An Open Letter to Murray Chass

Updated Below
Dear Mr. Chass,
I read your recent column discussing Jack Morris and his final appearance on the BBWA Hall of Fame Ballot.
I wonder why you so often are denigrating “new-age statistics” and those who use them to analyze baseball. You describe them in at best unflattering terms, if not with outright disdain, which I find neither civil nor decent. Perhaps some of the less civil among them have been particularly rude in correspondence or otherwise, and so you’ve developed a visceral dislike, if not hatred, for them, but it would show more character and class if you wrote about them less, or were yourself more respectful when doing so, while offering evidence to rebut whatever claims they make which you find outrageous.
While your post is titled “Anti-Morris Mob in Action”, what you quote from the e-mail correspondent who urged you not to vote for Morris hardly strikes me as unruly, mob behavior. He’s expressing an opinion, perhaps a bit forcefully (using “NOT” in all capital letters as well as an exclamation point), but that’s hardly rude or intimidating. That person may have a strongly held opinion which differs with yours, but based on your quotation, he hardly deserves to be called a member of a mob!
When you wrote back, you asked if he had actually watched Morris pitch, or merely based his view on numbers, perhaps implying that numbers can’t tell the whole story about Morris. Certainly numbers can’t tell the whole story, yet I find it quite ironic that when the correspondent noted that Don Larsen isn’t in the Hall of Fame, you reverted to numbers to argue why Morris was clearly better than Larsen.
You then use this correspondent, and some anonymous blogger (to whom you don’t link, so readers could judge his or her opinion for themselves) to build a straw man argument as “the best the anti-Morris forces can do”.
A Hall of Fame player is, by definition, determined subjectively by those fortunate enough to have a vote, as you do. What the best statistical analysts, like Tom Tango (whom you single out as the “most decent and civil critic of my disparaging view”), strive for is a better framework for evaluating and comparing players. Rather than simply making an ad-hoc judgment call on this or that player, they try to evaluate players on a reasonable, evidence-based basis. Mr. Tango actually wrote about Morris’s candidacy five years ago:
His broad point is that if Morris is worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration, then several other players who have already dropped off the ballot probably deserved similar consideration. While Tango pointedly avoided being explicitly anti-Morris, his argument is much stronger that the straw-men you mock in your piece.
From my naive perspective as a life-long fan (I’ve been watching baseball since the mid-1970s, and thus have seen Morris pitch several times on television, although never in person), Morris was a good pitcher for quite a long time, and indeed a very good pitcher some of the time. But I wouldn’t describe him as a dominant pitcher. He never won the Cy Young Award, nor did he even finish second, nor was he an especially feared pitcher. The argument for him rests on giving him a lot of credit for longevity and durability.
If you’ll indulge me a few statistics while avoiding what you call “meaningless initials” like WAR, WAA, and WHIP, I’d cite Morris’s career record of 254-186, 68 games over .500. Ron Guidry didn’t match Morris’s career in length, but he was 79 games over .500, 170-91. Guidry’s career ERA was a half run lower, too. Guidry’s career, while reaching a higher peak, was not nearly as long as Morris’s, so reasonable people can argue Morris is more deserving because of that longevity.
But if longevity is more important, then Morris pales in comparison to Guidry’s one-time teammate, Tommy John. Morris pitched 3824 innings, retiring after 1994. But John threw 4710, nearly 900 more. John wasn’t a strikeout pitcher – Morris had 2478 to John’s 2245, and Morris also had more complete games, 175 to 162. But John was close in both, and he had more shutouts, by a 46 to 28 margin. And while Morris got more strikeouts, he also issued 1390 walks, more than John’s 1259. Morris was also victim to more home runs, 389 to 302, even though Tommy John faced far more batters. John, like Morris, was never his league’s best pitcher, although he did twice finish runner-up in Cy Young award voting
As a long-time writer for the New York Times, surely you’re quite familiar with both Guidry’s and John’s careers, beyond simply their numbers. I wonder: did you vote for either when they were on the ballot? How do you rate them compared to Morris?
It’s telling that in his rankings among all-time leaders in pitching stats, Morris ranks higher in statistics pitchers try to avoid. Morris ranks 50th in innings pitched, and 32nd in strikeouts, but his 1390 walks rank 19th, and his 389 home runs allowed rank 13th. This suggests to me a good, even very good, but not dominant pitcher: he was given the chance to pitch quite often, more than his contemporaries, and he was more effective than most. But he pales in comparison to the very elite.
While you disparage those using new-age statistics for their devotion to numbers, as opposed to having watched players, you so often fall back on numbers to make a case for Morris. Indeed the only point you made in this piece that wasn’t tied to numbers was Morris’s 10 inning shutout in the 1991 World Series!
You close your case with more numbers, citing Morris’s 527 starts and 3824 innings as being above the average for the 69 pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Tommy John’s 700 starts and 4910 innings are further above those averages. Using that standard, he would seem more deserving of such an honor (even ignoring his impact on baseball by coming back from the then-experimental surgery performed first by Dr. Frank Jobe, which now bears John’s name, or the fact that John gave up markedly fewer runs per inning than Morris while pitching those extra 900 innings).
But also, those averages include relievers. When I remove Babe Ruth and pitchers with 100 or more career saves (a good quick way to pick out relievers, from Hoyt Wilhelm to Dennis Eckersley), I calculate that the average Hall of Fame pitcher pitched 3888 innings, a bit above Morris’s total, though still far behind John’s. But Morris’s 527 starts are still above the adjusted average of 474.
By all means, if you think Morris deserves induction, you should vote for him. He won’t be the worst pitcher there. But a Hall with Jack Morris suggests more emphasis on longevity than on brilliance, in which case Tommy John (among several others) would seem to have at least as strong an argument.
Whatever arguments you make, you’d be better served either not commenting on, or being more respectful of, what you call the anti-Morris “mob”. Reasonable people can disagree over how big the Hall of Fame should be, and whether it should reward longevity more, or brilliance more. But when you denigrate many who prefer a smaller Hall, more focused on excellence than longevity, and who take time to justify their positions with statistical evidence as a “mob”, you’re simply contributing to the noise and vitriol in the debate.
You spent several decades as a baseball writer, observing the game up close in a way that very few people have the chance to do. You have unique perspective that you could bring to this debate, explaining in words and stories why you believe Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame. Even if we could agree on what numbers are most meaningful in evaluating a career, can’t tell the whole story. You had a chance to fill in some of what the numbers don’t say; surely you should be able to tell some of those stories.
Maybe those who spend their time creating websites arguing that Jack Morris doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame do indeed need help, and need to get a life, as you say. But rather than explain to them, and your other readers, what beyond the numbers makes you think Jack Morris deserves induction, you instead mock them and call them a “mob”. That is a sad waste of potential.

Geoff Buchan
Follow @RotoValue on Twitter:

P.S. I suppose I, too, need to get a life, having spent far too long writing this e-mail. So at least I’ll post it on my own blog.

Addendum 20 November 2013
I was skimming Bill James’s book The Politics of Glory, and in it he (whom I suppose you might call the godfather of baseball statistical analysis) writes,

As to how to find potential Hall of Famers, I argue for the democratic, as opposed to autocratic, interpretation of baseball statistics. This will earn me angry letters from a small number of left-brain, right-wing, literal-minded bastards, or if it doesn’t that is only because they have given up on me. These people feel that the only possible way to evaluate Hall of Fame candidates is to find some way to assign a number, a value, to every player, and draw a line through the list: Everybody over the line is in, everybody under it is out. …
… to me, it’s just not an appropriate way to approach the subject. The problem is that there are things in baseball which can’t be measured in statistics or which aren’t well measured in statistics. While your local game announcer may overestimate the importance of those “intangibles” by a factor of roughly three billion, they still exist, and still complicate the discussion. There are biases in the statistics, hundreds of them really, and at this point there isn’t any way to remove all these biases and let the statistical record speak in a pure and clear voice.

It seems before 1994, when this was published, James may have received similar correspondence to Chass. Yet James pointedly does not take this as representative of baseball analysis, and give up on statistics because of it. And nearly 20 years ago, he’s emphasizing that numbers don’t tell the whole story. They can indeed explain quite a bit, and perhaps nobody is more responsible for popularizing and demonstrating their value in baseball analytics than Bill James. And I’ll make this case by referring to just two numbers, 0 and 3. The first is the number of World Series titles the Boston Red Sox won after trading Babe Ruth but before hiring Bill James. The second is the number of World Series titles they’ve won since hiring James.