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Archive for January 3rd, 2011

After being fooled by 2B Chuck Knoblauch, Lonnie Smith slides safely into 3B. Had Smith read the play properly, he would have scored the go-ahead run in the 8th inning of game 7 of the 1991 World Series (Photo: SI).

In a recent article, Tyler Kepner gradually builds a convincing argument against Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame candidacy, but then reverses course because of the outcome of one World Series game.

It’s hard to criticize Kepner’s position because he acknowledges most of the key points made against Morris. In other words, he seems to understand why such a “large segment of fans and bloggers” vehemently oppose his candidacy.  However, despite conceding most of the negative conclusions regarding Morris’ Hall of Fame worthiness (as well as the contention that Bert Blyleven was a better pitcher), Kepner still manages to conclude with the same head-banging argument advanced by less astute members of the BBWAA.

It is often written that without his 10-inning shutout for the Twins in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Morris would not get nearly as much support. But he did pitch that game. That’s the whole point. Moments of greatness matter a lot, even though, as tiny slices of time, they rarely say much about the breadth of a player’s career.” – Tyler Kepner, The New York Times, January 3, 2011

To his credit, Kepner does not fall into the trap of allowing one World Series game to define Morris as “clutch”, which is what makes his argument so inexplicable. He doesn’t buy into the Morris myth, but still deems him worthy of the Hall of Fame because of “one moment”. He even concedes that Morris’ historic moment was aided in large part by Lonnie Smith’s baserunning blunder in the eighth inning of the 1991 World Series’ final game, but yet somehow glosses over the implication (i.e., had Smith been a batter baserunner, Morris wouldn’t be a Hall of Famer).

Kepner seems to believe that Morris’ historic moment in the 1991 World Series magically converts his career from very good to Hall of Fame caliber. If that’s the case, there really is no way to refute such a position, especially when the person advancing it not only acknowledges, but concedes the points against it. One game or accomplishment doesn’t make a Hall of Famer, however. That’s why the museum has a Great Moments Room.

It’s a feel thing with Morris, and that’s not always wrong. Emotions mean a lot. We watch the game because we care about it and we want to see who wins the World Series. And if you cared about baseball in Morris’s era, you probably wanted him on the mound when it mattered. – Tyler Kepner, The New York Times, January 3, 2011

In his conclusion, Kepner returns to one of the myths that he actually does a good job dispelling. But, Jack Morris was not “one of the pitchers you wanted on the mound when it mattered most” anymore than Jim Rice was “one of the most feared hitters in the game”. There is no way to support such a position, either with statistics or even references to contemporary accounts. Rather, Morris was involved in a significant moment that too many eligible voters have allowed to cloud their better judgment.

Although the Hall of Fame voting process is  in need of an overhaul, the BBWAA hasn’t exactly done a terrible job. After all, thanks in large part to the high threshold needed for election, the body has avoided making the mistake of enshrining Morris. So, it’s not really the end of the world that a large segment of the voting population has a blind spot when it comes to certain candidates. What is very disappointing, however, is that Kepner, one of the brighter BBWAA members (who, incidentally, as an employee of the New York Times is prohibited from voting for the Hall of Fame), would be a victim.

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In honor of the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks’ ascension to the playoffs in the “competitively balanced” NFL, listed below are the worst teams to make Major League Baseball’s postseason. Although the enormous difference between both sports’ schedules makes any meaningful comparison difficult, baseball would be wise to consider the potential implications of expanding its playoff system to the same extent as the NFL.

Ten “Worst” MLB Playoff Teams, Ranked by Winning Percentage

Year Team W L W% Finish Outcome
2005 Padres 82 80 0.506 NL West Champ Lost NLDS.
1973 Mets 82 79 0.509 NL East Champ Lost World Series.
2006 Cardinals 83 78 0.516 NL Central Champ Won World Series.
2008 Dodgers 84 78 0.519 NL West Champ Lost NLCS.
1984 Royals 84 78 0.519 AL West Champ Lost ALCS.
1997 Astros 84 78 0.519 NL Central Champ Lost NLDS.
1987 Twins 85 77 0.525 NL West Champ Won World Series.
2007 Cubs 85 77 0.525 NL Central Champ Lost NLDS.
1997 Indians 86 75 0.534 AL Central Champ Lost World Series.
2009 Twins 87 76 0.534 AL Central Champ Lost ALDS.

Note: Excluding the strike-shortened 1981 season in which the schedule was broken down into two separate halves. That year, the Kansas City Royals won the second half AL West title with a 30-23 record, despite going 50-53 overall.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

As evidenced by the chart above, the “worst” playoff teams have not been wild cards, but division leaders. However, seven of these division winners played in the wild card era.  The same scenario also often exists in the NFL, where this year the below-.500 Seahawks advanced to the playoffs ahead of two 10-win teams (New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

In any potential plan to expand its playoffs, baseball would be better off resisting the urge to add more divisions. Although it may seem counter intuitive, a system with more wild cards, not division leaders, would help ensure that the best teams make the playoffs. Unlike the NFL, which has the point spread to help cover up any blemishes in its postseason matchups, baseball relies on the integrity of its playoff system. A couple of teams have already come close to testing the .500 barrier, so when Bud Selig and his committee get around to discussing postseason expansion, their mission should be to ensure that baseball doesn’t wind up with a team like the Seahawks still playing in October.

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