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Time for Tigers to get Hall love
Jack Morris is at Cooperstown’s doorstep.
One year ago, 66.7 percent of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America electorate said he belonged in the Hall of Fame — an increase of more than 13 points from the previous round. Now, he’s the top returning vote-getter.
On a ballot with steroid-tainted candidates such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the banal suggestion that Morris pitched to the score seems less radioactive. Morris could receive a smaller bump than he did last year and still move beyond the magical 75 percent threshold.
He’ll find out Jan. 9.
“Hopefully,” said Alan Trammell, Morris’ longtime teammate in Detroit, “I’ll be making a phone call to him.”
Morris deserves a full afternoon of those tearful and exultant conversations, in his 14th bid for enshrinement (of a maximum 15). Cooperstown is the rightful address for a historic postseason pitcher who won three World Series rings and more games than any other pitcher in the 1980s.
And at last, it is conceivable Morris might one day offer the same congratulations to the shortstop who played so magnificently behind him. Trammell was one of the best ever at his position, even if his brilliance was subtler than that of contemporaries Cal Ripken Jr. or Ozzie Smith. He’s more appealing than ever to Hall voters, who have new statistical evidence of his elite defensive play and are uncomfortable with the performance-enhancing drug cloud obscuring other names on the ballot.
“Where does it go this year? That’s a good question, with this new class,” Trammell, now the Arizona Diamondbacks bench coach, said Friday in a telephone interview. “I don’t know if I’m going to get a bump, the same, less — I don’t have a clue.”
One thing is certain: History gradually is taking a favorable view of the 1984 Tigers — even Lou Whitaker, who has an open-and-shut Veterans Committee case but must wait five more years before going before the panel. Whitaker inexplicably dropped off the BBWAA ballot after receiving only 2.9 percent of the vote on his first try in 2001.
Morris’ longing may last only a couple of more weeks, with the postmark deadline for ballots fast approaching Dec. 31. In recent years, some analysts have discounted the value of victories in assessing a pitcher’s value. But no one can dispute the importance of delivering quality innings for a winning team, and Morris logged the most between 1980 and 2000 of any pitcher other than Roger Clemens.
“I know the knock against Jack is his high ERA, but if we were up 8-1 or so, he pitched to win the game,” said Kirk Gibson, his longtime Detroit teammate and current Diamondbacks manager.
“He wasn’t worried about having a sub-3.00 ERA. He was a winner. He saved that bullpen. He’d go deep into the game. If he had a lead in the seventh or eighth inning, it was over.
“He never for a second thought about his statistics. He didn’t want to give that ball up. He was a bulldog, as dominant as any pitcher in that era.”
A point to ponder: In an inning-by-inning breakdown of Morris’ career ERA, his mark in the eighth inning (4.47) was his worst. And he pitched in the eighth inning 304 times. How much better would his overall ERA be if he had departed after six or seven innings, as so many pitchers do today?
Meanwhile, the emerging case for Trammell has a lot to do with fellow shortstop Barry Larkin’s induction earlier this year. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Larkin’s closest statistical comparison is to Trammell himself.
Trammell had more hits. Larkin had more home runs. Trammell had more Gold Gloves. Larkin had more Silver Slugger awards. Trammell had more top-10 finishes in the MVP voting. Larkin had more All-Star appearances.
Larkin had the higher Offensive WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Trammell had the higher Defensive WAR.
Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley told me in an interview two years ago that Trammell and Larkin were “real close” to one another as Cooperstown candidates. And they are — in every respect, except where it matters most. Larkin is in, after 86.4 percent of electors voted for him at this time last year. Trammell received 36.8 percent in his 11th try.
It’s hard to fathom how two players with such similar resumes could stand 50 percentage points apart. Perhaps Larkin was slightly better than Trammell, when balancing Larkin’s offensive advantage with Trammell’s defensive superiority. But the tight gap between the two — even if Larkin has the edge — should improve Trammell’s Hall candidacy.
The difference between Larkin and Trammell was hairsplitting, and Larkin went in on his third attempt. So, what does that suggest a fair outcome for Trammell would have been? To go in on his sixth, seventh, or eighth try? Well, those mileposts passed by in 2007, 2008, and 2009, with Trammell never moving beyond 20 percent.
“I supported Larkin being a Hall of Famer, and when you look at where Tram stands against him, they’re very similar,” Gibson said. “He’s right there. Speaking about Alan specifically, he’s probably my best friend in baseball, a great historian of the game, certainly a guy you’d want to represent the Hall of Fame and game of baseball.
“What I would say about Alan Trammell is that he did what it took to win. That’s all he’s ever focused on. He moved all over the lineup to help the team. He was a very good baserunner, very good with the glove, very good hitter, great teammate, great competitor, great ambassador for the game.”
Of course, there is one key difference between Larkin and Trammell: Larkin won the 1995 NL MVP; Trammell finished second to Toronto’s George Bell — unfairly and controversially — for the AL award in 1987.
"Sparky (Anderson) called me the night George won, and one of the first things he said was, ‘You know what? I just wish you would have won, to help you get into the Hall of Fame,’ ” recalled Trammell, who had been World Series MVP three years prior. “He was saying that in 1987, when I was still a little over halfway through my career. I never really thought about it a whole lot when I was playing. But as I retired, you think about things a little differently.
“I still remember Sparky telling me that. If I had an MVP for a regular season, would that be a little more of a feather in my cap? Absolutely.”
However one feels about the Larkin-Trammell comparison, we can all agree that this is a crucial year for Trammell’s Hall of Fame chances. If he surpasses 50 percent this time, it’s conceivable for him to cover the remaining 25 over his final three tries. Trammell can look to Larkin himself for inspiration. Larkin jumped 24.3 percentage points last year, the largest single-year increase in any Hall of Fame election of at least 400 ballots, according to the BBWAA.
If, on the other hand, Trammell stands in the mid-40s or below by next month, the Veterans Committee ultimately may be his best chance — but not before the winter of 2019-2020, according to current rules. Trammell said going into the Hall of Fame in the same class as Whitaker remains a “dream” of his.
“I would love for that to happen,” he said.
Whitaker’s one-and-done on the BBWAA ballot — which Trammell called a “crying shame” — has grown even more egregious with the benefit of advanced statistical measures. Whitaker had a higher OPS+ (117) than Roberto Alomar (116) and Ryne Sandberg (114), two Hall of Fame second basemen whose careers overlapped with his. Whitaker also has a higher career WAR than Alomar and Sandberg — not to mention Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson and Tony Gwynn, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Someday, perhaps, Morris, Trammell and Whitaker will be together again in Cooperstown. They already pass the “eye test,” as their longtime teammate Gibson put it. And now the numbers may finally be on their side, too.
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