The Accidental Wisdom of Joe Morgan

By | April 05, 2006

It’s no secret that while I respect Joe Morgan’s abilities as a Hall of Fame second baseman, I find his analytical skills as color commentator for ESPN’s baseball broadcasts a bit lacking, to put it mildly. When I see him lined up for a chat on, I generally check it out — mostly for the sake of humor. I was a bit surprised to see this question and answer yesterday:

Tim D (Chicago): Why is everyone so hung up on on-base percentage? I think doing the little things and playing hard is more important. What do you think Joe?

Joe Morgan: Very good question. OBP is very important, BUT it is important for certain players and not so much for others. Mark McGwire couldn’t do a lot of things on the bases and hit a lot of HRs. It’s not as important as someone like Posednik who can do things when he is on base. People have fallen in love with OBP to prove the worth of players but it is more important for some players than others.

Remember, OBP, if it is not tied to run production, is not a big deal. Run production is how you should judge a player. Certain players at the top of the order should have high OBP because that is their job, to get on base. Guys in the middle of the lineup should be driving in those runs.

I guess, in keeping with tradition, I should start by pointing out a few things that reinforce my opinion that Joe Morgan is clueless (which also reinforce my opinion that any wisdom he shows is accidental):

First, the question is absolutely idiotic, but Joe Morgan validates it by saying “Very good question.” This is, no doubt, because Joe Morgan is very biased against on-base percentage and anything else that can be considered a Moneyball stat. In case you aren’t aware, Joe Morgan’s reaction to Moneyball was strong and vituperative, despite overwhelming evidence that he hadn’t actually read it. In an chat in 2003, not long after the release of Moneyball, Joe Morgan said this about the excerpt he had read in the New York Times:

It’s typical if you write a book, you want to be the hero. That is apparently what Beane has done. According to what I read in the Times Beane is smarter than anyone else. I don’t think it will make him popular with the other GMs or the other people in baseball.

In case any of you are unaware, Moneyball was written by Michael Lewis, and it was ABOUT Billy Beane. Several readers pointed that out to Joe Morgan, but a week later, someone asked him what he would do to improve the A’s if he were Billy Beane. Joe Morgan’s response? “I wouldn’t be Billy Beane first of all! I wouldn’t write the book Moneyball!”

So it is apparent that Joe Morgan was upset about the book, and it is more apparent that he didn’t read it. Kind of makes his opinions on it somewhat obsolete. So let’s get back to the question this post is about. Why do I say it is idiotic? Well, this guy touts the value of “doing the little things” over on-base percentage. Which little things are you referring to, Tim D? “Little things” is an abstract concept, which is why it’s easier to talk about than things with actual definitions, but I venture a guess that ANY definition of “doing the little things” would include taking a walk when your team needs one — you know, one of the key elements of on-base percentage. Is OBP something that Tim D just doesn’t understand? Is it just some term that means nothing to him other than “a statistic that people didn’t care much about until recently”? I hate to tell you this, Tim D, but OBP isn’t something that was invented by Billy Beane or anyone else in the last decade. I remember as a kid, the most amazing thing about Wade Boggs wasn’t his great batting averages, but the fact that he had a great eye and drew about 100 walks a season, which led to 11 different seasons in which his OBP was over .400. Ted Williams played in 12 complete seasons, and his lowest OBP was .436, with seven seasons of .490 or better. No matter how much you argue, you can’t tell me that a guy who gets on base 48.2% of the time (as Williams did) is not more valuable than someone who gets on base 29.5% of the time (as Giants’ “prospect” Lance Niekro did last year). Even if Ted Williams had never hit a single home run in his career, he would have been a Hall of Famer based on that ridiculous on-base percentage.

So yes, this was a stupid question, but Joe Morgan said it was a very good question. And then he used a Mark McGwire vs. Scott Podsednik example to make the point that OBP is more important for some people than for others. You know those guys — McGwire and his .394 career OBP, Podsednik and his .345 OBP. Could Joe Morgan have come up with a better example to use here? Sure, but only if he thought about it for three seconds.

So now let’s get to the Accident Wisdom of Joe Morgan. He said this:

Remember, OBP, if it is not tied to run production, is not a big deal. Run production is how you should judge a player. Certain players at the top of the order should have high OBP because that is their job, to get on base. Guys in the middle of the lineup should be driving in those runs.

This point is pretty accurate, and it was driven home to me as I was watching the Dodger game on Monday. The Dodgers were getting beat by the Braves, and as they were trying to mount a comeback, Jeff Kent took a walk with a runner on second. Nice, Jeff, except that Olmedo Saenz is batting behind you, and he has already struck out three times this game, looking terrible each time and leaving seven runners on base. In that situation, it would help the team much more if Kent can foul off a couple borderline pitches and get the pitcher to make a mistake, groove one a little, and give Kent something to drive into the outfield to drive in the run. In that situation, Kent’s job is not to take a walk — it is to get that run in.

If on-base percentage really was the only thing that matters, then either Barry Bonds wouldn’t get all those intentional walks, or Giants fans wouldn’t whine about them. The fact is, opposing teams like to take away from Bonds the opportunity to drive in runs, because that’s what his job is, and that’s what he excels at.

(On the other hand, you can’t discount the effect that a high OBP from a power hitter has on his teammates. For example, look at Fernando Tatis in 1999. The only great year he ever had happened to be the only year that he spent most of the year batting behind Mark McGwire. The vast majority of pitchers are not quite as effective from the stretch as they are from the windup, so you have to think that those 215 times that McGwire got on base with something other than a homer probably contributed to Tatis getting better pitches to hit.)

What Joe Morgan and Tim D are missing here is that no one looks at OBP as the end-all, be-all of statistics. It is MUCH more common to see value places on OPS, which is on-base percentage (O) plus (P) slugging percentage (S). And when you think about it, OPS does a pretty good job of taking those roles into account: it values OBP for people like Scott Podsednik or Ichiro (a better choice for Joe Morgan’s previous example), and it values slugging for guys like Mark McGwire or Vladimir Guerrero.

So yes, Joe Morgan makes a good point about how OBP alone can’t tell you the true value of a player, but I think his bias against the “new age” statistics does him a disservice when it comes to analysis.

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