss, Hunter, Jack Chesbro, and Lefty Gomez), and a few hairs behind non-Hall types such as Vida Blue, Steve Rogers, and Milt Pappas. His 32.8 peak WAR ranks 185th, ahead of only one Hall of Famer, Rube Marquard; it’s behind Fernando Valenzuela, Dan Haren, Dennis Martinez, and Jamie Moyer. His 38.4 JAWS ranks 163rd, ahead of only Hunter and Gomez — two out of 62 enshrined starters. That’s not a good Hall of Fame choice, at least from a sabermetric point of view. Here’s how the two pitchers stack up relative to That Seventies Group by JAWS:

Bert Blyleven & Jack Morris vs. “That Seventies Group”
Pitcher HOFM Career Peak JAWS JAWS Rk
Tom Seaver 244 110.5 59.6 85.0 6
Phil Niekro 157 96.6 54.6 75.6 15
Bert Blyleven 121 95.4 50.7 73.0 16
Steve Carlton 266 90.4 54.4 72.4 17
Gaylord Perry 177 91.0 52.8 71.9 20
Fergie Jenkins 132 84.9 51.8 68.4 24
Nolan Ryan 257 81.9 43.3 62.6 31
AVG HOF SP 73.9 50.3 62.1
Jim Palmer 193 69.4 48.0 58.7 37
Don Sutton 149 67.3 34.0 50.7 69
Catfish Hunter 134 41.4 35.2 38.3 165
Tommy John 112 62.0 34.7 48.4 82
Jim Kaat 130 51.4 38.4 44.9 105
Jack Morris 122 44.1 32.8 38.4 163

HOFM is the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, which gives credit for awards, league leads, postseason performance, and other things that largely go uncaptured via WAR; Morris and Blyleven both rank near the bottom of the group, albeit for different reasons.

Unlike Blyleven, Morris’s case for Cooperstown rests not on a sabermetric reckoning but with an appeal to traditional stats and particularly his win total, which is tied for 43rd all-time. Morris reached 20 wins three times, won at least 18 six times, and compiled more wins in the 1980s (162) than any other pitcher; Dave Stieb (140) ranks second. The exaltation of Morris’s win total owes much to a more recent era in which five-man rotations, concern about pitch counts, and the systematic use of specialized bullpens have turned 20-win seasons and 250-win careers into endangered species. Since Morris’s final season in 1994, just seven other pitchers have reached 250 wins, and four have matched his total of three 20-win seasons. The same forces have led to the near-disappearance of the complete game and the 250-inning season. Since Morris retired, pitchers have combined for just 24 250-inning seasons; since 2003, there have been just five, one fewer than Morris in his career. The durable, W-collecting Morris became a symbol for a bygone era.

Of course, even Morris completed just 33% of his starts, and like any other pitcher he needed support from his offense, defense, and bullpens to secure those wins. On the offensive side, we can express a pitcher’s run support in normalized form just as we can ERA+, with 100 representing the park-adjusted league average; call it SUP+. Morris’s 106 SUP+ is higher than any of That Seventies Group save for Hunter (112) and Palmer (108); Niekro, Perry, Ryan, and Seaver were all below 100, as was Blyleven (96). Via Bill James’s Pythagorean Theorem, each extra percentage point difference in run support translates roughly to a .005 gain in winning percentage, or an extra win for every 200 decisions. All else being equal,

Morris’s 6% advantage (6.4%, before rounding) would translate to a record of 234-206 over the course of his total of 440 decisions, assuming average run prevention ability. Via ERA+, we know he was roughly 5% better than average on that front as well, which would push his expected record to 244-196. In that light, his actual 254-186 record isn’t particularly remarkable.

As for defensive support, Morris’s career .272 batting average on balls in play was 14 points better than the league average during his career, thanks in large part to Trammell and Whitaker. That .272 mark ranks 31st among the 309 pitchers with at least 1,000 innings during the span of Morris’s career, not as good as Stieb (.263, ninth) but better than Blyleven (.285, tied for 118th) and Clemens (.289, tied for 167th). As for bullpen support, the relievers who followed Morris coughed up the leads he relinquished 30 times, far fewer than the relievers behind Sutton (48), Blyleven (47), Niekro (47), or Ryan (45); among That Seventies Group, only Hunter (27), Jenkins (26), and Palmer (23) were victimized fewer times by their bullpens.

Morris’s supporters tended to dismiss his high ERA with claims that he “pitched to the score” — that he allowed fewer runs in close games than in games in which he was granted a large lead. Baseball Prospectus’s Greg Spira and Joe Sheehan took their swings at examining such claims in 1997 and 2003, respectively. Wrote Spira, who based his analysis on Morris’s annual won-loss records and run support, “Jack’s records are clearly the result of how many runs are scored when he pitches and how many runs he allows. Thus, his ERA (or RA), along with his innings pitched, are a perfectly accurate measure of how valuable Jack has been to his teams.”14 In other words, that high ERA isn’t camouflaging anything.

Wrote Sheehan, who pored over Morris’s career inning by inning via Retrosheet and found that he put his team behind in 344 of his 527 career starts, either by allowing the game’s first run or surrendering a lead, concluded: “I can find no pattern in when Jack Morris allowed runs. If he pitched to the score — and I don’t doubt that he changed his approach — the practice didn’t show up in his performance record.”15 In 2013, Joe Posnanski, echoing Sheehan, found that while Morris had a better-than-expected record when his teams scored four or more runs, he went 32-87 with a 4.08 ERA when his teams scored one, two, or three runs, and a 4.33 ERA when they went scoreless: “Pitch to the score? No. Not unless the score was high.”16

While WARP and JAWS gained traction with Baseball Prospectus’s readership, a subscription pay wall limited the site’s reach. More influential in the early 2000s was Lee Sinins’s Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, a CD-ROM alternative to Baseball-Reference that found its way into the columns of ESPN’s Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark, and the blog entries of a moonlighting investment manager in Long Beach, California, named Rich Lederer.

The son of a former Dodgers beat writer for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Lederer became the most influential proponent of Blyleven’s candidacy via his popular Baseball Analysts blog. He used the Encyclopedia’s ability to create tables in virtually every traditional and advanced statistical category of the time to illustrate the strength of Blyleven’s case. He pointed out that Blyleven was the only eligible pitcher with at least 3,000 strikeouts or 50 shutouts outside the Hall, and likewise, the only eligible outsider in the top 20 in the Encyclopedia metrics of runs saved above average and ERA relative to league.

Closer in age to the average voter than most of the statheads advancing Blyleven’s cause, Lederer wasn’t shy about taking his case directly to voters. He published interviews with and/or guest columns from voters such as Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record, Jeff Peek of the Traverse City (Michigan) Record-Eagle, Posnanski of the Kansas City Star, and Tracy Ringolsby — a past BBWAA president and future Spink Award winner — of the Rocky Mountain News. Of that quartet, only Posnanski voted for Blyleven at the first opportunity, but the others were gradually won over to Blyleven’s side, not just by the data offered by Lederer and others but by their own investigations and reflections.

As Klapisch wrote in a December 2005 piece for Baseball Analysts, a flyer from a professional-looking Web site called BertBelongs.com inspired him toward further examination, talking to Mariano Rivera and Goose Gossage as well as reviewing the numbers. “Finally, it dawned on me: Blyleven was a Hall of Famer not just because of his 3701 strikeouts or 287 wins or a 2.47 ERA in the post-season. It was the uniqueness of his best weapon, the curveball, that set him apart. All the great ones manage to put a singular mark on the game.”17

“Between the information you provided and the constant conversations I have had with Blyleven’s contemporaries, I became convinced that I had slighted him in the past,” wrote Ringolsby in a December 2006 e-mail to Lederer. “He is the first guy I can remember that I have ever failed to vote for on the first time and then added later.”18

The public acknowledgments of being swayed by outside sources, from high-profile scribes such as those mentioned above, are why Blyleven’s candidacy and eventual election represents a turning point in the Hall process. Once upon a time, a veteran scribe could intuit who was Cooperstown material. As Dick Young told Klapisch, “Choosing a Hall of Famer is like voting for president. You’ll just know who the right guy is.”19

Wrote Leonard Koppett in The Sporting News in 1981, “I don’t think any homework, in the sense of research, deep thought or extensive analysis is needed. If you don’t know who belongs in the Hall of Fame (in your own opinion) by the time you get to vote, you’re a hopeless case, and further study will produce only greater confusion.”20

Though they both won Spink Awards, Young and Koppett represented opposite poles of the baseball coverage spectrum. The self-educated Young was a pioneer of working the clubhouse, known for his street-level reportage, while Koppett was a Columbia University graduate renowned for his analytical approach; columnist Jimmy Cannon once asked him if his attaché case was “full of decimal points.”21 Neither of those old-school writers wanted anybody’s help in filling out a ballot, and while the likes of Ringolsby and Klapisch may not have relished it, either, they proved more adaptable. They weren’t necessarily convinced by a single source or statistic; it was their openness to reevaluating their own positions and incorporating new information, whether or not that information arrived via the expected route.

With the testimonials of converts such as these under his belt, Blyleven shot to 61.9% in 2008. Two years later, he received 74.2%, missing election by just five votes. At that point, Lederer’s partial list of converts included Jim Caple, Bill Conlin, Jerry Crasnick, Gammons, Klapisch, Peek, Ringolsby, Ken Rosenthal, and T. R. Sullivan.22 Of course, the actual number was far greater; Blyleven’s support increased by 380 votes over the life of his candidacy, which ended in 2011, when he was elected with 79.2%.

Not every voter climbed upon the Blyleven bandwagon, and some proved particularly resistant to the influx of new information and the campaigning. In January 2009, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman said on MLB Network, “I never thought [Blyleven] was a Hall of Famer when he was playing, and I saw him play his entire career. . . . [His popularity] is based on a lot of younger people on the Internet who never saw him play.”23 This was —
and remains — an all-too-common tack from many insiders in this context, attempting to discredit those advancing the argument, particularly outsiders, rather than the argument itself.

In a December 2010 column for Sports Illustrated’s Web site titled “Why I Didn’t Cast a Hall of Fame Vote for Bert Blyleven, Again,” Heyman spent nearly 2,000 words detailing his reasoning, referring again to won-loss records, the lack of All-Star appearances and awards, the minimal number of league leads. After supplying a solid laundry list of the counterarguments against the pitcher’s candidacy — not just traditional stats but even Bill James’s MVP shares — Heyman steered the argument into the subjective realm: “If you put Blyleven’s lifetime numbers through a computer, the computer would probably determine that he… is a Hall of Famer. But the game is about human beings, not just numbers. It’s about impact. The Hall of Fame is about fame, and Blyleven’s greatest fame came not while he was pitching well for five teams over 22 seasons but instead through his extended candidacy and the controversy surrounding it after he had retired.”24

“Impact” and “fame” aren’t quantifiable, they’re attempts to shift the focus from the stat-based arguments that the Blyleven detractors were by that point losing. Still, Heyman’s jabs were less venomous than those of Murray Chass. In 2007, while still at the New York Times, he railed against “Statistics mongers promoting VORP and other new-age baseball statistics,”25 referring to Baseball Prospectus’s Value Over Replacement Player (a precursor to WARP). “To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out,”26 wrote Chass, suddenly unable to summon the reporting skills via which he won a Spink Award.

Leaving the Times in 2008, Chass grew more bellicose via his own blog, where in addition to launching unfiltered, unsubstantiated attacks on everything from Mike Piazza’s Hall candidacy due to alleged steroid use (a long-standing obsession of his) to Stan Musial’s alleged racism (based upon thirdhand anecdotes), he took aim at anyone who criticized his Hall of Fame votes with an appeal to authority. By Chass’s logic, his vote for any candidate was justified merely by his status as a voter, therefore immune to criticism from nonvoters. To him, the critics of Morris’s candidacy were “stat zealots [who] don’t have a formula for intestinal fortitude or determination,”27 while the election of Blyleven was the result of using “new-age statistics to persuade ignorant voters to vote for a candidate.”28 Alas, nobody ever calculated how many hundreds of converts to Blyleven’s candidacy took umbrage at that statement.

Chass was hardly the only high-profile writer reduced to name-calling over the voting. For Bill Madden, critics of Morris’s candidacy were “the vigilante sabermetric brigade”; for Dan Shaughnessy, they were “sun-starved stat geeks.”29 Even from award-winning writers, such responses — accompanied by no shortage of anti-sabermetric swipes in other contexts — evinced insecurity and fear of irrelevance in front of a younger generation of baseball fans.

Despite the vigilantism and zeal of the statistically minded, over time Morris’s vote total climbed in a manner not dissimilar to that of Blyleven. Comparing their levels of support after seven years on the ballot, Morris actually received a larger share of the vote, 41.2% to 35.4%. But Blyleven pulled ahead late, topping 50% in his ninth year and 60% in his 11th year, while Morris lagged two years behind in reaching both thresholds.

Blyleven’s near-miss in 2010 and return to the ballot the following year was presumed to have dealt a significant blow to Morris’s candidacy, as he gained just 1.2% from 2010 to ’11. Closer study shows that gain exceeded Morris’s increases from 2008 to ’09 (1.1%) or from 2012–13 (1.0%). The Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker (bbhoftracker.com), which in those days recorded only between 17–30% of the ballots (compared to 70.8% in 2017), offers only limited clues. Of the 31 voters who published ballots that included Blyleven but not Morris in 2011 and then published their ballots again in 2012, only six used the freed space to support Morris. Two of the 36 published voters who included both pitchers in 2011 dropped Morris in 2012, neither with an explanation.

One of the more detailed explanations of a voter withdrawing his support from Morris came from the Dallas Morning News’s Tim Cowlishaw, who hadn’t supported Blyleven in 2011 but apparently had in the past. Of Morris he wrote, “I think the image of the man and what we remember is a bit different from the career numbers… Morris seldom had the lowest ERA in his own rotation and was over 3.50 11 times in his 18-year career… Facts, not memories. That should be the priority in determining how we vote, and the facts say Morris comes up just short.”30 Indeed. Morris came up short, and while some of that had to do with voters such as Cowlishaw reevaluating their perceptions and/or taking into account the same types of information that swayed them to vote in favor of Blyleven, the matter isn’t closed. He’ll likely become a candidate on the 2018 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot — a successor to the Veterans Committee — for those whose greatest contribution came during the 1970–87 period. There, BBWAA writers will occupy just four seats on a 16-person committee alongside four current executives and eight Hall of Fame players and/or managers, a group likely more sympathetic to arguments centered around the old-school metrics like wins, winning percentage, complete games, and Opening Day starts.

That committee’s predecessor, the Expansion Era Committee (1973 onward), never elected anyone as a player, and at this writing, none of the era-based committees has elected a living player. When that streak finally breaks, Morris could be the candidate in light of his previous support. Just five players have fallen off the BBWAA ballot after receiving at least 60% of the vote at some point. Three were elected by the VC:

Players Who Reached 60% of HoF Vote But Fell Off Ballot
Player Final Year BBWAA % Elected by VC
Nellie Fox 1985 74.7% 1997
Orlando Cepeda 1994 73.5% 1999
Jim Bunning 1991 63.7% 1996
Gil Hodges 1983 63.4%
Jack Morris 2014 61.5%

If and when Morris gets in, it will be another example of a small committee electing a subpar candidate, though hardly the worst. Those committees’ processes are opaque, with ballots never seeing the light of day and voters far less accountable than the writers. They’re more likely to share Morris’s disdain for sabermetrics — “Ninety percent of the general managers are in it. That’s why the game is messed up,”31 he told Chass in 2013 — than to reexamine his (or anyone’s) career in an objective light.

If Morris does get elected via that route, will it mean the battles of the late 2000s were for naught? I don’t think so. Subsequent elections have solidified the incorporation of advanced statistics into Hall of Fame debates, with that of Tim Raines — elected in 2017 after a slow, Blyleven-esque climb (see Chapter 14) — a shining example. WAR may not be a staple of every fan’s daily diet or every writer’s work, but its appearance on broadcasts, on ballpark scoreboards, in daily game coverage and other reporting, and even on the backs of baseball cards, is no longer uncommon. As the BBWAA electorate evolves, with younger voters having greater exposure to Bill James, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, JAWS, and much more, that trend will continue.

Beyond that, there’s no real joy in turning away Morris. Many of us who devoted time and energy to arguing against his case grew up watching his no-hitter, Game 7 shutout, and other highlights from his 18-year career. We know he was a very good pitcher for a long time, an intense competitor and a durable workhorse. It takes a hard heart to avoid acknowledging the man’s pain in being close enough to taste his inevitable election, yet falling short due to forces unforeseen at the outset of his candidacy. He didn’t ask to become a battlefront in a culture war.

Still, relying upon emotion and sentiment to govern the Hall of Fame processes will inevitably water down the honor of induction. We cannot merely wave through our personal favorites, without regard to how they measure up. For the sake of the institution and the players it honors, we’re better off with reason pointing the way.

Superscript numbers correspond to references listed in the “Notes” section at the end of the book.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

Was this the whole book??

Paul Swydanmember
6 years ago
Reply to  southie

Not even close. It wasn’t even the whole chapter.

6 years ago
Reply to  Paul Swydan

I know

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

Ah sycophants