Joe Morgan, stathead

For just a moment, the old-school baseball man wanders over to the sabermetric side to talk about clutch hitting.


King Kaufman
September 22, 2008 10:10PM (UTC)

The last game at Yankee Stadium really seemed to stir up the emotions Sunday night. Or it stirred up something, anyway. Joe Morgan, who famously refuses to read "Moneyball" because he played the game so he doesn't need to, and who is generally known as an anti-sabermetric kind of guy, started talking like Bill James at one point.

Well, not really, but he sort of inadvertently made the classic sabermetric point that while clutch hitting obviously exists, there's no such thing as the skill of clutch hitting.

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I was excited to have Morgan on my side of the street, however fleetingly. And I mean that in the larger sense of doubting the conventional baseball wisdom. On the specific question of clutch hitting, I'm pretty much with the old school. I believe it exists as a skill, that the statheads just haven't figured out a good way to measure it yet.

Morgan takes a lot of heat as a kind of sabermetric whipping boy, but I like listening to him. I really enjoy his broadcasts with Jon Miller. I thought he was great Sunday stopping Reggie Jackson in the middle of Reggie trying to deflect some praise from himself onto lesser Yankees like Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez.

"I respect all those guys for what they did," Morgan said, "but you're Reggie Jackson." That was getting to the heart of the matter is what that was. Despite what a lot of the cool kids think, Joe Morgan is not a fool.

Still, he really can be a stubborn old mule about certain subjects, which is why it was so jarring, so tantalizing even, to hear him talking about clutch hitting.

The old-school thinking about clutch hitting is that some guys got it and some guys don't, while the sabermetric crowd mostly argues that players generally do about as well in clutch situations -- however you want to define those, which is a big question -- as they do the rest of the time. But because there are a relatively small number of clutch situations in a given season, there's a lot of statistical noise involved. A guy's "clutch" stats, whichever ones you choose to define clutch, often bounce up and down from year to year.

Morgan and Miller were being visited in the ESPN booth by Yankees TV announcer Michael Kay, and the three of them were talking about Alex Rodriguez. Kay said Rodriguez's numbers were "pretty good" in 2008, "but he really has not hit in the clutch at all this year, and when you compare it to last year, which was one of the best seasons in the history of this organization, it kind of dims in comparison."

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Miller chimed in, "It was really the best year, maybe, in history by a right-handed home run hitter in this park."

"Amazing," Kay agreed. "Amazing season, and big hits as well."

That's when Morgan got all statheadish: "One thing I've found, Michael, over the years of playing: Guys will do that. Sluggers. They'll have a good year, you know, get clutch hits one year. Next year they will not. Then they'll go back, next year they will."

After Kay described the next play, Morgan continued, "I played with some of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. You know, Johnny Bench, George Foster, Tony Perez. And that would happen sometimes. They'd have years where they'd still have the numbers, but they weren't in those key situations. Next year they'd have the numbers within the key situations.

"I mean, I think that's something that happens in this game. I don't think you can do it year in and year out. As good as Derek Jeter's been in the World Series, he struggled last year in the postseason. So, it just happens."

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The subject was dropped at that point, a pitching change interrupting the train of thought. Morgan never made what seems like the obvious connection. As in: I've noticed that a lot of sluggers have up and down years in terms of clutch hitting, and in fact I played with some all-time great hitters and they had up and down clutch years.

And you know, as long as we're talking about all-time greats here, I was one myself, and I had some up and down clutch years, but my career clutch numbers -- defining those for the moment as two outs, runners in scoring position and "late and close" -- ended up looking an awful lot like my overall numbers.

So maybe we should stop judging players by how they hit in the clutch in a given year.

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The moment passed. Soon, Morgan was talking about how the Yankees wouldn't have won those four World Series in 1996 and 1998-2000 without Mariano Rivera. Like in '98, for example, when they won 114, took the A.L. East by 22 games, then went 11-2 in the postseason. Without Rivera, they'd have been also-rans. Sure.

It was fun while it lasted. It was fun to enjoy listening to Joe Morgan as usual, and to hear him almost -- almost -- talk like a stathead.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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