Jackie Robinson was one heck of a baseball player, beyond breaking barriersSporting News — (Ryan Fagan)
Jackie Robinson’s impact on the game of baseball — and American culture — was immense, obviously. Our nation is forever grateful.
Here, though, we’re going to take a moment to remind you that he was one heck of a baseball player, too. And it wasn’t just about singular moments that we all remember, like the time he stole home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, when his Brooklyn Dodgers finally beat the Yankees to take home the title (though it was an unforgettable moment, wasn’t it?).
Anyway, here we’re going to look at the best of Robinson’s Baseball-Reference page.
* His first year in the majors, Robinson led the National League in stolen bases. In fact, his 29 stolen bases were more than double any other player in the senior circuit (his teammate Pete Reiser was second with 14). In his third year in the bigs, Robinson again led the NL in stolen bases, with 37 (teammate Pee Wee Reese was second in the league with 26).
* In that first season, Robinson hit second in the Brooklyn lineup most of the time (140 of his 151 games played). He understood the role of a No. 2 hitter in that era, and he laid down an MLB-high 28 sacrifice bunts to move his teammates into scoring position. That number has been topped only seven times since 1947.
* By his third year in the majors, Robinson’s prowess at the plate convinced manager Burt Shotton to move him into the cleanup spot in the order, and he responded by earning his first All-Star nod and winning the NL MVP. Robinson hit .342 with 16 homers, 124 RBIs, 12 triples, 38 doubles, 203 hits and 37 stolen bases. He received 12 first place votes and 264 points; Cardinals legend Stan Musial, who hit .338 with 36 homers and 123 RBIs, finished second with five first-place votes and 226 total points.
* Robinson always had a good eye at the plate, but in that third season he embraced the value of reaching first base via the walk. His total jumped from 57 walks in 1948 to 86 in 1949, and his on-base percentage moved up accordingly, from .367 to .432. And that on-base percentage stayed up in that range — .423 in 1950, .429 in 1951, .440 in 1952 (the NL best that season) and .425 in 1953.
* Strikeout totals for hitters were generally lower in those days, of course, but even by era standards, Robinson rarely struck out. In his first eight seasons (through his Age 35 year), Robinson’s strikeout percentage was a stingy 4.8 percent. For perspective, 237 players had at least 1,000 plate appearances during that stretch (1947-54), and only 22 players had a strikeout percentage lower than 4.8 percent. (Again, it’s a different era, but Andrelton Simmons had MLB’s lowest strikeout percentage in 2018, at 7.3 percent.)
Let’s look at the raw numbers, though. In 1949, for example, Robinson had 704 plate appearances and only struck out 27 times. In 1950, he drew 80 walks and struck out just 24 times. The most times he ever struck out in a season was 40, but he also walked 106 times during that 1952 season.
* Obviously, advanced stats didn’t exist in Robinson’s era, but they paint a pretty impressive picture of Robinson’s overall brilliance on the field (as if that was needed). WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an imperfect but still useful way of looking at a player’s overall contribution — at the plate, in the field and on the bases. As explained in this breakdown of the stat on FanGraphs, a player with a WAR of 2 to 3 is an average MLB starter. In the 4 to 5 range, you’re talking All-Star, and at 6 or above, that’s an MVP-type performance.
Robinson’s WAR (by the Baseball-Reference formula) in his rookie season was a solid 3.1, then it jumped to 5.4 his second year and 9.6 during his MVP season of 1949. And he stayed at an MVP level through his Age 35 season — his WAR was 7.5 in 1950, 9.7 in 1951 (he was sixth in the MVP vote that season, his second-best finish), 8.5 in 1952 and 7.0 in 1953. His FanGraphs numbers are similar (3.5, 4.8, 9.6, 6.8, 9.0, 7.8 and 6.0)