Modern Era Hall of Fame Ballot: Tommy John, Jack Morris, Luis Tiant

Last week, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced 10 candidates for consideration for the Modern Era ballot, which includes executives and players whose careers took place mainly from 1970 to 1987. This year, the candidates include one non-player, Marvin Miller, and nine players from that era: Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Luis Tiant and Alan Trammell. Among the player candidates, we have an interesting mix: some who make their claim with a high peak, those who have longevity on their side, and one player with both. Over the course of three posts, I’ll examine all the candidates. We’ll start today with the three pitchers on the ballot.

First, a brief word on the rules and procedures of this ballot, which is a updated version of the old Veteran’s Committee. Baseball has been separated into eras, with Early Baseball (1871-1949), Golden Days (1950-1969), Modern Baseball (1970-1987), and Today’s Game (1988-Present). Most players up through 1969 have had their cases considered many times. As a result, during this cycle (2016-2020), the Early Baseball and Golden Days players are scheduled to be evaluated just once, in 2020, with Modern Baseball and Today’s Game receiving consideration every other year from 2016 to -19. There are 16 voting members on the Committee for election, and players must receive 75% of the vote with voting members limited to four votes.

In my evaluation of each player, I’ve included a collection of numbers. Besides WAR, the rest of these come from a system I devised (introduction here) that provides an escalating scale of points for all above-average seasons (HOF Points) averaged with WAR to come to a total HOF Rating. The averaged and median numbers that follow are first for all Hall of Famers at their respective positions — which, in this case, is all starting pitchers. The BBWAA averages and medians are for those Hall of Famers voted in by the writers, who have historically had tougher standards.

Here are today’s three players, in order of merit:

Tommy John
Player Rating Inductee Benchmarks
(Pitchers)
HOF
Points (Peak)
WAR HOF
RATING
HOF
AVG
HOF
MEDIAN
BBWAA
AVG
BBWAA
MEDIAN
34 79.4 56.7 55.5 50.8 66.9 63.3

If ever there were a case made based on longevity, it belongs to Tommy John. He played 26 years in the majors, not including a 1975 season that he missed recovering from a surgery that now bears his name. John only had one great season, in 1979, when he recorded 276.1 innings and produced a 2.96 ERA, 3.10 FIP, and 6.9 WAR for the New York Yankees. He finished second in the Cy Young twice and had another top-four finish. His Hall of Fame case is based on being good for a very long time. He has just that one six-win season, but he has another five seasons above four WAR, and another 13 seasons above 2.5 WAR. Tommy John was an above-average major-league pitcher in 19 seasons — maybe 20, if you count strike-shortened 1981. John’s 3.38 FIP and 3.34 ERA are both around 10% better than league average over the course of his entire career.

If you want to know what Tom Glavine’s career would have looked like on slightly worse teams without Andruw Jones, here it is. John is a poor man’s Don Sutton and fell 12 wins short of the 300 mark that would have meant his enshrinement on the writer’s ballot. Averaging his career length and his peak puts him right at the average for Hall of Fame pitchers and 31st all-time. How you view John’s case depends on how important a great peak is worth compared to an incredibly long and good, but not great, career.

Luis Tiant
Player Rating Inductee Benchmarks
(Pitchers)
HOF
Points (Peak)
WAR HOF
RATING
HOF
AVG
HOF
MEDIAN
BBWAA
AVG
BBWAA
MEDIAN
29 54.8 41.9 55.5 50.8 66.9 63.3

After four solid seasons in the majors, Luis Tiant broke out in 1968. He led the American League with a 1.60 ERA and 2.04 FIP in 258.2 innings and produced a 7.4 WAR. For all of that, he failed to receive a single Cy Young vote. Unfortunately, it was the same year in which Denny McLain won 31 games. Voters at the time made just one selection for the Cy Young Award, so Tiant had to settle for fifth place in the MVP race. Tiant struggled for the next three seasons with injuries before a resurgence with the Boston Red Sox during which he averaged over four wins per season between 1972-1976. He was an innings-eater for another four seasons, and that was basically the end of his career. He had a lifetime 3.47 FIP and 3.34 ERA, the latter mark rating 13% better than average over the course of his career.

In terms of value, Tiant’s career looks a lot like Jack Morris’s. Both players had four seasons of at least four wins, although Tiant had two above six to Morriss’ one. Tiant added nine seasons of 2-4 WAR while Morris added 10. The more traditional voter might also note that Tiant had four 20-pitcher-win seasons to Morris’s three. Tiant’s ERA was more than half a run lower. Some of that can be chalked up to Tiant receiving more innings during the 1960s, though Tiant’s ERA and FIP for his career are about 10% better than average while Morris was just 5%. Morris has the World Series Hero tag, though Tiant did throw a shutout to open the 1975 World Series and also gave up just one unearned run in a complete game to open the 1975 American League Championship Series.

Comparing Tiant to Morris makes the former look good. The comparisons aren’t as good for Tiant when we expand the sample to all other Hall of Fame starting pitchers. Tiant falls short of the standards that have generally been in place for years. Of the 40 pitchers nearest to Tiant in HOF Rating, 10 are in the Hall of Fame. That means he had a good career and would fit in with a few Hall of Famers. It also means that the vast majority of pitchers with similar careers are not in the Hall. He had a better career than Catfish Hunter, but wasn’t as good as guys like Dwight Gooden, Jim Kaat, and Roy Oswalt.

Jack Morris
Player Rating Inductee Benchmarks
(Pitchers)
HOF
Points (Peak)
WAR HOF
RATING
HOF
AVG
HOF
MEDIAN
BBWAA
AVG
BBWAA
MEDIAN
25 55.8 40.4 55.5 50.8 66.9 63.3

Of the three pitchers on the ballot, Morris has the third-best case for the Hall of Fame. He has nowhere near the longevity of John. Like Tiant, he only had one great season, but it wasn’t as good as Tiant’s 1968 campaign. Nobody can take from Morris the 1991 World Series MVP he earned with a great performance. Nor can they take away his excellent pitching in the 1984 World Series or the Championship ring he helped the team win while a member of the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays. Jack Morris had a very memorable career with some great moments, and for the most part, he pitched pretty well.

But he wasn’t really elite. Over this career, Morris recorded a 3.90 ERA an 3.94 FIP, and that’s without ever pitching in the juiced-up era that took place after he retired. Both of those figures are about 5% better than league average. Those low totals might be excused if he held on too long and had a few bad years that tanked his totals, but the truth is that, while Morris was good for a bunch of years and great in one, he didn’t have the peak or longevity that most pitchers in the Hall of Fame possess. Morris had just seven seasons when his ERA was at least 10% better than average. He only had four seasons when his FIP was at least 10% better than average.

It isn’t that Morris wasn’t good. He was good. He was rarely great, though, and spent most of his career being above average. That generally hasn’t been good enough to make the Hall of Fame. His career is Tommy John’s without the longevity. Morris’ HOF Rating placed him at No. 82 all-time and puts him ahead of about 20 pitchers who are already in the Hall of Fame like Hunter and Red Ruffing. Like Tiant, it also means he’s behind Vida Blue, David Cone, Chuck Finley, Bret Saberhagen, Frank Tanana, and David Wells.

It’s unclear if Jack Morris’s candidacy is based on the 1991 World Series or is some sort of weird backlash against modern statistics, but with an ERA near 4.00 and a lack of a Cy Young — nor even a runner-up finish — it’s tough to see exactly where Morris’ momentum came from. There are a lot of deserving pitchers currently held out of the Hall of Fame. Morris isn’t one of them, no matter how great Game 7 was in 1991.

We hoped you liked reading Modern Era Hall of Fame Ballot: Tommy John, Jack Morris, Luis Tiant by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Dang, Tommy John pitched for a loooooong time.

MikeS
Member
MikeS

It sort of runs in the family. Patrick Mannelly, his son in law, played more seasons for the Chicago Bears, the oldest franchise in the NFL, than any other player ever. 16 seasons as a long snapper.

This has been your incredibly useless Monday trivia.

rosen380
Member

I know you put in “sort of”, but outside of inbreeding your son-in-law doesn’t likely share a whole lot of your genetic material and I’d probably “require” that for a “runs in the family” designation.

And sure, I share a whole lot of my genetic material with a monkey or a grapefruit… :)