(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstriped Bible)
Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame candidacy has become a lighting rod. Thanks to this spirited debate, more has been written about him over the past few years than during his entire 18-year pitching career. At least that’s the way it seems…on the surface. However, when you dig deep into the arguments both for and against his enshrinement, it turns out they aren’t about Jack Morris at all.
The debate over Morris is really a referendum on sabermetrics. When old school scribes trumpet the right hander as the “winningest pitcher in the 1980s”, the statheads derisively note his cumulative WAR ranks behind Chuck Finley. The pro-Morris camp likes to hark back to his magical game seven in the 1991 World Series, but the right hander’s detractors quickly point out that, aside from this performance, his post season ERA is a pedestrian 4.26. The anecdotal retorts lobbed from both sides of the great statistical divide are endless. It’s not exactly “Tastes Great, Less Filling”, but the level of discourse is close.
The relative importance of new statistics clearly plays a role in the Morris debate, but that’s not the only undercurrent. More than just wrangling over how to define performance, the two sides appear to be fighting for mindshare. For over a century, the mainstream print media, which comprise the BBWAA membership, enjoyed almost exclusive sway over how baseball fans (and even participants) perceived the game and its players. More recently, however, those sympathetic to sabremetricians (an important distinction because those who use the new metrics now have a much louder voice than the number crunchers who actually devise them) have gradually usurped that authority by wielding complex mathematical equations as a weapon. In response, the traditionalists have retrenched, doubling down on the importance of access and narrative as a way to combat those threatening not only their influence, but also their jobs.
Jack Morris is really nothing more than a red herring in this debate. Each side has conveniently exploited elements of his Hall of Fame candidacy to exaggerate their claims about the other, while ignoring the inconsistencies inherent in their own arguments. After all, if Morris’ historic post season performance and renowned tenacity are so obviously Hall of Fame material, why did the right hander languish on the ballot for the first decade of his eligibility? Similarly, if Morris’ election to Cooperstown was truly worthy of the derision expressed by those who oppose him, how come no one laughs at the inclusion of Jim Palmer?
Just like Moneyball drove an unnecessary wedge between scouts and front office number crunchers, the Hall of Fame vote (and award balloting) has pitted story telling against statistical analysis. However, historical reflection, like roster building, doesn’t have to be a zero-sum endeavor. Unfortunately, too few seem realize that. Instead, what exists is increasing polarization as denigration has replaced healthy debate.
The skepticism between old school journalists and the new breed of baseball writers is only natural, but the extreme to which it has grown is quickly becoming perverse. Instead of arguing based on philosophy, both sides now seem more interested in preserving their influence in the industry, or, to put it more bluntly, safeguarding their jobs. Although the Hall of Fame probably relishes in the publicity created by such vehement disagreement, if the discourse becomes too polluted, the honor of being elected may as well. That’s why it’s time for Hall voters, and those who pine for a ballot, to realize the process isn’t about them. Under no circumstances should the debate overshadow the candidate.
In the interest of full disclosure, I do not think Morris merits enshrinement in Cooperstown, but could certainly live with a Hall of Fame that includes him. The debate over his candidacy, however, has become insufferable. And, sadly, there is little reason to expect the vitriol to dissipate once Morris is either elected or removed from the ballot. Unless the Hall of Fame decides to implement a more rational electoral process, the natural tension between different factions of the baseball writing community will likely manifest again with another candidate designated as the straw man.
In closing, it’s worth pointing out that there is one positive derivative from the Jack Morris shouting match: it has created enough noise to distract from the intellectual laziness and dishonesty that lies at the heart of the debate over PEDs and the Hall of Fame. In that sense, it might not be such a good idea to rush Morris off the ballot. After all, regardless of where you stand on Morris’ candidacy, arguing about the relative importance of one epic World Series game is terribly more interesting than back acne and cap sizes.