Book excerpt: Brooks Robinson

A 23-year career, all with the O’s, resulted in Brooke Robinson being atop or nearly atop the majority of the Orioles’ career category leaders. (He trails a certain shortstop in many cumulative categories.) A consistently good hitter (nearly 3,000 hits), and a consistently great fielder, Robinson was the most popular Oriole for fans of his generation, and one of the most widely loved players around the league at the time. His nickname, “The Human Vacuum Cleaner,” was quite appropriate for a man who won 16 straight Gold Gloves, and deserved them all. Brooks’ ranks for each and every fielding category among third basemen all-time shows just how great he was: games played – first; assists – first; putouts – first; fielding percentage – first. Ya, he was the best defensive third baseman of all-time. Total Zone Runs are a measurement of how many runs above or below average a player is worth at their position based on their range, and fielding ability. Robinson not only leads all third basemen in this category historically, but is first among all fielders at any position, all-time. It isn’t even close; he is worth over fifty runs more than Andruw Jones who is second all-time (293-242). According to dWAR, Brooks won the Orioles nearly 40 games (38.8) during his career with his glove, and this total seems low for a number of reasons.

What people who aren’t stat-heads sometimes argue is that statisticians can sometimes overlook anything outside of the numbers. This is a huge straw man argument, since 99.9 percent of baseball statisticians are able to use statistics, along with what they see, to reach their conclusions. For example, numbers are an important part of assessing players, especially when they can help to compare more objectively between two players, but Robinson’s glove was almost certainly worth more than two games a season to the O’s over his career. For instance, how many times do you think the Orioles had a lead in a game, and their opponent started to make a little bit of a rally only to have Brooks make a sublime play at third, and completely kill their rally. A play like that might certainly help out his numbers (range factor, fielding percentage etc.), but the numbers would not do justice to the fact that that the play Brooks just made may have just won the game.

Another thing statistics sometimes can’t account for is some of the subtleties of having a true game changer. How many opposing batters do you think were trying to lay bunts down the third base line for hits with a dude named The Human Vacuum Cleaner over there? Not many. How much more confidence do you think his pitching staff had to be knowing Brooks was going to get anything near him, and – as I have mentioned before, and will certainly mention again, because I believe it’s a huge thing – a pitcher pitching with confidence and being able to attack the strike zone (especially low and in to right-handed batters) is a quality that can’t truly have its impact measured by statistics as yet. As Robinson himself said, “It’s a pretty sure thing that the player’s bat is what speaks loudest when it’s contract time, but there are moments when the glove has the last word.”

Robinson was also a very good postseason performer for the Orioles; winning a World Series MVP in one of his two World Series victories with the club. He posted a career .303 batting average in the playoffs, and actually hit over .500 for the 1970 playoffs as a whole. Although, his teammates almost certainly weren’t surprised, considering Brooks was the man who showed up for spring training before the 1970 season with luggage that read “1970 World Champions.”1 He also kept up his excellent glove work in the playoffs making Johnny Bench say of him, “I will become a left-handed hitter to keep the ball away from that guy.”

A final story that epitomizes Robinson’s fielding ethic. In his early days, when he had to prove himself, Brooks went face-first into a concrete ledge, chipping five teeth, and basically knocking him out. When he heard the trainer call for an ambulance, however, he shook it off, and went back out to the field to finish what he had started.

Somewhat ironically, Brooks Robinson, fielder extraordinaire, hit into record four triple plays during his career. In the words of Michael Scott, “How the turn tables.”

1 This is similar to the Jedi mind trick Doc Rivers pulled during the 2008 Ubuntu year, when he took $100 from each player and staff member of the Celtics and left it in the ceiling of the Staples Center during the Celtics only regular season trip to L.A. The meaning: The Celtics would have to return to meet the Lakers in the NBA Finals to reclaim that money. Of course, they did.