Most old-time baseball men hate sabermetrics for fear of their own legacy. They’ll never admit that, but it’s what’s at the heart of it. That pretty much spreads to every industry, where the way we used to do it is obviously better than the way we do it now (and sometimes that’s true). That somehow the things they dedicated their careers and lives to will be somehow devalued. Guys who bunted and stole bases are now being told that those things weren’t all that important? Anyone would react in the same fashion.
Joe Morgan was no different. His abhorrence of the new ways of thinking about the game when he was the Sunday Night Baseball analyst spawned the best baseball website of all-time, as well as a thousand articles either demonstrating why he was wrong or highlighting the changing thinking within the game and the ways we analyze it outside of it.
Morgan was certainly protective of what he thought his place in the game was, and as any Chicagoan can tell you, was almost dismissive of Ryne Sandberg’s career as Cubs fans championed him as the best at the position (he was not). Maybe Morgan never realized that the analytics he degraded as useless would tell you he was the best second baseman of the modern era by a distance.
Morgan’s 98.8 fWAR (Fangraphs’ calculation of WAR) at the position ranks fourth, behind Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, and Rogers Hornsby, and as if you couldn’t tell by someone named “Nap,” these guys played at a time when they had to dodge cows in the outfield amid fears of crashing zeppelins. In fact, there isn’t a modern-era second sacker within a two-hour flight of Morgan in terms of fWAR. The next one down on the list is Rod Carew some 26 points behind.
Morgan’s 135 wRC+ (Runs Created adjusted other factors ie. ballpark and era) also marks him out as the best offensive player at the position in the modern era. Only Jackie Robinson can match it, and Morgan played for twice as long. Morgan was hardly the best with the glove, as his range pretty much extended from how far he could reach to either side of his body. Players like Alomar, Sandberg, Whittaker, Randolph, and Utley were miles ahead of him in defensive metrics. But combined with his bat, there wasn’t anyone better, and there wasn’t really anyone all that close given his longevity.
It’s funny how much he railed against the idea of walks and on-base percentage when given one of the game’s bigger platforms next to John Miller on the Worldwide Leader every Sunday, because Morgan’s 16.9 percent walk-rate would have made him an utter god these days, as well. Perhaps when you’re an old man yelling at clouds you don’t come to realize the clouds stare back into you?
Joe Morgan, a key member of the Cincy’s famed Big Red Machine that won back-to-back titles in 1975 and 76, passed to the green fields of the mind on Sunday at the age of 77. In the months before his death, according to the AP, Morgan had been suffering from mulitple health issues, including a form of polyneuropathy - a nerve condition.
Morgan’s passing adds to a sobering number of baseball greats to leave us this year, like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Tom Seaver, and Al Kaline. All giants of the game in some fashion.
His death will certainly wash away his belligerence as a broadcaster, and it should. Because the actual baseball is what’s important. And Morgan is one of the best to ever do the actual baseball.
That’ll be his legacy.