Joe Morgan from 1972-1976 was the best second baseman in baseball history. That’s my honest opinion. There are others who have strong cases. You certainly could argue, most people probably would argue, for Rogers Hornsby from 1921 to 1925 when he hit .402 over FIVE SEASONS. I’m sure that Joe Morgan the announcer would argue that Hornsby was better.
You could argue for Eddie Collins from around 1911 to 1915, when when he hit for a high average (.347), stole a bunch of bases, played superior defense and so on.
You could argue for Jackie Robinson when he got the call to the big leagues … you could argue for Craig Biggio in the mid-1990s … you could argue for Chase Utley the last five or six years … You could argue that Robinson Cano is coming into his own …
Here’s what Joe Morgan did, though: Everything.
You have to remember: Morgan was playing in one of the lower run scoring periods since Deadball. Over those five years, 1972-76, teams averaged just a touch over four runs per game. You have to go back almost 20 years — to 1992 — to find even a single season when offenses scored as few runs as teams did in those five years. Put it this way: Lots of people talked about 2010 being the year of the pitcher. Well, every year from 1972-76 was lower scoring than 2010.
And in that low run-scoring environment, Morgan was one of the great offensive players of all time. He hit for average (.303), hit for power (.499 slugging percentage was fifth in baseball over those years), and stole bases (only Lou Brock stole more bases in the era and Morgan stole them at a higher percentage). He walked 111 times or more every season. He led the league in on-base percentage four of the five seasons. He created way more runs than anyone — 659 in five years. And even that doesn’t tell us everything. You have to put that in context.
Considering that teams were averaging about four runs per game, that means Morgan created enough for about 162 games.
To compare, Hornsby, in his great five-year period, created a staggering 855 runs — almost 200 runs more. But since the average runs scored during Hornsby’s period was a much higher 4.81 runs per game, that comes out to creating enough runs for 177 games. So that’s more than Morgan, but not so much more.
And Hornsby was, by most accounts, a lousy defensive player and a lousy teammate. You certainly can’t BLAME Hornsby for the fact that his Cardinals those five years were mediocre-to-lousy, but it isn’t a badge of honor. Joe Morgan, meanwhile, was a very good defender — Gold Glove winner four of the five years, plus defensive WAR all five years — and by most accounts a very good teammate. And his Reds averaged a decimal more than 100 wins per season, never won fewer than 95, they took three pennants and two World Series.
Would those Reds with Bench, Rose, Concepcion, Perez and the rest have won with Hornsby at second instead of Morgan? Sure, I suspect so. But the point here is that Morgan was the best player on those great Reds teams; he helped the Reds win every way an everyday player can help a team win. Bill James called Joe the greatest percentage player in the history of the game. More on that in a second.
So yes, I think for those five years, he played better than any second baseman ever.
I bring this up because, as you certainly know, ESPN has decided to part ways with Joe Morgan after 20 years of announcing on Sunday Night Baseball. And … well, wait, before getting to the point of this, I should definitely go to the source and pull out a classic Joe Morgan quote for the occasion:
“They (Red Sox) cannot beat them (Rays) by outscoring them.”
OK. That out of the way … it’s weird to think the Internets won’t have Joe Morgan to kick around anymore. I’ve been trying to think of something to say about Morgan as an announcer, but I suppose most of it has already been said. I remember thinking that Morgan was a fresh voice when he first started out as a national announcer a couple of decades ago, and whether that’s just the fog of memory or that he actually was good when he first started and declined, well, I don’t know.
It doesn’t really matter. I don’t think color commentators are built to last. Danger of the job. Sooner or later, we’ve heard all their stories, we’ve absorbed all their shtick, we have grown annoyed by their stubborn opinions, we crave surprises that never come. It’s funny because when it comes to LOCAL broadcasters, we forgive many of these things — the repeated stories, the shtick, the sameness becomes cherished after a while. The announcer becomes OURS.
But national announcers don’t become OURS, not in the same way. After a while, they’re like annoying uncles who know two magic tricks, which they perform at every holiday. Joe Morgan, as he grew older, as he grew more intractable in his views, as he seemed to lose his sense of humor and put less work into his broadcasting, didn’t become more cherished. He became a punch line. In some ways, he was a victim of circumstance, I think. I never thought Morgan was worse than some of the other national broadcasters. Let’s be honest, Ken Tremendous and the boys could have called their site “Fire Tim McCarver*” and it would have had the same meaning. It could have been called “Fire Food Metaphors” or “Fire Woody Paige,” or “FIre David Eckstein” or “Fire Lots of People And Let’s Be Honest You Could Be Next.” The point was to find idiocy, snark at it, make everybody laugh.
*This, after all, is the description of Tim McCarver in the Fire Joe Morgan glossary: “The Fox Network’s #1 color commentator. And, without question, the worst color commentator in the history of the world, in any sport. By my estimation, Tim McCarver has said 94 of the 100 dumbest things anyone has ever said about baseball.”
But they called the site “Fire Joe Morgan,” and there’s no question that Joe became a symbol of something … a symbol of the past, I guess. Or, more specifically, he became a symbol of the closed-minded ballplayer-turned-announcer who believed in the power of heart, the magic of grit, and that to win you need winners, and that to become a winner you need to learn how to win, and that to learn how to win you need to win, and that to win you need winners.
Joe would go to bizarre lengths to avoid saying that teams with high on-base percentages often score a lot of runs and that pitchers who command their pitches and don’t give up home runs often pitch well. With Joe, after a while, it always came down to intangibles. Which is OK, I guess. But the tangible can matter too. Also, he hated Moneyball and never seemed to figure out that it wasn’t Billy Beane who wrote the darned thing.
Anyway, many national announcers — I’d even say most national announcers — have these same flaws. But Joe Morgan was out front. I think this is in part because he was the guy on TV every Sunday night. I also think this is in part because there has always been a weird contradiction surrounding Morgan, something that wasn’t there for McCarver or the rest. While Joe Morgan the announcer railed against modern baseball statistics, Joe Morgan the ballplayer lit them up like Paul Millsap against the Heat. While Joe Morgan refused to give any credence to the new baseball ideas that were popping up all around him, Joe Morgan the ballplayer had foreshadowed many of them.
Joe Morgan the announcer seemed utterly detached from Joe Morgan the amazing ballplayer. Morgan is a smart man. He lives in the moment. But, strange, it’s like he never understood his own genius for playing baseball. I’ve heard this same thing about a certain brilliantly funny Saturday Night Live actor who was in some of the funniest skits ever — that he didn’t entirely know WHY they were funny. He just did his part. He followed his instincts. And it worked.
Joe Morgan wasn’t great because he was a “winner.” He was great because he studied pitchers moves so that he could get good jumps (and steal 80% of his bases though he wasn’t brilliantly fast). He was great because he made pitchers throw him strikes, he made every at-bat a war of wills, and this often led to pitchers giving in (and walking him) or making a bad pitch (which he often hit with power). He was great because he worked out in the off-season (he liked hitting the speed bag) and built up his strength and so developed good power that belied his 5-foot-7 frame and Little Joe nickname. He was great because he worked hard on his defense and made himself from a below-average, to average to good second baseman. He was great because he challenged teammates to play at their best and he lived up to his own challenges.
He was great because, as Bill James wrote, he was the best percentage player ever, and the irony is that it takes someone like Bill James — a non-player who loves the game enough to study it intently — to fully appreciate just how good Joe Morgan really was. I mentioned Hornsby on top. Well, I’ve written before that Bill ranked Joe Morgan the best second baseman ever and ranked Hornsby No. 3. Bill later told me that he had heard that someone mentioned this to Morgan who immediately said something like: “That’s crazy. Rogers Hornsby hit .358. I didn’t hit .358.”
As if that’s what all of baseball comes down to: Batting average.
Other people disliked Joe Morgan the announcer more than I did. I liked listening to his partner Jon Miller so much that Sunday Night Baseball was always fun for me (I will miss Miller, who will also leave the booth). And I kind of got a kick out of the awkward silences and weird vibes that would ring between them. Plus sometimes Joe would say something that I thought was insightful or interesting. And I always knew the silly things he said would make for funny Internet fodder the next day.
In the end, ESPN did the right thing. It was time to move on, get some new voices, trying to bring a little life to the booth. I hope at some point in the near future they find a space for the excellent announcer Jon Sciambi, who I think is terrific. Dan Shulman is very good too. There have to be some terrific young color commentator prospects out there too. Whoever they put in will provide a spark at least for a little while, sort of the way a new coach provides a spark.
And as far as Joe goes … well, we have a huge bump at the end of our driveway. Every single day, I back out of our driveway and hit that bump. Every single day, I come in our driveway and hit that bump. It’s ridiculous, and I know I should get it fixed, and I suspect sometime soon my wife will make me get it fixed. Then it will be smooth going in and going out.
And I KNOW that in a weird way I will miss the bump.
I guess that’s how I feel about Joe Morgan leaving the booth.