Matching Jackie

Finding a match for Jackie Robinson off the field is nearly impossible, but what about on the field? (via Library of Congress)

Jackie Robinson is unique. Explaining the primary reason for his uniqueness, especially to baseball fans, is an exercise in redundancy. What he did in 1947 made both his game and his country much better, and while there are other individuals who could have done it, there is nothing conditional or speculative about what Robinson did.

He has become so much a shining civil-rights symbol, in fact, that Robinson the icon has put Robinson the baseball player in the shade. This isn’t to say the icon is unimportant, it’s to say that the player is important, too. (At the very least because a so-so player breaking the color line would not have been the rebuke to the institution of segregation Robinson proved to be.)

Robinson was one of the outstanding players of his age, an age that had a lot of outstanding players. Both main WAR sources peg him as a six-win player through the entirety of his career, one which, by current understandings of performance curves, began after his peak. Branch Rickey didn’t hire Robinson just to make the world a better place—or if he did, his expansive definition of that term included the Dodgers winning the pennant. They did that six times in Robinson’s decade with Brooklyn, and it was no coincidence.

As the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s debut came around last year, I found myself wondering who in the current game had the greatest similarity to Robinson. Not as a person and a role model—though a worthy question, that is a highly subjective one—but as a baseball player. Who is closest to having the same particular array of skills Robinson brought to the diamond?

I set out to do that by determining where every current regular baseball player sat on a zero-to-100 point scale of similarity to Robinson. My work was put in abeyance, though, as The Hardball Times already had plenty of Jackie Robinson material to post around the 15th of April, the anniversary of his debut. There’s always next year, though, so I did it again, taking the 2017 season into account.

I could have waited until April to publish, near the non-round 71st anniversary. It’s the obvious best time to write about Robinson, but I thought of a slightly less obvious, and a sooner, one: Jan. 31, his birthday. This year, Jackie would have turned 99. That’s not quite a round number either, but I like Aaron Judge, so I’m going with it.

Jackie’s Baseline

It’s easy enough to find evidence of Robinson’s excellence: Read his player page at FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference, or glance over Joe Distelheim’s list of accomplishments from his THT piece last April. My purposes require a particular angle on the data, however. I need to set Robinson in the context of his time and league so I can find how close current players really are to him.

Also, I need to encompass Robinson, the total player. Just saying he was a great base-stealer and making Billy Hamilton or Dee Gordon his contemporary comp is lazy and flat-out wrong. Robinson was more than that, perhaps surprisingly more.

I chose a broad array of statistics in taking the measure of Robinson on the field. I covered offense at the plate with a number of fairly standard measures. Offense on the bases I handled with stolen bases, attempt rate and success rate, plus a general baserunning measure from Baseball-Reference, Rbaser, that includes non-stealing running (taking extra bases, advancing on wild pitches, etc.). Defense I covered with more B-R stats: Rfield, which measures runs above average at one’s fielding position, and Rpos, measuring the value of the position itself (shortstop positive, first base negative, and so on).

I counted these up for Robinson’s career and turned into rate stats those that weren’t already, using plate appearances as the denominator. I then compared most of them to the stats for the National League of 1947 to 1956, the years of Robinson’s career. (The Rbaser, Rfield, and Rpos stats go by league averages and didn’t need adjustments.)

The 14 measures I examined are listed below. Most are on the familiar adjusted-rate scale, except that I used 1.0 instead of 100 for my average. Higher still means more. The three r-prefix stats are per 600 PA, with zero as the average.

One note before proceeding: I took as my statistics those produced by famed Brooklyn Dodgers statistician Allan Roth, available on a special Robinson tribute page at Retrosheet. They vary slightly in a few categories from the official numbers but also provide full stolen base data that the usual sources do not have.

Career Rate Stats for Jackie Robinson, 1947-1956
Category Rate Stat Category Rate Stat
BAv 1.192 SBPct 1.298
2B 1.257 SBAtt 4.975
3B 1.173 HBP 2.889
HR 1.070 SacHits 3.015
BB 1.404 Rbaser/600 +3.101
K 0.474 Rfield/600 +8.374
GIDP 0.957 Rpos/600 +1.964

We’re used to hearing that Robinson’s greatness was centered around his speed and basepath daring. While he was certainly formidable there, at least relative to his era, the numbers above give a broader perspective. For my money, the greatness of Robinson as a baseball player comes from having, in effect, zero weaknesses. There was no aspect of the game at which he was not at least a shade above average.

Robinson’s career batting average was .311, a great figure, but his on-base percentage was the more impressive at .409. One does not think of him as a walks machine, but as the table shows, he racked them up. Impressively, Robinson managed this with power that, while above average, was not intimidating enough to make pitchers work around him. Considering the misery he could cause them on the basepaths, they instead had good reason not to let him have first base—but he kept getting it.

Granted, some of this on-base excellence came from the hit-by-pitch category. While wearing one can be a skill, the uncomfortable truth is that Robinson was the target of more than a couple pitchers who wished his kind had stayed out of their game. This wasn’t merely an early phenomenon, either. His most-plunked season was 1952, his sixth, and the rates really fell only in his last two years. One would like to think these narrow stats didn’t fully reflect the state of race relations in baseball at the time. One would be unwise to assume it’s so.

Back on more comfortable ground, Robinson’s power was, as already noted, fairly good but not special. One can ask whether the numbers come purely from his superior batting average, getting more extra-base hits of all kinds while still having below-average isolated pop. I checked: Robinson’s career BAv+ is 1.192, and his career ISO+ is 1.212. His above-average power, while not monstrous, is no illusion.

The only rate stats that stand below average are the bad ones. His low strikeout rate is connected both to good contact, seen in his batting average, and a good eye, seen in his walk rate. The near-average GIDP rate seems surprising, given his well-known speed. Do remember, though, that he was batting in RBI spots for a lot of his career: Allan Roth recommended this move for the 1949 season, and it helped win Robinson his MVP Award. He was supposed to have runners ahead of him, and with Brooklyn’s potent offense, he very often did. Double plays were a natural side effect.

But then why was an RBI player piling up so many sacrifices? That high number is nails on a chalkboard to today’s sabermetricians, but think it through. Robinson was compiling sacrifices because he could be counted on to bunt well. It was another skill being exploited. Also, the intent may not always have been to sacrifice. Robinson could well have been bunting for hits with men on, with the sacrifice an acceptable fallback result if he didn’t beat it out.

Robinson had other motives for some bunts. Leo Durocher, who managed Robinson early in his career, advised it as a method to retaliate against hostile pitchers throwing heaters at his head. “Push one down,” Leo told Jackie, “and run right up his neck.” Meaning, plow over the head-hunting hurler as he fields the bunt. Robinson, as intense a competitor as Durocher if less crude about it, proved coachable on this matter. Bunting was a meaningful part of Robinson’s game, and not just tactically.

Defense, of course, was good, though his positional score isn’t as strong as one might expect. Robinson spent only five full seasons playing at second base. He was at first base for his rookie year and mostly split time between third base and left field in his late years. It still totals out well, but not dominantly so.

From this set of statistics, I had to decide how much to weight each category and how much each score would fall off for a modern player’s deviation from Jackie’s mark. I was guided partly by Bill James’ work from when he was creating his Win Shares method, which pointed to defense (distinct from pitching) being worth roughly one-third as much as offense. Thus, 25 percent of the value goes to matching Robinson’s defensive numbers. I gave an additional 25 percent to general baserunning, which is more than its actual offensive worth but gives some recognition to Robinson’s historical perception.

Weighting By Category (100 Point Total)
Category Points Category Points
BAv 15 SBPct 10
2B 5 SBAtt 10
3B 5 HBP 1
HR 5 SH 2
BB 10 Rbaser 5
K 6 Rfield 15
GIDP 1 Rpos 10

It’s trendy to dismiss the importance of batting average to a player, but it does matter, and likely more than I’m crediting. One can build well or poorly on that foundation, with walks, power, and speed, but it is still the foundation of a player’s offense. Minor factors like HBP and sacrifices got minor values. Stolen base aggressiveness and success received equal measures.

With those peak values settled, I had to determine the scales leading from a top score in a category down to zero. (I allowed no negative scores, because otherwise a few players would have ended up with overall scores below zero.) This next table shows how much of a difference in each category would bring a compared player down from the maximum, whatever it is, to zero. A bigger difference would still count as zero. A smaller difference would produce points inversely proportionate to the distance from the target.

Range from Maximum to Zero
Category Range Category Range
BAv 0.25 SBPct 0.5
2B 1.0 SBAtt 5.0
3B 1.0 HBP 2.5
HR 1.0 SacHits 1.5
BB 1.0 Rbaser/600 5.0
K 0.5 Rfield/600 10.0
GIDP 0.8 Rpos/600 10.0

The baseline is set. The scales are calibrated. Let’s see how today’s players measure up.

Match Game

My definition of a contemporary player was someone who accumulated at least 2,000 plate appearances between 2013 and 2017. I didn’t want to risk giving top honors to someone with just a couple years or to a platooner with inflated rate stats in part-time work. Neither did I want to exclude a legit player who lost time to a few injuries.

My definition let in some players who stopped playing in 2016, such as David Ortiz and Jimmy Rollins, or who only reached the bigs in 2014, like José Abreu and George Springer. Kris Bryant even made the cut after debuting in 2015—notoriously a couple weeks into 2015, to preserve a seventh year of control by the Chicago Cubs.

I put their statistics through the same process as Robinson’s. The primary difference is that I measured them against the overall major-league baseline as opposed to just the NL for Robinson. Once I had those point standings, I re-examined the top (and bottom) finishers against their league baselines for greater precision.

First, to give a better view of how the process works, I will reveal the bottom of the list. Out of the 162 qualifiers, I culled the lowest five finishers by major league-wide baseline to be re-checked by league baselines. The league check did switch the order of two players—the bottom two.

The Anti-Jackie Robinsons, 2013-2017
Player Pts. (1st pass) Pts. (2nd pass)
Chris Carter 19.50 19.88
Chris Davis 19.02 18.87
Mark Trumbo 18.31 18.62
Justin Smoak 16.05 16.60
Lucas Duda 16.95 16.52

The current player with the least resemblance to Jackie Robinson, by a very slender 0.08-point margin, is Lucas Duda, at 16.52 points out of 100.

The explanation is simple. Duda is a plodding baserunner, with a 30 percent success rate on the very few stolen bases he’s attempted the last five years. He is a mediocre fielder at first base. His low batting averages go hand-in-glove with high strikeout rates. His primary skill, home run hitting, overshoots Robinson the same way most aspects of his game undershoot him. He scores zero in seven out of 14 categories (as does Smoak; Carter and Davis six, and Trumbo five). It is Duda’s strong walk rate and his above-average doubles hitting that get him the bulk of his few points.

The tale is very similar for the other four anti-finalists. They are all slow-footed and strikeout-prone, low-tier defenders when they aren’t DH’ing, whose playing value is concentrated mostly in hitting balls over walls. The anti-Robinson for the 2012-16 period was Ryan Howard, at 13.66 points, which caps the case as perfectly as I could wish.

Being the clone of Jackie turns out to be rather trickier. By flipping the opposite examples, you might expect those most resembling Robinson to score in the 80s somewhere. It’s far from the truth, but that’s the nature of the numbers. There are very narrow windows in which one can make excellent scores but wide swathes that will get you goose eggs.

For the leaders, I took the 10 highest scorers by major league baseline to give the closer home-league scrutiny. This changed some order of finish, but the top six players maintained their positions.

Before naming the winner, I’ll spend a few moments with the honorable mentions, plus one or two others.

Resembling Robinson — Runners-Up
Pos. Player Points
2 Adrián Beltré 66.24
3 Josh Donaldson 65.49
4 Buster Posey 64.75
5 Carlos Gómez 63.70
6 Dustin Pedroia 63.12
7 Josh Harrison 63.03
8 D.J. LeMahieu 62.86
9 Michael Brantley 62.40
10 Christian Yelich 62.21

When first crafting this idea, I imagined José Altuve as a favorite for the top spot. Instead, he finished 13th, with 60.55 points, respectable but clearly outmatched. Part of the shortfall comes from not drawing walks well and from his batting average, thrice leading the league, being just too good, the way Duda’s homer rate is too high. The big problem is his defense at second base. While it’s improving, it is still below average for the survey period, costing him significantly. In a few years, I can see him developing into the top match, but he isn’t there now.

If you were wondering about Mike Trout, the poster boy for total excellence, he comes 30th out of 162, at 51.73 points. He has the same fielding deficit as Altuve, plus he fans way too often and has too much power for his own good. Let this put things in perspective: Looking for the top Jackie Robinson comp is not the same thing as looking for the best player.

Josh Harrison, the Pirates infielder with mild super-utility pretensions, was a surprise but a pleasant one. He provides fine defense plugged in on the strong side of the spectrum, a Robinson-like skill that scored him an effectively perfect 24.93 points of out 25 defensively. This compensates for his iffy speed and poor patience to anchor him in the top 10.

Carlos Gómez also leverages an outstanding defensive match (24.12 out of 25), and adds good running and stealing games to his mix. He gives away some of that with a batting average depressed by high strikeout totals, though his extra-base hits are pretty Robinsonian. It’s enough for a top-five finish.

No, Buster Posey didn’t seem a natural for this list to me, either. Part of it is how his occasional first base duty balances with his catching to draw his overall defensive position score down, closer to Robinson’s level. (Catching is just too far along the spectrum otherwise.) His limited speed does him just one favor, in that his steal success rate is quite good. His big gains are in batting average, walks and strikeouts, plus his doubles and homer rates. Had he played AT&T Park’s Triples Alley for a few more three-baggers, he could have topped the list.

Josh Donaldson is another player in the defensive sweet spot, his good work at third giving him 24.21 points out of a possible 25. His case is damaged by a slugger’s profile: homers and strikeouts too high, batting average not high enough. Decent speed and a good steal success rate (though he attempts too seldom) boost him into third place.

Adrián Beltré has been getting such a mounting wave of appreciation late in his career that this seems a natural culmination. He’s another great defensive match, his batting average is almost dead on target, and he is admirably resisting the flood of whiffs in baseball. It is his steals game that is the hole in the profile, not really a shock from a player in his late 30s. We’ll see you in Cooperstown, Adrián. Assuming you retire.

Beltré shares, during the five-year study period I used, another trait with Robinson: He stayed with the same team. This turns out to be a pretty consistent point of similarity, and dissimilarity, though I hesitate to guess whether it has any practical meaning. Of the five anti-finalists, just one was with the same team from 2013 to 2017. Of the 10 finalists, seven were with one team for the last five seasons. The three exceptions were Gómez, Donaldson, and the number-one finisher.

I have concealed his identity long enough now. The current player most similar to Jackie Robinson, at 68.44 points, 2.2 ahead of the runner-up Beltré, is…Justin Turner!

You are perhaps giving your monitor a blank stare. I understand. When you imagine the two side-by-side in your mind’s eye, it is admittedly a strange juxtaposition. I will explain Turner’s case, and I will begin with its weakest point.

Turner doesn’t steal much, with 28 attempts over the last five seasons. He has, however, converted 22 of them, for an above-average success rate of 78.6 percent. His overall Rbaser score is a sliver above the mean at plus-3. All told, this gets him 10.03 points out of 25 in the speed-and-steals categories, and to that you can add his 1.91/5 in triples.

His strong points begin with defense: good fielding and a spot-on positional adjustment for playing mostly at third base. His .301 batting average over the last five seasons gives him 14.92 out of 15 points, added to a below-league strikeout rate that nets him a few points and a good walk rate that brings in more. His doubles rate is a close match, and he’s found a homer swing with Los Angeles that doesn’t take him too far past Robinson’s pace. He even gets plunked a lot, though that isn’t what put him over the top.

Turner has few holes in his game, bringing him close to the across-the-board performance that is the definition of Robinson’s career. He’s getting recognized for that now in Los Angeles, as well as across the country after his strong postseason run in 2017. For those still skeptical about the comparison, you can comfort yourselves with one final likeness: Turner is a Dodger. Jackie probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

X =/= 42

A lot of good contemporary players come fairly close to matching up with Jackie Robinson’s array of baseball skills, but a true double for him is elusive. A big part of that is how few current players steal as aggressively, compared to the league, as he did. Of the 162 qualifying players, just three had a higher SBA+ rate than Robinson’s 4.975: Hamilton, Gordon, and Rajai Davis. A mere 14 of the 162 had a rate even half of Robinson’s.

That’s in the nature of the numbers—you can’t have a large cohort way above average, because they’d raise the average—but it does thin the field of possible perfect matches. Throw in all the other requirements of good defense, low strikeouts, et cetera, and the thin numbers are quickly narrowed to zero. In today’s game, there is no one quite like Jackie Robinson.

Such a thing is easy to say about great players of the past, especially when personality is added to the mix: Babe Ruth the man was as inimitable as Babe Ruth the ballplayer. It also, like many clichés, isn’t necessarily true. It deserves some scrutiny, which I’ve given it today in Robinson’s case. In this case, the cliché held up.

Justin Turner may come the closest as a player by my measure, but it is in some ways an unreasonable comparison. Robinson’s skills as a baseball player were indeed a great and rare combination; that those skills inhabited such a great and rare person is something of a marvel. My first sentence was no lie: Jackie Robinson is unique.

Baseball was fortunate to have him. It would be fortunate again if someone very like him were to come along.

References and Resources

  • Baseball-Reference, including the Play Index
  • Retrosheet for the Allan Roth scorecard version of Robinson’s career stats.
  • Bill James, Win Shares
  • Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, The Baseball Codes
  • Wikimedia Commons for the photo of Justin Turner


A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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joedodger
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joedodger

A most excellent conclusion – I was not prepared for it. Thank you for the exercise.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

Where does Robinson Cano fit into the calculations? I ask because Cano was named after Jackie.

tramps like us
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tramps like us

A historical comparison starting in the 1960’s would be fun, too. I immediately thought of Pete Rose, obviously not a perfect comp either, but through his utility and being pretty good at a lot of things while very good at a few might measure up. Well, except speed. Vada Pinson, too. I like Rose better because he played infield, mostly. Or maybe Garry Templeton during his Cardinals days.

WARrior
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WARrior

I don’t know where he ranks on your list, but I think of Ichiro as a natural comparison to Robinson. He has had a high BA, not a lot of power, and great defense and baserunning. I understand Ichiro’s case is hurt by too high an average and not enough walks (like Altuve), and less power than Robinson, but that may be a reflection to some extent of emphasis rather than skill set. Had Ichiro chosen to, he probably could have sacrificed some BA for more walks and more power. In any case, what really closes the deal for me… Read more »

Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards

It’s simply impossible to compare Jackie Robinson with Ichiro or anyone else in MLB history. While nearly everyone was rooting for Ichiro to succeed, nearly everyone was rooting for Robinson to fail. Jackie’s obstacles weren’t limited to off the diamond. During the games, Robinson was jeered by fans, insulted by opposing players, and didn’t always get the calls other players received. A case could be made Robinson’s numbers would have been better had he debuted later.

mambotom
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mambotom

Ricky Henderson