The Underrated Jackie Robinson

[Editor's note: This piece was originally published on 4/16/13 but we felt it would be nice to revisit today. -SG]

Over the past week or so, there has been much ado about Jackie Robinson – and deservedly so, at that. To many, myself included, Robinson towers over the game of baseball a la the Colossus at Rhodes, marking a turning point in not only the game that we all know and love, but in the United States as a whole. The courage and grace that Robinson displayed has become a part of the mythology that is our sport’s history, transmogrifying the man himself into something of a myth. That is not to say, of course, that Robinson is not deserving of the mighty stature that has been affixed to his memory. Rather, that the narrative has markedly obscured one simple fact that seems to be glossed over in discussions and commemorations of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier:

Jackie Robinson was really freaking good at baseball.

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I am quite certain that this statement elicited its fair share of groans, duhs, and eye rolls. Of course Jackie Robinson was a great baseball player – he’s in the Hall of Fame, for heaven’s sake! If only it were that simple.

A simple Google search regarding whether Jackie Robinson was overrated, or whether Jackie Robinson belongs in the Hall of Fame will elicit a staggering amount of pooh-poohing over the “politics” of Robinson’s induction. You will find dozens of arguments revolving around his abbreviated career, comparisons of his raw career totals to others that are clear-cut non-Hall of Famers, and so forth. Some of this is certainly argued out of either a quest for attention or a flag in the sand for non-conformity, and yet it is disheartening all the same.

Beyond the meandering discourse that is the Internet as a whole, much of the discussion of Jackie Robinson on the ESPN’s and MLB Network’s of the world has echoed similar sentiment. It was presented much more eloquently, to be sure, but there was nevertheless a concerted effort eschewing Robinson’s resume in favor of his legend. Listening between the lines, you can discern something of an ignorance to Robinson’s greatness on the field – once more, with much of it beginning and ending with his comparatively brief career.

All the blustering aside, I am quite certain that relatively few realize just how great a ballplayer Jackie Robinson was. Consider Robinson’s ranks among second basemen with at least 4000 career plate appearances (to Robinson’s 5802):

  • Fourth in wRC+ (tied with Joe Morgan)
  • Tenth in BB%
  • Sixteenth in FanGraphs WAR (among 205 2B with 4000+ PA)
  • Seventeenth in BsR (base-running runs)

Impressive placement in all categories, to be sure. The latter two categories – WAR and BsR – are made all the more impressive by Robinson’s brief career, as both are counting statistics. And to those who may suggest the contrary for his ranks in wRC+ and BB% (that is, his career was shorter and lacked the standard decline phase), consider that Robinson did not make it to the Majors until he was 28 years old, and past the traditional athletic prime for most players.

At his peak – which, again, came after his athletic prime (spent in the Negro Leagues and in the United States military) – Robinson was even better than the above numbers would suggest. Robinson led the National League in Baseball-Reference WAR in 1949, 1951, and 1952, and finished in the top-ten on four additional occasions. In 1949, Robinson won the NL MVP – the first and only time that he took home the hardware. However, he may well have deserved the award in 1951 and 1952.

In 1951, the award went to fellow Dodger Roy Campanella. It goes without saying that Campanella was great that season, posting 6.7 WAR, and placing in the top-five in the NL in batting average, doubles, home runs, SLG, OPS+, and RBI. Robinson, however, was greater, with 9.7 WAR, and besting Campanella in batting average, runs, SB, and OBP.

In 1952, the NL MVP was given to Chicago Cubs outfielder Hank Sauer, who led the league in home runs and RBI, and placed fifth with 5.7 WAR. Once more, Robinson led the league in WAR, besting Sauer in WAR (by 2.8!), batting average, runs, stolen bases, walks, OBP, and OPS+.

Over the ten years that Robinson played in the Majors, only Stan Musial and Ted Williams produced more FanGraphs WAR. Only fifteen players produced a better wRC+. No player stole more bases. From 1949 to 1953 – Robinson’s peak – only Musial produced more FanGraphs WAR, and only Williams, Musial, and Kiner bested him in wRC+. Again, Jackie Robinson was really freaking good at baseball, comparing favorably to his peers … who just so happened to be some of the very best to play the game.

Inevitably, the legend of Jackie Robinson will continue to cast an inky shadow over his statistical resume. And, handwringing aside, it is difficult to suggest that that should not be the case. Robinson is the most important player in the history of Major League Baseball, and his greatness on the field need not presuppose that fact. Regardless, it is a credit to Jackie Robinson’s memory to take a peak behind the curtain, and realize that one of the greatest men in the history of the game was also one of the finest players to step onto the diamond.

Domenic is a staff writer for It's About the Money, and the host of the It's About the Money Stupid podcast. By day, he is a mild-mannered real estate attorney on Long Island, and an aspiring intellectual degenerate.