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Was Harmon Killebrew a better thirdbaseman than Brooks Robinson?

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  • Was Harmon Killebrew a better thirdbaseman than Brooks Robinson?

    --I expect this question will sound crazy at first glance to most people, but I think there is a pretty good arguement for Killebrew being a better thirdbaseman than Robinson. Of course, I don't mean he actually played thirdbase better than Brooks. That would be absurd. What I'm asking is "would a team be better with Harmon Killebrew at third than Brooks Robinson?"
    --Killebrew was the better hitter by a pretty wide margin. His OBP was over 50 points higher, his slugging percentage was over 100 points higher and of course that means his advantage in OPS+ was hyge - 143 to 104. Despite playing 400 less games, Killebrew hit over twice as many HR (557-268) and drove in over 200 more runs (1584-1357).
    --The question then is "was Brooks' defensive edge enough to make up the offensive gap?". Robinson is generally considered to be the greatest defensive thirdbaseman of all time. Killebrew had a terrible defensive rep. No question Brooks looked better. He made "web gem" type plays on a regular basis, while Harmon looked kind of awkward in the field. In fact there is no question Robinson was better defensively, although I think Harmon was better than he looked. They played at pretty much the same time and the league averages for 3b over their careers is the same - range factor 2.74 and fielding percent .953. Robinson better than league at both with 3.10 and .971. Killebrew was worse than league at both with 2.52 and .940. So Robinson got to about one more ball every other game and made 10-15 less errors per season, depending on chances. That is very valuable, but is it worht as much as Killebrew's offense edge?
    ---Thirdbase was Killebrew's second most frequently played position. He played 969 games at first, 791 at third, 470 in LF, 158 at DH and 11 at 2b. The numbers say first was Killebrew's best defensive position (he was slightly better than league at both RF and FP) and I'm sure thats true. He was at best below average at third. However, you could live with him there and I think thats where he helped his teams most.
    ---In 1969 Killebrew was 33 and an establlished star. After bouncing between lF/3B/1B early in his career he had settled in at first, playing there almost exclusively for two seasons. He did not seem a good candidate for moving back to a more demanding defensive position. However, the Twins had a young firstbaseman whose bat they wanted in the lineup (Rich Reese) and Harmon shifted to third for the good of the team. The Twins won the divsion with Killebrew winning the MVP and Reese chipping with .332. They won the divison with the same arrangement the next year, although Reese proved to be a flash in the pan. (As an aside, the Twins confidence that Reese and Killebrew would be their 1B/3B combo for years led them to trade away a young 3b by the name of Graig Nettles. That part didn't work out so good).
    ---If I got to pick either Robinson or Killebrew as my thirdbaseman, I think I'd have to go with Harmon. It would be alot easier to find a firstbaseman who could outhit Robinson than a 3B who could outhit Killebrew. I value defense, but I don't think there is enough action at third to make up the offensive difference between these two players.

  • #2
    I'm a defensive minded individual(mainly because my dad says to concentrate on that and the hitting will come), but I'd have to take a better hitting third basemen. I like to think of 3B as a power hitters spot. Harmon couldn't field very well, but he could field.


    • #3
      This is probably a bias of mine, I admit, and it's very not Sabermetric of me, but...

      I forgive Brooks Robinson his career .267 BA because of his defensive prowess; you don't expect a lot of offense out of a defensive specialist. Pretty much gravy.

      But Harmon Killebrew is a guy who had offense as his bread and butter. And when I think of Harmon Killebrew, there's only one number that pops into my mind.


      I just can't see past that. I'll tell you this; I was suprised a few weeks ago when I glanced at home run leaderboards and I saw where Killebrew what as for his career... That .256 number had overwhelmed my thoughts on Killebrew to the point where I guess I had just figured his home run number was somewhere near Dave Kingman's.

      Now, Leecemark, you know me, I know all about the ins and outs of sabermetrics and the value of OBP and SLG. But I just can't get over an offensive player with a .256 batting average. If he was on my team, I'd be perpetually dissapointed in him (the way I'm perpetually disappointed now in Jason Giambi... I have no time for guys who go .250/.410/.550. I know how much value that they have, and how they'll put great OPS+'s up... but I can't get past that .250).

      So I can excuse it for Brooks the same way I could excuse it for Ozzie Smith or Maz. But for Harmon... or Schmidt or Joe Morgan for that matter... it just seems to me like, if you're that good an offensive player, get the wood on the ball.

      But it's not a very rational viewpoint, and it's not backed up by the math. Oh well.
      "Simply put, the passion, interest and tradition surrounding baseball in New York is unmatched."

      Sean McAdam,


      • #4
        The goal of baseball isn't necessarily to hit the ball. Hitting the ball is just a way of achieving the goal. The goal is scoring runs.

        And OBP+SLG = OPS is a better way of finding out who contributes to that as opposed to batting average.

        But, like you, knowing all of that, I have a VERY hard time "liking" players with sub ~.270 averages.

        Hell I kind of dislike sub ~.275 averages.


        • #5
          Career Value, Age Comparison of Win Shares

          Age Value Leader (Margin)
          18 neither (--)
          19 tie (1)
          20 tie (3)
          21 Robinson (+5)
          22 Robinson (+14)
          23 Robinson (+12)
          24 Robinson (+10)
          25 Robinson (+10)
          26 Robinson (+5)
          27 Robinson (+15)
          28 Robinson (+17)
          29 Robinson (+19)
          30 Robinson (+10)
          31 Killebrew (+3)
          32 Robinson (+2)
          33 Killebrew (+11)
          34 Killebrew (+18)
          35 Killebrew (+25)
          36 Killebrew (+31)
          37 Killebrew (+13)
          38 Killebrew (+12)
          39 Killebrew (+15)
          40 Killebrew (+15)

          Example, thru age 30, Brooks Robinson's career win shares were +10 more than Harmon Killebrew's.

          One other thing to consider is the level of peak performance these players produced.

          Killebrew had 12 all-star caliber (20+ ws) seasons (ages 23-31, 33-35)
          Robinson had all-star seasons (ages 23, 25, 27-31, 33-34 and 37).

          So far as MVP-caliber seaons (30+ ws), Killebrew had four such seasons (to Brookise's one.)

          Not sure I'd take one over the other. (Though I'd probably own Killebrew, if forced to pick just one.)
          "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
          "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
          "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
          "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe


          • #6
            El Halo, I agree Brooks gets a pass on his slightly above average batting average due his being a great defender. I can see - not agree, mind you, but see where you could hold a low batting average against an offensive specialist like Killebrew. However, I don't understand why its okay to be a slightly better than average hitter with a great glove (Robinson), but you resent a guy who was a great offensive player, except for BA, and won 10 Gold Gloves (Schmidt). I think its debatable whether Brooks was any better than Mike with the glove. If so, not by much. THere is no debate about which was the greater hitter.
            ---I think the OBP issue speaks to another topic I see on Robinson all the time - the idea that if he and Santo traded parks they would have traded offensive stats. That is simply not true. Brooks would have hit more homers and raised his slugging. His home park didn't have anything to do with his hack away approach though. Santo was an extremely selective hitter, usually amoung the league leaders in walks. No matter what park you put them in Santo would have had the better OBP.
            ---Anyway to answer the question at hand, would you have taken the bopper and lived with your disappointment in his BA or gone with the gloveman?


            • #7
              If I have a bunch of ground-ball pitchers, I take Robinson.

              If I have a bunch of fly-ball pitchers, I take Killebrew.

              Also of note is Chancellor's age factor. How about this: which player would you rather sign to a long-term deal in today's market?


              • #8
                JW, I think the answer to that is pretty clear. In their 20s, Robinson was a noticably more valuable player than Killebrew. In their 30s, Killebrew was a MUCH better player than Robinson. That was at least somewhat predictable too. Harmon's best qualities, power and patience, age well. Brooks was far more dependant on his quick reflexs. That Killebrew would have his best years in his mid-30s probably couldn't have been predicted, but that he would be better than Robinson was likely. I guess the best scenario would have been to have Robinson come up through your farm system, enjoy his best years and then sign Killebrew as a free agent to replace him.
                --I think your point about the type of pitching you being a factor in your decison is well taken. If you have an extreme ground ball staff, Robinson's value goes up and Killebrew's shortcomings become more of a problem. Thats especially true if you have lefthanded ground ball pitchers. Robinson's range factors actually went up in his early 30s. I don't think it was because he became a better fielder. I think it was because Cuellar and McNally were pitching 500 innings a year and creating more opportunities for him.


                • #9
                  As far as Win Shares go you'd be wise to remember that if you take Alex Rodriguez from 2003 and put him on say, the New York Yankees that year instead of the Texas Rangers his win share total goes up, because it is based off team wins.

                  So win shares aren't the perfect system for comparing two players that many assume, a great player on a horrible team can lose out to a really good player on an awesome team.


                  • #10
                    So Killebrew's margin of +15 is misleading.

                    Brooks Robinson played on the Baltimore Orioles from 1955-1977 when they were a very very good team. They were 2013-1643 during his career.

                    Harmon Killebrew played on the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins from 1954-1974, and his final year in 1975 was with the Kansas City Royals.

                    The two teams were a combined 1722-1773 during Killebrew's career.

                    If Harmon had been playing in Baltimore and Brooks with the Senators/Twins, well Brooks would have fewer win shares still and Harmon's would be even higher.


                    • #11
                      ---If Win Shares work correctly you should not benefit or suffer due to the quality of your team. Good teams have more wins and more shares shares, but they also have more good players to divide them amoung. Bad teams then would have fewer shares, but also fewer good players to divide them amoung. I've never read Win Shares, but James explains the concept in The New Historcial Baseball Abstract. One of the issues he was concerned about in developing the formula is that there not be a team bias either way.
                      ---Whether he succeeded or not is open to question. However, if you don't assume the formula works then there isn't much point to using it. I really am not enthused about using ANY one number as the end all of player evaluation, but think Win Shares are another usefull tool.
                      ---In Harmon's case you don't need sabermetrics to see that he was a great player. He finished in the top 4 in the MVP balloting 5 times before anyone had ever heard of sabermetrics, OPS+ or Win Shares. I'm old enough to have seen them both and knew when they were active Killebrew was better. Better understanding of stats only reinforced that.


                      • #12
                        Ugh, this whole talk about Killebrew's low career average is silly. Robinson's defense aside, his average was not all that impressive either. Plus, I don't think Robinson's stellar defense contributed as much to his teams' success as Killebrew's much better ability to drive in runs and score runs did for his teams'.

                        In over 450 less games and over 2500 less at-bats, or about 4-5 seasons less of hitting than Robinson, Killebrew knocked almost 230 more RBI's (about two good season's worth) than Robinson and scored more runs in less time. Granted, their spots in the batting order explains why Killebrew regularly drove in more, but he drove in two good seasons worth more while having almost 5 seasons worth of less chances than Robinson. Plus, Robinson for many years batted in front of some very good hitters, but even with soooo many more opportunities to bat and get on base than Killebrew, he still scored 50 less career runs than Killebrew.

                        And as for the batting averages, you really have to take into consideration the era in which the players were in their primes. In this case, both players were at their best for much of the 60's, but the 60's as a decade had much lower batting averages in the AL than any other decade. So if the best hitters are hitting in the .320s instead of the .350s, you have to think that a power hitter like Killebrew would be batting in the .250s instead of the .280s. I think in many ways Jim Thome is like a modern-day Killebrew, and he has a respectable career average of .285, but that's still like 50-60 points behind the best in the league, so Killebrew wasn't too far off from having a respectable average in his day by hitting around 60 points lower than the typical best. The measure of what constitutes a respectable average fluctuates from era to era. Below, I offer some stats that back-up my claims. These show the mean of the American League's leading average for the years of each decade, plus the highest and lowest averages of each decade:

                        90s: .350; Highest = John Olrerud, .363 ('93); Lowest = George Brett, .329 ('90)

                        80s: .356; Highest = George Brett, .390 ('80); Lowest = Willie Wilson, .332 ('82)

                        70s: .345; Highest = Rod Carew, .388 ('77); Lowest = Rod Carew, .318 ('72)

                        60s: .325; Highest = Norm Cash, .361 ('61); Lowest = Carl Yastzemski, .301('68)

                        50s: .347; Highest = Ted Williams, .388 ('57); Lowest = Ferris Fain; .329, ('52)

                        40s: .349; Highest = Ted Williams, .406 ('41); Lowest = Stuffy Strinweiss, .309 ('45) - This was a war year, and like the other WWII years, the league leading average was under .330 for each year, way down from the every other year of the 40's.

                        30s: .370, Highest = Al Simmons, .390 ('31); Lowest = Jimmie Foxx and Buddy Myer, .349 ('38 and '35, respectively)

                        20s: .392; Highest = George Sisler, .420 (.369); Lowest = Lew Fonseca, .369 ('29)

                        10s: .388; Highest = Ty Cobb, .420 ('11); Lowest = Ty Cobb, .368 ('14)

                        00s: .360; Highest = Nap Lajoie, .426 ('01 - first year of the AL); Elmer Flick, .308 ('05)

                        As you can see, the averages of the 60's were well below any other decade of the AL. Also, the highest and lowest of each decade are respectively all higher than the highest and lowest of the 60's; and the 60's highest average, Norm Cash's .361 in '61 came during the first expansion year, and with the exception of Rod Carew's .332 in '69, no other season in the 60's had an AL hitter over .326 - so just imagine how low the mean for the 60's would have been without Cash's expansion induced .361.

                        Additionally, Killebrew's and Robinson's careers spanned parts of the 50's and 70's, the two next lowest batting average decades for the AL (yet still way ahead of the 60's). So to say that Killebrew's .256 average is mediocre, is to ignore the era he played in, because the batting average standards were much more depressed during the era he played in than during any other era. Like I said before, his .256 during that period, is in terms of respectability, probably something like a .280, or Jim Thome today.

                        My overall point? I'd take Killebrew to play over Brooks at 3B.
                        Last edited by DoubleX; 06-16-2004, 12:57 PM.


                        • #13
                          A major part of the Win Shares formula is 1) run differential and 2) team wins.

                          The formula makes certain adjustments but overall there is still a clearcut advantage for players who play on teams with more wins.


                          • #14

                            Trust me when I say that I know that what I'm about to say is illogical. It doesn't make any sense, and there's really no way of logically defensing it. It's just the way I feel.

                            As I said, Brooks is seen as primarily a defensive player, so I don't really hold his low batting average against him. You take the good with the bad when it comes to defensive stars with the bat.

                            Schmidt was a great defensive player. Some argue that he was better than Brooks. Maybe he was. But Schmidt's defense was secondary. He was primarily an offensive star. Offense was his bread and butter. And I have a very hard time accepting a primarily offensive player with such a low batting average... even though his defense was great, maybe as great as Brooksie's. He was an offensive player first, and a defensive player second. As such, I hold his low BA against him to a greater extent than I do to Brooks... even though Schmidt was maybe as good a defender as Brooks.

                            Make sense? No, not really. But it's just the way things are. It's the same way I hold Shaquille O'Neal's free throw shooting against Shaq a heck of a lot more than I hold Ben Wallace's poor free throw shooting against him... one's primarily defensive, one's not, so offensive foibles are more acceptable for one than the other. That would be true even if Shaq was as good at defense as Ben (which he's not).

                            So that's pretty much that. When I think of Brooks Robinson, the first thought that comes to mind is "great defense." When I think of Mike Schmidt, the first thought that comes to mind is "horrible batting average." When I think of Harmon Killebrew, the first thought that comes to mind is "Dave Kingman."

                            Fair? No, not really. Just reality.

                            Oh, and if given a choice between the three, I take Brooksie. For the reasons described.
                            "Simply put, the passion, interest and tradition surrounding baseball in New York is unmatched."

                            Sean McAdam,


                            • #15
                              There's no such thing as a "perfect" stat. If, however, you want a statistic that summarizes the value of a player's production in a simple integer that can be used to make accurate comparisons across teams, seasons and eras, then win shares (imo) is the most accurate and comprehensive such statistic available.

                              While I would expect anyone with legitimate criticisms of win shares to have spent time reading the book and working out the formulas themselves, it is not my intention to defend the methods behind the statistic. If someone else chooses not to put much faith in that stat, I have no more persuasion over changing that person's mind than changing the mind of a person who is convinced 50% of players take steroids, without any evidence. However, let me take a quick moment to refute a misunderstanding that Roy Hobbs brought to our attention.

                              To borrow from Roy's example in his post:

                              Alex Rodriguez's 2003 performance was worth 33 win shares last year. His performance value would still be worth 33 win shares, however, had he played for the Yankees last year instead. The idea is that Rodriguez was worth (approximately) 11 wins to any team. It just happened to be the one in Arlington, Texas last year.

                              While his statistics would not have been the same - because he would not have been playing in the same playing conditions (ie. different ballpark for 81 games) - Rodriguez's value would have been the same, roughly a difference of 11 wins.

                              As leecemark correctly pointed out, the Yankees had more wins (and thus more win shares), but they also had more high-talent players to share in the "extra" booty.

                              This is explained in greater detail in the book, Win Shares, which I recommend anyone interested in learning more about how the system works read. Like any system, it isn't perfect. But for my money, it's the best one out there right now.
                              "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
                              "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
                              "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
                              "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe


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