Fire Joe Morgan and the Moneyball revolution.

Who Actually Won the Moneyball Revolution?

Who Actually Won the Moneyball Revolution?

How the past two decades will shape the future.
Sept. 23 2016 11:02 AM

Who Actually Won the Moneyball Revolution?

Maybe it wasn’t about jocks vs. nerds, after all.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by REUTERS/John Sommers II and David Banks/Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by John Sommers II/Reuters and David Banks/Getty Images.

On the second day of the blog Fire Joe Morgan‘s existence, Mike Schur wrote that the ESPN baseball analyst had constructed “the most convoluted, least meaningful, and worst sentences ever typed in an online chat.” A month later, in May 2005, Schur deconstructed Morgan’s thoughts on the New York Yankees, leadership, and championship mettle, concluding that “I am honestly beginning to wonder whether Joe Morgan has ever played in, seen, or heard about a Major League Baseball game.”

160909_20_datelineTemplate_joemorgan

Fire Joe Morgan did not exist to get Joe Morgan fired. Schur and his TV writer friends Alan Yang and Dave King set up the blog as a repository for their baseball nerdery, a place where they could entertain each other by insulting the sport’s least intellectually inquisitive pundits. Schur (then a writer and producer for The Office and later the co-creator of Parks and Recreation and many other fine television programs), Yang (the co-creator of Master of None), and King (who writes for Workaholics) didn’t give much thought to the title, because they didn’t think anyone would read anything they wrote. For three years, they made sport of Morgan, Fox announcer Tim McCarver—the FJM glossary described him as “the worst color commentator in the history of the world, in any sport”—and every other lazy baseball traditionalist who saw a sabermetric revolution roiling the sport and denounced it as vile sorcery.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s editorial director.

Advertisement

Looking back, it’s clear Fire Joe Morgan was on the right side of history and that it was very, very funny. (Though it has nothing to do with baseball, I recommend Schur’s line-by-line analysis of a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column on superbike racing.) It’s also clear, as Schur acknowledges, that the first draft of that history was written in a supercilious tone and pockmarked with errors and omissions. Some of those old-timey baseball men—Tim McCarver, for one—knew things smartass sabermetricians didn’t, it turns out. “We were overcorrecting,” he says. “We went too far in the direction of, screw all your traditional thinking. We have all the answers.”

Of course, some of those old-timey baseball men look even more laughably ignorant in retrospect. Morgan, the longtime color guy for ESPN’s flagship Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, wore his know-nothingness with pride. “Anytime you’re trying to make statistics tell you who’s gonna win the game, that’s a bunch of geeks trying to play video games,” he told Tommy Craggs in 2005. Morgan refused to read Moneyball, the 2003 Michael Lewis book he mistakenly believed had been authored by nerd hero and Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. “That moneyball theory is overrated,” he said in one online chat. “No one has ever won with it. PLAYERS win games. Not theories.”

Morgan wasn’t alone in casting aspersions on that which he did not understand. The same month Fire Joe Morgan launched, Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger published a paean to the brilliance of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. The preface to that book, 3 Nights in August, included the following passage:

It is wrong to say that the new breed doesn’t care about baseball. But it’s not wrong to say that there is no way they could possibly “love” it, and so much of baseball is about love. They don’t have the sense of history, which to the thirtysomethings is largely bunk. They don’t have the bus trips or the plane trips. They don’t carry along the tradition, because they couldn’t care less about the tradition. They have no use for the lore of the game—the poetry of its stories—because it can’t be broken down and crunched into a computer. Just as they have no interest in the human ingredients that make a player a player and make a game a game: heart, desire, passion, reactions to pressure. After all, these are emotions, and what point are emotions if they can’t be quantified?
Advertisement

“Of all of the stupid things I have read about baseball, and which we have discussed on this board, this makes me the angriest,” Schur wrote in July 2005.

This, he explains now, was the toxic ooze that brought Fire Joe Morgan to life. “Classically trained sports writers acted horribly,” he says. Morgan, Bissinger, and Murray Chass lashed out at writers and fans who enjoyed the sport in a way they didn’t, branding them as spreadsheet-loving nerds who could never appreciate poetry and green grass and hustle and grit. In 2006, Schur laid out something akin to a mission statement in response to a majestically horrible Bill Plaschke column about an 85-year-old scout “who didn’t need a stopwatch to judge [a player’s] hustle” and “didn’t need a computer to feel his swing”:

I don’t think—NO ONE THINKS—that scouts are worthless. EVERYONE who watches baseball and knows about baseball knows the value of scouting. It has value. Okay? It has value. It can tell you things about a player’s constitution, and hustle, and all that stuff, which is definitely important.

But what has as much, if not more, value—in nearly every single fucking possible scenario—is the analysis of statistical information.

If you seek to invalidate the use of statistical analysis … if you denigrate it, mock it, or look down your nose at it … if you write terrible mock-poetry articles declaring the objective superiority of gut instinct and old-fashioned “stare tests” over numbers-based research … then you are a far bigger snob, a far bigger ignoramus, and a far more provincial person than those whom you target with tripe like this.

When Schur attacked all of these dyspeptic, mother’s-basement-invoking fogeys, he believed he was punching up at the gatekeepers of the game. “The sabermetrics people were arrogant and right,” he says. “Our arrogance didn’t come close to that of the miserable people who were defending an indefensible position.” That indefensible position was fortified by a century’s worth of unexamined baseball lore: that grizzled scouts know best, that great players come through in the clutch, and that clubhouse chemistry makes the difference between winning and losing.

Advertisement

As Ben Lindbergh pointed out in a piece for Grantland in 2015, Adam Dunn and Juan Pierre came to embody the dueling factions in the great sabermetrics wars of the early 21st century. The Fire Joe Morgan crowd loved Dunn, the lumbering power hitter who struck out a lot and couldn’t play defense but knew how to draw a walk. The old-schoolers preferred Pierre, the speedy, noodle-armed slap hitter who was, they believed, more valuable than the numbers indicated. Today, if we evaluate Dunn and Pierre using wins above replacement—a metric that had not been invented in 2005—it appears the two very different players accrued the exact same value over their careers. Dunn was a much, much, much better hitter; Pierre was a better baserunner and fielder, and he played a much more valuable position. “We now know that both sides were right in one sense and wrong in another,” Lindbergh wrote in Grantland, which is a polite way of saying that nobody really knew what he or she was talking about.

By the time Fire Joe Morgan came into existence in 2005—two years after Moneyball, nine after the launch of Baseball Prospectus—the battle lines in baseball analytics had already been established. Rob Neyer, a Bill James disciple who started writing for ESPN.com in 1996, stepped over a lot of those lines. In those early days, Neyer says, “I would get frustrated and angry when I read things that didn’t make sense to me.” That anger, he says now, could manifest in meanness and overconfidence. “When you’re trying to change things, when there’s a revolution, all the nuance does get lost. You’re going to end up taking simplistic positions.”

When thinking back on mistakes he’s made, Neyer recalls a long-ago postseason game in which “Tim McCarver was raving about pitch framing and how important it is.” McCarver, who caught in the major leagues for 21 seasons before becoming an announcer, talked at great length about how a catcher could receive the ball in such a way—catching the ball in front of his body, making sure not to jerk his glove—as to influence an umpire’s ball and strike calls. Neyer says he “wrote a typically arrogant column mocking the notion that major-league umpires could be fooled by a catcher,” citing his own experience as an unfoolable Little League ump. (This column, it seems, got lost in some long-ago ESPN.com redesign.) Neyer wasn’t alone in pooh-poohing McCarver’s hobbyhorse. In 1999, Baseball Prospectus’ Keith Woolner did a convincing-seeming study showing that catchers had no influence whatsoever on a pitcher’s performance.

Nine years later, a writer named Dan Turkenkopf found what Woolner couldn’t. Turkenkopf, Max Marchi, Mike Fast, and other pitch-framing researchers of recent vintage have the benefit of Pitch f/x, a high-tech camera system introduced in major-league ballparks starting in 2006 that captured pitch speed, movement, and location with great precision. Armed with better data than Woolner and Neyer had at their disposal, sabermetricians found that the best pitch framer in baseball could save his team roughly half a run per 100 pitches while the worst would cost his team about half a run. As Lindbergh explained in Grantland, that’s an enormous difference: “For comparative purposes, Barry Bonds’s bat during the 2001-2004 seasons, when he basically broke baseball, was worth about 0.78 runs above average per game.”

Neyer is now a pitch-framing believer. “When those studies started to appear it was a humbling moment for me,” he says. In 2015, he wrote a piece for Fox Sports in which he reported that major leaguers had been extoling the virtues of pitch framing since at least the 1950s, with McCarver himself explaining the technique as far back as 1972. The old-timers had been first, and in this case they had been right.

Two decades after he started writing about baseball on the internet, Neyer says everything about the game seems more complicated than it did back then. Two years ago, Bill James told Joe Posnanski that he “groans whenever he hears people discount leadership or team chemistry or heart because they cannot find such things in the data. He has done this himself in the past … and regrets it.” In 2004, James published an article titled “Underestimating the Fog” in which he argued that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As a consequence, he wrote, “a wide range of conclusions in sabermetrics may be unfounded,” including that clutch hitting is not a repeatable skill, that batters don’t have hot streaks, and that catchers can’t influence a pitcher’s earned run average.

James has already been vindicated on the question of catchers’ defense, and a recent study of the “hot hand” in basketball suggests streaks in sports do exist after all. Sam Miller, who’s leaving his perch as editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus to join ESPN, tells me he can’t actually think of very many things smart baseball analysts believed 15 years ago that they still think are true today. The biggest difference between 2001 and 2016, Miller says, is that the jocks and the nerds are working together. Dan Turkenkopf, Max Marchi, and Mike Fast—the researchers who helped document the size of the pitch-framing effect—now work for the Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, and Houston Astros, respectively. And knowledge isn’t just flowing from analysts to teams. “If you ask all the nerds in all the front offices, there’s a lot of respect for what people who played the game know about this stuff,” Miller says. For his part, Neyer says his pitch-framing screw-up makes him “more hesitant to say someone is wrong about something, especially if it’s players who’ve been in the game for so long. If the same people are saying chemistry matters, I think we’re smartly slower to dismiss it.”

Joe Morgan outlasted Fire Joe Morgan. The sabermetrics-hating announcer called his last Sunday Night Baseball game for ESPN in 2010. The website shut down on Nov. 13, 2008, when Schur, Yang, and King could no longer “ignore entreaties from [their] friends and loved ones to please God stop blogging about Bill Plaschke.” Many of the stats the Fire Joe Morgan crew cited are now considered outdated. Some of their deeply held beliefs no longer seem true. But they won and Joe Morgan lost because they didn’t see 2005—or 1975 or 2035—as the end point of all baseball knowledge. The jocks vs. nerds dynamic that took root in the 1990s and 2000s encouraged smart people to pick sides when the meaningful divide was the curious vs. incurious. A few years from now, we may well learn that everything we thought we knew about pitch framing was wrong. It will be humbling and it will be glorious, and people like Mike Schur and Rob Neyer will be happy to be proven wrong yet again.