Jack Morris

October 5, 2009

Jack Morris 79

If your team’s season came down to one game, and you could choose your starter from a list including every pitcher who’s ever played for the team, who gets the ball? If that option were open to the respective fans of the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers, tomorrow’s one-game playoff to decide the A.L. Central might just feature Jack Morris facing off against Jack Morris.

This is Jack Morris’ first solo card after being featured the year before along with Tim Jones and others in a “rookie pitchers” card. When I got it, I doubt I had any idea that I was looking at the man who would win more games than anyone else in the coming decade. There’s nothing particularly promising about the card, neither in the somewhat chinless grimace of the thin figure on the front nor in the so-so minor league stats on the back. The speed of his fastball is mentioned (94 MPH), but I doubt it impressed me, since by then I knew such a speed was not on the level of the top flamethrowers in the game, such as Nolan Ryan and Goose Gossage. Two other pitches besides a fastball are mentioned as the Topps copywriter strains to fill out the blank space on the card, but neither of the pitches are the split-finger sinker that Morris became known for. I’d like to think that the grip he’s hiding in the photo on the front of the card is for that revolutionary pitch, and since Morris hadn’t mastered it quite yet he was shy about showing it to the world.

Once he had his pitching repertoire in order, the St. Paul, MN, native settled in for over a decade near the top of list of major leaguer aces. Beyond being the winningest pitcher through the 1980s, he also built a reputation as a guy who could thrive in the pressure of a big game. He pitched well in the 1984 playoffs, and kept his team in the game with 8 innings of 2-run ball in a do-or-die game 161 of the 1987 season (the Tigers won that game in 12 innings, and a Frank Tanana 1-0 shutout the next day in the final game of the year clinched the division).

That actually seems to be the extent of his big game heroics through the 1980s. Morris’ start in Game 2 of the 1987 A.L. Championship Series proved an unhappy homecoming to the Twin Cities, and he got hammered in the Metrodome for 6 runs in 8 innings. The following year, the Tigers finished just one game out of first, but that’s because the division winners, the Boston Red Sox, kept stumbling farther and farther back toward the pack as they neared their eventual playoff annihilation at the hands of the Oakland A’s. Morris did win his last three starts that year, so he deserves credit for that, but the Tigers were all but eliminated from the race during those starts.

However, his status as a big game pitcher became bulletproof in 1991, when he won two ALCS games for his new team, the Twins, won the first game of the World Series, pitched well enough to win in the fourth game (Twins reliever Mark Guthrie took the loss), and got the ball again for the seventh game, back home in the Metrodome.

What he did in that game is for many the cornerstone of the argument that Jack Morris should be in the Hall of Fame. Or maybe not the cornerstone (the win-based “Best Pitcher of the 1980s” claim probably has that distinction), but the shiny, fancy part at the very top of the argument, the thing you’d see first, gleaming in the sun, if you were miles away. And if one game could ever get a guy into the Hall of Fame, it would indeed be that game, a 10-inning 1-0 shutout win, probably the most amazing pitching performance that I’ve ever seen, all things considered.

Both the Tigers and the Twins have more accomplished pitchers in their history to choose from, if they could choose one pitcher to toe the rubber in a do-or-die game (Johan Santana, Bert Blyleven, and Jim Kaat come to mind—not to mention Walter Johnson, if the precursor to the Twins, the Senators, are included in the discussion, and, judging from the voting on this site for the all-time Tigers team, either Hal Newhouser or Mickey Lolich would be the top Tiger), but if you ascribe to the belief that there are certain unique demands on an athlete during the white-knuckle pressure of an elimination game, and that some people are better able to handle, and even thrive on, those demands, then it’s hard to argue with the idea of handing Jack Morris the ball.

Would this be a foolish decision? Is there such a thing, in other words, as clutch pitching? Mathematically, such notions as clutch pitching and clutch hitting have proven to be difficult, if not impossible, to support. But for me it’s hard to discount my own athletic experiences: in crucial moments, it was (and still is, even in a game of miniature golf) harder to concentrate on the game, harder to turn off the shrill narration of trepidation and doubt in my head. And it’s hard to discount my own eyes, which have seen Jack Morris engage in a ten-inning seventh-game staring match with oblivion and win.


  1. Good call on punching up Jack Morris before the Twins-Tigers showdown.

    I am more inclined to believe in big game pitching than big game hitting, just because it makes more sense to be able to dial it up and go max effort (as the scouts say these days) as a pitcher. But even if Jack Morris could become a better pitcher in the playoffs, I don’t want to see him in the HOF (though now that Rice is in there, who cares?) because of 1991. I’d still take Blyleven!

  2. Jack Morris definitely has to get in line behind some other more deserving pitchers for the Hall, Blyleven foremost among them. By the way, Morris’s only postseason loss before going 0-3 in the ’92 playoffs for Toronto was to Blyleven in that ’87 Metrodome game. Also, for what it’s worth, check out their respective postseason records:

    Morris: 7-4, 3.80
    Blyleven: 5-1, 2.47

  3. I don’t think it would be foolish if you were guaranteed to get the Jack Morris from October 19th or October 27th, 1991. But what if you got the Jack Morris from October 8th that year, who gave up 8 H and 4 ER in 5 IP? Or the Jack Morris from the following year (yeah, not on the Twins) who was rotten (or worse) in all four post-season starts, after going 21-6 during the regular season?

    I think Morris deserves all of the credit he gets for the WS against the Braves. But people than use that to say he was an outstanding post-season pitcher when his record is very mixed.

    I would certainly rather have Smoltz start a must-win post-season game. But Smoltz generally gets a ton of credit, too. Give me Jerry Koosman, who made six starts in the post-season, was 4-0 and is never mentioned as a clutch performer.

  4. I agree, sb1902. I can see more potential for clutchiness in pitchers, as they are the initiators of the action, and have the luxury of pondering alternatives (for a few seconds, anyway), whereas hitting is split-second reactivity.

  5. Whenever I think of Jack Morris I think of Roger Craig, since I can only assume Morris was part of the corps of pitchers Craig initiated into the sanctum of the forkball. And whenever I think of Roger Craig I think of Mike Scott. Although only two games, his statline for the ’86 postseason is ridiculous (0.50 ERA, 18 IP, 8 H , 1 BB, 19 SO) and pretty much congruent with the way he finished the regular season. If the Mets do not win game 6 they go home after the next game; Ron Darling could not hold a candle next to this guy. First player on a losing team awarded the lcs MVP. But did his doctor the ball?

  6. my bad. Did he doctor the ball?

  7. Before Scott did it, Fred Lynn won an LCS MVP in ’82 after his Angels went down to the Brewers.

  8. Pardon, Nlcs

  9. I have a good friend who is a Cardinal fan and with this post’s discussion of the “clutch” pitching/hitting concept, I wanted to share some stats he sent my way. If one way to define clutch hitting would be production when the bases are loaded, then this year Pujols has been pretty clutch, bordering on superhuman.

    Here’s the story that this comes from:

    “Pujols is 10-for-15 with the bases loaded this season for a .667 average.

    He has three doubles, the five home runs and a 1.867 slugging percentage. He also has driven in 34 RBIs. Nearly one-fourth of his RBIs this season have come with the bases loaded (34 of 132).

    He has not struck out with the bases loaded this season.”

    This article jinxed him, and after it was written he went 0 for 2 with the bases loaded, so he dropped down to a meager .588 – what a slacker! Pretty amazing…

  10. PeoriaBadger:
    Thanks for passing along that link. I haven’t had a chance to look at the article, but I wonder if the heightened bases-loaded stats can be explained more by something other than “clutch”; namely, that’s the one situation where a pitcher facing Pujols can’t really nibble at the corners.

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