Who is Joe Morgan in Moneyball? What did Joe Morgan do, and how did he influence how the baseball world viewed Sabermetrics?
While Joe Morgan wasn’t involved in forming the strategies in Moneyball, he has a role as a strong, doubting voice of Sabermetrics and the Oakland A’s new strategy. Joe Morgan, a powerful and influential baseball insider, is a notable character in the book for his push-back against the A’s data-driven technology.
The A’s Make the Playoffs
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Oakland A’s make the playoffs in 2002. The team’s success is a testament to their value investment strategy in building the team and a stunning rebuke to decades of conventional wisdom about what makes a winning ballclub. Still, many baseball traditionalists, particularly former player-turned-TV-commentator Joe Morgan, appear to be actively rooting against the A’s in the playoffs. They seem to not so much disagree with Billy’s ideas about how to win baseball games as to be outright offended by them. Winning games without flashy home run sluggers or lighting-speed pitchers, to these keepers of baseball’s conventional wisdom, is a violation of the natural order of things, a perversion of the noble tradition and spirit of America’s national pastime. Joe Morgan in Moneyball is part of an insider’s club of pundits, writers, scouts, and ex-players, which never seems to face accountability for its failures. They are a social club that values loyalty over competence.
The Playoff Crapshoot: Was Joe Morgan Right?
The Oakland A’s shock the baseball world by winning the AL West Division, with a record of 103-59. They have one of the best regular season records in all of baseball, second only to the Yankees (the team that poached Jason Giambi). Going into the season, the media and old guard of baseball had believed the A’s barely stood a chance of making the playoffs at all, let alone of winning their division. Their success is a testament to Beane and DePodesta’s value investment strategy in building the team and a stunning rebuke to decades of conventional wisdom about what makes a winning ballclub.
One of Billy’s favorite proof points is the fact that the Minnesota Twins have scored 32 fewer runs than the A’s, despite having a team batting average that is 11 points higher. Billy explains to his team and to the media that this disparity is due to the fact that the Twins’ on-base percentage is lower, and on-base percentage matters far more for run production than batting average. The Twins also squander outs by making foolish plays like attempting to steal bases and hitting sacrifice bunts at a rate far higher than the A’s.
This is a major point of contention between the A’s and the baseball traditionalists, like Joe Morgan, baseball commentator and former player. Joe Morgan in Moneyball argues that teams must “manufacture runs” to achieve success in the playoffs, i.e., trade outs for runs through stealing bases and hitting sacrifice flies and bunts. Billy thinks this argument betrays a deep ignorance of the game. Why would a team treat outs as anything other than a precious resource to be preserved at all costs? And why should the process for winning a baseball game be any different in the playoffs than it was during the regular season?
Billy knows that much of the baseball commentariat is actively rooting against his team in the playoffs. They seem to not so much disagree with his club’s ideas about how to win baseball games as to be outright offended by them. Winning games without flashy home run sluggers or lighting-speed pitchers, to these keepers of baseball’s conventional wisdom, is a violation of the natural order of things, a perversion of the noble tradition and spirit of America’s national pastime.
Unfortunately for Billy and the A’s, the Joe Morgans of the baseball world get their wish when the A’s fall in the first round of the playoffs, losing three games to two in a best-of-five divisional series to the Minnesota Twins. The naysayers believe that this proves Billy Beane wrong: the Twins, with their high slugging percentage and team batting average, have beaten the sabermetric, on-base percentage-obsessed A’s. The old school of subjective baseball commentary is right; the new school of data analysis and number crunching is wrong.
But is this really true? Can such sweeping inferences be drawn from a five-game playoff series, which the A’s barely lost? To Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta, the answer is a resounding “no.” The A’s poor playoff performance relative to their stellar regular season record is entirely explained by the small sample sizes of the playoffs, in which random on-field events have an outsized impact on the outcome of a series. As Billy points out, “My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.”
DePodesta notes that during the regular season, the A’s had allowed an average of only four runs per game, but that they allowed 5.4 during the series against the Twins. If a key player has a few bad games in a row during the regular season, it matters little, because the consequences are negligible in the context of 162 games. But in a five-game playoff series, poor player performance can doom a team. This is precisely what happens to the A’s in the 2002 playoffs: Tim Hudson, who had been a rock-solid pitcher all season, pitches two awful games against the Twins. This is entirely anomalous for him and couldn’t have been predicted. The A’s have been hit with bad luck.
People like Joe Morgan, baseball insider, eschew the concepts of Moneyball, seemingly without giving them a chance. But people like Billy Beane continue to use them, and hope to prove the value of their own investment in a new way forward.
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- How Billy Beane first flamed out as a baseball player before becoming a general manager
- The unconventional methods the Athletics used to recruit undervalued players
- How Sabermetrics influences American baseball today