Jackie Robinson: Better than you think

During Black History Month and every April 15th, we honor and are reminded of the impact that Jackie Robinson had on not just the small potatoes of baseball, but of American society.  He is without question one of the three most influential people in baseball history (to me, you can put Jackie, Babe Ruth and Branch Rickey in whatever order you want on that list) and is deserving of not only the honors he receives posthumously but perhaps even more.

That said…

Somewhere in discussions about Jackie, something gets lost in translation:

Many of us, and as a baseball fan I found myself guilty of this, lost track of how great of an on-field player Jackie was.  Jackie wasn’t a very good player – he was damn elite.

For a seven-season stretch from 1949 through 1955, Jackie averaged .428 OBP, .505 SLG, 145 adjusted OPS, and 7.6 WAR.

For those of you who may not be familiar with some of the newer stats, here’s some perspective for you:

D.J. LeMahieu (like Jackie was) is predominantly a 2nd baseman but does move around to other positions.  D.J. is a multiple-time All-Star who had his best season by far last season.  He put up monster numbers and if you watched him every day you were surprised the numbers weren’t even better – it seemed like he hit a frozen rope every time he went to the plate.

Here’s D.J.’s monster 2019 season compared to Jackie’s seven-season stretch average:

  OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
Jackie ’49-‘55 .428 .505 145 7.6
D.J. 2019 .375 .518 136 6.0

 

D.J. is a great player who had a career season.  And still Jackie was better offensively and in overall value (clearly better) than D.J. was last year, for seven years.

So that’s a line drive hitting, OBP guy who plays 2nd base but also moves around the field.  Let’s find another player with similar comps to Jackie in skill and playing style.

When I think of Jackie, I think of a good hitter, high OBP guy who was also an elite baserunner (at least that’s the way my father described him to me over and over).  Well, I happened to witness the entire career of Rickey Henderson who happens to be the best combination of OBP and base running the sport has ever seen.  There may have been a handful of guys that were better than getting on base than Rickey, and there may have been one or two better baserunners than Rickey, but nobody had the combination of both that Rickey had – ever.

I know what you’re thinking:  “You aren’t really going to say Jackie was as good as Rickey Henderson, are you?”

Not only am I going to say Jackie was as good as Rickey, but Jackie at his best may have been better than Rickey at his best.  And again, as someone who watched Rickey’s entire career, I also find that hard to believe – but it’s true.

Look at Rickey’s best seven-season stretch (1984-1990) averages and compare it to Jackie’s best seven-season stretch averages:

  OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
Rickey ’84 -‘90 .404 .471 144 7.4
Jackie ’49 – ‘55 .428 .505 145 7.6

 

Although Rickey’s runs above average from base running was better than Jackie’s, Jackie’s was still well above average (according to Baseball-Reference).  Jackie’s performance in the batter’s box and overall value are a tick better than Rickey’s – frankly it’s a toss-up of who was better at his best.

I would bet a large sum of money that I’m not the only fan who is very surprised to learn that Jackie was as good as prime Rickey Henderson and I hope those of you who were aware of that forgive my ignorance.

Despite the peak seven seasons, Jackie’s career wasn’t long enough to put him in the best ever discussion.  And even if it had been a two-decade career, being as great as Rickey Henderson is something all right but doesn’t mean anyone was as great as Willie Mays, Barry Bonds or Mike Trout among others.

But I do ask that you remember not only Jackie the icon, but also Jackie the player.  Jackie between the lines was, as my wife likes to say, “…a bad man.”

Did I miss something?  Let me know.

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One thought on “Jackie Robinson: Better than you think

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