The Underrated Jackie Robinson

[Note: This piece was originally published in 2013, but I felt that it made sense to revisit it today. – Domenic]

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.

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. Continue reading The Underrated Jackie Robinson

Against David Ortiz, Hall of Famer

[caption id="attachment_77232" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Ortiz 2015 Courtesy of the AP[/caption]

Before Pedro Martinez‘s ceremony at Fenway Park last night, the Red Sox introduced David Ortiz as, “David Ortiz, future Hall of Famer.” By any reasonable standard, David Ortiz is not a Hall of Famer.

Here’s Ortiz’s case:

  • 48.3 career bWAR. Hit .283/.377/.543
  • Best 5 seasons by bWAR: 6.4, 5.7, 5.3, 4.4, 4.2
  • 3 World Series rings, .295/.409/.553 in the postseason, lots of big clutch hits
  • 273 career games at 1b. 1,837 at DH.

Very good player. By today’s standard, not even close to a Hall of Fame player. Let’s compare Ortiz to some contemporaries:

Edgar Martinez

  • 68.3 career bWAR. Hit .312/.418/.515
  • Best 5 seasons by bWAR: 7.0, 6.5, 6.5, 6.2, 6.1
  • 0 World Series rings. Hit .266/.365/.508 in limited postseason time, mostly late in his career
  • 564 career games at 3b. 1403 at DH. Handful at 1b
  • Comparison to Ortiz: More bWAR in fewer games. Twice as much time in the field. No postseason accomplishments.
  • HOF Case: Probably should be in, but probably won’t break 50% in the voting

Jim Thome

  • 72.9 career bWAR. Hit .276/.402/.515,
  • Best 5 seasons by bWAR: 7.5, 7.4, 5.9, 5.6, 5.4
  • 0 World Series rings. Hit .211/.312/.448
  • 1106 career games at 1b. 493 at 3b. 818 at DH.
  • Comparison to Ortiz: Much better overall player. Solidly in the HOF by bWAR. Played most of his career in the field. No postseason accomplishments
  • HOF Case: Hits the ballot in 2018. We’ll see, but I bet he gets in after several ballots.

Continue reading Against David Ortiz, Hall of Famer

Flashback: July 21, 1988

One of the most infamous trades in Yankees history occurred on this date way back in 1988. Principal owner George Steinbrenner, before he was suspended and before he mellowed out a bit, traded Jay Buhner, Rick Balabon, and a player to be named later (Troy Evers on October 12, 1988) to the Mariners for Ken Phelps.

We all know how everything worked out because there have been many articles and blog posts written about the trade. Phelps and Buhner even got together to shoot a video reminiscing about it last year. But, we also know that the best thing to come out of that trade was this moment from an episode of Seinfeld called “The Caddy” that aired on January 25, 1996, a date which happened to be only a few months after Buhner’s Mariners knocked the Yankees out of the 1995 American League Division Series. By the way, Buhner batted .458 in that series because of course he did.

I remember getting into an ‘online’ argument with someone from Seattle around 2000 or 2001 about the trade. She was making fun of the Yankees for it and I retorted with the tried and true, “Yeah, look at all of those championships Seattle has won with Buhner and look at all of the years the Yankees have missed the playoffs since then. Oh wait…”

Sure, the trade was bad when it happened. Ken Phelps didn’t do that well when he came over to New York and was traded to the A’s just over a year later. Jay Buhner, who was 10 years younger than Phelps, became a pretty good player for the Mariners and helped them get to the playoffs a number of times. But, honestly, in the grand scheme of things, I think the trade was worth it for just for that clip from Seinfeld alone.

Enjoy your day. Continue reading Flashback: July 21, 1988

Sandy Koufax is Criminally Overrated

Last night, MLB announced the result of its effort to name the best four living baseball players. They came up with: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Sandy Koufax.

Koufax may be the most overrated player in baseball history. He began his career with 5 forgettable seasons from a young player trying to find his game. Then, from 1962 to 1966, he was the best pitcher in baseball. He led the league in ERA each year, and posted the following bWAR:

  • 1962: 4.4 bWAR
  • 1963: 10.7 bWAR
  • 1964: 7.4 bWAR
  • 1965: 8.1 bWAR,
  • 1966: 10.3 bWAR

He then retired due to an arm injury at the age of 30.

Sandy Koufax is the ultimate “peak value” Hall of Fame player. Or at least, he is the most-cited example of a peak value HOFer. In reality, his peak was excellent, but not unique. Let’s look at some of the best seasons from other players with a claim to being one of the best living pitchers:

Randy Johnson:

  • 2002: 10.9 bWAR
  • 2001: 10.0 bWAR
  • 1999: 9.2 bWAR
  • 1995: 8.6 bWAR
  • 2004: 8.5 bWAR

Pedro Martinez:

  • 2000: 11.7 bWAR
  • 1999: 9.7 bWAR
  • 1997: 9.0 bWAR
  • 2003: 8.0 bWAR
  • 1998: 7.2 bWAR

Greg Maddux:

  • 1995: 9.7 bWAR
  • 1992: 9.2 bWAR
  • 1994: 8.5 bWAR
  • 1997: 7.8 bWAR
  • 1996: 7.1 bWAR

Roger Clemens:

  • 1997: 11.9 bWAR
  • 1990: 10.6 bWAR
  • 1987: 9.4 bWAR
  • 1986: 8.9 bWAR
  • 1992: 8.8 bWAR

All of these guys had comparable peaks to Sandy Koufax. You can nitpick and say that Maddux never hit 10 bWAR or something, but the difference between Koufax’s run and these guys is negligible. The reason why they are all better pitchers than Sandy Koufax is that each pitcher has a long record of excellence beyond their top-5 seasons, while Koufax was out of baseball immediately following them.

And here’s the crazy part: all of the above 5 guys were contemporaries. They were putting up these crazy good peaks roughly simultaneously. Their accomplishments are extraordinary, but by no means are they unique. It just isn’t all that uncommon for Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers to peak like Koufax did.

We can add in all sorts of long-career players with similar peaks as well: Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson had similar peaks. All are still alive.

Koufax’s career is much more comparable to guys like Doc Gooden (peaked with an insane 12.1 WAR season in 1985, highest in modern history, but was pretty much done being very good by 29) and Juan Marichal (10.3 and 9.1 WAR in 1965-1966, some very solid years before and after) than the all-time greats.

Great player? Absolutely. I’d take him on the Yankees. But Sandy Koufax is not one of the four best living baseball players. He’s not even close.

Responses to the nitpicking arguments before anyone makes them:

Yes, bWAR is a perfectly fine statistic to measure single-season value. Baseball Reference uses ERA, rather than FIP, to calculate wins above replacement. It essentially becomes a function of innings, ERA, and a league and park factor. Unless you prefer FIP (the rankings are similar), the calculation is essentially just basic math, and very difficult to dispute. If you have a preferred way of measuring how good a season is, run the numbers and see Koufax sticks out. If you want to be Chris Russo and just yell and say, “BUT KOUFAX WAS BETTER”, be my guest.

Koufax pitched a lot of innings in his final two seasons. He led the league with 335 and 323 innings. But that wasn’t all that uncommon back in the day. It was the dead ball era with a raised mound. No one is calling Wilber Wood the best pitcher of all time. Randy Johnson pitching 271 in the 90s is arguably more impressive.

No, I am not saying Koufax was a bad pitcher. I’m just saying that his peak was in line with these other guys, but the other guys had an extra decade of awesome in their career. Continue reading Sandy Koufax is Criminally Overrated

Flashback: June 5, 1915

[caption id="attachment_75603" align="aligncenter" width="900"]1915-Yankees The 1915 Yankees[/caption]

I’ll admit it. I panicked slightly when I remembered that I had the 10am slot and couldn’t think of anything to write about. So I did what I usually do. I went to baseball-reference.com, I went to the box scores and looked at a year that ends in a 0 or 5 and hoped that the Yankees 1) played a game or 2) won a game.

But, this time was different. When I looked at 1915 – because I thought going back 100 years would be cool – I saw that the Yankees had lost and instead of closing out and trying another year, I looked at the box score.

This is what I found:

100 years ago today, on June 5, 1915, the Yankees lost to Ty Cobb‘s Tigers by a score of 11-2.

Here are some interesting nuggets of information from that game:

  • The game was played at the Polo Grounds.
  • Cobb was 3-5 with a home run, a stolen base, two runs scored and two RBI.
  • He batted .369/.486/.487/.973 that season.
  • The Yankees only had five hits.
  • Detroit’s starter, Hooks Dauss, pitched a complete game.
  • The Yankees’ starter, Ray Fisher, didn’t end up having such a great game, but he did last eight innings. He just happened to fall apart in that inning.
  • The man who came in for relief, Boardwalk Brown, also didn’t have a great game.
  • Fisher’s final line: 8 innings pitched, 10 hits, 6 runs (4 earned), 1 walk, 4 strikeouts and he gave up a home run.
  • Brown’s final line: 1 inning pitched, 4 hits, 5 runs, all earned, 1 walk, 1 strikeout and he also gave up a home run.
  • Going by the way the names are listed on page, Cobb hit his home run off of Fisher and first baseman Marty Kavanagh hit his off of Brown.
  • There was only a home plate umpire and a first base ump.
  • The loss was the Yankees’ fourth in a row and evened their record at the time to 19-19.

Continue reading Flashback: June 5, 1915

Celebrating Bernie Williams

Today is Bernie Williams Day at Yankee Stadium and I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of his biggest moments in Pinstripes (or: the only ones I could find on YouTube).

July 14, 1991: His first career home run against Chuck Finley and the California Angels.

October 6, 1995: Williams becomes the first MLB player to homer from both sides of the plate in a playoff game.

October 4, 1996: He robs a home run from Rusty Greer.

October 5, 1996: He homers from both sides of the plate in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Rangers.

October 9, 1996: The walk off in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS against the Orioles.

October 13, 1999: The walk off in Game 1 of the 1999 ALCS against the Red Sox.

April 23, 2000: Bernie and Jorge Posada become the first teammates to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game.

October 26, 2000: He gets the Yankees on the board and ends an 0-15 slide in Game 5 of the 2000 World Series against the Mets.

August 3, 2001: Bernie makes a game-saving catch against the Angels.

October 21, 2001: Game-tying home run in Game 4 of the 2001 ALCS.

October 16, 2003: Hits an RBI single and scores in the Yankees’ eighth inning rally against the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

June 10, 2004: Bernie picks up his 2000th hit.

August 13, 2005: He hits a walk off against the Rangers in the 11th inning.

And just a quick personal story: In 2005, Bernie’s career was winding down, but on the night of my birthday, August 26, he hit two home runs against the Royals in a Friday night game in the Bronx. I was there with my then best friend who shares the same birthday and who just so happened to be a very big Bernie Williams fan. It was a lot of fun to see him do well on that night and to share that with her. It would be the last birthday we’d spent together before our falling out so a big thanks to Bernie for that memory. At least it was a good one.

Feel free to share your favorite Bernie Williams memories below. Continue reading Celebrating Bernie Williams

Flashback: May 17, 2010

The game on Monday night, May 17, 2010 was your typical Yankees-Red Sox affair: It was high scoring, had a few lead changes and included ninth inning fireworks.

Phil Hughes and Daisuke Matsuzaka were your starters and it was one of those two-game, weekday sets. Hughes fared well in the early going while Matsuzaka was victimized by a bit of an offensive explosion in the bottom of the first.

Derek Jeter and Brett Gardner hit back-to-back singles to start the game and Mark Teixeira walked to load the bases with no outs. Alex Rodriguez hit a two-run single which sent Teixeira to third. Robinson Cano followed up with a single of his own which scored Teixeira and advanced A-Rod to second. Francisco Cervelli hit a double which scored A-Rod but Cano was nailed at home for the first out of the inning and Cervelli advanced to third on the throw to home. Marcus Thames hit a sac fly to score Cervelli and Randy Winn struck out to end the inning.

The score was 5-0.

It was 6-1 at the end of two, 6-2 at the end of four, and 7-5 at the end of five.

When it was 7-5 going into the sixth, both Hughes and Dice K were done for the night. Boone Logan came in for Hughes in the top of the sixth and gave up a home run to Victor Martinez which cut the Yankees lead to one.

It would remain 7-6 until the top of the eighth when Chan-Ho Park who came into the game to relieve Logan, gave up back-to-back home runs to Kevin Youkilis and Martinez. Youkilis’ was of the two-run variety and the Red Sox were now ahead, 9-7.

What a turn of events. Usually when a team jumps out to a 5-0 lead in the first, you’d hope they’d at least hold onto the lead but that sort of thing doesn’t happen in Yankees-Red Sox games!

Damaso Marte came in to pitch the ninth for the Yanks, and after he got two outs, Joe Girardi went to Javier Vazquez to get the third out. And he did by striking out Kevin Youkilis on four pitches because that’s exactly what everyone watching that game expected.

With the Yankees down two in the bottom of the ninth, Terry Francona went to his closer, obviously. Gardner started things off with a six-pitch at bat that ended in a double down the left field line. Teixeira hit a fly ball for the first out but moved Gardner to third.

Then this happened on the first pitch of A-Rod’s at bat:

Tie game!

Cano hits a fly ball for out number two and it looks like the Yankees may not walk off. At least not yet. Cervelli steps up to bat and Papelbon hits him with his second offering of the at bat which sets the stage for this:

It was bedlam in the Bronx! What a game!

And by the way, Vazquez got his first career save for his four pitches of work. Not a bad day at the job. Continue reading Flashback: May 17, 2010

Jorge Posada Belatedly Declares Jorge Posada the 2003 MVP!

[caption id="attachment_74862" align="aligncenter" width="420"]CBS Sports CBS Sports[/caption]

Did a steroid-addled pre-redemption Alex Rodriguez steal Jorge Posada‘s 2003 MVP award? Jorge said so, or at least implied it in a rambling tirade:

“The only thing that I can think is 2003. You know, I was close to the MVP. Didn’t happen. Alex won the MVP and, you know, I think second, either Carlos Delgado or David Ortiz, I don’t remember. But you know, I was almost there,” Posada said. “You know what could have happened if, you know it’s tough.”

All respect to Jorge, whom I still like a lot – but there’s no way he was the best in the league in 2003, with or without A-Rod’s pharmaceutical adventures.

Posada had a great 2003, his best year by WAR – 5.9, a level that’s usually not best-in-league, and was fifth among position players, but is as good as that of many MVPs. Posada’s offensive WAR was actually 0.4 better in 2007 than 2003, but the defensive WAR stats comport with what we all remember: by age 35, his defense had declined badly. WAR actually sees Posada’s defense as a plus his first six full years — through 2003. If 2003 Posada was the league’s fifth-best hitter, and he was a plus defensive catcher, and most guys ahead of him were on steroids… well, that’s a decent MVP case.

Except Posada likely was always a bad defensive catcher – because his pitch-framing was awful. I think full pitch-framing data extends back only to 2007 (unless my research fell short, which is possible), so we don’t know Posada’s exact 2003 framing. But framing doesn’t decline with age as quickly as pure strength-and-speed skills (Brad Ausmus and Jose Molina remained top framers through their late 30s), so Posada’s 2007-10 framing stats are a decent gauge of his career-long ability. And his framing was terrible:

the difference between the best and worst catchers at framing pitches in any given season is something on the order of four to five wins. And not surprisingly, Posada has been among the worst, if not the worst, during most of the seasons for which we have data. From 2007-2011, Posada cost the Yankees an average of almost .003 runs per called pitch. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but catchers catch a lot of pitches, and all those fractional losses add up. For Posada, they added up to 50 runs.

Due to injury and moving to DH, Posada caught only about three seasons’ worth of games (352 games) from 2007-2011, so his -50 framing runs amounts to about -17 runs per full season. So, roughly speaking, subtract about a win and a half from his WAR per full-time catching season. That would take his 2003 WAR down from 5.9 to 4.4 – still an excellent year, but far from MVP-caliber.

Don’t believe this article? Believe the quants the Yankees employed in 2009, who found Posada’s pitch-framing vastly decreased his value:

“[Alex] Rubin and fellow Yankees quants Dave Grabiner and Jim Logue produced a report that summed up the statistical evidence in a sentence that would have strained belief if not for the inarguable numbers that went with it. ‘Jorge Posada could hit like Albert Pujols and Jose Molina could hit like Jose Molina, and Molina would still be better.'”

Even before you penalize him for his framing, Posada wasn’t 2003’s best “clean” American Leaguer. Three of the four ahead of him in WAR were proven or likely roiders: A-Rod, Manny Ramirez, and Bret Boone. But the fourth is Carlos Delgado, whom nobody has credibly accused of juicing; Tom Verducci may be overstating, but not by much, in calling him “the best ‘clean’ power hitter of the Steroid Era.” If you exclude juicers, Delgado still bested Posada by 0.6 WAR (6.5 to 5.9), and was better by a wider margin if you penalize Posada for his framing. And if the question isn’t “who was better” but “who actually would have won,” it’s still Delgado: he was second in the voting, behind A-Rod but ahead of Posada.

I don’t mean to criticize Posada, either as a player or as a retired autobiographer looking back with a little bitterness. Even if he wasn’t ever an MVP, he was a great player; being one of the maybe dozen best players in the league in his three best years, and a core star of a regularly championship team, is a career to be proud of. I also don’t fault his indulging in some justifiable bitterness here: I played clean and hard, Jorge thinks, while a bunch of others cheated and won awards. So, no disrespect to Jorge’s skill or upset here; he’s just not right in closing his eyes and seeing a no-steroid alternate reality in which there’s an MVP trophy on the Posada family mantlepiece.
Continue reading Jorge Posada Belatedly Declares Jorge Posada the 2003 MVP!