Hall of Famer Joe Morgan passed away today. Known as one of the pistons in the Big Red Machine of the 70s, he experienced even more fame as the color man in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball booth. He became something like a villain in the 2000s, around the dawning of the internet, blogging and sabremetric era. That’s where a lot of younger baseball fans might recall his name.
I would count myself among them. I didn’t get the chance to see Morgan or the rest of his vaunted Machine play, but I did get to hear his musings on Sunday Night baseball. I started learning more about baseball statistics, and was ultimately introduced to Fire Joe Morgan, a site dedicated to disproving many of Morgan’s axioms, often using logic and statistics.
Morgan became a bogeyman of this new wave of baseball academics. He wasn’t necessarily the most old fashioned thinker in the media, nor the most bullheaded, but his antagonists happened to be some of the funniest people on the planet, including one of the minds behind The Office and Parks and Recreation, among other shows, Michael Schur.
Morgan was the poster child for old fashioned gate keepers who wanted to look at the game the same way it’s always been viewed. It was fun for younger writers, smart people who weren’t necessarily athletic, to take him and people like him down. Fire Joe Morgan, Deadspin, even me, we all found a wealth of material in refuting their stands.
In retrospect, there are two fundamental problems with that. The first, and most apparently, was that many no longer appreciate what a true talent Morgan was. He was a two time MVP, and one of the best pure hitters in the game, as well as a Gold Glove second baseman. I’m sure it was tough to see the game analyzed differently than you are used to, when otherwise playing it always came so easily.
A second problem is a bit more nebulous. Baseball has always been thought of as a thinking man’s game. There is a strategy for every scenario, every pitch, every baserunner, every out in every inning. Now, the idea of rigorous statistical analysis has been so accepted, thanks in part to the backlash to Joe Morgan (and many, many others, to be fair), that everyone knows the odds. The only right move is the one with a statistically higher probability.
With the adoption of widespread advanced stat acceptance, baseball has become a problem that has been solved. I’m not here to discredit the hard statistical research that so many front offices, journalists and bloggers have done. I’m here to lament the loss of alternative voices that aren’t immediately marginalized. Baseball was a lot more fun when there were more conversations to be had.
Joe Morgan was a great baseball player who hearkened back to a different era, in more way than one.