Of the tens of thousands of tweets–not all mine–on the occasion of Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday, it was one from Justin McGuire that inspired this post.
There must be a dozen ways to tell the story of just how great Jackie Robinson was ON the field, but I only have an hour. For that reason, I’ll tell the story in the one way that modern students of the game will understand best.
I’ll start with the Top 100 career leaders in WAR, according to Baseball Reference. You may already know Jackie is not on the list. He is much further down at 169th, good only for fourth place among players named Robinson!
You’re not impressed.
Now let’s take that same list, restricted to players who played the bulk of their careers in Major League Baseball’s post-integration, pre-steroid era. Sadly that leaves us with only 40 years, but it still includes a pantheon of legendary players. You might recognize some of the names.
I mentioned I only had an hour, so I’ll now focus on just the Top 5 players still remaining: Mays, Aaron, Musial, Williams, and Mantle. Echoing Justin’s point, these are players generally thought of as head and shoulders above Jackie Robinson, at least from a statistical point of view.
Recognizing that for reasons beyond his control, Jackie was unable to begin his MLB career until age 28, let’s see how our five immortals did from age 28 onward.
If that first graph is a bit messy for you, we can look at a composite based on averages. Same five players.
And finally, we can superimpose WAR data for Jackie Robinson onto that same graph.
Let’s remember again who the five players represented by the blue line are: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle. Yes, it’s only five years, but Jackie Robinson’s WAR is above theirs every year from age 30 to age 34.
Now truth be told the graph includes the Splendid Splinter’s Korean War years, where he played only 43 games total across the 1952 and 1953 campaigns. Still, the graph tells the same story even when we exclude the Williams data for those two years.
When baseball fans look at Robinson’s career numbers, whether modern stats or traditional ones, they are impressed but not blown away. However, it’s important to recognize the impact that Jackie’s late start had on his career numbers. It’s no surprise that most players are better in their twenties than in their thirties. What may be a surprise is just how much better.
In my post on Mike Trout, I provided this graph to show the abrupt decline in WAR after age 30 for Trout’s ten closest career-by-age-26 comps: Frank Robinson; Ken Griffey, Jr.; Mickey Mantle; Hank Aaron; Miguel Cabrera; Orlando Cepeda; Mel Ott; Eddie Mathews; Andruw Jones; and Albert Pujols. Compare the utterly ridiculous numbers from their twenties with the far less remarkable numbers from their thirties.
Of the ten players included in the graph, seven are in the Hall of Fame already and two others will likely join them. Not a single one would be even a borderline Hall of Famer had they begun their career at age 28. Their cases for Cooperstown were all built off the phenomenal stats they compiled in their twenties.
Perhaps because of his speed or daring, or the simple fact that he was only a rookie, we tend to think of Jackie Robinson in 1947 as young. However, in baseball terms, he was already middle aged. What we imagined was Jackie at his best was probably not even close to it. When Jackie won the MVP award in 1949, leading the league in batting average (.342) and steals (37), this was not Jackie in his prime. This was Jackie in decline.
You’ll have to come back in a decade to see if I’m right or wrong about this, but I believe Jackie’s age 30-34 WAR will exceed what Mike Trout puts up during that same stretch, just as it already surpassed a composite of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle.
Either way, here is the question that sounds crazy but isn’t: If Jackie Robinson was better than Mays, Aaron, Musial, Williams, and Mantle from age 30-34, might he have been better than them from age 20-24? That the data suggest even a “maybe” should tell you that Jackie Robinson was better–much, much better–at baseball than you thought. Not bad for what might have been his very worst sport!