FIRE JOE MORGAN: Follow-Up: Joe Morgan's Epistemological Nightmare


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Thursday, April 27, 2006


Follow-Up: Joe Morgan's Epistemological Nightmare

Yes, that is the title I'm going with.

I have received an FJM-record-breaking number of e-mails concerning the section of the last JoeChat (see post below) wherein Joe addresses, yet again, his reasons for not reading "Moneyball." (Note: If discussion of this bores you, skip this post -- it's only for people who are really really into a like New Critical-style close-reading of Joe's off-the-cuff babble.)

It is worth re-printing the key section and its interrogatory antecedent:

Patrick (St. Louis, MO): You stated in your last chat that because you've been around the game for so long, there isn't much more anybody can teach you about it. It seems like you're saying that everything in baseball is known already, whereas I feel that there is plenty that we don't know, especially with advances in sports medicine, the ability to use technology to evaluate defense more accurately, and the increasing availability of pitch-by-pitch data to study long-term trends in the game. Don't you owe it to your listeners to listen to new arguements and research, especially if they are intelligent and logical? You seem to have the notion that a lot of the objective analysis being done now is trying to get rid of traditional scouting, but most sabremetricians feel that both are essential to get the best results.

Joe Morgan: The guy that wrote Moneyball can't teach me about the game. That is what I meant. If you haven't been on the field, why should I read your book? How can that person teach me about the game? I learn plenty about the game everyday. Every Sunday night I learn something. The game changes almost every day. But I'm still not going to read Moneyball or books written by people who haven't been on the field or really experienced what goes on in the game of baseball.

And later:

I want to clarify the misunderstand [sic] about what I learn. Every Sunday I learn something new. But I'm going to stand by the fact that somebody who didn't play the game can't teach me about the game. I learned from the best, the legends who played the game. I played alongside so many great players. I'm just not going to read a book in hopes of learning how to play baseball. But this is an everchanging game and I do learn something almost every day. I'm just a former baseball player who is now an analyst. My thoughts are about the game and not medical technologies and such. Just because somebody writes a book doesn't mean they know the game.

Many readers wrote in to discuss this -- especially the statement: "If you haven't been on the field, why should I read your book?" and its follow-up: But I'm still not going to read Moneyball or books written by people who haven't been on the field or really experienced what goes on in the game of baseball.

My initial response concerned the fact that although Michael Lewis himself did not play pro ball (though he did, as several readers pointed out, play high school ball in Louisiana and later wrote a book about his HS coach), the subjects of the book, like Billy Beane and Scott Hatteberg, etc., were "on the field," thus rendering Joe's bitterness at once ignorant and pointless. Also, as Coach points out in the comments section of that post, apparently nobody has told Joe that "Moneyball" is not a how-to manual on bunting -- it is a book mostly about the business of baseball. Blah blah blah. Preaching to the choir.

But. Several of you brought up other excellent points, that I feel are worth adding to the discussion, to wit:

Adam writes in with an intriguing idea:

Joe claims not to need to learn anything from books because he played the game and played with other people who played the game and has been in the game for 40 years. 'Watching' is not involved. I would like to test Joe, though. Say, lock him in a sensory deprivation chamber completely isolated from the outside world, then have him predict the outcomes of ABs, games, and seasons based solely on his intuition and experience.

Adam takes things a bit literally, but I appreciated the idea of Joe locked in a closet.

Chris raises an interesting point about those who did not "play the game":

What about things that Jack Buck, Harry Carey, or Lon Simmons have said? Branch Rickey never actually played baseball, but he was directly responsible for 1) creating a minor league system, and 2) Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers in 1947. Again, I guess there's nothing he could teach Joe Morgan (ignoring the fact that he was around a bit before Morgan's time).

Excellent point. The more you think about it, the excellenter it gets. What about oft-praised Joe favorites like Tony LaRussa? I happen to think he's an idiot, thus kind of proving Joe's point accidentally, but Joe loves him, and he never played ball. Tommy Lasorda barely did. Tons of GMs, coaches, scouts, and so on had either little or no actual on-field experience. Conversely, plenty of HOFers have made terrible managers -- Pete Rose, Ted Williams... Not that Joe argues the converse, but still. The theory that only those who played the game have knowledge of the game worth listening to or reading is so backwards and insular and wrong it's hard to imagine how one could ever espouse it.

But my personal favorite e-mail came from reader Nicholas, who focuses on the part of Joe's answer that reads "I learn plenty about the game everyday. Every Sunday night I learn something." Nicholas writes:

Can you please point out the epistemological unsoundness of Joe's answers about experience? The suggestion is that he can learn about the game by watching, but Michael Lewis can't; therefore one has to have played the game in order to learn by watching the game. If one reasonably assumes that this incommensurability also applied to talking about the game, the implications for the in-booth dynamic are mind-warping. Presumably, Jon Miller can teach Joe about the game because Joe's experience playing makes him able to learn. But despite Joe's pedantic railings, Jon won't be able to learn because he never played.

Also, implied in this analysis: although Joe's playing experience enables him to learn from Jon, Jon's lack of experience renders him unable to teach -- Joe is a European socket and Jon's cord doesn't have the right adapter. (Metaphor intended non-sexually.) Poor Jon Miller -- all he does is talk and talk about baseball right next to Joe Morgan, and yet Joe can never learn a thing; and poor Joe, whose brilliant insights fall on impotent, non-having-played-the-game ears.

I had never considered Nicholas's central point -- in order to learn by watching, Joe essentially posits, one has to have already played. Thus (as I wrote to Nicholas) imagine the flow of "knowledge" as EM waves, emitting constantly from those who played and are now talking, being absorbed by those who played, but bouncing off those who did not. Now, imagine a booth filled by Peter Gammons, Billy Beane, Bill James, and Dayn Perry on one side, and Joe Morgan, John Kruk, Hawk Harrelson, and Mitch Williams on the other. Now imagine trying to track the motion of these knowledge-pulses as they bounce around the room.

Now imagine the intellectual content of what each person is actually saying.

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