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Fire Joe Morgan: A Final Salute

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This past November, in the dark shadows of other, more important world events, the baseball world was sadly forced to say farewell to its strongest supporter of VORP: the aptly named blog Fire Joe Morgan. VORP, for the uninitiated, is a sabermetric analytical tool used in baseball, and it stands for Value Over Replacement Player. For the sake of brevity, and because I don't think they're necessary for the purpose of this column, I won't explain the intricate details of how this statistic is calculated. Essentially the resulting number represents how valuable a given player's offensive numbers are compared to those of the average "call-up level" player at the same defensive position, expressed in runs produced over the course of the season. The stat is just one of many, and the fact that it doesn't reflect defensive abilities is a considerable one, but it is fairly critical stat because it successfully indicates a player's offensive value in terms of the most important result: runs produced.

As Billy Beane has repeatedly pointed out, contracts are based on what players have done in the past, not on what they will do in the future. When a player needs a new contract and GMs are figuring out just how much he's worth financially, VORP becomes invaluable. The accepted wisdom is that unless he's a stud, the average call-up level player is going to struggle at first. He's typically a kid in his early twenties who's produced in the minors but who's had very few major league plate appearances and thus is expected to door poorly in his first months or season facing major league pitching. But it's something that must be done for the long term benefit of the team. Now, if that player needing a new contract (or a free agent on the open market) has a VORP that is decent but not stellar, and he's on the wrong side of 30 years old, there's a good chance that it might save a team a substantial amount of money to simply call up that replacement player, sweat out his first season, and invest substantially less money in development to help him produce just as well in the majors as he did in the minors.

VORP is just one of a multitude of sabermetric statistics developed by the people at Baseball Prospectus, and they've become much more well known in the years since Michael Lewis's book Moneyball was published in 2003. Awareness and understanding of these analytical tools has grown exponentially among fans. And to a lesser extent, sabermetrics has also gained favor among the former players and journalists who are paid to discuss the ins and outs of baseball, and the commentators who enhance the TV and radio broadcasts of the games. And why shouldn't it? Sabermetrics does not supplant the tried and true statistics, it enhances and compliments them. To dismiss them as convoluted and impractical would be akin to dismissing the value of the electron microscope in favor of those 200x compound microscopes we all used in high school.

But, perhaps predictably, there are vocal detractors. Joe Morgan, who has been doing the color commentary for ESPN's Sunday night baseball for almost twenty years, is the most infamous critic of sabermetrics and inspiration for the aforementioned blog. Joe, a former player, is the kind of commentator who believes in intangible contributions. He favors words like "heart" and "character," and he believes that much of a team's success is attributed to disparate, unquantifiable, and almost imperceptible (unless you're Joe Morgan) factors. Minimizing the intangible factors, he would argue, ignores the soul of the game, the passion the players have for winning. Defenders, meanwhile, dutifully point out that these stats are not absolute predictors of success, merely helpful analytical tools, additional ways to dissect the games that add to -- not detract from -- the enjoyment of the game.

I can't knowingly speak to the specific demographic characteristics of the opposing sides of the sabermetrics debate, but at first glance it would appear that those who hail the system of analytical tools as a godsend are younger, while those who decry it as hogwash are older. As a fan, I sense a growing rift in the way baseball is discussed and appreciated. There will always be fans who admire the quiet leadership of Derek Jeter long after he's passed the prime of his career -- age is irrelevant. But I do get the distinct impression that more and more fans are learning about sabermetrics and are grateful to be able to evaluate their favorite player's and team's performance, both on the field and in the GM's office, in newer, more sophisticated ways. And it's more than likely that these are younger fans. I don't know how decisions surrounding commentary are made by the broadcasters (I'm talking specifically about Fox and ESPN), but I do suspect they approach their broadcasts from a lowest common denominator perspective. (This, I believe, is why the commentary in playoff games seems dumbed down -- but that's another column) And I think they're doing the fans a disservice by ignoring this growing demographic of sophisticated, knowledgeable fans. If the individuals making these decisions are avoiding complicated statistical analysis in order to garner as many new fans as possible, then they're underestimating the intelligence of the average fan, which is insulting. If they're actively working to squash sabermetrics, and are doing so simply for the sake of tradition, then they are simply out of touch. And if they're ignorant to the increasing sophistication of baseball's fans, well, then they're still out of touch.

Joe, ESPN, Fox, it's time to embrace VORP. Fire Joe Morgan may have decided to end their passionate deconstructions of your various tirades against sabermetrics, but they won many, many converts over the past few years, and their straightforward manifesto is an enduring rally cry.