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.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.