Jackie Robinson was a hero and a pioneer in baseball history, but on the field, he can make a legitimate claim to being one of the game's best players.
(This story was originally published on April 15, 2016)
With the release of Ken Burns's two-part documentary, Jackie Robinson is in the spotlight again, both his baseball career and his life and his legacy, just as the 69th anniversary of his major league debut—and with it, the fall of MLB's longstanding color line—comes around. The social significance of Robinson's debut and the impact it had both on the game and the country cannot be overstated, nor can the immeasurable courage with which he battled racism both during his career and afterward in his all-too-brief life.
All of those things are worth remembering, particularly as baseball recognizes April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day, and it’s fair to point out not only the progress that has been made but also the areas where the sport is lagging and needs to redouble its efforts. As a baseball writer who both lives in Brooklyn and has roots in the borough where Robinson made history, I’ve taken several swings at doing so over the years. This time around, I wanted to take a swing at renewing appreciation for his on-field performance. At first glance, the numbers look “pretty good,” as Bill James once wrote. In a proper statistical context they look even better, and when one adds the weight of what his success meant not only to baseball’s further integration but also of progress within this country, they are off the charts.
Robinson didn't debut until he was 2 1/2 months past his 28th birthday, and he played his final game four months before his 38th birthday, so he spent just 10 years in the major leagues. That he lasted even that long, given the extreme pressure that he was under at the outset of his career, was fortuitous, for 10 seasons is the minimum for Hall of Fame induction as a major league player, as Robinson was at his earliest opportunity in 1962 via the Baseball Writers Association of America balloting. It would take a messy battle in order for the institution to recognize Negro League stars who never played in the majors or did so for fewer than 10 years; not until 1971 was Satchel Paige elected (a story for another day).
Though Robinson finished with a .311 batting average, the relative brevity of his career prevented him from achieving the familiar milestones often identified with greatness. He made it just over halfway to 3,000 hits, finishing with 1,518, and neither his home run nor stolen base totals (137 and 197, respectively) jump off the page as indicative of his broad base of skills. Likewise, that Rawlings didn't introduce the Gold Glove awards—as flawed as they sometimes are—until 1957, the year after Robinson retired, may have undermined appreciation of his defensive prowess.
Fortunately, advanced statistics help to highlight Robinson's on-field achievements, and they underscore the extent to which he was not just an excellent player, but a dominant one. Even Bill James, in writing the 1985 edition of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, understated the case to some extent when he wrote, "It has become one of the compulsory events of a baseball history to acknowledge that Robinson was a far better player than his statistics show. I have no reason to believe that he was not; his statistics themselves are pretty good." James cited Robinson's multidimensionality with regards to walks and power, but the important note he provides relates to his age. "He was older when he played his first major league game than Alan Trammell is on Opening Day, 1986, as Trammell begins his tenth major league season and ninth full season…" and goes on to estimate that had Robinson started at 21, he would have collected 2,500–3,000 hits.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that because of World War II, Robinson was drafted into the military in 1942, and he was honorably discharged in November 1944, but only after being court-martialed for not moving to the back of a military bus—a protest prefiguring that of Rosa Parks 11 years later and demonstrating the strength of Robinson’s convictions. Like so many other ballplayers (stars as well as scrubs), his service would have cost him time on the field, including a shot at 3,000 hits, even if the color line had not existed.
Still, a quick trip to the Baseball-Reference Play Index helps to underscore James’s age-related point. By itself, that .311 batting average is impressive; Robinson won the 1949 batting title with a .342 mark, the first of six straight seasons above .300, and he was above .296 in his first two seasons before that run began. Among players with at least 5,000 plate appearances in their careers, that average is in a virtual tie for 77th all-time, but considered only among players with 5,000 plate appearances from their age-28 seasons onward, it jumps into a tie for 45th.
More impressive than that (but not appreciated at the time) is Robinson's career .409 on-base percentage, thanks to the pairing of that average with his 12.8% walk rate. At that same 5,000 plate appearance cutoff, the mark is good enough for 30th all-time and a tie for 19th among the 28-and-over set. Meanwhile, Robinson's mid-range power—he reached double digits in homers nine times but never hit more than 19—and penchant for taking the extra base yielded a .474 slugging percentage, in a virtual tie for 182nd all-time but tied for 86th among the 28-and-overs.
To be fair, Robinson's home park, Ebbets Field, was a hitter-friendly bandbox that was just 297 feet down the rightfield line, 352 to right-centerfield, 384 to center, 351 to left-center and 348 down the line; the right-center and centerfield distances are estimates from ballpark expert Andrew Clem and differ from the official marked measurements, as is the case in so many venues. By comparison, Dodger Stadium is currently 330 feet down the lines, 368 to left and right-center and 400 to centerfield. At least based upon his home runs, the righty-swinging Robinson was more of a pull hitter, with 116 of his 137 homers going to leftfield and another 14 to left-center, so Ebbets's cozy dimensions may have not benefited him as much as they would have had he swung from the other side of the plate. But given that he also played in a high-offense era—six of his 10 seasons featured scoring rates of at least 4.5 runs per game, a mark last seen in the NL in 2008—it's important to adjust for the full offensive context, both for the league and the player. Via OPS+, which is one measure that does so, his 132 mark is tied for 114th all-time but jumps to a tie for 63rd among the 28-and-over set.
That late-career productivity is particularly impressive for a player at a key defensive position. Robinson played 748 of his 1,364 games at second base and another 256 at third, with 197 games at first base and 150 in leftfield. Considered only among players who spent the majority of their careers as second or third basemen, that 132 OPS+ is tied for 11th with Joe Morgan; among those same players from 28 onward—particularly important given that research suggests that second basemen peak earlier—he's seventh. OPS+ is a rate stat; from a counting stat standpoint, baseball-reference.com's batting runs stat estimates that Robinson was 261 runs above average for his career (68th among the 28-and-over set).
And then there's Robinson's base running, of which we’re often reminded via footage from the six World Series in which he played. In fact, Robinson’s steal of home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series (the only series that the Dodgers won during his career) is perhaps the single most enduring image of him as a player, both in photo and on film/video:
Caught stealing became an official stat only in 1951, so we don't know Robinson's full-career stolen base percentage, but for the six years we have it (his age-32–37 ones), it was 76%, and that's leaving out the two years he led the league in steals (stats at Retrosheet—thanks to the Dodgers’ employment of statistician Allan Roth, who was decades ahead of his time in tracking and analyzing the team’s performance—point to a 72% career mark). Knowing what we know about how often he advanced on hits and outs based upon play-by-play data as well as steals, B-Ref estimates that he was worth an extra 30 runs on the bases and another five based upon his avoidance of double plays (thanks in part to his foot speed). That total of 35 runs ranks fifth among players from age 28 onward.
As for his defense, the lack of play-by-play and batted-ball data limits the richness of the data that survives, so we have no Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating, to say nothing of StatCast. Still, the admittedly crude estimates via Total Zone—which uses a comparison of plays made versus expected plays made based upon batter and pitcher handedness, batted ball distribution and ballpark—suggest he was very good, at least 10 runs above average in five seasons (three where second base was his primary position, and once apiece at third and leftfield) and 81 runs above average in all.
Taking into account the full scope of Robinson's on-field contributions as best we can via estimates of the value of his offense, base running and defense via Wins Above Replacement, we can see how his prowess at every facet of the game adds up. Robinson led his league in WAR three times (9.6 in 1949, 9.7 in '51 and 8.5 in '52), ranked second once (7.5 in '50) and was in the top 10 two other times (5.4 in '48, which was good for seventh, and 7.0 in '53, which was good for fifth). In other words, our best estimates show that Robinson was a top-five player in the NL ever year from 1949 to '53—his age-30–34 seasons, when he was likely past his physical peak—who might well have taken home a second or third MVP trophy under different circumstances. Via WAR, only four other position players have produced more value from ages 30 to 34 than Robinson's 42.2: Willie Mays (52.1), Honus Wagner (48.2), Babe Ruth (45.5) and Lou Gehrig (42.8). Only 20 have produced more value from age 28 onward. For the decade in which Robinson played, only Stan Musial (75.6) and Ted Williams (61.6 despite missing most of two years during the Korean War) produced more value.
That's inner-circle territory however you slice it, and it's no wonder that Robinson's contributions helped to fuel the Dodgers' six pennants during his career. Of course it helped that general manager Branch Rickey had such a great eye for talent and the foresight to run so far ahead of the curve with regards to integration that he not only made the right call in choosing Robinson to break the color line, but also that in short order he signed another Hall of Famer out of the Negro Leagues, catcher Roy Campanella (who won three MVP awards), and Negro Leaguers Don Newcombe (who won Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards) and Jim Gilliam (another Rookie of the Year winner). They were added to a nucleus that also included future Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese as well as near-miss Gil Hodges, the last two of whom were part of the organization before Rickey's 1943 arrival in Brooklyn.
Even having placed Robinson’s on-field performance in its appropriate statistical context fails to capture its magnitude in the larger context, for he did what he did under more pressure and scrutiny than any other ballplayer ever faced. In sabermetrics, we often talk of leverage, the outsized impact that certain performances have on the outcome of the game, particularly when the score is close in the late inning or when there are runners on base; “clutch” is the common shorthand we use when someone comes through. Robinson’s on-field performance was not just outstanding in its own right; it was the highest-leverage success the game has ever seen. It changed not just the outcome of a game or a championship, but of a country, as imperfect as that performance’s aftermath has been. That’s worth remembering every day.