16 October 2002

Hey Joe, Where You Goin' With That Baseball Abstract in Your Hand?

Joe Morgan has probably forgotten more about baseball than most of us will ever know: It’s hard to compete with a guy who spent about two decades making a pretty convincing argument for himself as the Greatest Second-Baseman in History. Despite this, many of us in the sabermetric/baseball commentary community have nearly swallowed our own gum as we’ve read/heard some of the asinine things that Morgan has written/said about baseball in recent years. My colleague over at Mike's Baseball Rants even has a weekly feature in which he makes fun of some of the ridiculous statements Joe makes in his weekly ESPN chat sessions. (Mike's a little overly harsh about the typos, but it's usually pretty funny.) Rob Neyer has said that Morgan's propensity for saying things that get your attention, both right and wrong, is what makes him a great personality. Of course, Neyer's statement came in the midst of an article (16 August 2000) in which he made it very clear that Joe didn't know what the hell he was talking about, though Joe usually does a pretty good job of this himself.

The TwinsGeek recently did a piece responding to another of Morgan's columns, this one saying that on-base percentage is not that important for a leadoff hitter. Unfortunately, when Joe wrote this particular article, I was forced to simply yell at the screen, much as one might do when the Dumb Blonde in a Horror Movie walks into a room in which the Killer is likely to be without bothering to turn on a light. Or, like, when Chuck Knoblauch argues with the umpire instead of throwing out Enrique Wilson, scoring from first on a bunt. I could yell at an inanimate object, or I could bite my tongue, as I had not yet discovered my Secret Identity, and my wife, love her though I do, simply would not have wanted to hear it. But now, I have entered the phonebooth of cyberspace and have emerged as The Boy of Summer! Faster-witted than Joe Morgan! More logical than most of the rabid fans out there who thought the Pirates had a shot at, say, 70 wins! Able to conquer simple-minded logic in a single post! Running out of analogies to Superman!

Anyway, Morgan's list of necessary leadoff skills goes like this (in order of importance):

1) Speed
B) Awareness
iii) On-base Percentage
IV) Stealing Bases
Five) Power

The TwinsGeek himself actually does a great job debunking the crap that Morgan spews. He runs a correlation test and shows, at least for the last three years' data, that there is essentially no correlation between a leadoff hitter's steals and the #2 hitters OPS, and that the correlation between the leadoff hitter's OBP and the #2 hitter's OPS is about .300. Now, please understand that this correlation is not a batting average, but in this case, we can evaluate it similarly, as the .300-.350 range is sort of the benchmark of a good correlation in most studies (at least that's whay my Psych 1 prof told us). So statistically, Joe Morgan's idea just doesn't hold water, which, incidentally, is wet, in case you didn't know that either.

I tell ya, for a guy who was smart enough to figure out that he had the talent to become the Greatest Second Baseman in History, he sure sounds like a complete idiot sometimes, y'know? Can you imagine how good he might have been if he'd had all that talent AND understood the few basic principles of statistically successful baseball? It seems like he understood how to use these things as a player, but since then he has lost any ability to explain it as a commentator, which, unfortunately for the rest of us, is his job these days. What he calls "Awareness" is basically taking pitches, "plate discipline", which ultimately helps the player to either get a good pitch to hit or to take a walk: essentially deja-OBP all over again. Stealing bases and speed could also be combined into essentially one category. While each of the two skills does not necessarily mean that the player has the other one, not having one almost definitely precludes the second, in either case. So really, there are only three necessary categories: OBP, Speed and Power. These qualities, in case it is not immediately obvious, are the skills that ANY hitter needs to succeed in the majors. It's just that "table-setters" (#1 and#2 hitters) need the first two more, and "clean-up hitters" (#3-6) need the first and third more.

The irony is that Morgan, in his own words, actually de-bunks his own argument:

"Hitting behind Pete for the Reds was valuable to me as a left-handed hitter. Every time he got on base, the hole opened between first and second base. Any time I hit the ball through the hole, he automatically went to third; he never stopped."

Every time he got on base, Joe. And when he didn't get on base? Nothin'. A leadoff hitter's prowess at stealing bases, distracting the pitcher, shifting the defense, telling dirty jokes to the firstbaseman (You got any naked pictures of your wife?) or anything else doesn't mean squat if he doesn't get on base! As they say in France: "You can't steal first base."

Morgan uses Rickey Henderson as the prototypical leadoff hitter, which he was, but having the speed of a jet would not have made him the Greatest Leadoff Hitter Ever if his career OBP had been, say, .320, instead of .402. You'd probably have to take away at least 500 runs over his career, and you know that he couldn't have just hit for the averages he did if the opposing pitchers had known that he had the plate discipline of Homer Simpson at the Sizzler All-You-Can-Eat Salad Bar, would he? And of course, he wouldn't have hung on as long as he has without getting on base often enough to justify hiring a 42-yr old left fielder with no arm.

I think Morgan's view is kind of skewed by the fact that he (Joe) did have great plate discipline, so he can't grasp how tough it is to succeed without it. Because Morgan and Pete Rose were on base all the time, Joe can't see how important that was to everything else: He just takes it as a given, and thinks that his speed and power were what made him so successful. It's a little like Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" mentality: A complete lack of ability to relate to or comprehend the defficiencies of lesser people.

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