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

Game 8 Quick Recap: TOR 4 NYY 2

[caption id="attachment_80982" align="aligncenter" width="525"]Eovaldi HR vs TOR Courtesy of the AP[/caption]

Well that got crappy in a hurry.  The Yankees looked like they were on their way to another series victory last night with a couple early runs and a downright dominant Nathan Eovaldi on the mound.  But a few bad pitches in the middle innings and an offensive disappearance flipped the script and the Yankees head back home with a disappointing loss in their pocket.

Eovaldi was a beast in the early going.  His splitter had great late movement, he was snapping curveballs in for called strikes, lighting up the radar gun with his fastball.  He struck out 5 in the first 4 innings, all scoreless, and worked out of a 2 on/2 out jam in the 5th by getting Troy Tulowitzki to pop up on the first pitch and striking out Michael Saunders.

The lineup wasn’t giving him much support against Marcus Stroman, but they did manage to scratch 2 runs across in the top of the 4th.  Stroman hit A-Rod with a pitch with 1 out, Mark Teixeira singled to right, and Brian McCann was credited with an infield single to load the bases.  Carlos Beltran drove in a run on a groundout to the right side of the infield, and after Chase Headley walked to reload the bases, Teix scampered home on a wild pitch.  Take ’em however you can get ’em.

Eovaldi handled the shutdown inning in the bottom half, but got into trouble with a walk to Russell Martin and a 2-out double by Kevin Pillar to give Josh Donaldson an at-bat with runners in scoring position.  Eovaldi hung a 1-0 splitter and Donaldson annihilated it to center field for a go-ahead 3-run home run.  It was brutal.  Eovaldi backed that up by hanging a slider to Tulo in the 6th that he hit for an insurance solo job.  Always nice to help break legit MVP-caliber players out of slumps.

The offense dried up for good after the 4th.  Stroman got through 8 innings with hardly another threat.  Jacoby Ellsbury walked and stole second in the 5th inning and the Yankees never put another man on base after that.  12 up, 12 down over the final 4 frames.  Donaldson homer took the wind out of their sails, tore the sails to shreds, lit those shreds on fire, and sank the boat with a laser-guided missile. Continue reading Game 8 Quick Recap: TOR 4 NYY 2

Game 8: Eovaldi vs. Stroman

New York Yankees Toronto Blue Jays
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF Kevin Pillar, CF
Brett Gardner, LF Josh Donaldson, 3B
Alex Rodriguez, DH Jose Bautista, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B Edwin Encarnacion, DH
Brian McCann, C Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Carlos Beltran, RF Michael Saunders, LF
Chase Headley, 3B Chris Colabello, 1B
Starlin Castro, 2B Russell Martin, C
Didi Gregorius, SS Ryan Goins, 2B
Nathan Eovaldi, SP Marcus Stroman, SP

Continue reading Game 8: Eovaldi vs. Stroman

Game 7 Quick Recap: TOR 7 NYY 2

The good news is that Michael Pineda looked more like the good version of Big Mike that we want to see last night.  The bad news is that Ivan Nova stinks in the bullpen just as much as he did in the rotation.  The bad outweighed the good last night as the Yankees dropped the middle game of this 3-game road set.

Pineda was seemingly in trouble all night, but for the most part he managed to avoid turning it into big trouble.  He worked around 2 singles in the 1st inning, gave up a run on a walk and a double in the 2nd, and pitched around 2-out baserunners in the 4th and 6th.  The pothole in the road was the Ronald Torreyes throwing error that allowed a run to score in the bottom of the 5th, but that was set up by a leadoff walk and another double.  It was walks, doubles, and well-timed double plays all night for Pineda.  A few things go differently and maybe he finishes his 6 innings with 1 run against him.

The Yankee bats mustered up a pair of runs on an Aaron Hicks ribbie groundout and a Mark Teixeira solo home run that briefly brought them back within a run in the 8th inning.  But then Nova entered and put the game out of reach.  Double, wild pitch, double, groundout to advance, single, double, sac fly, HBP, single in a 20-pitch span and the Blue Jays had driven their lead to 7-2.  Nova was missing with his fastball and the Toronto hitters were looking to swing early on him.  Not a good combination. Continue reading Game 7 Quick Recap: TOR 7 NYY 2

Game 7: Pineda vs. Happ

You know the Yankees have a deep lineup when a career .545/.583/.818 hitter is batting eighth.

New York Yankees Toronto Blue Jays
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF Kevin Pillar, CF
Aaron Hicks, LF Josh Donaldson, 3B
Alex Rodriguez, DH Jose Bautista, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B Edwin Encarnacion, DH
Carlos Beltran, RF Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Starlin Castro, 2B Michael Saunders, LF
Chase Headley, 3B Russell Martin, C
Ronald Torreyes, SS Justin Smoak, 1B
Austin Romine, C Ryan Goins, 2B
Michael Pineda, SP J.A. Happ, SP

Continue reading Game 7: Pineda vs. Happ

Quick Hit: McCann’s Toe Injury

If you watched last night’s game, you were probably a little uneasy seeing Brian McCann limp around the bases for his game-tying home run and move gingerly in general after taking a foul ball off his left foot in the middle of the game.  It was serious enough for him to get checked out by trainers on the field at one point, but not serious enough for him to come out of the game until the 9th inning.

The early concern was that his left big toe could be broken and there were plans to have McCann X-rayed after he came out.  Instead he had some blood drained from the toe and a fluoroscope taken at Rogers Centre.  That doesn’t sound like an actual medical procedure to me, but I’m not a doctor and it showed no break, so for now the team is calling it a bruised left toe and waiting to see how McCann feels today.

Joe announced after last night’s game ended that McCann would get tonight off, so bare minimum this is something serious enough to keep him out of action for 1 game and get him tagged with the old “day-to-day” label.  Beyond that we don’t know right now, although I imagine we will find out more as today progresses.  It goes without saying that losing McCann for any extended period of time would be a big blow.  He’s been the hottest hitter in the lineup since Opening Day.  Hopefully this is something that keeps him out for a day or 2 and doesn’t linger as the season goes on. Continue reading Quick Hit: McCann’s Toe Injury

Game 6 Recap: Yankees 3 Blue Jays 2

[caption id="attachment_80969" align="aligncenter" width="525"]Yankees Win vs TOR News being spread. Courtesy of the AP[/caption]

The Yankees were a well-rested bunch heading north of the border for the first time this year for a meeting with the divisional rival Blue Jays.  The rainout on Sunday in Detroit made sure of that.  That extra day of rest meant Joe had the option of leaning on his lights out bullpen more if he needed to last night, and Joe didn’t hesitate to do that when the opportunity presented itself.  The bullpen did what they’ve been doing: prevented runs, provided distance, protected leads, and struck guys out, and the Yankees took the first game of the series.

Joe was probably hoping he wouldn’t have to ask a lot of his ‘pen in ace Masahiro Tanaka‘s second start of the year.  Tanaka was pretty good in his first start, but a lack of pinpoint command on the corners and a careful approach with men on base drove his pitch count up and he didn’t get through the 6th inning.  It was more of the same last night, as Tanaka racked up a lot of pitches early and only completed 5.

It started in the bottom of the 1st when he got 2 relatively quick outs before walking Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion on 13 pitches.  The Encarnacion at-bat was especially frustrating because Tanaka started him off with 2 swinging strikes and then never came close to putting him away on the next 4 pitches.  Tanaka survived the inning unscathed and worked around a leadoff walk in the second, but his command problems finally cost him in the 3rd, when a leadoff hit batsman in an 0-2 count turned into 2 Toronto runs on a Josh Donaldson single and Jose Bautista double.  To be fair to Tanaka, it was Jacoby Ellsbury‘s misread that allowed Bautista’s double to be a double.  Not sure what he saw, but it was a bad play and it gave Toronto an extra run.

It took the Yankees a while to match that 2-spot against Toronto starter Aaron Sanchez.  They got a run in the top of the 2nd on a pair of walks and a ribbie groundout by Starlin Castro, but for the most part Sanchez was in control.  He was hitting spots with his fastball, drawing big swings and misses with his curveball, and working around trouble.  The only real mistake he made on the night was a 3-2 fastball to Brian McCann in the 6th that drifted over the middle of the plate.  McCann crushed it for a solo home run to right to tie the game and set the stage for Ellsbury’s redemption.

Also credit the guys in front of him for their stage-setting performance as well.  Chase Headley welcomed Brett Cecil to the game with a leadoff single in the 7th, then Cecil conveniently walked Castro on 4 pitches.  This allowed Didi Gregorius to get down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners up, and here came Ellsbury.  He drew a full count against Cecil and went the other way with a 3-2 fastball, getting just enough of it to plop it in between the shortstop and left fielder for the go-ahead single.  It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done and gave the bullpen the lead.

Oh yeah, the bullpen.  All they did was throw 4 scoreless, hitless innings with 5 strikeouts.  Barbato to Shreve to Betances to Miller.  These guys are good and the Yankees are too.  4-2 in their first 6 games with Big Mike returning to the hill tonight. Continue reading Game 6 Recap: Yankees 3 Blue Jays 2

Game 6: Tanaka vs. Sanchez

New York Yankees Toronto Blue Jays
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF Kevin Pillar, CF
Brett Gardner, LF Josh Donaldson, 3B
Alex Rodriguez, DH Jose Bautista, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B Edwin Encarnacion, DH
Brian McCann, C Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Carlos Beltran, RF Chris Colabello, 1B
Chase Headley, 3B Michael Saunders, LF
Starlin Castro, 2B Russell Martin, C
Didi Gregorius, SS Ryan Goins, 2B
Masahiro Tanaka, SP Aaron Sanchez, SP

Continue reading Game 6: Tanaka vs. Sanchez

Fun with Numbers II, Or: He’s on-pace for what?!

A bit less than a year ago, I tackled some of the most interesting “on-pace for” lines throughout the Majors. It is an exercise in futility, given the fact that we are dealing with excruciatingly small sample sizes (to wit, the Yankees have 97% of their season remaining) – but it is fun nevertheless, as it gives us a glimpse into just how early it actually is, and the hilarious absurdity that we can see over a five or six game stretch. While every game certainly matters, and the counting stats are already booked, the odds of these numbers being representative of what we can expect going forward are incredibly remote.

These projections are based on statistics that are current as of the morning of April 12, prior to any games being played. All numbers have been prorated to a full-ish season (650 PA for hitters, 33 starts for starting pitchers, current usage rate for relievers), and rounded where appropriate. And, again, this is just for fun. Let’s start with a handful of Yankees.

Starlin Castro
.450/.476/.850, 93 R, 62 HR, 247 RBI, 0 SB, 0 CS, 15.5 fWAR

Didi Gregorius
.333/.350/.500, 62 R, 31 HR, 93 RBI, 31 SB, 31 CS, 6.2 fWAR

Ronald Torreyes
.800/.800/1.200, 260 R, 0 HR, 260 RBI, 0 SB, 0 CS, 26.0 fWAR

Dellin Betances
97 G, 87 IP, 65 H, 65 BB, 194 K, 0.00 ERA, 1.10 FIP, 3.2 fWAR

Michael Pineda
33 GS, 165 IP, 264 H, 0 BB, 165 K, 10.80 ERA, 9.75 FIP, -6.6 fWAR

That’s one hell of a bottom of the order, isn’t it? And, yes, I know Torreyes isn’t going to get anywhere near 650 PA (barring a series of unfortunate events the likes of which have never been seen) – but I find a great deal of humor in the fact that he’s currently a career .545/.583/.818 hitter, and I’m trying to spread the gospel. There’s something inherently likable about him; though, to be fair, I’m a sucker for utility players.

And I, for one, would not be shocked if Betances led the team in strikeouts. He was only 25 off the pace last season, after all.

Venturing outside of the Yankees, here are ten more from around the league:

Jose Altuve
.286/.375/.429, 162 R, 20 HR, 41 RBI, 122 SB, 20 SB, 6.1 fWAR

Bryce Harper
.313/.522/.813, 141 R, 57 HR, 85 RBI, 85 SB, 0 CS, 14.1 fwAR (and 198 BB/28 K)

Kendrys Morales
.190/.208/.524, 54 R, 54 HR, 135 RBI, 0 SB, 0 CS, 0.0 fWAR

Jorge Soler
.130/.192/.261, 75 R, 25 HR, 75 RBI, 0 SB, 0 CS, -5.0 fWAR

Trevor Story
.333/.357/1.111, 162 R, 162 HR, 278 RBI, 0 SB, 0 CS, 16.2 fWAR

Eugenio Suarez
.370/.433/.815, 195 R, 87 HR, 195 RBI, 22 SB, 0 CS, 13.0 fWAR

Jose Fernandez
33 GS, 187 IP, 165 H, 33 BB, 429 K, 7.94 ERA, 1.58 FIP, 9.9 fWAR

Martin Perez
33 GS, 204 IP, 149 H, 149 BB, 49 K, 3.65 ERA, 6.59 FIP, -3.3 fWAR

A.J. Ramos
65 G, 65 IP, 0 H, 130 BB, 34 K, 0.00 ERA, 8.35 FIP, -3.2 fWAR

Trevor Rosenthal
69 G, 77 IP, 46 H, 23 BB, 184 K, 0.00 ERA, -0.55 FIP, 11.5 fWAR Continue reading Fun with Numbers II, Or: He’s on-pace for what?!