Friday, December 12, 2008

Pitcher of the '80s?

In recent years, December brings a few certainties to the baseball world. There's the intrigue over the wheeling-and-dealing at the Winter Meetings (see: this last week); there's the debate over the true definition of "valuable"; and, more certain than anything else, there's the debate over the Hall of Fame merits of Jim Rice and Jack Morris. For those of us who have seen these debates time and again, their eventual re-emergence is not necessarily anticipated.

So why am I bringing it up? My goal isn't to rekindle old arguments (at least not too much), but I did come across something that seemed like it should be discussed.

One of the main points of Jack Morris supporters is that Morris was the "Pitcher of the '80s", having won more games than anybody else in the decade and with the most complete games (162 wins, 133 complete games). I noticed recently, though, that when naming the "players of each decade" in the 1990 Street and Smith's Baseball Preview Guide (which compiled a list of players- and events-of-the-decade from each of its five decades of its publication), the editors named Jack Morris the right-handed pitcher of the 1980s and Fernando Valenzuela the left-handed pitcher of the 1980s.

Having heard, many times before, Morris's merits as "Pitcher of the '80s", and having grown-up around Fernando-mania in and out of Los Angeles during the early-to-mid 1980s, I was surprised to see Fernando's name given equal weight with Morris's. By the time 1990 was rolling around, Fernando was declining and he didn't have too many productive years left. It's because of this, I think, that he was never really considered for the Hall, and deservedly so (he fell off the ballot on the second year). He was brilliant at the start of his career, but he was never able to keep that up across a long-enough career to be considered Hall-worthy.

But Morris's HOF case is debated every year and, if Fernando can truly be considered alongside Morris as the "Pitcher of the '80s", then shouldn't we be asking ourselves - and all Morris supporters - why Fernando isn't given the same amount of consideration?

Here are some stats:

J. Morris……………162……119……0.577……332……133……20……2443.7……2212……995……264……858……1629……3.66……1.256
Fernando V.………128……103……0.554……287……102……27……2144.7……1876……760……133……838……1644……3.19……1.265

Those are the two players' stats for all games played from 1980-1989, and it actually penalizes Fernando because his rookie year wasn't until 1981 (he did pitch 17 innings in 1980, all in relief). In 45 more starts, Morris was able to accumulate 34 more wins and 31 more complete games than Fernando. As a percentage, Morris won more of his games than Fernando did (.577 vs .554), and completed more (40.1% vs. 35.5%). Beyond those two glamorous numbers, though, Fernando is either the same pitcher or better.

In 45 fewer starts and 31 fewer complete games, Fernando actually managed to throw more shutouts that Morris. Also, in 299 fewer innings pitched, Fernando struck out more batters and gave up half as many home runs (264 for Morris vs. 133 for Fernando). Fernando did have a much higher walk rate, but it's balanced out by his fewer hits allowed (you can see how well they cancel each other out by comparing the two WHIPs, which are nearly identical across 2100+ innings). Across the decade, Fernando struck out 6.9 batters per 9 innings, and Morris struck out 6.0 batters per 9 innings. Fernando also has a much lower ERA for the decade.

These numbers, as stated, seem to say that there wasn't too much difference between the two pitchers over that ten-year period. Morris won more games, and he played as big of a part in most of those games as he could by completing them. But the other stats we normally use to rate pitchers on - or, at least, the stats people regularly used in the 1980s - seem to show Fernando as the superior pitcher. So what are we missing?

The biggest difference is that Fernando played in the National League in Dodger Stadium while Morris played in the American League in Tiger Stadium. Taking a quick look at Baseball Reference, it looks like the NL during the 1980s had a league ERA about half-a-run lower than the AL. And, though I don't know exactly how Tiger Stadium played, I imagine that it was a bit more hitter-friendly than Dodger Stadium. I don't yet know how to neutralize these stats, so this is the best I can do right now. Still, I find it hard to believe that someone in 1990 would have looked at these stats and have been able to say, unequivocally, that Morris was the pitcher of the '80s over Fernando. (The fact that they were named co-pitchers of the '80s in the article I mentioned above actually supports this).

Despite all of this, Morris still gets considerable debate every year for his Hall of Fame candidacy, predicated mostly on the presumption that he was the "Pitcher of the '80s", while Fernando didn't even last past two elections. Obviously, the legacies of the two pitchers are very different, as Morris continued pitching fairly well until 1994 and Fernando flailed around, in and out of the Majors, until 1997. Of course, Morris also had Game 7 to help prove his case.

The point of this post, though, was to compare the two pitchers' claims as "Pitcher of the '80s" and not to compare their overall careers or their Hall-worthiness. Though there's always been a soft-spot in my baseball heart for Fernando, I don't think he has much of a case, statistically, for the Hall (see this BBTF post for a further look into his case). I also don't think Morris belongs, though I can understand the at-first-blush, gut-feeling support he gets (and how that emotion causes people to "find the numbers" to back their gut). But, strictly comparing these two for title of "Pitcher of the '80s", I think Jack Morris's claim to the title is much less obvious than his supporters would have you believe.

Plus, I think Fernando deserves a little more recognition than he gets these days.


Eustis said...

Interesting stuff.

For what it's worth, their ERA+ for the 1980s is:

Valenzuela - 111
Morris - 109

So I'm not positive about the park factors. Tiger Stadium was a fairly sizeable place.

Interestingly enough, running the numbers in the 80s among pitchers with 2000 IP in the decade (which admittedly is a very high threshold such to the point that there are only 10 pitchers who qualify) Dave Stieb is really who stands out.

Stieb's ERA+ of 127 is 14 points high than the next two on the list (Blyleven and Welch at 113). He appeared in 339 games, 7 higher than Morris who is next on the list. His 27 SHO tie Fernando for the lead. His 140 W is second to Morris. His WHIP is second among those pitchers at 1.221.

So maybe Dave Stieb is the true pitcher of the decade? I'm not sure. But I never would have looked into it before this post.

And as somebody who owns a commemorative Fernando Valenzuela cornflake box, I will agree that his legacy is not as prominent as I feel it should be. I think if he had been healthy during that 88 championship run and come up with a big game in there (even though it was pretty much Orel's team at that point) that could have helped. After all, Morris didn't become the greatestclutchpitcherofalltimeever until he was 36 years old.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

lar said...

Thanks for the comment and the info, Eustis. It's good to see the ERA+ numbers. If I'm not mistaken, ERA+ is park-adjusted, so that should account for any differences between Tiger Stadium and Dodger Stadium. With that said, there's not much difference between a 111 ERA+ and a 109 ERA+.

Tom Tango did a good look at the Jack Morris Pitcher of the '80s thing last month, and pretty much came to the same conclusion that it should be Steib too. I wonder why Steib is so forgotten... because he was a Blue Jay? or would Morris be just as forgotten as him if it wasn't for Game 7?

Whatever the case, I still think that "Pitcher of the '80s" is a poor metric for HOF voting. I just think that, if we are to talk about that, then we should expand the conversation to all the possibilities, and not just Morris.

lar said...

here's the Tango article: