A quick perusal of the sabermetric blogosphere will undoubtedly lead you to a gung-ho movement to keep Jack Morris out of the Hall of Fame in favor of statistical darling Bert Blyleven. The argument has become the poster-child for the sabermetrics vs. “the games aren’t played in mom’s basement” debate, so I wanted to weigh in on the discussion being a sabermetrician (however poor) myself.
There really is no question who the better pitcher was throughout their careers. By pretty much every measure Blyleven checks out ahead (numbers courtesy of fangraphs). Blyleven had a 3.31 ERA and 3.19 FIP, while Morris had a 3.90 ERA and a 3.94 FIP. Bert struck out 3701 batters while walking 1322, compared to Morris’ 2478 Ks and 1390 BBs. Blyleven had a 1.20 Whip compared to Morris’ 1.30 mark. And in terms of WAR, Blyleven had a fantastic 90.1 career WAR compared to Morris’ 39.3, according to baseball reference (fangraphs WAR only goes back to 1980 for these two hurlers). You just cannot make a good argument that Morris was the better pitcher.
But I think using these numbers as gospel for Hall-of-Fame worthiness is the wrong application of sabermetrics. If you ask me to rate a free agent signing, I could not care less how a certain player performed in one or two notable games, or the mocking chants telling me to “get out of my mother’s basement!” (I actually do my writing on the second floor, so there!). Don’t tell me about grittiness or presence or clutchitude (it almost certainly exists to a certain extent, but as of yet the facts and statistics we have just cannot measure it well). Tell me how many runs and wins a player will help our team with numbers and facts that have been proven to correlate with runs and wins. When asking me to rate a player’s past performance in terms of generating wins, the same applies.
But to me the Hall of Fame serves a markedly different purpose than to evaluate the worth of players’ on-the-field performances. It is a museum that is best served to do what all (or most) museums do: to keep the memories of the best and most unforgettable people and moments alive. And it is in that one phrase, best and most unforgettable, where the answer to the Morris vs. Blyleven debate resides. Bert, by all statistical measures, was a great pitcher worthy of enshrinement with the best. And Morris threw a no-hitter and a 1-0, 10-inning, complete game victory in game seven of a remarkable 1991 World Series. Bert represents the best, while Morris represents the most unforgettable, and there should be a place for both.
I remember my one visit to Cooperstown as a young boy and the awe-inspired feeling I had throughout my tour of the Hall. As sacrilegious as it may sound, it was a similar feeling to one I felt in my journeys to the Sistine Chapel and the Western Wall. To anyone who says the Hall should keep out players merely because their statistical value does not stack up to the majority of its elected members, I say you either have not been to the Hall or should have gone as a child to experience the wonder of it all, which may even exceed that of Foxwoods. If both of those are true and you still think statistical value should be the only criteria for entrance (or at least the only make-or-break criteria), than perhaps you really are a soulless automaton. The fact is that visiting the Hall of Fame is an overwhelming experience about learning of and remembering the game’s most incredible players and moments.
I believe in a big Hall of Fame, because as the only really important baseball museum it should try to capture as much history as possible. Bert’s numbers leave little doubt he was one of the game’s best pitchers, considering performance and durability, during his tenure in the major leagues, and that makes him seem like a Hall-of-Famer to me (an all-time great, definitely not, but again I’m a big Hall kind of guy). And if Twins fans remember Morris’ shutout victory in the same way I remember Ventura’s grand-slam single or Piazza’s home run to cap the 10-run eighth inning, then, coupled with his good if not great statistical record and on-the-field value, he seems like a worthy Hall-of-Famer to me as well. Sabermetrics, and statistics in general, have a big place in baseball, but being the sole Hall of Fame determinant isn’t it. Because the memory of Morris and his one beautiful game should live on, and Cooperstown is the only place we have to let it live.