Friday, June 24, 2011

The Drysdale Test

In particular, I thought that since one has to argue, in my opinion, that Drysdale had a strong positive influence on pennant races, we should look carefully at Drysdale's performance in two categories:

1. Down the stretch (August 10 to the end of the season) in those years when the Dodgers had a chance to win, and

2. Against the one team the Dodgers most needed to beat in those same seasons.

That sound reasonable?

- Bill James, "Whatever Happened To the Hall of Fame?"

First off, fair warning to any of you who come here and don't care for baseball stuff. I'm about to write some baseball stuff.

The penultimate chapter of Bill James's book, "Whatever Happened To the Hall of Fame?" is entitled, simply, "Don Drysdale". The chapter opens with a section called The Case For Don Drysdale, and after reading it, if you have any interest in baseball at all, you're convinced that Don Drysdale belongs in the Hall of Fame. The next section is called The Case Against Don Drysdale, and after reading it, even if you've already read the first section, you are convinced that Don Drysdale doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. James then breaks down the factual arguments of both sides, identifying which points have merit and which are just talking points, and still doesn't come to a conclusion.

He finally comes to a conclusion after going through the study noted in the quote at the top of this essay -- the idea being that, if Drysdale truly was a 'big game' pitcher who helped his team win pennants, then that would push the weight of the argument over to the side where Drysdale belongs in the Hall.

The closest comparison to Don Drysdale in today's Hall of Fame debates is starting pitcher Jack Morris. Morris has many advocates for the Hall who note that he was a famous, ace pitcher, known for his endurance and his performance in big games, specifically Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Morris also has detractors who point out that the overall weight of Morris's career statistics, his ERA, his won-loss record, etcetera, simply don't carry the weight of a Hall of Fame career. Hall of Very Good? Absolutely. Just not one of the all-time greats.

It finally struck me that, since one of the arguments used by Morris's supporters was that he was a big-game pitcher who helped his teams to championships, that we could give Morris the Drysdale Test and see just how much of an impact he had on pennant races in his career.

For starters, it might surprise you to learn that in only eight of Morris's 18 seasons as a big-league pitcher did he pitch for a team that needed his help in making the post-season -- the 1984 Tigers won going away, and the other half of his career was spent pitching for clubs (mostly Tiger clubs) that didn't even make the playoffs. However, in the eight seasons where Morris's performance might have had an impact on the pennant chances of his club, here's how he did 'down the stretch' (from August 10 until the end of the season):

63 starts, 23 CG, 37-26, 2.95 ERA

That's pretty good, actually significantly better than his overall career rates. So you could argue that Morris did 'turn it up' down the stretch of a pennant race.

In games he pitched against the key opponent of his team's chase:

18 starts, 7 CG, 5-7, 3.48 ERA

The won-loss record isn't quite so good, but the ERA is still better than his career total. Note that I'm leaving out Morris's abysmal numbers in 1994 against the Chicago White Sox when it was pretty clear that he was done as a pitcher (Morris was 1-2 in 4 starts against Chicago with an ERA of exactly 9.00, giving up 23 ER in 23 innings) and didn't pitch after August 10 anyway.

Combining these two factors gives us what James calls the "purest of the pure"; the biggest games Jack Morris ever pitched, not counting the World Series. Because there were few of these games, I've expanded James's definition of 'key opponent' to any opponent with a chance to win the race. How did he do?

Sept 21, 1983 -

Morris started the first game of a doubleheader at home versus the Orioles with the Tigers trailing by 6.5 games. Though the pennant race odds weren't great, the Tigers and Orioles would face each other six times before the end of the season, including the doubleheader, so if the Tigers could sweep the table or at least win 5 of 6, they'd give Joe Altobelli's Orioles a run.

Morris gave up three in the top of the second in classic Earl Weaver style -- a leadoff homer by Eddie Murray, then a single sandwiched between three walks, the last forcing in a run. The Tiger offense wouldn't help out any against Mike Boddicker as Detroit would be shut out 6-0 en route to an Oriole sweep of the doubleheader.

Morris would get his 20th win of the season a week later in Baltimore, beating Scott McGregor 9-2, but by then the Orioles had already clinched at least a one-game playoff over both the Tigers and Yankees.

Morris 0-1, team 0-1

Oct 3, 1987 -

Morris took the mound on the second-to-last day of the season with the Tigers and Blue Jays tied in the divisional race. Morris pitched well, allowing just two runs in nine innings, but Mike Flanagan also pitched well for the Jays, matching Morris's mark through nine and even continuing through the eleventh inning. Sparky Anderson went with his closer, Mike Henneman, in the tenth and watched him pitch a no-hit three innings. Jimy Williams, however, went with Jeff Musselman in the twelfth rather than closer Tom Henke, and Musselman allowed two singles and a walk to load the bases with one out. Williams still didn’t turn to his closer, choosing to go with Mark Eichhorn, who gave up the game-winning hit.

Morris certainly didn’t lose the game for Detroit, though his was one of a number of factors leading to the 12th inning Detroit win.

Morris 0-1, team 1-1

August 27, 1988

Morris entered the game and pitched an excellent 7 innings as his Tigers built up a 5-1 lead. Then in the eighth, Morris seemed to lose it – two walks, two wild pitches, and two singles led to two Brewer runs and Morris was pulled in favor of Willie Hernandez with two out to end the inning. Morris wouldn’t get the win, though, as Mike Henneman would blow the save in the 9th by allowing the Brewers to tie the score. The Brew Crew would eventually win in the bottom of the 12th on a Rob Deer home run.

The Tiger bullpen pitched very poorly in support of Morris, but even so, had Hernandez come in at the top of the 8th rather than after Morris had already allowed two runs, it’s possible the Tigers could still have won the game.

Morris 0-1, team 1-2

September 5, 1988

Toronto was surging, having won four straight coming in, and Detroit was staggering, having lost four straight. If a ‘stopper’ was ever needed to save the pennant race, it was here.

Morris, however was flat, giving up three in the second en route to an 8-inning, 11-hit, 5-walk performance that his offense bailed him out of by tying the score in the bottom of the 6th. Willie Hernandez would pitch the 9th and 10th, and give up the game-winner on an Ernie Whitt solo homer.

Morris 0-1, team 1-3

Morris would not face Boston, Detroit’s key opponent, during the 1988 stretch run.

By 1991, Morris had gone to the Twins as a free agent. In 1991, the only game Morris pitched against the White Sox was the first game of a doubleheader on October 3, after the Twins had already clinched the division. Morris was pulled by manager Tom Kelly after 5 innings, probably to protect his availability for the playoffs. The Twins lost the game when closer Rick Aguilera blew the save opportunity in the 10th inning, yet another extra-inning loss in a Morris start.

This one doesn't really count.

August 27, 1992

Signed by the Blue Jays in the off-season, Morris’s Toronto club was just four games ahead of the Brewers when Morris faced off against Jamie Navarro. Morris pitched an outstanding 7 innings, while Navarro made a mistake to Toronto DH Dave Winfield resulting in a 3-run shot that proved to be more than the margin of victory.

This would be the first and only game Morris would win in this situation in his career, and just the second that his team would win.

Morris 1-1, team 2-3.

Morris did not face the Yankees down the stretch run in 1993, and did not pitch at all during the stretch run in 1994, so this sum indicates Morris’s pennant ‘clutchiness’. While Morris himself had some good outings and some bad outings, Morris’s teams went 2-3 in these five starts, and Morris himself was 1-1 with three no-decisions.

Hardly the kind of performance I'd expect from someone supposedly worthy of the Hall of Fame based on his performance in big games.

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