Ron Santo: Baseball’s Best 3B in the 1960s

Statistical Analysis Demonstrates that Santo, and Not the “Human Vacuum Cleaner,” Was Baseball’s Best at the Hot Corner During the ’60s

Ron Santo was unquestionably the best National League third-baseman during the decade of peace and love.  But was Santo truly a better player than Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson, the third-baseman that defined the position for millions of Americans during the 1960s?  After all, Robinson was a first-ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, while it took years of campaigning to earn Santo his rightful place in Cooperstown–and this honor, sadly, was bestowed upon Santo after the legendary Cubs third-baseman and broadcaster had passed away after years fighting diabetes.

The argument that Santo was indeed the greater overall player must be approached using two distinct methods of player-value analysis.  Firstly, we will compare each player’s five best consecutive seasons to measure the third-basemen’s peak value.  We will then measure their total contributions over the entire decade to assess career value–though, in both cases, Santo and Robinson continued playing well into the next decade.

PEAK VALUE

Santo, of course, played for some mediocre Chicago Cubs  teams.  That said, he was an offensive powerhouse during one of the most pitching-dominant eras in baseball history.  Over the course of the decade, Santo led the National League in walks 4 times, on-base percentage twice, triples once, and also posted the best Wins Above Replacement figure (9.8) in 1967, meaning he was the most valuable player in the National League that season–better than Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Dick Allen, and the rest of the decade’s superstars.

Santo’s five best consecutive seasons–logged from 1963-67–are summarized below:

YEAR AVG OBP SLG OPS+ HR RBI BB wRC OWP WPA WAR
1963 .297 .339 .481 128 25 99 42 129 .659 1.7 6.7
1964 .313 .398 .564 164 30 114 86 164 .791 5.8 8.9
1965 .285 .378 .510 146 33 101 88 145 .736 4.9 7.7
1966 .312 .412 .538 161 30 94 95 157 .771 5.1 8.9
1967 .300 .395 .512 153 31 98 96 153 .753 3.8 9.8

Of note during Santo’s 1967 campaign is that 2.7 of his Wins Above Replacement total came courtesy of the third-baseman’s contributions with his glove.  In fact, according to the WAR system, Santo was the second-best defensive player, regardless of position, in the National League in 1967.  Of Santo’s five peak seasons outlined above, 1963 was the only other campaign in which Santo finished as one of the top-10 defensive players in the Senior Circuit based on WAR.  That said, he was one of the league’s top-10 offensive contributors all five seasons between 1963-67.

Santo’s defensive value is of particular importance, since, in this study, he is being evaluated in comparison to Brooks Robinson, whose glove work earned the Orioles legend an astounding 16 Gold Glove awards over the course of his career.  As luck would have it, Robinson’s best five consecutive seasons were 1964-68, meaning that, aside from obvious differences resulting from Robinson having played in the American League during that period while also calling Memorial Stadium his home for 81 games each season, we are able to compare the two players over virtually the same period in time.  Besides, complex sabermetric measures such as OPS+, WPA, and WAR factor in differences in league, home park, and era, allowing us to view each player’s peak side by side without worrying about the distorting effects often manifested by differing leagues and home stadiums.

Below are the records of Robinson’s best five consecutive seasons from 1964-68:

YEAR AVG OBP SLG OPS+ HR RBI BB wRC OWP WPA WAR
1964 .317 .368 .521 145 28 118 51 145 .706 4.8 8.1
1965 .297 .351 .445 124 18 80 47 126 .644 1.1 4.5
1966 .269 .333 .444 123 23 100 56 121 .607 3.1 4.6
1967 .269 .328 .434 124 22 77 54 123 .598 -0.1 7.7
1968 .253 .304 .416 117 17 75 44 116 .589 2.0 8.4

At first glance, the stark difference between Santo and Robinson couldn’t be any more evident.  During the five-year peak periods of each respective player, Santo

  • Out-homered Robinson 149-108;
  • Logged four seasons with an on-base percentage better than Robinson’s best single-season performance;
  • Posted four seasons with an OPS+ better than Robinson’s highest mark of 145 (logged in 1964);
  • Drew 407 bases on balls compared to Robinson’s 252;
  • Created 748 wRC (weighted Runs Created) versus Robinson’s 631; and,
  • Posted four seasons with an Offensive Winning Percentage better than Robinson’s best single-season mark (1964)

Even more damning, despite clearly being outperformed at the plate by Santo, Robinson consumed more outs (2,309, compared to 2,203 for Santo) in the process.  Ultimately, Robinson performed at a lesser level than Santo in the batter’s box, yet cost his team nearly 5 percent more outs along the way.)

For as thoroughly as Santo outclassed Robinson at the plate during the ’60s, the WAR totals of the two Hall of Fame hot-corner men aren’t as disparate as you’d otherwise suspect.  To be sure, Santo holds a commanding lead–42 Wins Above Replacement in five seasons versus Robinson’s 33.3–and yet, given how complete Santo’s dominance was with a bat in his hands, one might expect the gap to be even greater.  There’s a very simple reason for this: the Wins Above Replacement metric includes offensive, base-running, and defensive contributions–and, as we’ve known all along, Robinson’s claim to being the best third-baseman of the decade has always hinged on his glovework being vastly superior to Santo’s or anyone else.

As most baseball fans know, defensive statistics have long stood as an impenetrable labyrinth from which very little of analytical value could be absorbed.  Over the past 20 years, however, advances in defensive metrics have made it possible to reliably evaluate any individual player’s contributions with the glove beyond rudimentary measures such as fielding percentage and the number of Gold Glove awards won.  While such defensive analysis is still in its infancy, there now exist useful metrics we may employ to evaluate the respective defensive contributions of Santo and Robinson.

For grins, let’s begin with the number of Gold Glove awards each player collected during his respective five-year peak during the ’60s.  Ron Santo earned four Gold Gloves (1964-67), while Brooks Robinson went five-for-five between 1964-68, and added a Most Valuable Player trophy (1964) to boot.  Needless to say, it is clear that both players’ contemporaries viewed them as master glovemen and better at fielding the third-base position than anyone else in the National and American leagues.

As a crude baseline, let’s also look at each player’s fielding percentages during their respective five-year peaks:

Ron Santo Brooks Robinson
.951 (1963) .972 (1964)
.963 (1964) .967 (1965)
.957 (1965) .976 (1966)
.956 (1966) .980 (1967)
.957 (1967) .970 (1968)

Needless to say, Robinson fielded his position with much more accuracy than Santo.  That said, Santo saw considerably more total chances fielding third-base for the Cubs–his total for the five peak seasons outlined above is 2,803.  Robinson, meanwhile, handled a total of 2,548 chances at the hot corner in Baltimore, or roughly 1% less than his Chicago counterpart.

Admittedly, these rudimentary statistics provide only a limited glimpse into the true fielding prowess of Ron Santo and Brooks Robinson.  Ultimately, what we are concerned with is how many runs above average each player saved his team through his glovework at the hot corner.  Using the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) method of calculating runs saved by defensive players, we are able to see the contributions of both Santo and Robinson at third-base during the ’60s:

Ron Santo Brooks Robinson
10.0 (1963) 17.0 (1964)
3.0 (1964) 8.0(1965)
7.0 (1965) 4.0 (1966)
7.0 (1966) 32.0 (1967)
18.0 (1967) 33.0 (1968)

While Santo’s performance at third-base certainly reinforces his selection as a Gold Glove award winner four of the five seasons included in the peak of his career, Robinson’s totals serve to validate his reputation as the greatest fielding third-baseman–not just during the ’60s, but perhaps of all time.  (Indeed, Robinson continued his stellar glovework through 1975, logging runs-saved totals between 15-23 [with one exception] through 1975.)

Despite Robinson’s obvious advantage on defense, we must remember that these runs-saved figures factor into the calculation of Wins Above Replacement.  As mentioned previously, Santo’s WAR total over his five peak seasons was 42, a substantial edge over Robinson’s 33.3.  In other words, when offensive, base-running, and defensive contributions are totaled, Ron Santo clearly emerges as the greatest third-baseman of the ’60s based on peak value.

CAREER VALUE

While Santo earns the title of the best third-baseman of the 1960s in terms of peak value, one question remains: Which player posted the better career value over the course of the entire decade?  It makes sense to begin with Wins Above Replacement, which, for better or worse, is the final arbiter of player value both for a single season and over the course of a career.

Ultimately, Santo and Robinson are virtually equal in terms of WAR, with Santo posting 56.3 Wins Above Replacement from 1960-69, while Robinson logged a WAR total of 54.5.  Santo’s total is rendered even more impressive considering he played in only 95 games in 1960, while Robinson was an everyday player each season between 1960-69.

Considering Santo’s slightly-reduced playing time and his contribution of nearly 2 more Wins Above Replacement than Robinson over the course of the decade–and, considering that Santo was clearly the more valuable player in terms of peak value during the ’60s–the only conclusion to be reached is that, indeed, Ron Santo is the greatest third-baseman of the peace and love decade.

Of course, in terms of total career value, Robinson has the obvious edge, as he played far longer than Santo and earned more Wins Above Replacement over the course of his career.  But total career value is not what this analysis is about; rather, we set out to identify the greatest third-baseman of the ’60s, and we’ve found that answer.  Congratulations to Ron Santo, an overlooked, underrated, and often forgotten all-time great that toiled for awful Cubs teams during the 1960s.  You ultimately earned your spot in Cooperstown, even though it took far, far longer than it should have to get you enshrined.

[Edits: Added sub-headline, corrected minor spelling errors, and provided links to glossary entries explaining some of the more sophisticated metrics.]
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