Touch ’em All: Jack Morris on the ever changing game, the worthless-ness of certain statistics and how he’d run a baseball team
It’s the last off-day of the season and it’s been a little while since we’ve had a Touch ’em All interview. But you’re in luck! Around the Horn has had one in the bag for a little while…Actually, looking at the schedule, it’s been a long while.
This interview was done on August 9 when the Twins were in town. Around the Horn was in the press box the day before and overheard Twins broadcasters Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris talking about pitching in their day. Morris pitched 175 complete games over his 18-year career. Blyleven threw 242 start-to-finishes in his 22 years as a Major Leaguer. That night neither starter had made it through six innings, but the winning pitcher was credited with a decent start.
The two workhorses were skeptical of the “quality start” stat, as well as the four holds and total of ten pitchers used to finish a nine-inning game. This season, 131 complete games have been thrown (73 in the American League and 58 in the National League). The Toronto Blue Jays lead the way with 13 as a staff and two teams (the Yankees and the Tigers) have had just one pitcher apiece make it from first pitch through the last out. Only three pitchers have five or more (CC Sabathia at nine for Cleveland and Milwaukee, Toronto’s Roy Halladay at eight and Milwaukee’s Ben Sheets with five).
Blyleven’s career high was 25 in 1973 and Morris’ career high was 20 in 1983. In Morris’ high year, the Yankees led the way with 47 and the Cubs were in the cellar with nine complete games as a staff. That year, 745 complete games were thrown. Morris was second in the Majors behind the Yankees Ron Guidry and his Tigers were fourth in the Majors with 42 as a staff.
ATH was intrigued by the conversation. In a little more than two decades, how could the game change that much? Well, we figured we’d see if Morris knew. He pitched from 1977 to 1994, with his last start on August 7, 1994. The Indians played just three more games in the strike-shortened season and Morris’ next start likely would have been August 12th (the day of the strike) or 13th.
We were fortunate to have Morris in Kansas City since he’s living in Minnesota and only does a few road games a year. The former hurler for the Tigers and Twins (among others) seemed like a perfect fit for today as the team left Detroit yesterday and headed to Minnesota, so here you go…
Around the Horn: Last night you and Bert were talking about saves and holds and complete games. You said you got bonuses for complete games. So, in your opinion, how has the game changed?
Jack Morris: Well the biggest change is the whole philosophy that baseball has adopted, and it’s unilateral across both leagues, and that is when they get to 100 pitches, starting pitchers are taken out of games. Complete games have become a dinosaur.
I don’t know, I’m just not sure that’s the way baseball should be played. That has not helped the quality of starters. It’s probably given relievers more of a chance to stay in the big leagues. But overall, I think the quality of starting pitching has diminished because of it. I am convinced that in a decade or so, you are going to see this become a fad that disappears from the game. For 80 to 90 years, it never was a part of the game. In the last decade or so it has become a major part of the game. But I think it will fade out and go back to the way it was for the first 90 years sooner or later.
ATH:Did they even keep pitch counts when you were pitching?
JM: Nah. I mean the first thing that came was the radar gun. I remember Earl Weaver was the first to use it to see if the starting pitcher was losing velocity or not. Ultimately, it’s are they still getting guys out or not? And if they’re getting outs, velocity isn’t as important. Now if they are starting to get hit, and they are guys that every pitch is similar in speed, where the slider and fastball is a one to two mile an hour difference, if those guys start losing it and getting hit, then they are going to have a chance of being taken out.
ATH: With you and Bert and even Rick Sutcliffe, who was also there last night, the three of you have more complete games combined than have been thrown in the entire season?
JM: Well last year alone, I don’t think there were 20 complete games in one year. Well I had that many in one season and I know Bert had that many several times. It’s just the way it changed. It used to be you might have more complete games than one staff, but now it’s the entire league. (Editor’s Note: He was a little off, there were 112 total – 64 in the American League – complete games in 2007 with Toronto again leading the way with 11 as a team. Three teams – the Marlins, Nationals and Rangers – finished without any.)
Jack Morris: No. It’s got to start all over. It’s got to start in the minor leagues and I guess Nolan Ryan is trying to change that over in Texas, or at least that’s the word anyway. It’s really starting at the college level now and the high school level.
My whole philosophy is that you have to pitch and throw in order to build arm strength. And you have to run to build endurance. Leg strength is huge for pitchers. Guys that go out there and they look at the scoreboard and see they are approaching 100 pitches and all of the sudden they start pitching different – looking at the managers and coaches in the dugout, looking in the bullpen to see if there is anyone throwing. They have a built in excuse, “I’m going to be done in 100 pitches.” Instead of, “You know what son, you’re out there for the game not matter win or lose. Go ahead and represent yourself and your team. If you take a whooping, so be it. You are going to learn how to pitch.”
ATH: You won over 250 games during your career. Tom Glavine reached 300, last year. Do you think there will be another pitcher to hit 300 wins or reach close to 250?
JM: Perhaps. You know, I think the way Moose, what’s the kid for the Yankees? Mussina, (ATH has to laugh that Morris called Mike Mussina, an 18-year pro with 269 career wins, a kid) the way he’s pitching this year, it looks like he might. I think he passed me earlier this year. The way he’s still pitching, he could get 300, but after him, probably not. They won’t pitch long enough.
Hell, who gets 20 wins anymore? Nowadays, 15 wins is like 20 wins, or maybe even 14. When you don’t have chances in games, if you’re not going deep into games, it’s something that’s out of your control. The bullpen will suck up those wins and losses a lot more than the starters. Starters are getting a lot more no decisions. But the infamous quality start has become an icon.
ATH: How do you feel about the quality start?
JM: I think it’s the most overrated statistic in the history of mankind. It’s absolutely meaningless.
ATH: If someone were to tell you, you had this many quality starts during your career, what would you say?
JM: I’d say I don’t care what the numbers say. I don’t care about ERA. I don’t care about innings pitched. I don’t care about anything. How many wins did I have versus how many loses did I have. And that’s all that matters.
It’s still all that matters. It matters for a team. It matters for an individual. Did you win or did you lose? End of story. Move on.
ATH: Is that the sort of attitude that prevailed among pitchers when you played?
JM: No. But that’s what they all should have to me.
JM: I think so. When I took the mound, I wanted to finish the game and I wanted to win. Winning most of all and then hopefully finishing the game. I took a lot of pride in resting my bullpen. I wanted them to have a day off because they might be needed tomorrow or the next three days.
ATH: Of the four rings that you earned, which of them is the most meaningful to you?
JM: It’s hard to say. Detroit was the first. I came up through the Tigers organization and the first time you ever get there, it’s always pretty good.
Being a kid from Minnesota and playing for Minnesota, it’s almost like a dream. And the kind of year I had in ’91, it was by far the greatest year of my career. And then I was lucky enough to go up to Toronto and help Canada win their first championship and be a part of that. I’ve always enjoyed Toronto, it was just as much fun.
Winning to me, that’s what makes this game exciting and fun. Without winning, it doesn’t matter if you’re in New York City or Cleveland. It stinks. But if you’re winning, you can make towns like Kansas City and Minnesota the place to be.
ATH: What was your experience coming through Kansas City so much, competing against the great teams they had?
JM: We played here when there was turf. So the field was a lot faster then. And the heat is always a part of Kansas City. It seemed like when you played Texas and Kansas City, you had to learn to deal with the heat factor. So it was always staying hydrated, trying to stay cool. But you didn’t want to sweat too much otherwise it was like a water faucet and you couldn’t feel the ball in your hand.
But they had great teams. Willie Wilson was a guy you wanted to avoid getting on base because he could explode with his speed. Frank White was steady as a rock. They had all these great pitching staffs with (Larry) Gura and (Paul) Splittorff and gosh who was the right-hander they had with the goatee that pitched all those complete games for all those years? (Dennis) Leonard. (Dan) Quisenberry in the bullpen, (Bret) Saberhagen and even (Mark) Gubicza. You knew you had to do your job on the mound because you weren’t going to get a lot of runs.
ATH: When you approached the mound, would you go out looking to shut them down or would you be thinking, I can let one or two squeeze by? What was you approach like?
JM: Well I never wanted to give up a run. Every inning, every pitch meant something. That’s your approach. It doesn’t always workout that way. I came in here knowing I can’t do anything about how many runs we score but I sure as heck can have something to do with how many they score.
ATH: Would you say it’s a more hitter-friendly game now, especially with the design of the ballparks?
JM: Well, in general I think they’ve become smaller. The one thing that has definitely changed is the foul territory. The distance behind home plate to the backstop, where the screen is and down the lines is getting smaller and smaller. They can say what they want about fan-friendly and more intimate – meaning the fans are closer – but in reality, it favors the hitters. Little fly balls that were pop-ups and could have been outs are now in the seats and they get another at-bat.
ATH: As someone watching – not as a player – would you prefer to watch a pitcher’s duel or a slugfest?
JM: I’m obviously biased when I say this. I’ve seen enough baseball games, I don’t like anything over two-and-a-half hours. Anything over that gets boring. So I want to see that crisp 2-1or 1-0 game. I don’t mind 5-4 games as long as they are played fast.
One of the other things that totally bugs me about today’s game is there’s going to be five to six pitching changes on each side during the game. That right there takes 25 minutes to do. Too many pitching changes and the pace of the game has gotten way too slow.
JM: Roy Halladay. He’s an old throwback from our generation that’s pitching today and he’s doing quite well.
It’s funny, the Milwaukee Brewers are renting CC Sabathia right now. They don’t seem to care about his pitch count, do they? He’s got four or five complete games (keep in mind this was still early August and CC was traded about a month before the interview took place, though the point is still valid considering Sabathia pitched on three days rest last night and will go again this weekend on short rest, if needed). They aren’t going to sign him and so they don’t care. They’re going to take every ounce of energy he has to help them win this stinking pennant. I love it. Because it just shows that it can be done.
ATH: Do you feel like players give their all as much as they used to?
JM: Yea, I do. But the agenda has changed. You don’t see tremendous pride in defense in the outfield anymore. I think there are guys, like a Denard Span or like a Michael Cuddyer for us, who will do whatever they can and have pride out there. But all of their contract negotiations are based on offensive statistics. How many home runs did you hit, how many RBI, how many runs did you score, on-base percentage? It’s not how many assists you made, or did you make a great throw to the cut-off man. You’re not paid to do that. So consequently the emphasis is gone.
Like Manny Ramirez, he’s a liability in the field. I have no problem saying that. The guy is pathetic as an outfielder. But he’s one of the greatest hitters of this era. He’s a perfect case where he should have been a designated hitter. He has no pride in the outfield. None at all.
ATH: Growing up in Minnesota, is that why you are broadcasting for the Twins?
JM: I first started my broadcasting in Detroit and I was living in Minnesota. I was doing 50 games on television and every game except the series in Minnesota were road games for me. That got old. I got tired of traveling.
Right now, I’m barely doing any road games. I do 40 to 45 games with Twins’ radio and about 95 percent of them are home games. It’s been a nice gig.
JM: Yeah. I mean baseball is a game where there’s no job in baseball where you aren’t committed to it. You can’t put on a uniform and expect to sit at home in your office. You have to be there and that’s the part that tugs at me. For 18 years it consumed me and I had no other life. And now that I’ve experienced real life again and enjoyed some of the things I enjoy about being normal, it’s hard for me to go back and give 100 percent of my time to the game of baseball.
That’s the tug of war that I go through. Broadcasting allows me to be part time and still feel like I’m a part of it. Yet, I still get a little time away. Yet, part of me wants to do more broadcasting which will force me to stay away from home more. It’s a constant tug-of-war for me, but I love the game and always will.
ATH: Do you do television at all?
JM: Just with the Tigers.
ATH: Which do you prefer?
JM: TV is easier. But you have to wear ties and make-up and (stuff) and it’s ugly. I don’t like getting all dressed up. I like the casual look. That’s more me. Not that I couldn’t do it.
Radio you have to paint the picture. You have to describe to the listener. Where as TV, you can get you point across by saying “Watch what I just said.” And then you rewind it and watch it all over again. So therefore I think TV’s a little easier to do.
ATH: What’s been your most memorable moment as a broadcaster?
JM: Well, I was there when the Tigers lost their 119th (in 2003) and looked like they were going to set an all-time record. I hate to say that, but it looked like my old team was bad. 2003, they were really bad and it looked like we were going to break that record.
ATH: Thank you so much for your time. It was great to sit down with you.
JM: Alright. Thank you.