Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Who hasn't had enough of "Whisky Jack," the man who would be an albatross, an eyesore, a bare New Years' Eve lightbulb in need of a lampshade?

The signature line that launched a thousand rants: their version
would replace that second line with "105 lifetime ERA+"...
Clearly we haven't. And since those who followed in our wake seem even more conflicted as the clock ticks down to the next Hall of Fame election, let's give Jack Morris one last look--and possibly discover just what it is that his supporters may be sensing within the fractured syntax of their "narrative" (the word that would, if it could, eclipse "metrics" as the most abused construct in the orotund post-neo rhetoric).

Let's digress long enough, however, to remind the reader that all denials, reformulations and elisions notwithstanding, the BBWAA voters do know that the "disloyal opposition" has been hard at work in scorched earth tactics with respect to Jack. We may not be able to quantify it--the saddest of all possible words except possibly for Tinker to Evers to Chance--but (in honor of my all-too-indulgent colleague Darren Viola) it's best to acknowledge that the spore is on the wind--tonight, and for each of the next 350+ days as the countdown to anti-ecstasy looms larger with every forward click.

Jack, bob-bob-bobblin' along...
say, where's the bobblehead for
"Steely" Dan Petry??
We'll get to what really looks to be the underlying reason why Morris is getting support in just a minute or two, but first let's examine some data that isn't lashed to the mast of WAR's siren call. (Noodling around with the present-day implementation of WAR, by the way, leaves one with some troubling concerns about park factor distortions, something that just might be part of the "narrative" that Morris detractors have whipped up.)

But that's a battle for some other day--it would be both premature and a needless distraction to force-fit it into the Morris controversy. Instead, let's focus on the interesting issue of mediocrity and how it applies to starting pitchers in general (and, of course, ol' "Whisky Jack" in particular).

Pitcher mediocrity can be measured in a lot of ways...most of the time we see it in season-long "chunks" (a word that probably won't become as charged with meaning in the post-neo world as "metrics" or "narrative"--a darned shame).

But there are other ways to slice data, and it just might be better to take a more global view of mediocrity--one that collateralizes performance across an entire career.

We can do that by utilizing Bill James's Game Score, a stat that is probably a bit overdetermined but is still useful in cutting across the lamentable tendency to see all performance from the straitjacket of individual years.

Mediocrity, as measured by the Game Score, is arguably those games where the pitcher posts a score between 40 and 49. These are games that don't usually produce a high chance of success for the starting pitcher's team, but that operate in the nether region between competitiveness and (looking to create a term that can move in the circles with "metrics" and "narrative"...) just plain "suckitude."

These games do just that, producing an aggregate pitcher WPCT in the .360 range. (Teams tend to win about 41% of these games, as they come very close to breaking even in those games within this region that don't result in decisions for the starters.)

Don Cardwell: half as good as Curt Schilling,
but just as unlucky when he was mediocre...
Of course, there is variation in the individual won-loss records. Occasionally it's quite dramatic. (Say hello to Curt Schilling and Don Cardwell, whose WPCT in these 40-49 GS games is .182. That works out to a record of 5-27.) The more of these games you have--and we'll keep you guessing as to how many ol' Jack has for a while longer--the closer to that aggregate .360 you'd think people would come, but that isn't always the case, either. Look at Larry Jackson, with 75 such games, and a .192 WPCT (10-42). And how about Nolan Ryan (93 such games, with a 8-57 record, or a .123 WPCT).

This is the region where the luck of the draw really comes into play--run support, for one thing; or the simple non-uniformity of runs allowed within the context of the scoring rules that define the Game Score. None of these measures is, as we like to say, a perfect instrument. Here, however, we can at least measure some of the impact of luck as it relates to mediocrity, and point ourselves in the direction of pitchers whose won-loss records may be at least a bit misleading.

But you really want to know about Jack. So where does he rank on the scale of mediocre games? Is he a top ten guy, along with the likes of (gasp) Greg Maddux (115 games in the 40-49 range), Don Sutton (110), Tom Glavine (104)? Does his winning percentage in this game range approach the apostles of good fortune such as Andy Pettitte (35-24, .593 WPCT) or Kenny Rogers (40-31, .561)?

Handsome, smooth, and just a little bit too bland,
Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip) was the Jack Morris
of actors--but he reached the Babe Magnet Hall of
Fame by marrying Ann-Margret.
When we frame the question in this way, 60% of you are 90% sure that we're going to try to pull the rug out from under the other 40% of you. And that other 40% are 70% sure that the original 60% are probably overconfident at least 80% of the time. There's a secret formula in there somewhere, but 66.7% of you (the same number of BBWAA writers who voted for Morris in the last election) will dismiss it out of hand, while the other third will plead the Fifth.

It turns out that Morris is forty-first on the list that reads "Most Starts With Game Scores between 40 and 49." He had 77 such games, which ties him with Mike Morgan and Bob Friend, puts him one behind the aforementioned Pettitte, and one ahead of Tom Seaver, Mike Flanagan, Mike Torrez, and Jim Clancy.

As 77% of you suspected, however, Jack was luckier than average in these mediocre games. As a matter of fact, he won as many games in such performances as Morgan and Friend combined. All in all, Jack was 29-26 in these starts, which equals Morgan (15) plus Friend (14), who, oddly enough, combined for 77 losses in such games. (And you thought we couldn't tie that all together, now, didn't you?)

So Jack was lucky. He won about nine more games that he should have when he was mediocre. If we wanted to follow that line of thought, we could adjust his won-loss record and downgrade it from 254-186 to 245-195. Would that be enough to derail Jack's Hall of Fame momentum?

Possibly. But you want to know (yes, you do...) who had the most "mediocre" starts. We already told you that Maddux has 115. He places fourth on the list. #3 is Frank Tanana, with 118 (with a personal won-loss record of 26-58). #2 is Jamie Moyer (123 games, 46-40--another guy who caught a break when he wasn't at his best).

It would be boffo if the man at the top of this list were Bert Blyleven, but it's not so. (Bert does have 93 such games, however, in which he went 21-45; his .318 WPCT is a bit under the aggregate.) No, the man with the all-time record for mediocre starts is Tommy John, with 129 (and a 28-50 personal won-loss record). That's three lefties at the top of the list, leading one to seek a connection between the term "southpaw" and "going south."

Now of course there is not a single BBWAA writer who knows these stats and how they relate to Jack Morris. What they know is that Morris had a late kick in 1991-92 (which is just about the last point in time that remains reasonably within memory for many BBWAA members) and that he was a big winner for two consecutive World Champs in those years. This has obliterated the fact that Jack was seriously subpar from 1988-90.

The strange thing, in fact, is that when we break out Jack's career, it's clear that he's really more of a "peak" candidate than anything else. Combining together Jack's twelve best years in terms of won-loss record (not saying that this is what should be done, mind you, but doing it anyway...), he has a 204-123 record. That works out to a .623 WPCT. The remainder of Jack's career is exceptionally bad (50-63, 4.59 ERA), but, as Jonathan Bernhardt--doing his damnedest to occupy the rhetorical space of Chris(tina) Kahrl circa 1999--so slitheringly put it: Morris is a winner.

The BBWAA voters probably have no idea that Morris parlayed good fortune in mediocrity to such a tidy little WPCT, but they are as subliminal a bunch as their "disloyal opposition" is not: they don't have to quantify, cauterize, conspire, or even Midasize in order to have a bone twinge about Jack. (Not that some of these folk aren't simply bandwagoning to get the collective goat of the numbers guys: that's part of the latest "surge"--another word, like "metrics," etc., that's been defaced by the special mud that is meant for major league baseballs but is currently ricocheting into the eyes of the disenfranchised.)

Please understand that none of the above is meant as an endorsement for Jack's candidacy. It simply shows the components that are located "underneath the narrative" that so many post-neo folk have given a semiological credence via their arch articulation. It's our theory that the components took awhile to coalesce beyond the subdural level, and that the scratch'n'claw tactics of the disloyal opposition unleashed a virus, which in this case operates more like the toxic agent found in poison ivy.

In other words, rash behavior has created an itchy situation, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that  the more we scratch, the more that itch will scratch back, until it spreads to over 75% of the affected body. And that will bring on that all-too-rare occurrence: the Hall of Fame induction as knife-twist, the unconscious, autonomic coiling of a python-like organism, scissoring itself around the strangled voices of those whose votes and opinions remain marginalized.

How grimly appropriate, then, that our final image herein depicts the ultimate result of this careening, disconnected anti-narrative, this jack-knifed discourse that brings any hope of mutual understanding and forward movement to a halt. As with much in the world these days, unstable events in the foreground overwhelm the longer processes and points of reference in the background. Thus the deeper structures get overlooked in the noise.

The Morris candidacy has progressed in a way that certain anomalous things happen: the shouting becomes its own form of silence, felt but not heard, acted upon without any actual articulation. Underground forces pop up, like gargoyles peering out of manhole covers.  One man's train wreck is another man's pinnacle of success.

Just wait till next year...