Mitch Williams And The Great Divide
Last week, following the 2013 BBWAA Hall of Fame vote, the venerable Mitch Williams was presented with the case against Jack Morris by fellow MLB Network anchor (and host of the saber-inclined Clubhouse Confidential) Brian Kinney. To say that Mitch “Delirium Tremens” Williams disagreed with Kinney’s analysis of the numbers would be an understatement:
“That doesn’t begin to tell you the intangibles of pitching. Run prevention is not all pitching is. Wins is what matters. Going deep into games is what matters. When Jack Morris took the mound his manager knew he was getting seven, eight, nine innings out of him. That saves your entire bullpen. You knew when Jack Morris when you were playing against him, you didn’t have a very good chance to win that day. Because this guy was going to battle you. If he needed to give up one run, he would give up one run. He pitched to the scoreboard. His ERA of 3.90? That’s 3.90 in the American League. But today sabermetrics tells us that six innings and three runs is a quality start. If I’m doing my [unintelligible] right, that’s a 4.50 ERA. So the numbers, the ERA, I don’t buy it. wins is what the game is made of.”
As someone who is sabermetrically-inclined (although I am more of a “Easter and Christmas” sabermetrician as opposed to a Devout), Williams’ diatribe against Brian Kinney, his “basement-dwelling friends on that light-bright calculator of a machine”, and sabermetrics in general, was quite stunning.
I knew that it existed; the Old Guard, the backlash, the Ned Yostian cling to old school player analysis. As conscious as I was to the mentality, I had never seen it displayed on a national forum so, how to put it…preciously. And now I feel it is necessary, although I find the exercise joyless, to tear apart Mitch Williams and those of his ilk in-kind.
That doesn’t begin to tell you the intangibles of pitching. Run prevention is not all pitching is. Wins is what matters.
In theory, although not necessarily in practice, the more runs you prevent, the more games you are going to win. But when you play on bad teams, it doesn’t matter if you have one of the best seasons in the last twenty years, you aren’t going to win many games. Is Zack Greinke’s 2009 less valuable than, say, Jack Morris’ 1982 season? Does that extra win make up for the fact that Morris’ ERA is almost two runs higher?
Side note: How is Morris considered a strikeout pitcher at all? His career K/9 is 5.83, and his K/BB is only 1.78.
When Jack Morris took the mound his manager knew he was getting seven, eight, nine innings out of him. That saves your entire bullpen.
This is a common thing said about not only Morris, but of all players that pitched a bulk of their career prior to the 1990s. Pitchers use to pitch longer. Jack Morris used to pitch longer. It is better for your bullpen for your starter to pitch longer. Therefore, Jack Morris is better. This is the one point of the argument that works in Morris’ favor; between 1970 and 2000, only eight pitchers had more complete games than he did, and it is a pretty impressive list: Bert Blyleven, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, and Tom Seaver.
But just because he finished games, doesn’t mean that he finished them well. The ability to do a thing doesn’t indicate excellence or exceptional performance.
You knew when Jack Morris when you were playing against him, you didn’t have a very good chance to win that day. Because this guy was going to battle you. If he needed to give up one run, he would give up one run. He pitched to the scoreboard.
Jack Morris won 57.7% of his decisions, and only 48.2% of the games he started. He’ll battle you, alright.
I’m just going to ignore the “pitched to the scoreboard” rhetoric. It has never been used for any other pitcher ever, and will more than likely never be used again. When you make an argument that is so singularly biased, it is inherently flawed.
His ERA of 3.90? That’s 3.90 in the American League.
If you apply this to Jack Morris, then you have to apply it to every other player who pitched in the American League from the same time period, which makes it a moot point. But, let’s go with it. Of the 17 starters who have pitched at least 2,500 innings since the inception of the designated hitter, Jack Morris is 10th in ERA, behind Roger Clemens, Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, Bert Blyleven, Frank Tanana, Mike Mussina, Charlie Hough, Chuck Finley, and Mike Flanagan. Not exactly a star-studded bunch, all of whom were better at preventing runs than Morris.
But today sabermetrics tells us that six innings and three runs is a quality start.
From the Wikipedia page on the “Quality Start”: “An early criticism of the statistic, made by Moss Klein, writing in The Sporting News, is that a pitcher could conceivably meet the minimum requirements for a quality start and record a 4.50 ERA, seen as undesirable at the time. Bill James addressed this in his 1987 Baseball Abstract, saying the hypothetical example (a pitcher going exactly 6 innings and allowing exactly 3 runs) was extremely rare amongst starts recorded as quality starts, and that he doubted any pitchers had an ERA over 3.20 in their quality starts. This was later confirmed through computer analysis of all quality starts recorded from 1984 to 1991, which found that the average ERA in quality starts during that time period was 1.91.”
Look, the issue most people have with sabermetrics isn’t player analysis; baseball breeds fans of statistics and measures. The issue arises from the necessity to be objective in your analysis, and objectivity is severely lacking, from both sides of the argument. And while some advanced metrics are still under scrutiny (DRS, UZR, etc.), the hope is to advance closer to an equilibrium of understanding and form the most informed opinions possible, regardless of constructed narrative.
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