Saber Rattling


SF Weekly wades into the dirt-kicking fight between ESPN blowhard Joe Morgan and A's general manager Billy Beane. Actually it's a pretty one-sided fight, with Morgan missing no chance to point out that he hasn't read Michael Lewis' Moneyball and that Moneyball (which he seems to think was written by Beane) is a load of crap. Possibly because Tommy Craggs' article is so stacked against him, I came away sympathizing with Morgan, but before getting into that, dig Matt Welch's review of Moneyball/appreciation of the way sabermetrics has retired so many of baseball's treasured myths.

My sympathy for Morgan here is based in part on his touching attachment to those myths—he refuses to accept sabermetrics even though it's only through sabermetric analysis that he himself has been firmly established as the greatest second baseman in history:

Jon Miller remembers telling his broadcast partner about Bill James' second baseman rankings, that in fact James had rated him at the top. Says Miller: "Joe said, 'Well, how could that be? [Hornsby] hit .400 and 42 home runs, and I'm hitting .325 and 27 homers.' … What was interesting to me was, most guys, I think, number one, would already have been aware of that and would've savored that assessment. And number two, that even if they were just being told for the first time, most guys would be happy to embrace that. But Joe has such a sincere respect for the history of the game -- because who is Rogers Hornsby? I mean, Rogers Hornsby is an old redneck alcoholic who was probably as racist as anybody who's ever played the game. And yet Joe had this great respect for what he'd done and was very aware of what he'd done -- not many former players are aware of those kinds of things -- and Joe was sincerely ready to argue on behalf of Hornsby."

Beyond the admirable humility here (which you might not expect based on Morgan's insufferable Sunday Night Baseball commentary), I find another reason to sympathize: Who can blame a former major league player for despising stats geeks? It would subvert the natural order if Morgan didn't hate the legions of laptop-toting, begoggled dorks who are rethinking his game—and most maddeningly of all, being proven right. I'm taking it on faith (and on the behavior of an increasing number of teams) that the Bill James model is correct, but I do wish the sabermetricians would explain why their theories are supposed to be exciting to the vast majority of us who are casual fans rather than green-eyeshade fanatics. Craggs presents the following, without further explanation, as proof of Morgan's foolishness:

When it was suggested that the world-champion Boston Red Sox were a Moneyball team -- after all, they had Bill James in their employ -- Morgan snapped back (and you could almost hear his furious jabs at the keyboard): "The Red Sox had the second highest payroll in baseball next to the Yankees!!! The most important play last year was Dave Roberts stealing second base in game four … that is NOT the moneyball theory. Without the stolen base or just the THREAT of the stolen base Dave Roberts provided, the Red Sox would have been eliminated."

I don't care enough about baseball to puzzle out the details here, but what's wrong with this argument? Is he wrong about the Sox' payroll? Is his interpretation of the Dave Roberts play obviously misguided? Joe Morgan has more than enough enemies out there to refute him, but there's one point (beyond the fact that the A's haven't won a pennant since 1990) that sticks in my craw: When I've paid $50 for a ticket and $7 for a beer, I like seeing clutch plays, bunts, stolen bases, and plenty of other discredited stunts. Put another way: I don't really care whether the team's getting its money's worth; I care whether I'm getting my money's worth.

The interesting phase of the sabermetric revolution is just starting, as the generation of A's strategists scatters throughout the league. When most or all Major League teams are using the same models to pursue the same market inefficiencies, how will they keep asses in the seats? Craggs makes a pretty good case that Joe Morgan is a buffoon, but I'm not sure he understands that we keep buffoons around because they entertain us.