Joe Morgan: An Appreciation

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Claude Osteen grew up in Tennessee before moving to Cincinnati as a teenager. He attended Reading High School and fell in love with the Reds. Turns out he was a good pitcher himself, and the Reds actually signed him in 1957 when he was just 17 years old. He was on the mound just a few days later, still one month shy of being a legal adult.

His career with the Reds was short and unremarkable. He pitched a total of 60 1/3 innings for Cincinnati from 1957 to 1961, at which point he was traded to the Washington Senators for Dave Sisler. Osteen did go on to have a long, solid big league career, though. Playing primarily for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he made three All-Star Games and finished with a record of 196-195 and a 3.30 ERA.

I spoke with Osteen over the phone recently and we got to talking about what it was like to face the vaunted Big Red Machine. He faced the Reds 39 times over his career and threw 269 1/3 innings against them. More than most, he understood the mental strength it took to battle such a potent lineup. But there was one player in particular who bugged the hell out of him: Joe Morgan. Osteen plotted his revenge and executed it on September 30, 1972, at Riverfront Stadium. Here’s his story:

“One night I had the Reds, I had a chance to beat ‘em. I always had trouble with Joe Morgan stealing bases. I was determined to find out what it was that Morgan was seeing me do from the first base position. In other words, when he got on base, he had my delivery and my mannerisms where he knew when I was going to home plate and he knew when I was going to first base because of some little something that I was doing. I took it upon myself to find out.

I got someone to get a seat behind first base that was right in line with the pitcher’s mound and first base with a camera. I wanted him to take pictures of me on every pitch that I threw, where I could look at when I threw to first base, what I did with my leg , what I did with my hands, and the same way going to home plate. By doing that, I picked up one little, tiny, idiosyncrasy where I was lifting my lead leg maybe just a little bit different when I was going to first base as opposed to home plate. I couldn’t wait to spring that on Joe Morgan.

Almost all the games that I pitched in, it was always 1-1, 2-1, 1-0 in the eighth inning. [laughs] A stolen base is going to make you a winner or a loser. Morgan got on base on me and I think it was around the eighth inning. This was my first chance to spring this on him. So I threw over to first base two or three times with the old move. What Morgan would do was get way off the base on me. We called it a one-way lead. The only place he’s gong is back to first base. Base runners would do that to get you to throw over there so they can see your move. So I threw over there two or three times and gave him my old move.

Now I’m getting ready to spring the trap and I lifted my leg up like I saw in the film, which is his key to take off. And I went over to first base and picked him off. And [it was] maybe the only time I ever picked him off. In the last inning, [Dodgers manager] Walter Alston let me hit with men on base and I hit a double over [Pete] Rose’s head to left field. Ended up winning the game. It’s little stuff like that. The game is full of challenges, that’s what makes the game so appealing and keeps you on your toes as a pitcher. You have to learn how to face those challenges. You beat them with your head, not necessarily your arm.”

I asked Claude if Morgan said anything to him about the pickoff move when he was standing on second.

“Oh no,” he laughed. “And I wasn’t going to say anything to him either.”

More than 40 years later, Osteen’s memory is pretty spot on. Morgan was caught stealing with the Dodgers up 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth, and it was his two-run double to left field in the 10th inning that gave the Dodgers a 4-2 win.

After hanging up the phone, I kept wrestling with a few lingering questions. Just how good must a player have been to engender that kind of scheming? How menacing of a base stealer does it take to go through that much trouble for what was likely to be one out in one game? What kind of player musters that amount of fear and respect? Just how good was Joe Morgan?

The scant few minutes of footage online of Morgan as a player reveal a quick, powerful second baseman. He was small—listed on Baseball Reference as 5-7, 160-pounds—and he looked like he should be fast. He ran with short, choppy steps and no wasted movement. Some players are elegant, gliding across the diamond, ice skaters in baseball cleats. Morgan didn’t glide, he churned, his feet rotating like blades on an old-school push lawnmower. In his crouched batting stance, he spun the bat 360 degrees with one hand, parallel to his body, before grabbing it with the other and wiggling his butt as he awaited the pitch. That bat always looked out of proportion.

A full appreciation of Morgan’s greatness can’t be done through watching film, though. (Mainly because of the aforementioned dearth of video available.) So, against everything that Joe Morgan has come to stand for in his post-playing career life, I decided to turn to the numbers to find out just how good Joe Morgan the player was.

Turns out, he was really good.

Upon arriving in Cincinnati in 1972, Morgan embarked on one of the best five year stretches in baseball history. He was a top 5 MVP candidate in four of those first five years and won back-to-back MVPs in 1975 and 1976. He was a consistent terror running the bases, finishing with between 58 and 67 steals each year. He led the league in on-base percentage four out of five years, averaging a .431 OBP over that stretch. It’s not surprising then that he led the league in walks two of those years. What’s more remarkable, though, is that he had 325 more walks than strikeouts. Over those first five years, Morgan averaged 22 home runs, 62 SB, and 118 walks per season. Only two other players have had individual seasons with 20+ HR and 60+ SB: Ricky Henderson and Eric Davis. Add in the 100+ walks, and Morgan is in a class all by himself.

To contextualize Morgan’s brilliance with the Reds, let’s first establish where it ranks amongst other great stretches in Cincinnati history. To do this, I used the statistic Wins Above Replacement. As the title plainly states, WAR establishes just how many wins a player was worth if they were to be replaced by an average, replacement-level player. So if Player X has a WAR of 1, that player is worth one more win than a replacement-level player. And to anyone trying to get into a debate over the merits of WAR, I politely say to you…

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In order to find a balance between players who were great for a flash versus players who were consistently brilliant, I totaled the WAR for the best Reds hitters and took a look at two-year and five-year sample sizes. My logic behind this was that a player can get hot for a year or two and fizzle out, but if you maintain a dominant stretch for at least five years, there is nothing flukey to that at all. (One other note: though WAR applies to pitchers as well, I am limiting this just to hitters.) Also, all numbers are for consecutive years, so we’re not just picking a player’s two best seasons.

Players2-Year WARYears5-Year WARYears
Joe Morgan20.51975-7647.71972-76
Frank Robinson16.41961-6235.31960-64
Johnny Bench14.41974-7532.31972-76
Pete Rose14.31972-7331.21972-76
Vada Pinson13.11960-6130.71959-63
Joey Votto13.22010-1130.52009-13
George Foster14.31976-77291975-79
Barry Larkin13.11995-9628.11988-92
Heinie Groh12.31916-1728.11915-19
Tony Perez13.21969-7027.91968-72
Dave Concepcion9.41974-7520.31974-78

Based on these numbers, Morgan is statistically the greatest Reds hitter ever. And really, it’s not even close. Hell, you could add another year onto Robinson’s, another two years onto Bench’s, and another three years onto Rose’s WAR totals, and none of them would match Morgan’s five-year stretch. And if the five-year stretch seems like a bit selective, let’s compare WAR for the seven years that Rose, Bench, and Morgan played together.

Joe Morgan: 55.1
Johnny Bench: 41.7
Pete Rose: 37.4

This is in no way meant to belittle the accomplishments of Rose and Bench—both are all-time great players. If you’d like to hold them up as the quintessential Reds, based on their longevity and loyalty to the city, that’s fine. This is just simply to point out that Joe Morgan was better, and by a pretty significant margin, regardless of how you slice it. (And for those ready to pounce on the arguments for defensive value, WAR does factor in defense. If it was just offensive WAR, the gap between Morgan and everyone else would be even more pronounced.)

Maybe this evidence is being met with nods of those who recognize Morgan as the greatest Reds hitter. Perhaps the general public gives Morgan his due more than it seems. But on a national level, Morgan’s name seems to be absent from any discussion of all-time great players. The old standards are always there—Ruth, Mays, Williams, Mantle, etc.—but Morgan is left behind. Yes, he didn’t have the longevity of many of the game’s best players. But many great players didn’t have the kind of consistency Morgan showed in Cincinnati.

So I attempted to place Morgan’s five-year stretch into historical context as well. Here’s the methodology: using Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I searched for players with the most seasons with a WAR of 9.0 or greater. There are 54 players in history that have reached this plateau once, but only 25 have done it multiple times. (Of those 25, Morgan is one of 13 players with four or more years of +9.0 WAR.) I looked at each of the 25 players with 2+ seasons of a 9.0 WAR and found the best two- and five-year stretches for each player. Now, it is possible for a player to have a higher five-year stretch without ever having a 9.0+ WAR season (for example, if they had back-to-back 9 WAR seasons followed by three straight 5 WAR seasons, they’d be surpassed by someone with five 7 WAR seasons.) but those examples are few and far between and don’t make a dent in the final tally.

Here are the results, sorted by five year-stretch.

PlayerBest 2-yr WARYearsBest 5-yr WARYears
Babe Ruth24.81920-2156.91920-24
Willie Mays22.21964-6552.31962-66
Barry Bonds23.62001-0251.12000-04
Ted Williams21.21941-4250.41941-42, 1946-48
Rogers Hornsby22.31924-2549.91921-25
Honus Wagner20.71908-0949.11905-09
Mickey Mantle22.51956-5747.71954-58
Joe Morgan20.51975-7647.71972-76
Ty Cobb21.21910-1147.61908-13
Lou Gehrig21.21927-2847.21927-31
Stan Musial20.41948-4944.71948-52
Eddie Collins20.21909-1044.51909-13
Albert Pujols18.92008-0944.52005-09
Tris Speaker18.41912-1344.11912-16
Hank Aaron17.91961-6243.61959-63
Carl Yastrzemski22.91967-6843.41966-70
Alex Rodriguez18.72000-0143.42000-04
Jimmie Foxx19.71932-3342.91932-36
Jackie Robinson18.11951-5242.21949-53
Nap Lajoie17.61906-0741.81906-10
Ernie Banks19.61958-5939.51955-59
Ken Griffey Jr.18.81996-9737.71993-97
Rickey Henderson16.21985-8636.11981-85
Cal Ripken19.01990-9135.31988-92
Shoeless Joe Jackson18.81911-1234.41911-15

(Two notes about that table. First, while this does show Babe Ruth’s greatest five-year stretch, he actually had two separate five-year stretches over 50 WAR. No overlapping years or anything. That’s absurd. Secondly, I included Ted Williams’s five-year stretch even though it was broken up by his service in World War II.)

Morgan did not have the longevity of some of these players, and that matters. But remember, these are the best five-year stretches for these great players. If they were applying for a job and were asked for their best five clips rather than the entirety of their work, this is what they’d show. And in that case, the interviewer would see that Morgan topped the five year stretches of Gehrig, Musial, Cobb, Foxx, and Yastrzemski. He’s tied with Mantle and within shouting distance of Williams, Hornsby, and Wagner. These are the best years of their careers, and Morgan is right there among guys he’s rarely mentioned with—the games’s greatest and most celebrated legends.

Adam Flango is an Associate Editor at Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @adam_flango.

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