Jackie Robinson Is Still Somehow Underrated Historically
If you watched baseball this Saturday, April 15th, you saw the number 42 everywhere. Each player had the number 42 stitched on the back of his jersey, and each broadcast deservedly dedicated a large portion of their broadcast to discussing the man who made the number synonymous with “hero” in the sport of baseball. However, there’s still a way in which the inimitable Jackie Robinson is underrated: his stats.
There’s a baseball theory to which I prescribe called Nichols Law of Catcher Defense. The theory states: “that a catcher’s defensive reputation is inversely proportional to their offensive abilities.” Ted Simmons was the poster boy for this theory, a theory that was a lot more prevalent before the explosion of excellent catcher defense statistics we have in the modern game. Simmons was an offensive juggernaut behind the plate, finishing with more career RBI than Johnny Bench and a higher on-base percentage than Carlton Fisk. For most of his career, Simmons suffered from a negative defensive reputation as a backstop, despite the fact that he finished with a positive dWAR in each of his first 11 full seasons in the big leagues.
What does all this have to do with Jackie Robinson? He suffers from a similar affliction. We’ll call it the Turvey Law of Historical Impact. The theory states: that a player’s historical reputation is inversely proportional to his statistical abilities. OK, it’s not perfect. Many of the men we remember in baseball history we remember because of their statistical accomplishments. However, for some men like Robinson, whose legacies are so intrinsically tied with their off-field accomplishments, it seems as though their on-field legacy is sometimes ignored, or at least shoved into the background to make room in our collective memory for the amazing off-field stories. (Lou Gehrig suffers a similar fate.)
With all of the great content being shared today regarding Robinson’s legacy (the most important off-field legacy in the history of the sport), let’s take a look at another side of Robinson’s legacy: his box score legacy.
Robinson broke into the league in 1947 as a 28-year-old. It took him precisely zero time to adjust to the major leagues, as he slashed .297/.383/.427 for an OPS+ of 112 in his rookie season. Robinson was worth over 3.0 wins, per bWAR, and he took home the Rookie of the Year Award (while finishing fifth in the MVP vote). That was only the tip of the iceberg.
In 1948, Robinson slid over to second base and brought his slugging percentage up 26 points to boot, enough to almost double his RBI total from his rookie season (48 to 85). All of this culminated in Robinson raising his value to 5.4 bWAR, finishing second among second baseman (Joe Gordon), and seventh among all position players that season in WAR. Despite the improved play, he slipped to 15th in the MVP vote, but that wouldn’t deter Robinson one bit.
Jackie’s next season (1949), was one of the best seasons by a second baseman in the history of the sport. Robinson won the batting title (.342), posted an absurd 152 OPS+, and drove in 124 runs. The 124 RBI rank 11th all time among second baseman, while the batting average ranks sixth among two-baggers in the Integration Era. Robinson was, correctly, awarded the 1949 MVP, and Robinson led the league in WAR, topping the almighty Stan Musial by 0.3 wins.
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The 1949 season kicked off a stretch of near-unprecedented dominance for Robinson, as he simply set fire to the league over the next five years. From 1949-1953, Robinson slashed .329/.430/.505 for an OPS+ of 146. Just to give a feel for what an OPS+ of 146 looks like, that’s the exact same figure Manny Ramirez had in 1995 when he hit 35 bombs and drove in 145 runs – that’s what Robinson averaged over a five-year stretch.
Now Robinson played in a different era than Manny, and he was a different type of hitter, but Jackie showed he was plenty valuable no matter how you slice it. Over that same five-year stretch, Robinson was worth 42.2 WAR, or an average of 8.8 WAR/season. Remember, 8.0+ WAR is considered an “MVP season.” Robinson led the league in WAR twice over that span, and he was worth more in that five-year stretch than 21 separate Hall of Famers were worth in their entire careers!
Robinson played three more seasons after his killer 1949-1953 stretch, highlighted by a World Series win over the hated New York Yankees in 1955. After 1956, Robinson decided to hang up the cleats instead of play for someone other than the Dodgers. Robinson, just 37 at the age of his retirement, easily could have played a few more seasons, as he hit .275 in final season and was worth 4.5 WAR in that final campaign.
Tucked between a late start to his career (just imagine if his prime could have started as a 25-year-old instead of as a 30-year-old) and an early end to his career, Robinson posted some of the best numbers the game has ever seen. He ended his ten-year career as a .311 hitter, with an OPS+ of 132 and 61.5 WAR. Baseball has seen plenty of great second baseman over the years, but none averaged more WAR/season than Mr. Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson Day is great for many things. It honors the sport’s preeminent pioneer; it reminds us of the all-important role that sports can play in our society; and it helps to reach an audience with whom baseball has had a strained relationship in recent years. Lost in the shuffle is that this day also remembers one of the best players, full stop, to ever play the game.