Historical Four Factors: Joe Morgan’s Peak

It is incredibly unfortunate that my generation of baseball fans knows Joe Morgan primarily from his antics in the broadcast booth. Some know more about Fire Joe Morgan than they do about Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan. Today, I’d like to use my four factors of hitting to shed some light on Morgan’s ridiculous peak, in particular his 1975 and 1976 seasons, in which he posted 21.5 total WAR and won the MVP both seasons.

For a reminder, the four factors are BB%, K%, POW (XB/H), and BABIP. The short reason for using POW instead of ISO is that Colin Wyers told me to. The actual reason is that BABIP actually can have a heavy influence on ISO. There doesn’t appear, to me, to be a reason to judge power based on what somebody does in ABs where they make outs (think “long outs”) or don’t even make contact (strikeouts). This doesn’t mean that ISO doesn’t have its merit, but in this case we are trying to separate what these four statistics are telling us as much as possible, which, to me, is the best solution.

Back to the task at hand, here are the four factors for Joe Morgan’s 1975 with The Big Red Machine.

The numbers are staggering across the board. It should come as no surprise that this season resulted in an MVP award and an 11.4 WAR season. Morgan had a walk rate 230% of the average player. When he wasn’t walking, he was making contact, and when he was making contact, it was either a resulting in a base hit or solid power. It’s disappointing that we don’t have plate discipline numbers from this period; I can’t imagine how ridiculous Morgan’s O-Swing% or contact rates were this season to allow him to walk over 2.5 times more than he struck out.

Amazingly enough, the 1975 season almost pales in comparison with what he accomplished in 1976:

The drop in Morgan’s walk rate was pretty much in line with a league-wide drop in walks. Then, in two categories where he already outclassed the entire league, Morgan made huge strides. The drop in strikeouts compensated for the natural drop in BABIP he saw – .298 was still significantly above the league BABIP of .281, making a .336 mark like he had in 1975 slightly ridiculous. If Morgan had merely equaled his power numbers of 1975, we would’ve been looking at another 190 wRC+ type season. Instead, Morgan slugged 27 home runs, a career high and ten more than he put out in 1975. Morgan walked at a rate 226% of the average player and hit for power at a rate 184% higher than that of the average player. Morgan’s numbers is the stuff of which any baseball analyst dreams, sabermetrically inclined or not.

It can be easy to simply dismiss Joe Morgan when we hear him talk in the broadcast booth. It’s important, for those of us who care about the history of the game, however, to remember that Morgan may have been the best second baseman of all time. These two seasons are only part of a five year peak which saw five 9.0+ WAR seasons and 3 10.0+ WAR seasons. Joe Morgan was a fantastic baseball player, and that is how I will remember him.

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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

32 Responses to “Historical Four Factors: Joe Morgan’s Peak”

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  1. Piccamo says:

    I wonder how someone who was so talented and skilled at the sport could be so clueless when talking about it. I love your Four Factors series. Where do you find the averages for the stats in those listed seasons? Are you going to focus more on historic players or modern players in the future?

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    • It does seem odd that a man of Morgan’s playing talents would be so utterly talentless in other areas.

      Then again, take Ty Cobb: perhaps the greatest CF of all time, and also an abject failure as a human being. Success on the diamond means basically nothing elsewhere in life.

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    • Jack Moore says:

      We have the averages for all of the stats under the “Advanced” tab in the player pages. POW isn’t there, but you can calculate it like this:

      SLG/AVG – 1

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    • Sam says:

      I am sorry, but just because he doesn’t talk about your favorite stats as a way of player evaluation doesn’t mean he is “clueless” about the game.

      Morgan is being asked the wrong questions, and has the wrong role as a broadcaster. That is not his fault, that is ESPN’s. Player evaluation is not his best suite, and player evaluation is not the attribute that made him a Hall of Fame player. Ask Morgan about the game itself that can come from only playing the game, and he will be able to tell you more about the game than pretty much anyone else.

      There are times he talks about positioning of a player, what techniques to use for a double play, the impact of how you hold a bat on someone’s swing, running on the bases, analyzing the motion of a pitcher to pick up interesting tidbits that could be of use (after about three pitches thrown by Tyler Clippard in his debut, Morgan identified that he was landing on two sides of the rubber with his fastball and curveball), and you will see what made him the great player he was. He has great powers of observation, which is what set him apart as a great player.

      There are plenty of things that Morgan can offer if he is allowed to break down some of the aspects of the game that only a superior player can offer. A player of his caliber cannot possibly be clueless about the game. Yes, he has his fascination with HRs, RBIs and BAs, but that is what he was exposed to as a player. And he is not alone in fascination with statistics that were in vogue during his age: heck, BP still touts VORP as a reliable measure of offensive performance when we have more technically sound wOBA or wRC+.

      Since some screenwriters with plenty of time in their hands decided to take down Morgan for his answers to questions that he had clearly no expertise to answer (and admittedly, were funny in the process), mindlessly bashing Morgan has become a cool ritual. In reality, it only reflects our own ignorance of what made Morgan the great player he was.

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      • Joe R says:

        To be honest, I think Sunday Night Baseball could be a very good booth if it was Jon Miller, Joe Morgan, and someone who knew what the hell he was talking about statistically and actually add value to the proceedings, rather than Orel Hershiser.

        Of course there’s non-stat things Joe Morgan could do better, like not beat those insights he does have to death.

        Great that he can catch a problem w/ a player’s plate approach in just 1 at-bat, it’s a heck of a skill to have, but I don’t need 10 minutes devoted to what he’s doing wrong or right in the middle of a broadcast.

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      • Naliamegod says:

        I think the other problem isn’t that Morgan just isn’t qualified to talk about stats or player evaluation; the biggest problem is that he refuses to learn anything about it and refuses to do any research. He’s admitted publicly that he rarely watches games anymore and doesn’t do much research before broadcasting. That just comes off as lazy and it shows in his analysis.

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      • Lance W says:

        I think Sam raised a good point in his defense (maybe the only one I’ve heard that has any merit), but like Naliamegod said, his refusal to learn or consider new information is ridiculous. He probably wouldn’t recognize or appreciate this very article (if his name were removed), and there’s a good chance he still thinks Billy Beane wrote Moneyball.

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  2. Eric R says:

    I suppsoe I wouldn’t expect Michael Schumacher to be an expert at automotive aerodynamics or to know in great detail how to build a high performance engine from scratch [he might, I have no idea :)]. I bet that is why they hire engineers and mechanics and what-not.

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    • Matt says:

      Likewise no one expects Morgan to know the math behind calculated the true distance of a ball hit or being able to give a detailed description of how you go from a living cow to a baseball mitt.

      I would expect Michael Schumacher to know what makes a good driver and the impact of weather conditions and other factors can have on a race.

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  3. Rich Mahogany says:

    Looking at Morgan’s stats reminds us that judging a player’s offensive contributions should be easy. The best hitters get on base, hit for power, and don’t strike out a lot (the latter category has some notable exceptions, of course). The best overall players can provide patience and power while playing defensively challenging positions.

    It’s remarkable that Morgan the announcer can’t understand these basics and won’t even deign to understand a stat like OPS, the simplest measure of whether a player gets on base and hits the ball hard. And he mocks advanced stats that serve to highlight how remarkable a player he was.

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    • george says:

      “best overall players can provide patience and power while playing defensively challenging positions”

      Problem with this commentary and the JM bashers in general is, that these are just generalities that do not provide for some of the finest and most entertaining talents seen on the diamond… I’m thinking Panda last year, Vladdy this and most other years, and to date myself, Manny Sanguillen back in the ’70s.

      So I’ve watched baseball 40+ years, know most of what fangraphs has to offer, and can’t wait to hear Jon Miller and Joe Morgan *enjoy* the game and one another, when they get together. But that’s just me.

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  4. JoeElPaso says:

    Joe Morgan, actually, is pretty decent at commenting on the immediate, athletic and thinking aspects of specific plays (though there are some low percentage things he takes for granted). What he is not good at is understanding aggregate patterns and statistics used to measure those patterns, and what we have learned from that. Hence, the condemnations of his announcing. But it is unsurprising that an athlete would be better at analyzing the immediate plays than at the hidden patterns, revealed only by using specialized analytical tools.


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  5. Erik says:

    Perhaps you should email Joe Morgan this piece, Jack.

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  6. John says:

    One of the advantages of being in my 50’s is that I saw Joe Morgan a lot and he is best 2d baseman that I’ve ever seen. Even the numbers do not give you a sense of the coiled aggression that he gave off and the sense of impending doom. And, he won the Gold Glove at the same time while playing with a a glove smaller than his vocabulary!

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  7. Yevgeny says:

    Morgan’s career length, peak value and breadth of skills at his position are impeccable. He and Hornsby are the top two all-time second basemen, leaving only the question of their rank relative to each other.

    Morgan’s commitment to nonsense during the broadcast annoys me, but it’s not very surprising. People constantly tell themselves non-rational stories to explain how and why things happen, far more often than they reason things out or admit ignorance. Bill James described this well in the Historical Baseball Abstract, saying that *of course* former players in the broadcast booth ascribe success to character and fortitude rather than talent or luck. Who wouldn’t want to believe themselves to be a great human being, rather than merely a great baseball player? Consider as well that the habit of telling oneself those stories may have contributed to, or been essential to, success.

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  8. Julien Headley says:

    I’m always interested to see my creation, POW, in use. Unfortunately you have used the wrong formula. The correct formula is:

    (tb – h)/(ab – k)



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  9. Joe R says:

    Part of me thinks Morgan’s aversion to statistics was because his triple crown statistics were only pretty good, not great.
    During the 70’s, his triple crown read .282, 173 HR, 720 RBI. Which is good, but then you have guys like Bob Watson in the 70’s going .301, 149 HR, 822 RBI, and suddenly Joe Morgan just looks decent.

    Of course, SABR-geeks know Morgan’s value came from his amazing batting eye, his smart base running, and his awesome range, three statistical categories that were neglected in his heyday in favor of batting average, steal accumulation and low error totals.

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  10. not mutually exclusive says:

    It shouldn’t be wrong for a professional athlete to be intelligent as well, but it seems that the general public condones intelligent discourse. For example, Max Scherzer was talking about how he looked at his BABIP percentage and realized that he was getting unlucky on some balls hit in play. (I presume that the line drive and fly ball percentages were in line with his normal rates)

    The comments after the article made it seem that athletes are not allowed to use their brains and brawn. (well, in baseball its much more skill than physical)

    Sad. There ARE people that are smart and proficient at sports, just not that many it seems.

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    • Joe R says:

      The fans probably assumed Scherzer was making excuses for himself.

      There’s company lines for all pro athletes, sadly. If you’re a baseball player w/ a .360 batting average, thanks mostly to a .420 BABIP, you’re supposed to say it’s the result of hard work, not luck. Likewise, if you’re hitting .250 because somehow 78% of your balls in play are outs, you’re supposed to run the “I have to get focused” stuff. As long as average fans are reading columnists who make baseball seem like a war of wills, average fans will never buy into luck arguments to explain poor play.

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    • joser says:

      Are you sure you wanted “condones” in there (perhaps you meant to write “condemns”?) That opening sentence doesn’t read right for me, particularly in light of the rest of your post.

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  11. TCQ says:

    Since you did Joe Morgan, might be interesting to toss out his competition for greatest 2B of all time: Rogers Hornsby. 12.4 WAR in 1924. Crazy.

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  12. DonCoburleone says:

    Very good article and I am aware of how amazing he was at Second Base and I give him credit for that, dude was an absolutely amazing ballplayer… But the bottom line is that FJM was not the most popular sports blog in history by accident – Joe Morgan is a terrible baseball analyst and he proves it every Sunday night (or when he’s answering questions on JoeChat @ Espn.com).

    So bottom line is that I do seperate ‘Joe Morgan the greatest 2nd baseman ever’ from ‘Joe Morgan the worst analyst in baseball’ (or 2nd worst depending on how much you hate McCarver). The whole key is just to realize that it doesn’t take brains or charisma or a golden tongue to be a great baseball player. The real problem is why ESPN (and other outlets) just assume someone who was great at PLAYING their sport will automatically be great at ANALYZING it. They are two completely different skill sets that many (or most) atheletes simply don’t have.

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  13. Ben Hall says:

    Thanks for writing this and reminding everyone how great Morgan was, Jack.

    One of the weirdest things about Morgan’s analysis is, as noted by several others, he is clearly intelligent. It appears more laziness about his current job (again, as an earlier comment noted).

    In the original Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James writes about pitching out against Morgan, and how he always knew the pitchout was coming. It’s pretty entertaining, and gives you an idea of a player really knowing what was going on.

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  14. bc1890 says:

    Lies, damn lies and statistics. .271 career batting average is all you need to know to realize he is not the best second basemen ever. His numbers pail in comparison to Hornsby, Frisch, Sandberg, Robinson and, I’m sure, many others who the five minutes i’ve spent researching this post didn’t yield. I remember when baseball players were judged by production. Your stats are meaningless numbers agents use to get bigger contracts. Hornsby had more hits, more total bases, a higher batting average, more RBI’s, more homeruns, higher on base percentage, higher OPS and more total bases all in 2000 less at-bats. To even compare them is ludicrous.

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