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Time to talk about Jack Morris

Yes, it's the holiday season, when fights in Wal-Mart over towels are matched only by the cyber-brawling over Jack Morris' Hall of Fame case.

This is Morris' final year on the BBWAA's Hall ballot. He's received 66.7 percent of the vote each of the past two elections, so in order to get to the 75 percent needed for election he'll have to pick up an additional 42 votes if the same 569 ballots are cast again. That's not unreasonable -- players often receive a spike in their final year -- but it's complicated this year by the crowded ballot and the new eligibility of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina, three pitchers with much stronger résumés than Morris.

Joe Posnanski is in the anti-Morris crowd. He admits he's a little obsessed by Morris (he's written many columns on Morris over the years), maybe too obsessed. He wrote the other day:

If someone wanted to make a Hall of Fame case for Jack Morris, they could say this:

1. He was an extremely durable pitcher who never missed a start and completed 175 games in his career.

2. He pitched one of the greatest World Series games.

3. He compiled borderline Hall of Fame caliber stats with his 254 wins and 2,478 strikeouts and his durability, the respect he built from teammates and opponents alike and his Game 7 push him over the border.

4. He was probably better than a handful of starters already in the Hall.

This isn't necessarily the most compelling argument, but this is what you have to work with. The trouble is, many people seem ABSOLUTELY SURE there is more to Morris' case. They just know -- absolutely know -- that Morris had to be better than that relatively tepid argument. And so they go searching.

More from the anti-Morris side. Recently on Twitter, ESPN Insider contributor Dan Szymborski compared Morris to some other pitchers via a series of tweets:

Morris finished with a 3.90 career ERA. Over his final seven seasons, it was 4.48, despite which he managed to go 92-81.

In his piece, Posnanski cited this pro-Morris column from Joel Sherman of the New York Post:

I think there has been retroactive cherry-picking of Morris' career. In his era, he was valued as an unquestioned ace, a workhorse No. 1, the kind of starter who prided himself on working deep into games, saving bullpens, etc. My friend, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, noted last year the righty pitched at least eight innings in 248 starts, which is the most by an AL pitcher in the DH era and represented 52 percent of his starts.

Here is one I note: Sparky Anderson, Tom Kelly and Cito Gaston combined to manage 8,146 regular-season games and each won two World Series. Every time Morris was available to start Game 1, those experienced managers started him. That was six times in seven series. The only time he didn't was the 1987 ALCS for Anderson's Tigers. He had thrown nine innings in Game 161 against Toronto to help Detroit clinch at least an AL East tie with the Blue Jays and so wasn't available until ALCS Game 2.

I guess the sabermetric crowd could know more today about Morris than those three managers knew then, but I am going with the managers.

Posnanski goes on to refute Sherman's arguments, so I won't do that here.

I do think there's something else going on that elevated Morris from a Hall of Fame afterthought -- he received less than 25 percent of the vote his first four years on the ballot -- to viable inductee.

Morris' first full season in the majors was 1979. His last good one was 1992. He's not really part of the Tom Seaver-Nolan Ryan-Steve Carlton-Phil Niekro-Don Sutton generation that pitched in the late '60s and early '70s, when offense was down, and racked up big innings, often in four-man rotations, and all won 300 games. (Bert Blyleven didn't win 300 but is part of that generation, as well.) Morris isn't really part of the Maddux-Glavine-Mussina-Randy Johnson-Pedro Martinez-Curt Schilling generation that kicked into high gear right as Morris was departing.

No, Morris is kind of a man on an island. Think of all the great pitchers who followed Morris in the '80s:

  • Fernando Valenzuela: Burned out after six seasons, won 173 games.

  • Dave Stieb: Developed shoulder problems, won 176 games.

  • Dwight Gooden: Drug issues, but career ultimately derailed by shoulder issues. Won 194 games.

  • Bret Saberhagen: Couldn't stay healthy. Won 167 games.

  • Orel Hershiser: Tore his rotator cuff, although managed a comeback. Won 204 games.

  • Frank Viola: Tommy John surgery. Won 176 games.

Then you have flickering rays like Mario Soto and Jose Rijo. Only Roger Clemens, who debuted in 1984, and Jamie Moyer, who debuted in 1986, began their careers in the 1980s and won more games than Morris' 254. The Hall of Fame has elected one starting pitcher since 1999 -- Blyleven in 2011, and he began his career in 1970.

Almost by default, Morris became The Guy to represent the 1980s. Morris survived, but most pitchers in his generation didn't. The pitchers who came into the majors in the 1980s had it tougher, I believe, than the previous generation. Skinny middle infielders who hit .250 with no power were being phased out. More players were getting bigger and stronger and lifting weights. Starters had to exert themselves on every pitch as there were fewer automatic outs in lineups. Managers would eventually adapt to this -- fewer innings were given to starters, especially when they were young, and more attention was paid to pitch counts -- but for most in Morris' generation, it was too late.

Those guys above were all better than Morris at their peaks. With the exception of Valenzuela, they all had a higher career WAR. But they didn't win 254 games. They didn't win more games than Bob Gibson or Juan Marichal or Whitey Ford.

In the end, that is what Morris' case is all about -- 254 wins and that Game 7 shutout. It's not about how he was viewed as an ace or that his managers trusted him or other such arguments. It's about survival. And now Morris may have survived long enough on the Hall of Fame ballot to finally get elected to Cooperstown.