erik lundegaard

Sunday October 18, 2020

Joe Morgan (1943-2020)

When I was a kid growing up in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, the most imitated batting stances, in no particular order, were:

  • the sudden Killebrew crouch
  • Stargell's pinwheels
  • the Carew leanback
  • Joe Morgan chicken flap

I was in an AL city, there was no interleague play, but I saw Morgan and the Big Red Machine all the time. They were always in the thick of it, and Morgan, who died last Sunday, was one of their in-the-thick-of-it-iest players. Or was he? His overall postseason line isn't good: .182/.323/.348. Cf., Pete Rose: .321/.388/.440. Or Johnny Bench: .266/.335/.527. Both are better than their career numbers, Morgan's is way worse. I do like the leap from his awful BA to his pretty good OBP. That's so Joe. Here's a fun stat: In the 1976 NLCS against the 103-win Philadelphia Phillies, which the Reds swept, Morgan went hitless in three games: .000 BA. Guess what his OBP was? .462. Then he went on to win the 1976 World Series MVP in a four-game sweep of the Yanks, with a .333/.412/.733 line. That may have been one of the few postseason contests where I rooted for the Reds. I didn't like them. I liked Morgan and Bench and Tony Perez I guess, but my antipathy for Pete Rose trumped all.

Did we know how good Morgan was? Maybe a little. He was NL MVP two years in a row, '75 and '76, the stolid, sparkplug center of that insane lineup, so we kind of knew. But OBP wasn't yet a thing. Advanced measures weren't a thing. WAR wasn't a thing. There's a great story about Morgan's first spring training with the Reds after he was traded from the Astros in Nov. 1971 as part of an eight-player deal. He was practicing laying down bunts when Pete Rose yelled at him. “Hey, we don't do that shit here!” They didn't sacrifice. No, they took. Like Paul Muni, they stole, and Morgan wound up second to Lou Brock for most stolen bases in the 1970s. And they hit. And they hit with power. And that kind of atmosphere was exactly what Joe Morgan apparently needed.

Prior to the trade, he'd had some good seasons, particularly his 1965 rookie year (he finished second in the ROY voting) and 1971. But from '72 to '76, this is where Morgan ranked in terms of bWAR for position players in all of Major League Baseball—NL and AL:

  • 1972: first
  • 1973: first
  • 1974: second 
  • 1975: first
  • 1976: first

By bWAR, he's the 21st greatest position player of all time. He's ahead of Yaz, Clemente, Brett, Griffey Jr., Carew, Boggs, Kaline. He's ahead of Bench and Rose. I think we thought he was good; I just don't think we thought he was that good. 

So it's funny to note, as Joe Posnanski does in his obit, that Morgan hated bWAR. All the advanced stats showed what a great player he was and yet he hated all the advanced stats. You gotta smile.

Posted at 08:12 AM on Sunday October 18, 2020 in category Baseball  
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