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Fire Nyjer Morgan

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With all due respect to Dejan Kovacevic, I think today's article on Nyjer Morgan is flawed. It's not an unfair article, but it fails to examine the facts it presents. I'd like to discuss some of the facts from the article point-by-point, not for laughs, but because I think that under there, there are some outdated ideas about what words mean and how the game is played. 

Again, the now-standard caveat: if it seem obsessed with Nyjer Morgan, it's because no Pirate player is better for starting discussions about what matters in baseball and what doesn't.

John Russell is hardly set to fill his lineup card for the Pirates' season opener, but there can be little doubt about this: It would be much stronger if Nyjer Morgan were to emerge as a legitimate leadoff man.

A question: what is a "legitimate leadoff man"? Because I don't think some folks really know what they are saying when they use phrases like that. 

Nineteen players had at least 400 plate appearances from the leadoff spot last year. Of those, the sixteen with the highest OPSes all had five or more homers. The three with the lowest OPSes hit seven homers between them. Only one of those three, Chone Figgins, had a palatable OBP, which he posted by piling up more walks in a season than Morgan ever will. The other two, Carlos Gomez and Willy Taveras, had OBPs below .300. Which group of players is Morgan, who has four home runs in his entire professional career since 2005, more like? Which group of players are "legitimate leadoff men"?

The skillset for a "legitimate leadoff man" these days includes home run power. That may seem counterintuitive, but it is true in all except the rarest of cases. (Figgins is one of those very rare cases.) This is probably because it is extremely hard to draw walks if pitchers have no reason to fear you. Without walks (and power), it is almost impossible to have value as the sort of player likely to rack up tons of plate appearances from the leadoff spot. I can only speculate as to why some people seem to believe otherwise, but my guess is that they remember the old days of baseball, when lots of teams had no-power speedsters at the top of the lineup. Well, those days are gone. Teams don't do that anymore, and pretending it's 1980 isn't going to make the Pirates any better.

Last year, he began as a bench player and batted .142, earning a demotion to Class AAA Indianapolis. Upon returning Aug. 19, he was one of the National League's most dynamic players, reaching base safely in 25 of 27 games, scoring 20 runs and putting up a .366 average that was 10th-highest in the National League in that modest span.

Which is it?

I know the "Which is it?" is mostly just a little rhetorical move, but for Pete's sake, does it have to be one or the other? Can we not just agree that Morgan is likely to hit way better than .142 and way worse than .366? 

Also, there are baseball words that are less meaningful than "dynamic," like "gritty" or "scrappy," but the word "dynamic" has an extraordinarily low signal to noise ratio. So few players described as "dynamic" actually are. 

Far more relevant, though, are numbers at leadoff in real games, and those show a somewhat favorable comparison to McLouth, though they come with the large asterisk that McLouth has played three times as many games: Morgan's career on-base percentage is .351 to .338 for McLouth.

As Kovacevic notes, that's quite an asterisk. Morgan has 264 career plate appearances from the leadoff spot, so the tiny difference between the two means very little. Also, again, OBP isn't the only statistic that matters for a leadoff hitter.

They also are similarly swift on the basepaths, though McLouth is far more efficient at stealing with a 92 percent success rate of to Morgan's 66 percent.

Well, McLouth's 92% basestealing is an asset, while Morgan's 66% hurts the team. While there's some evidence in Morgan's minor league profile to suggest he'll do somewhat better in that area if given time, it's still not at all clear that he'll help the team with his baserunning, whereas McLouth almost certainly will. So what's the point of comparing them? It's like saying, "Mariano Rivera and Jose Mesa both had lots of saves in 2005, though Rivera was more efficient at keeping runs off the board." Which fact is most relevant?

The chasm between the two, of course, comes in power, with McLouth breaking out for 26 home runs last year and Morgan having seven over six professional seasons.

I'm glad this was mentioned. This stuff about homers is eighty times more relevant than any of the stuff mentioned above, even as it pertains to the limited question of who the better leadoff hitter would be, since even a good leadoff hitter needs some power...

But that, too, could point to McLouth being lower in the order, perhaps at No. 3, given the Pirates' significant need for pop. Seventeen of his 26 home runs last season came at leadoff, as did 55 of his 94 RBIs, the latter a jarring figure not likely to be duplicated.

D'oh! The home run power helps make McLouth a great leadoff hitter, as far as that semi-arbitrary category goes. Think Rickey Henderson. Think Curtis Granderson. The power will actually help him draw walks, steal bases and do the things people love to see leadoff hitters do. But because the Pirates don't have power elsewhere in their lineup, the solution is to effectively give Morgan about 120 or so extra plate appearances and have McLouth bat behind Morgan, who most projection systems think will have about a .300 OBP this year, and perhaps Freddy Sanchez. And, before that, the pitcher. Which, for some reason, is so much better than just skipping all that rigamarole and batting McLouth (or someone else who isn't Morgan) first.

But he also grasps that he needs to upgrade his on-base skills -- notably his patience at the plate -- to stay there even if he gets the chance.

"Yeah, I know, but there are all kinds of ways to get on base, even getting hit, and I'm ready to do that, too," he said with a laugh, recalling his 2004 with Class A Hickory in which he was plunked 33 times.

I know Morgan is joking, but it's a pathetic joke. His getting hit by A-ball pitchers five years ago has no relevance to anything that happens in the big leagues.

Also, improving one's on-base skills isn't something that just happens. On-base skills don't appear just because you want them to. You need a very good eye (which Morgan doesn't have), or the ability to scare pitchers (which Morgan will never have), or you need to hit .320 (which is highly unlikely without other hitting skills).

Kovacevic, to his credit, presents lots of relevant facts here. But he also presents a number of irrelevant facts and doesn't sort through them. Morgan's "swift"ness on the bases isn't relevant if he can't run the bases intelligently. His desire to improve his on-base skills says very little about whether he can actually do it. His resemblance to a 1980-era leadoff hitter has no relevance to his ability to actually do that job today. And McLouth's power should not disqualify him from the job of hitting first; in fact, it should actually be a point in favor of batting him there. 

But you know what? As long as Morgan's going to be the starter, I say what the heck, let him lead off. The brighter the spotlight on him, the more obvious his shortcomings are likely to be, and I want this little performance to end as quickly as possible.