Bottom of the 9th
In the Preambulum, I made a bold proclamation: I said I was going to all-but prove to you that Brooks Robinson was the greatest defensive player ever to play baseball, at any position.
My attempt to do so was to use the 1970 World Series – the thing that everyone remembers – to demonstrate just how great Robinson was.
As of right now, a certain percentage of readers probably think I did a pretty decent job, while another group probably thinks I didn’t prove anything – okay, the guy had a great World Series … so what? That doesn’t make him “the greatest defensive player of all-time, you hyperbolic fan-boy!”
I also mentioned Aristotle’s recipe for persuasion, translated to Yogi Berrish: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and then tell ’em what you just told ’em.”
I have now written the first long-form piece of my entire life, spending dozens-upon-dozens of hours methodically attempting to convey to you the second part of that triptych.
What I’m going to do right now is tell you what I just told you, but after five games of tossing you slow, hanging curveballs, it’s now time for me to reach back, give it everything I’ve got, and deliver the heat, on this, my final pitch.
I suspect I’ll be the first person ever to say this, but I’m going to come right out and say it: Brooks Robinson had a sub-par defensive World Series, and all those “miraculous plays” you just saw were things he did as a matter of course. The difference between this World Series, and Robinson’s 23-years playing 3rd base can be summed up by two things: 1) this was the first time he ever got true, national attention for something he did for his entire career, and 2) he had an offensive World Series that would have made Babe Ruth proud. *That* is why this is known as “The Brooks Robinson Series.”
Robinson had a .958 fielding percentage in this World Series, which for most people would have been excellent: Pie Traynor had a career fielding percentage of .947, and Mike Schmidt had a career fielding percentage of .951 – this would have been an outstanding five games for either of those two; for Robinson? It was below his usual standards.
Robinson had a relatively high number of Chances-per-Game in this Series – more than his career average, but let’s take a look at the 16 consecutive years in which he won his Gold Gloves (yes, he made all sorts of spectacular plays over that 16-year span, just like he did in this World Series – there was nothing new there):
1960 – .977
1961 – .972
1962 – .979
1963 – .976
1964 – .972
1965 – .967
1966 – .976
1967 – .980
1968 – .970
1969 – .976
1970 – .966
1971 – .968
1972 – .977
1973 – .970
1974 – .967
1975 – .979
Please look closely. In his *worst* year out of those 16 – ironically, 1970 – his season fielding percentage was .966: notably higher than his fielding percentage in this World Series. From 1955 through 1977 – 23 years – his career-average fielding percentage was .971. Brooks Robinson made 45% more Errors per Chance in this World Series than he averaged throughout his career – and this includes seasons when he was both 18- and 40-years-old. Not only that, but he got a chance to field only two bunts during the five games – one of which he let roll for a base hit, which he almost never did – and fielding bunts was one of his preternatural skills. He didn’t tag a single runner, he had only one force-out on a double-play ball, and he could have easily been charged with a second error on Tommy Helms‘ infield single in Game 4.
Robinson played in 9 post-season series, and this one ranks #7 in fielding percentage:
1966 WS – 1.000
1969 ALCS – 1.000
1969 WS – 1.000
1970 ALCS – 1.000
1970 WS – .958
1971 ALCS – 1.000
1971 WS – .920
1973 ALCS – .941
1974 ALCS – 1.000
Total – .972, just slightly higher than his career average.
That one, seemingly innocuous, throw in Game 1, which was about three-inches too high, was so out-of-character for Robinson that it skewed his entire World Series down in terms of fielding percentage. The spectacular plays? He made those routinely – he made them *all the time* – they were not spectacular plays for Robinson, they were completely ordinary; it was his slightly errant throw that was the oddity.
You’ve been groomed, over the decades, into thinking that Robinson had some sort of statistical anomaly in the 1970 World Series, but the numbers and films reveal otherwise: Robinson had a below-average World Series in terms of defense. In terms of offense? He was a tour-de-force (with due respect to Paul Blair, Lee May, and several others), and he pulled it off in front of the national eye.
In 1970, left-handed pitchers Dave McNally (I have a friend who calls him “Dave McLucky”) and Mike Cuellar each won 24 games. Both pitchers tended to throw sinking curves, low-and-inside to the 3rd-base side of home plate, forcing batters to hit ground balls to Brooks Robinson. In 1969, Mike Cuellar won 23 games with these slow, loping curveballs and screwballs, and he won the Cy Young Award: In 1971, the Orioles had 4 20-game winners. These pitchers’ games – with the exception of the fantastic Jim Palmer – were molded to tempt hitters to direct the ball towards third base and shortstop.
Regarding shortstop, In my analysis of Game 2, I referred you to a link which some of you may have glossed over. I need you to go there now, and really *read* it (here it is) – it will come very close to mathematically proving what type of range Robinson had, using Luis Aparicio as the constant, and different third basemen as the variable. Is it coincidence that during Robinson’s tenure, the Orioles had two of the greatest defensive shortstops the game has ever known? Or was Robinson acting as a booster, rescuing both Belanger and Aparacio when they needed to go towards their right? The answer is pretty-well mapped out in the Aparicio analysis – please visit this link, read it carefully, and remember it well 2-3 paragraphs from now.
In the crudest of terms, the baseball field can be broken into four quadrants: 1) the left-side of the infield 2) the right-side of the infield 3) the left side of the outfield, and 4) the right-side of the outfield. The Orioles were very fortunate to have Paul Blair in center-field, one of the greatest – if not *the* greatest – defensive center-fielder in history, because Brooks Robinson wasn’t able to cover for the Orioles’ outfielders. Likewise, how fortunate to have Davey Johnson at 2nd base, and the extremely underrated Boog Powell at 1st base – a man tailor-made to handle Robinson’s bounce-throws to first, and who could stretch-catch as well as anyone I’ve ever seen, with his massive six-foot, five-inch frame – what a perfect combination this was. Back to the quadrants: In these terms, you could argue that Brooks Robinson was directly and indirectly responsible for fully 25% of the baseball field on defense, and he (with the help of two fantastic shortstops) changed the opponents’ strategy, as he essentially removed that part of the field from consideration – the poor Reds had never experienced anything like this before, and even the best of scouting reports couldn’t have prepared them for the hellish World Series they were forced to endure.
Fifty years ago, there was scouting, but not advanced analytics dealing with shifts; yet somehow, Robinson was able – time-after-time – to be in the right spots, even when playing the line to protect against doubles, and the ball was often hit right to him – it’s as if he had some type of sixth sense of where to be.
Earlier on, I said that I loved Mike Schmidt, and I still do, but that was before I read this New York Times essay by baseball writer Tyler Kepner, which was published on Jan 25, 2018. In the article, Schmidt – who is inexplicably called “the greatest third baseman in major league history” – is quoted by Kepner as follows:
“Don’t let the hot corner concept fool you,” Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman in major league history, said by phone on Thursday. “The third baseman’s got his own little corner to protect, some down-the-line pop-ups and a couple of bunt plays here and there, but for the most part, a third baseman can go an entire game and never see any defensive action at all. The shortstop’s got to be all over the place on the field. If you play shortstop, you can play anywhere on the field. Going from short to third, it’s a walk in the park.”
It’s a 3 AM walk in Central Park. Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Kepner need to be mindful that airline pilots can sit in the cockpit and play Scrabble while the plane flies itself on autopilot (until they’re forced to land in the Hudson River); that policemen spend 99% of their time on patrol driving around, writing traffic tickets, responding to minor calls, and drinking coffee trying to stay awake while they’re writing out an entire library’s-worth of paperwork (and the other 1% making split-second, life-or-death decisions about whether someone needs to be saved, or killed, while the policeman’s would-be executioner has planned out their malevolent course of action for days if not weeks); that soldiers overseas spend their days bored to tears in the desert, wiping sand off their burned, chafed skin (until a suicide bomb hidden in a vest comes walking their way in the form of an elderly lady seeking help). Have another look at the post-game interviews made by Tony Kubek after Game 5 – note in particular his interview with eight-time Gold Glove Award-winning shortstop, Mark Belanger – I only wish Belanger was still around so we could ask him what he thinks of Kepner’s questionable descriptor (in an otherwise fine article), and Schmidt’s humble and self-deprecating, but ultimately misguided, comments. And remember that over the course of the five-game, 1970 World Series, Brooks Robinson probably touched the baseball for less than 30-seconds, total.
There’s one more thing I can’t reconcile about a third baseman ‘going an entire game and never seeing any defensive action at all’ – this doesn’t mesh with the fact that in 23 seasons, Robinson played 2870 games at 3rd base, and had 9165 Chances – that averages out to over 3.1 chances per game.
I apologize to my readers for bombarding them with the endless examples from the World Series, but hopefully it was a fun journey down memory lane, and it was the only means I had to demonstrate the greatness of Brooks Robinson – who is now 80-years old, and whose fans are, at this point, mostly deceased. I needed to show you extended examples of jaw-dropping footage from Robinson’s five-game-long, third-base ballet in 1970, and then – and only then – remind you that this was nothing out of the ordinary, and that it went on for 23 years. How old were you 23 years ago, and what were you doing then? That’s how long this sustained level of excellence lasted.
Robinson won his final Gold Glove in 1975; the photograph up at the top is in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and was taken by photographer Walter Kelleher, twelve years before this World Series – in 1958.
Allow me to end this with some quotes about Brooks Robinson from his peers:
“He was the best defensive player at any position. I used to stand in the outfield like a fan, and watch him make play-after-play. I used to think: ‘WOW! I can’t believe this!'” – Frank Robinson
“We kind of laughed at the fuss everyone made – we’d seen him make those kinds of plays for years.” – Dick Hall
“He charged everything. He reacted as the ball was coming off the bat, sometimes as it was coming to the bat!” – George Brett
“He plays third base like he came down from a higher league.” – Umpire Ed Hurley
“Brooks never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him; in Baltimore, people named their kids after him.” – Sportswriter Gordon Beard
From John Eisenberg on baltimoresun.com, quoting catcher Elrod Hendricks, a rookie just up from the Mexican league, witnessing Robinson in 1968:
“Early in the game, Oakland’s fleet Bert Campaneris pushed a bunt between the mound and third as a runner on first sprinted for second”:
“Where I’d come from, that was a hit. Brooks was on it instantly, and without even looking, threw to second for a force. Then, there was a throw to first, double play, inning over, in half a second. I was sitting in the bullpen and my mouth fell open. I went, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! I don’t believe what I just saw!'” – Elrod Hendricks
“Before every pitch for years and years, he was on his toes, ready to move, instantly alert. He always got ready as if he knew the ball was coming to him. Whenever a new guy would join the bullpen, he’d watch Brooks for a game or two and say, ‘Holy cow! He’s as good as they say!’ We’d say, ‘Just watch him. He treats every pitch like there are two outs in the ninth.’ – Dick Hall
Finally, from legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg, who left us in Dec, 2017, during his induction speech into the Baseball Hall of Fame:
“I loved acknowledging the subtle arrogance of Hall of Famer Rod Carew‘s drag bunt. The sleight-of-hand of Brooks Robinson magically reducing a double into 5-3 putouts. The towering arc of a Ted Williams monster shot deposited in the bleachers high. The classic confrontation of the best hitter against the best pitcher, and the immaculately executed bullet of a double play.” – Dick Enberg
One day, Major League Baseball will make available films of numerous games, instead of the select few that are available now – hopefully they’ll be colorized and digitized. Then, and perhaps only then, will people see just how immortal Brooks Robinson truly was, day in, day out, for 23 breathtaking years. and that there are things which simply cannot be derived from a stat sheet. Then, and only then, will everyone realize that there has never been, and can never be, another Brooks Robinson.
This is probably the only long piece I’ll ever write in my lifetime, and I’ve left my blood and guts all over it. Even if you don’t agree with its basic premise, please at least be aware of this: “Baseball Great Brooks Robinson Sells Multi-Million Dollar Norman Rockwell for Charity.” Watch also this Heritage video about Robinson donating 100% of the proceeds of his memorabilia auction to charity.
To Mr. Robinson, should you ever see this, and wish to thank me: You already thanked me, fifty years ago.