A Bert Blyleven near miss may have cost Jack Morris a shot at the baseball Hall of Fame

Jon Heyman has arguably been the most prominent advocate for Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame candidacy among higher-profile baseball writers. Heyman currently works for CBSSports.com and also appears on MLB Network. After Morris did not get 75% of the vote in this year’s election, Heyman tweeted the following:

Time to start pro Jack Morris hall campaign. Guy can’t get break. All-AL SP in dh era hurt by roid guys and ‘net negativity

Heyman has been the de facto campaign manager for Morris over the last few years anyway, so this tweet wasn’t particularly surprising. There is some angst for Morris backers, as he will only be the ballot for one more year. If he isn’t elected in 2014, he will have to wait and hope for the mercy of the Veterans Committee.

I wanted to point out one piece of bad luck that may have really hurt Morris’ chances. This is going to be a little bit involved, and is somewhat speculative. Nevertheless, here goes…

Bill James, from The Politics of Glory:

Writers tend to balance their ballots. A writer, making out a Hall of Fame ballot, normally looks to include one or two starting pitchers, a reliever maybe, a middle infielder or two, a couple of slugging outfielders, a first baseman or third baseman, a catcher. He looks for the best in each little pocket.

This natural tendency of the BBWAA voters has the effect of occasionally causing a “cratering” of certain players’ vote totals. James pointed to Jim Bunning as a good example of this. Bunning received 74.4% of the vote in 1988, just missing election, but in 1989 Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins appeared on the ballot, and Bunning’s support declined. He would have to wait to be elected by the Veterans Committee. (Something similar also happened to Luis Tiant.)

A more recent, if less dramatic, example of writers “choosing” between players at the same position involved Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage. Both were relievers, and both drew considerable support from the electorate. However, Sutter appeared on the ballot first (in 1994), six years before Gossage became eligible. In Gossage’s first year of eligibility, the two actually drew similar vote totals (192 for Sutter, 166 for Gossage).

That pattern continued for a few years, then Gossage’s totals began to stall. It appeared the writers were struggling to separate the candidacies of the two relievers, and collectively needed to focus on just one of them. Sutter, with more history on the ballot, continued to draw more votes and was finally elected in 2006, in his thirteenth year of eligibility.

With Sutter out of the way, that cleared the decks for Gossage, who then became the leading candidate among relievers. Gossage had to wait one “extra” year when Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. appeared on the ballot, but he was eventually elected in 2008.

By 2008, Bert Blyleven was receiving 61.8% of the vote from the BBWAA and was the top candidate among starting pitchers for enshrinement. It had been a long journey up the ballot for Blyleven, but he was getting closer. In 2009 he finished fourth overall, receiving 62.7% of the vote.

By that time, the next-most-supported pitcher was Jack Morris. This had been the case since Jim Kaat’s final year on the ballot in 2003. In 2009, Morris got 44% of the vote.

In 2010, Blyleven came very, very close to being elected. He was only five votes short of election. Morris moved up to 52.3% of the vote, fourth overall, third among those not elected (Andre Dawson got the nod that year).

Blyleven finally made it in 2011, gaining election. And Morris?

Well, he stalled a bit, at 53.5%. Blyleven’s breakthrough probably cost Morris some momentum, as writers who might have been inclined to vote for just one starting pitcher may have chosen to select Blyleven, then in his fourteenth year on the ballot and on the precipice.

With Blyleven finally off the ballot, Morris became the top choice among starting pitchers on the ballot. He received 66.7% of the vote in 2012, a sizable improvement from 2011.

However, in 2013, his fourteenth year on the ballot, he stalled again, just like practically all the other ballot holdovers, as the writers tried (and seemingly failed) to come to grips with “the steroid era”. Morris now has one more shot, and it won’t be easy for him to gain election. He has to have a historically large jump in support despite being joined on the ballot by several starting pitchers with much better credentials (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Mike Mussina).

Here is where I speculate…

I think Blyleven just missing out in 2010 really hurt Morris’ chances. If Blyleven had been elected that year, it would have given Morris a clear field, in terms of viable starting pitching candidates.

Instead of only getting 53.5% of the vote in 2011, I think it’s likely Morris would have had vote totals similar to what he eventually got in 2012 — and if he had been sitting at 66.7% after 2011, then I think he would have had a very good chance of joining Barry Larkin in Cooperstown in 2012.

As I stated earlier, Blyleven missed election in 2010 by only five votes.

There were writers who voted for Blyleven and Morris that year. There were some who obviously just voted for Blyleven (and some who voted for neither).

There were a few, though, who voted for Morris and not Blyleven, despite Blyleven having demonstrably superior statistical credentials in both standard and sabermetric pitching categories (including wins, ERA, strikeouts, shutouts, innings pitched, ERA+, and WHIP). Blyleven also had a better overall postseason record than Morris, the latter’s outstanding performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series notwithstanding.

I wonder if any of those writers who voted for Morris but not Blyleven have ever considered the possibility that by not voting for Blyleven in 2010, they may have cost Morris a later shot at election.

One of those writers, by the way, was Jon Heyman

One Response

  1. Interesting post!!! Both Morris and Blyleven are HOFers. I never understood why it took Blylenven so long to make it. Had he played on better teams he would have won over 325 games.

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