Baseball

More More Morris

Yes, a bit more on Jack Morris and pitching to the score … like you want to read more on that subject.

Well, hey, this time it’s not my fault. I got an email from Brilliant Reader John asking a viable and interesting Jack Morris question: He pointed out that Morris, going back to when World War II ended, won more games than anyone when he allowed four or more runs.

Before I get to his point, I should say that this Morris fact is 100% true. Here is the list of pitchers who won most often when giving up 4+ runs.

  1. Jack Morris, 54
  2. Warren Spahn, 53
  3. Robin Roberts, 52
  4. Roger Clemens, 46
  5. Phil Niekro, 45

I do think that list is intriguing and kind of surprising. Morris generally pitched in a low-scoring era. in Morris’ era, when you allowed four-plus runs, you only won about 27% of the time. In the steroid era, with more runs being scored, teams won about 30% of the time when giving up four-plus runs. So I would have expected the list to be topped by a lot of pitchers who threw in 1990s and 2000s -- say, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, guys like that -- to top this list.

But Morris is on top. And this is John’s point: He said that Morris winning all those games when he gave up four runs essentially essentially PROVES that Morris pitched to the score. The idea of pitching to the score, after all, is pitching just well enough to win, whether your team scored 1 run or 20. He said that when Morris gave up four runs or more, he won more often than any pitcher in the last 70 or so years. What else do you need?

After looking into it a little bit, well, I’m not saying that I entirely agree with John’s conclusion -- I don’t -- but I think he might have a small point. And I think his small point might get to the heart of Jack Morris’ grittiness … and why people continue to insist against logic and evidence that he pitched to the score.

* * *

In doing this post, I ran across this excellent piece by the late, great Greg Spira … he was writing about the idea of pitching to the score, and he wrote two sentences that have stuck with me:

“The pitchers who get a reputation of ‘pitching to the score’ have one thing in common - they have all generally gotten good run support through most of their careers. It seems apparent to me that pitchers get this reputation because they get better run support than most other pitchers and thus have a W-L record that looks better than their ERA or runs allowed.”

I think Greg, in general terms, was almost certainly right. I think most of the time, when people talk about a pitcher “pitching to the score” what they are really saying (sometimes unknowingly) is, ‘Wow that pitcher gets a lot of run support.” i think this comes down to that old story of narrative and our amazing ability as human beings to wander by the most obvious or simple or disagreeable or generally uninteresting conclusions for more interesting, provocative, controversial, positive, supernatural and unprovable phenomenons.

Jack Morris won 54 times when he allowed four-plus runs -- more than any pitcher the last 70 years. Why? Is it:

A. Because he had the good fortune to pitch for many good offensive teams that scored a lot of runs?

B. Because he would pitch differently when his team had a big lead?

At first glance, “A” seems to me a bit more reasonable and credible than “B.” We know that he DID play for many good offensive teams that scored a lot of runs. And we know that it is impossible to win a game when allowing four runs unless your team scores at least five. Our first instinct, it seems to me, should be to think: Jack Morris was a lucky guy.

But that’s not an especially interesting or happy conclusion. Nobody ever really likes giving too much credit to luck. When people come back from Vegas with more money than they started, you might hear them say, “Yeah, I got lucky.” But then you’ll probably also hear about their brilliant blackjack maneuvering or the way they manipulated a poker pot or their roulette system or something else because, in the end, it’s hard for any of us to believe that it’s ever really all luck. We do desperately want to believe we have some control over things.

And so, it is tempting to believe that Jack Morris -- who was such a competitor, who had that great mustache, who refused to come out of games, who pitched a billion innings, who won that remarkable 1991 Game 7, who started all those Opening Days, who other players spoke about with grudging admiration -- that Jack Morris WILLED HIMSELF to pitch as well as the situation demanded. If the team gave up 9, hell, what did Jack Morris care if he gave up 7 runs? He wasn’t pitching to the stats! He was pitching to the score!

That is SO much more interesting.

Well, I’ll tell you: I did another quick little Morris study. And in this one, well, I sort of, kind of, found something intriguing about Morris and pitching to the score. Sort of. Kind of.

Here is Jack Morris W-L record and ERA when his team scored a certain number of runs. In parentheses I put baseball team’s records when scoring that many runs from 1977 to 1991, which basically covers Morris’ career:

When Morris’ teams scored 6+ runs: 137-9, 4.24 ERA

(Morris’ win percentage .938; baseball win percentage .840)

Comment: OK, when Morris’ team scored 6-plus runs, they were almost unbeatable. Average teams would lose one out of every eight or nine times they score six-plus runs. Morris’ teams almost never lost.

When Morris’ teams scored 5 runs: 40-10, 3.44 ERA

(Morris’ win percentage .800; baseball win percentage .657)

Comment: When Morris’ team scored five runs, he was at his very best -- that 3.44 ERA almost a half run less than his career ERA. And his teams won significantly more often when scoring five runs than the average team.

When Morris’ teams scored 4 runs: 33-16, 3.62 ERA

(Morris’ win percentage .673; baseball win percentage .538)

Comment: i think this is Morris’ most impressive achievement -- when his team scored exactly four runs, they won about two thirds of the time -- the average team won barely more than half.

And here’s the argument for Morris pitching to the score: When Morris’ teams scored four-plus runs, he went an amazing 210-35 -- an amazing .857 winning percentage. The average team had a .727 win percentage. Now, does this mean Morris actually pitched to the score? Well, you can decide that because, unfortunately for the Jack Morris’ faithful, there’s a second (and more significant) part of the question.

See, pitching to the score doesn’t just mean giving up seven runs when your team scores eight. Let’s be realistic: Lots of pitchers can do that. If Morris was slightly better at that, well, that’s fine, but the crux of “pitching to the score” means pitching WELL when your team doesn’t score a lot of runs. And in this, well … to the numbers:

When Morris’ teams scored 3 runs: 24-38, 4.08 ERA

(Morris’ win percentage .387, baseball win percentage .398)

Comment: Uh-oh.

When Morris’ teams scored 2 runs: 4-22, 3.68 ERA

(Morris’ win percentage .154, baseball win percentage .244)

Comment: Double uh-oh.

When Morris’ teams scored 1 run: 4-27, 4.16 ERA

(Morris’ win percentage .129, .baseball win percentage .096)

Comment: Forget the win percentage here -- look at that ERA. I have to admit being shocked by that. You have to figure that sometimes when Tigers or Blue Jays scored just one run, the conditions weren’t favorite for scoring. It was cold. The wind was blowing in. The shadows were causing hitters problems. And yet, when the Tigers scored just one run, Morris’ ERA was actually HIGHER than his career ERA. Like I say, I found that kind of stunning.

When Morris’ teams were shut out: 0-13, 4.33 ERA

Comment: Obviously, Morris cannot win when his team is shut out. But, again, that ERA.

And now, we look at it in total: When Morris’s teams scored one, two or three runs, he went 32-87 with a 4.08 ERA. That’s not good. And that’s not even including his high ERA when his team was shut out.

It seems to me you could argue, maybe, that Morris did battle well his teams scored runs for him. He completed games, and made every start and brought victories home when his team put runs on the board. But pitch to the score? No. Not unless the score was high.

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