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Joe Morgan has passed away at 77

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Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan has passed away at the age of 77

Cincinnati Reds Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Joe Morgan, Hall of Fame second baseman and longtime broadcaster, passed away last night. He was 77.

Morgan, a Texas native who was born in Bonham, Texas, came up with the Houston Astros in the early 60s. After brief cameos in 1963 and 1964, he became an everyday player for Houston in 1965, slashing .271/.373/.418 and leading the majors in walks while stealing 20 bases and posting a 5.7 bWAR. Morgan finished second in the N.L. Rookie of the Year voting to Jim Lefebvre.

Morgan spent his early- to mid-20s with the Astros, putting up quality seasons, but with the Astros wanting to add power to their lineup and with Astros manager Harry Walker apparently finding Morgan to be too uppity, the Astros made one of the most consequential trades of the 1970s. Houston sent Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, and Denis Menke to the Cincinnati Reds for Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart.

Morgan was an All Star caliber player for the Astros — in every full season from 1965-71, Morgan had a bWAR between 3.4 and 5.7 — but once he got to Cincinnati he exploded. From 1972-76 Morgan put up a 47.8 bWAR — an average of 9.5 per season — while winning four Gold Gloves, making the All Star team each season, and winning back-to-back MVP awards, along with two 4th place finishes and an 8th place finish, while being the best player on the Big Red Machine.

Morgan played until he was 40 years old, returning to Houston for 1980, playing for the San Francisco Giants in 1981-82, re-joining former Reds teammate Pete Rose in 1983 in Philadelphia, and then finishing his career with the Oakland A’s in 1984. Other than 1968, when he only played 10 games due to a knee injury, and 1981, when the strike dramatically shortened the season, Morgan only had three seasons with a bWAR below 3.0 — 1.6 in both 1978 and 1984, and 2.7 in 1979.

Morgan is fourth all time in career bWAR among second basemen, at 100.5, and with all three of those ahead of him — Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins and Nap Lajoie — having finished their careers before WWII, there’s a legitimate argument that can be made that Morgan is the best second baseman in MLB history. The gap between Morgan and those behind him on the career list is huge — Charlie Gehringer, another pre-WWII player, is fifth on the all time list, at 83.8, followed by Rod Carew at 81.3, Lou Whitaker at 75.1, Bobby Grich at 71.1, and Frankie Frisch at 70.8. No other second baseman in MLB history has reached the 70 win mark in bWAR (though Robinson Cano, currently at 68.9, appears likely to cross that barrier).

Morgan spent over two decades as a baseball broadcaster, including 20 years with ESPN, and as analytics became more mainstream, Morgan became something of a punching bag among those more sabermetrically inclined, due to his dismissal of modern analytics and his “old school” way of evaluating players and the game. Ironically, Morgan as a player is someone whose game can’t be properly appreciated by just looking at traditional stats.

He had a career .271 batting average and 268 career home runs — nice numbers, but not eye-popping. However, he consistently drew walks at an extremely high rate — he averaged 114 walks per 162 games, against just 62 Ks — at a time when walks weren’t widely valued. He also was considered an elite defender at second base, and was one of the best base-stealers in the game, combining a high rate of steals with a very high success rate — he finished his career 11th all time in steals, and had an 81% success rate.

Morgan was the best player in baseball for a five year stretch, from 1972-76. He led the National League in bWAR among position players four of those years, and was second in the other year. He led the N.L. in OBP in four of those years, and was fourth in the other year. The Cincinnati Reds made the World Series three times in that stretch, winning it all in 1975 and 1976.

Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1980. He’s one of the all time greats, one of the most elite of the elite, and I hope he is remembered for what a special, incredible player he was.