The Excellence of Jackie Robinson

In the documentary Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns, one 40-second segment sums up the popular image of Jackie Robinson. We see archival footage of Robinson earning a walk, and promptly stealing second base. Then we hear from Negro League great Buck O’Neil:

“Jackie took black baseball to the major leagues. At the time baseball was a base to base thing. You hit the ball, you wait on first base until somebody hit it again. But in our baseball, you got on base and you stole second…” [1]

There is no doubt that Jackie Robinson was a superb ballplayer – and a man of great courage and strength. But the popular image of Robinson doesn’t capture what made him such a great baseball player.

1. Did Robinson change the style of baseball played by the Dodgers? No. The Dodgers led the NL in steals the year before Robinson joined the team (1946),[2] and then every season thereafter until 1954. Robinson was an excellent base-runner who led the NL in steals twice, but he joined a team that was already composed of very aggressive baserunners.

2. Did Robinson change the way baseball was played in the major leagues generally? Jackie Robinson was a superb player but not much of a home-run hitter. He came into the NL just as baseball was becoming a home-run hitter’s game.

The frequency of home-runs (home-runs hit per game played) went up significantly across the NL in 1947 (the year Robinson entered baseball) and climbed through the 1950s. In 1955, there were 1.03 HRs hit per game, a rate unsurpassed until 1999.  Of the 20 seasons with the greatest frequency of home runs, four of those were in the 1950s. One was in 1961. All the rest came after 1995.

As NL teams hit more home runs, they stole fewer bases. The year before Robinson entered the league (1946), there were 478 successful stolen bases in the NL; in his last year (1956) there were 371 steals. In those same years, the total number of home-runs hit in the NL more than doubled from 562 to 1,219.[3]

3. So, what made Robinson so great?  One thing that made him great was his discipline at the plate. For 5 years, from 1949-53, he was either 1st, 2nd or 3rd in the league in On-Base Percentage. He walked 740 times, while striking-out 291 times, a remarkable ratio of 2.5 walks for every strikeout.

He also played a difficult position – 2nd base – and played it well. And, of course, he was a very good baserunner.

The best statistic we have to measure all-around excellence in batting, running and fielding is WAR  – wins above replacement. Robinson led the league in WAR in 1949, 1951, and 1952. In 1950 he was 2nd in the NL in WAR. He was top ten in WAR in 1948 and 1953. [4]

Our understanding of how to measure true excellence on the baseball field has changed dramatically in the past decade. For instance, the relative importance of on-base percentage has been elevated while the relative importance of stealing bases has been diminished. We also have more comprehensive statistics, which – though not perfect – do provide a good indicator of how the player compares with his peers and other players in baseball history. With that in mind, it is curious that the real indicators of Robinson’s superior play are so underappreciated in popular mythology. [5]

[1] In Baseball, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and sportswriter Robert Creamer echoed O’Neil’s words. The same basic sentiment appeared in a Sports Illustrated story from 1987, “Recalling Jackie Robinson.” Erskine says, “Such quick starts and stops.” He shakes his head, savoring the memory. “He rejuvenated baseball into a running-stealing game. It had been passive since Ruth and the home run…” Ebony Magazine, in a 1995 story on “50 Years of Blacks in Baseball,” featured O’Neil’s quote, and the sentiment was repeated in this 2007 biography of Robinson: “…he transformed the game, using speed on the basepaths as an offensive weapon and bringing Negro League-style daring into play.” – Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Mary Kay Linge

[2] In 1946, the year before Robinson joined the team, Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser had 34 steals in 122 games, a steals/games rate that stood unmatched for 13 seasons.

[3] Stolen bases made a bit of a comeback in the 1960s as home-run frequency and slugging percentage went into a deep decline.

[4] From Baseball Reference. Baseball Reference WAR is adjusted to control for the park in which the game was played and the era in which the player is performing. “A single number that presents the number of wins the player added to the team above what a replacement player (think AAA or AAAA) would add.”

[5] Not to suggest that Robinson’s OBP prowess has gone unnoticed. See for example Posnanski’s great piece on Robinson.

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