Jack Morris and “pitching to the score”

Posted By on August 8, 2011 2:44 pm

We’re almost at the end of the publication cycle for the A’s and Giants magazines, which means most of my work is done, but not all of it. So I mostly sit around and wait for someone to pass something off to me, and then I do whatever I need to do, which usually takes about five minutes, then I sit around again.

Anyway, that means I spend a lot of time pointlessly surfing on Baseball-Reference.com, looking for … I don’t know … whatever.

So today I started thinking about my Hall of Fame ballot — hey, the thing’s due in less than five months! — and in particular Jack Morris. I have never really felt Morris had all that compelling of a case for the HOF, mostly because he had a rather pedestrian ERA and his vaunted “postseason excellence” is based on two or three games. (His overall postseason ERA is 3.80, compared with his regular season ERA of 3.90.)

Well, the crux of the argument in Morris’ defense is that he was one of those “winners.” He did win 254 games, which is an impressive total, for whatever it’s worth. The Morris defenders say you can throw out his ERA.

“The goal is to win the game, and he did that,” they say. “It’s not just to have a sparkling ERA.”

There’s the old “pitch to the score” meme. When Morris had a 5-1 lead, he didn’t care about his ERA, just making sure that the opponent didn’t get that fifth run, the Morris defenders reason.

I’ve always thought that was a little silly. Shouldn’t the pitcher always be trying to get the hitter out, no matter what the score? I just refuse to believe any pitcher ever is on the mound thinking “It’s OK if I give up some runs.” Even if he knows the runs won’t affect the outcome, he ought to know the faster he can get outs, the better chance he has to complete the game, and we all know that a guy like Morris liked to complete the game.

If the implication is that Morris gave up a lot of runs when it didn’t matter, because the game was already decided, then that should be pretty easy to test. Baseball-reference gives you all sorts of tools to do this. Like leverage numbers. (In case you don’t know, leverage measures how much the game is hanging in the balance. A tie game in the ninth is a high-leverage situation. A 6-0 game in the seventh is low leverage.)

Morris’ numbers, split by leverage, look like this…

Leverage OPS
Low .694
Medium .692
High .695

Hmm, that’s weird. Looks like the game situation had no bearing whatsoever on his effectiveness.

So in those times when Morris had a 5-1 lead and gave up three runs and won the game, 5-4, I submit it’s not because he didn’t care about those last three runs, but because he wasn’t good enough to prevent them.

That sounds a little harsh. I don’t mean to imply that Morris wasn’t a very good pitcher. He was a very good, very durable pitcher. However, he wasn’t quite a Hall of Famer. I think overall ERA (or ERA+, to adjust for the league) is a marvelous, simple way to measure how good a pitcher performed. And Morris’ ERA+ of 105 ranks him 317th among the 628 pitchers who have thrown at least 1,500 innings. (Also with a 105 ERA+: John Denny, Denny Neagle.)

I’m sorry. I just can’t overlook that because of a few memorable October games or the fact that he happened to pitch for teams that scored enough runs that he could win 254 games, despite such a pedestrian ERA.

There. That killed 30 minutes.


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