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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Paine: Advanced Stats Love Jackie Robinson

Only four position players in MLB history — Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Lou Gehrig — had more WAR between the ages of 29 and 34. Numbers like that are why, despite Robinson’s short career, James ranked Robinson as the fourth-best second baseman ever in “New Historical Baseball Abstract.”

So much for sabermetrics underappreciating Robinson’s skills.

WAR can measure Robinson’s terrifying impact on the basepaths (he generated 31 more runs than an average player). WAR also takes into account his defensive value — total zone data estimates that Robinson saved 81 more runs than an average defender (primarily at second base, but with a little third base, first base and outfield mixed in). According to defensive WAR, Robinson saved the Brooklyn Dodgers 10 wins with his defense, combining his contributions relative to position and the importance of those positions in the overall structure of the defense.

Most importantly, though, WAR accounts for the fact that Robinson was 261 runs better than average with his bat. Because of the highlight-reel baserunning plays, people often forget that Robinson was also an incredible hitter. He topped a .295 batting average eight times, winning the NL batting crown in 1949 with a .342 average. He also had the majors’ seventh-highest on-base percentage during the course of his career (1947-56), drawing a walk on 12.8 percent of his plate appearances in addition to his outstanding ability to hit for average. And his isolated power was 19 points better than the league average, so Robinson had some pop (even if his slugging percentage was driven in part by 54 career triples).

In sum, Robinson was an all-around sabermetric star. There isn’t an area of the game where the advanced stats don’t consider him very good, if not one of the best ever. The notion that somehow Robinson has lost his luster as we learn more about what makes for winning baseball couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, sabermetric stats help us appreciate Robinson’s greatness even more.

Thanks to Jake.

Repoz Posted: April 16, 2014 at 08:49 PM | 35 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history, sabermetrics

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   1. cardsfanboy Posted: April 16, 2014 at 09:38 PM (#4687461)
1. I miss Rob Neyer writing. I don't care how many people have come after him, he was always the best and most willing to tackle weak armed ideas head on, and even though I loved Prospectus early going, Neyer was less snarky and mean about his defense of whatever it was he had to defend. Yes he was still more aggressive than the "traditional" writers, but he was still nicer than the rest of the group that gained fame at the time.

2. It's sad that even at this day and age, that the stat community has to defend itself versus attacks that we wouldn't appreciate "this great player."... As it stands stat studies on baseball have improved the appreciation of the number of players who might have been less appreciated in their time. Yes obviously for everyone that is bumped up, another has to take a little drop, but it's not the great players who are being hurt by this give and take, it's the overrated ones that never really stood the test of time anyway.

Have there been mis-steps in the stat analysis? sure, but it has been more than willing to admit it's mistakes and go from there (look at new analysis on catchers game calling ability, look at the improved respect for defense etc..) this is something that the 'traditionalists' haven't ever been as willing to do.
   2. Walt Davis Posted: April 16, 2014 at 10:03 PM (#4687474)
Is Paine arguing against anybody or just a straw man? I know there was the recent Berra article posted but it's a far leap from that to Robinson.

Anyway, as cfb sorta notes, we can quibble about the accuracy of some of WAR's components but it certainly puts the great all-arounders on an equal-footing with the great hitters. As Walker HoF discussions (or Trammell HoF results or ...) and Trout v Cabrera show, if anything the "mainstream" thinks that WAR over-corrects for all-around performance ... after years of the mainstream kvetching that saber types ignored defense and baserunning.

Now, to "defend" the strawman -- it may not be hard to say that bWAR underrates Robinson's baserunning. After all, Sandberg is +33 to Robinson's +31 ... Ichiro is +60 and Walker is +40.

Tony Campana (Jesus, he's fast) is +14 in 420 PA and about 35 PR appearances. 64 steals in 72 attempts (don't know how many pickoffs). Everybody likes to be excited about Billy Hamilton but Campana's every bit as good ... and unfortunately he's got the K-rate to match! Campana is also +7 in the field (mostly CF). (Campana is also 28 so I understand why Hamilton has more promise.)
   3. cardsfanboy Posted: April 16, 2014 at 10:16 PM (#4687481)
Tony Campana (Jesus, he's fast) is +14 in 420 PA and about 35 PR appearances. 64 steals in 72 attempts (don't know how many pickoffs). Everybody likes to be excited about Billy Hamilton but Campana's every bit as good ... and unfortunately he's got the K-rate to match! Campana is also +7 in the field (mostly CF). (Campana is also 28 so I understand why Hamilton has more promise.)


Not sure if it applies to Campana, but any per pa/game argument for a specialist is going to be hurt a little bit if the specialist is used as a specialist.... That includes defensive specialist or baserunning specialists...

In Campana's case, he has 11 runs as a pinch runner and 15 stolen bases.
   4. Moeball Posted: April 16, 2014 at 10:53 PM (#4687500)
Who didn't know Jackie was a great player? I mean, who are we trying to convince here?

Those of us Primates who have been participating in the MMP elections for the late '40s and early '50s certainly know how great Jackie was. He's been in the running for best player several times and I believe he's been chosen as MMP multiple times, so his peak was indeed quite outstanding.
   5. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: April 16, 2014 at 11:05 PM (#4687511)
Who didn't know Jackie was a great player? I mean, who are we trying to convince here?

Especially now that Bob Feller is dead. (smile)

About the only knock I've ever heard against Robinson---his career only lasted 10 years---isn't really that much of a knock, considering the circumstances prior to his signing with the Dodgers that kept him out of the Majors until he was 28.
   6. DavidFoss Posted: April 16, 2014 at 11:08 PM (#4687512)
Who didn't know Jackie was a great player? I mean, who are we trying to convince here?

I think its more aimed towards the non-primate reader. He's known more today as a civil rights icon than anything else. It doesn't hurt to remind people how good he was at playing baseball.
   7. Walt Davis Posted: April 16, 2014 at 11:23 PM (#4687519)
Not sure if it applies to Campana, but any per pa/game argument for a specialist is going to be hurt a little bit if the specialist is used as a specialist

Which is why I listed his number of PR appearances. He also gets a few "free" runs as a defensive replacement. To date he has 48 games with 0 PAs if you want to count it that way.

If you come on as a PH or you come on as a PR/DR but stick around long enough for at least 1 PA, then your production per PA will be about right (with acknowledging that PR appearances he didn't reach base himself so it will still be high). But even if you did something like add 4 PA per 0 PA appearance (extreme), that would still only take him to 612 career PA and +14 baserunning and +7 Rfield would still be darned impressive.

In short, he's got about 2/3 a season of PAs and -15 Rbat. Pro-rate that to -22 -- not good but it is another 65 times reaching base safely, nearly twice his PR appearances. Leave his Rfield, Rdp, Rbase unchanged (+24) and he's still average. Assuming he would have actually added a bit more base and defense runs, he'd move to above-average.

I'm not suggesting Campana would actually be league average in a full-time role, I'm just saying Jesus he's fast, probably hits as well as Hamilton will, probably fields CF better than Hamilton, nobody pays attention.
   8. JE (Jason) Posted: April 17, 2014 at 12:50 AM (#4687543)
Who didn't know Jackie was a great player? I mean, who are we trying to convince here?

Paine references Neyer's piece from '03 entitled, "Sabermetrics truly color-blind":
The resistance to sabermetrics takes many forms, but I can't help but think that the resistance manifested above is probably the strangest form we've seen yet. Here's how the line of reasoning seems to run ...

American-born black players seem to be disappearing from the game.
Sabermetrics is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the game.

Ergo, sabermetrics is responsible for the disappearance of American-born black players.

To be fair, neither Richard Griffin nor Ralph Wiley lay all the blame at the doorstep of Bill James (and people like him) or J.P. Ricciardi (and people like him). Rather, Griffin and Wiley have simply cast about for explanations, and Big Bad Sabermetrics just happens to have been one of the suspects that's being held for questioning.

The problem with the argument, though, is that none of the specific examples actually make their case. ...

All of which is to say, you can accuse Bill James and sabermetrics of many things, but you cannot accuse them of not appreciating Jackie Robinson and Rickey Henderson. Those two brilliant players -- not to mention Joe Morgan and Willie Mays and Cool Papa Bell and Barry Bonds, and hey let's not forget Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson and Tony Gwynn and Eddie Murray -- could play for any general manager, from Chuck LaMar and Randy Smith to Billy Beane and J.P. Ricciardi.

If you think that sabermetrics doesn't have a place for them, then you don't understand sabermetrics. Because there's not yet been a sabermetrician born who wouldn't drool at the thought of Rickey Henderson and Jackie Robinson at the top of his imaginary lineup.

It's bad for baseball, that American-born blacks apparently aren't playing the game as much as they once did. But sabermetricians are excited by great baseball players, and in my experience sabermetricians are as color-blind as they come. So look somewhere else for your scapegoat.
   9. Rants Mulliniks Posted: April 17, 2014 at 08:17 AM (#4687563)
I appreciated Robinson as a ballplayer a lot more after reading the NBJHBA and gaining access to B-R. The old Baseball Encyclopedia didn't list OBP, nor any fielding grades/stats (if I'm remembering correctly). My first impressions of Jackie were a pretty good baseball player with a short career who was in the HOF mainly for his civil rights accomplishments.

When you look at his typical baseball card stat line, you see a 2b with a good average, moderate power, and because stolen bases weren't in fashion in the 50's, moderate SB totals. Without appreciating how good his OBP and defense (at every position) were, and how dominant a baserunner he was for the era, that fist impression is easy to understand.
   10. Yeaarrgghhhh Posted: April 17, 2014 at 09:03 AM (#4687579)
I agree with #6. I can't cite an example, but I get the sense that many casual fans only think of JR as a pioneer, and don't realize that he really was one of the greatest players in MLB history. It's understandable that his story has overshadowed his play, but I think part of the issue is that he fits into James' classic underrated player mold: he did everything well, but wasn't GREAT at any one thing. He played an important defensive position, but not SS or CF. he was a great base runner, but played in an era when no one was putting up gaudy SB totals. He had excellent power for a 2b, but wasn't hitting 30-40 HRs a year.

EDIT: probably should have read post 9 first...
   11. BDC Posted: April 17, 2014 at 09:12 AM (#4687583)
One nice feature of the old print encyclopedias is that Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson would sometimes be on facing pages. And if you looked across, and ignored Frank's record before age 28, there were some nice coincidences, including a batting title and MVP season at age 30 and gradual decline. Frank was the better hitter, but given position, baserunning, and defense, Jackie is slightly ahead on oWAR and well ahead on total WAR for the corresponding ten years of their lives. They are roughly comparable as all-time greats, which is an impressive comp for both.
   12. Hal Chase School of Professionalism Posted: April 17, 2014 at 10:50 AM (#4687669)
I think its more aimed towards the non-primate reader. He's known more today as a civil rights icon than anything else. It doesn't hurt to remind people how good he was at playing baseball.


Agree. There are always a lot of mentions of "he wasn't even the best player available. He was the guy that could take what inevitably came his way," which tends to undersell just how great a player he was, as well as things like playing mostly first base early on so as not to rock the boat.
   13. SoCalDemon Posted: April 17, 2014 at 11:26 AM (#4687724)
I just wanted to say that when I was growing up I assumed Robinson was inducted solely because of his breaking the color barrier. When I came across his stats, they looked very meh to me. I mean, the .311 BA is great, but only 137 HR, 734 RBI, and under 5000 ABs does not a HOFer make. When I read James' NHBA, his assessment of Robinson totally blew my mind, and was a big part of me getting into more advanced stats. Now it is almost impossible for me to see how one could look at Robinson (without knowing a thing about his historical importance) and see him as anything other than as an incredible player well deserving of the HOF. The NHBA is probably still my favorite baseball book for opening my eyes in this way (I still regularly read the bits on Darrell Evans, Brian Downing, Rickey,....).
   14. Infinite Joost (Voxter) Posted: April 17, 2014 at 12:15 PM (#4687781)
I appreciated Robinson as a ballplayer a lot more after reading the NBJHBA and gaining access to B-R.


Me, too. I knew that Robinson was a great player, but his actual ability was swallowed by the (understandable) hullaballoo about breaking the color line. Reading the Abstract -- and this specific article, actually, I remember it well -- helped me understand that underneath the compelling life story was a player who probably would have been an inner-circle Hall of Famer if he'd been allowed to start when he was 20 rather than when he was 28.

I think it's well and good that we honor Robinson, but it also seems to me that the relentless focus on him also overshadows the bravery of other black players in that era, especially Larry Doby, who was blazing the same trail with much less fanfare over in Cleveland.
   15. Tom Nawrocki Posted: April 17, 2014 at 12:19 PM (#4687789)
There are always a lot of mentions of "he wasn't even the best player available. He was the guy that could take what inevitably came his way," which tends to undersell just how great a player he was, as well as things like playing mostly first base early on so as not to rock the boat.


Jackie was really the best possible choice. He wasn't old like Satchel Paige, which meant he not only would have had a shorter major league career but would have been in danger of falling off the cliff at any point. He wasn't a young kid, either, who not only wouldn't have been mature enough to handle everything but would have been riskier from a talent standpoint.

How many other Negro Leaguers would have been able to step in at that point and have a legitimate Hall of Fame career based on their playing record only? Roy Campanella is the only other one I can think of. Maybe Larry Doby.
   16. Srul Itza Posted: April 17, 2014 at 12:50 PM (#4687833)
I like the fact that on his HOF plaque, they talk about his achievements as a player first, and breaking the color line is the last sentence.

I also like the fact that they mention that he stole home 19 times (in a ten year career).

   17. Steve Treder Posted: April 17, 2014 at 01:01 PM (#4687849)
The thing I've always found most amazing about Robinson isn't just that he was such a great player, but that he was such a well-rounded player, with exceptional ability at high-skill things like bunting and strike zone judgement, despite the fact that he really had minimal baseball experience before signing with the Dodgers.
   18. GordonShumway Posted: April 17, 2014 at 01:01 PM (#4687850)
And the crazy thing is that baseball was arguably J. Robinson's worst sport. He was an All-American football and track athlete, and an All-Conference basketball player at UCLA.
   19. Bruce Markusen Posted: April 17, 2014 at 01:20 PM (#4687872)
In the Negro Leagues, Monte Irvin was generally considered a superior player to Robinson in 1945, but there were off-the-field whispers about his character (which were eventually shown to be unfounded).

Bill Veeck also gave serious consideration to Irvin as his choice to integrate the Indians, but he backed off because he felt Irvin was too old, even though he was basically the same age as Robinson.
   20. dlf Posted: April 17, 2014 at 01:27 PM (#4687882)
Me, too. I knew that Robinson was a great player, but his actual ability was swallowed by the (understandable) hullaballoo about breaking the color line. Reading the Abstract -- and this specific article, actually, I remember it well -- helped me understand that underneath the compelling life story was a player who probably would have been an inner-circle Hall of Famer if he'd been allowed to start when he was 20 rather than when he was 28.


Because I tend more towards peak / prime than career, with his breadth of skills Robinson is awfully close to inner circle to me even without any additional credit for the late start or pioneering.

That being said, how much did the color barrier really impact the length of his career? He only spent one season in the NgL and one in Montreal. His particular late start was due more to military service and college. Had he grown up in a post-color line era, he may have gone into "organized" ball right out of HS, but as #18 notes, he really hadn't focused on baseball up to that point.
   21. Ron J2 Posted: April 17, 2014 at 01:39 PM (#4687901)
As you might expect, Robinson does very well on the peak list, finishing behind Hornsby, Morgan, Collins and Lajoie for WAR in 5 best seasons.

He has the 4th best OPS+ in his peak seasons, a lot more value on the basepath than most and grades out in the top of the second tier defensively (finishes just behind Johnny Evers in 11th for dWAR in his 5 best seasons by WAR, but there's no real difference between 8th and 11th )

Chase Utley finishes 6th on the peak list and he's not a terrible comp for Robinson as a player. Like Robinson, if you just look at the slash lines you can miss how good Utley has been.
   22. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: April 17, 2014 at 02:44 PM (#4687964)
"A more durable Chase Utley, who can provide Gold Glove-caliber defense at three different positions" sounds like a pretty good player indeed.
   23. BDC Posted: April 17, 2014 at 02:55 PM (#4687975)
dlf, those are interesting issues that in some ways depend on the impact of Robinson himself. As you note, some of his color-line "credit" is "war credit." And he did start late at baseball. But in part he didn't look to baseball till it looked to him because his own role models were Jesse Owens - and more to the point, Mack Robinson. Track in particular, for black college athletes, was hugely more welcoming than baseball in the1930s & 40s. Who knows which way his career would have gone if he'd had a Jackie Robinson preceding him :)
   24. GordonShumway Posted: April 17, 2014 at 03:13 PM (#4687993)
Given all the talk of how team sports helps build character by teaching people to sacrifice their egos and narrow self-interest for the greater good: it's ironic that the most tolerant sports during the Jim Crow era were largely individual sports: boxing, track, and weightlifting.
   25. dlf Posted: April 17, 2014 at 03:25 PM (#4688008)
BDC ~ I find Robinson to be fascinating, in part because of the what-ifs. If he was 10 years younger and someone else (Irvin? Campy?) had integrated, would he have 3500 hits? Was the internal fire that drove him so fiercely something that would have dimmed as one of the second round of integration leading him to less stellar performance? Or would it have allowed him to be less haunted and aged (as a player and person) a little more gradually? But wondering what he would have done on the field absent a color line or being born a decade later is only a fun little aside to the multi-generational impact he had as a great player and even greater force for integration. The second set of what-ifs are focused on the latter: but for Robinson, what would the effects of his absence have on Brown v. Board, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the Civil Rights era? Are those things historically inevitable or did his example push them forward by a day, a week, a year, a decade, or more? Would our first minority President have been elected in 1980, 2080, or just as it actually happened?
   26. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: April 17, 2014 at 03:58 PM (#4688045)
And the crazy thing is that baseball was arguably J. Robinson's worst sport. He was an All-American football and track athlete, and an All-Conference basketball player at UCLA.

Six months before Robinson integrated the Majors, not one, but two of his USC football teammates re-integrated the NFL. The son of the first teammate scored 26 points in UCLA's first basketball championship game win, and the second teammate left the NFL to pursue a decades long movie career. That was a hell of a football team that Robinson played for.
   27. Ron J2 Posted: April 17, 2014 at 04:03 PM (#4688051)
#22 He's also a better hitter than Utley. Not a ton better, but ...

WAR like Utley's glove (in their respective 5 best seasons at any rate) a fair bit more than it does Robinson's. Not a negative for Robinson of course, since he grades out quite well with the glove, Utley ranked #4 in dWAR on my peak list.
   28. Publius Publicola Posted: April 17, 2014 at 04:05 PM (#4688056)
and the second teammate left the NFL to pursue a decades long movie career.


Woody Strode?
   29. GordonShumway Posted: April 17, 2014 at 04:06 PM (#4688057)
Six months before Robinson integrated the Majors, not one, but two of his USC football teammates re-integrated the NFL.


Better hope there aren't any Bruin alumni look at this thread, lest you incur their undying wrath. :)
   30. cardsfanboy Posted: April 17, 2014 at 04:18 PM (#4688068)
WAR like Utley's glove (in their respective 5 best seasons at any rate) a fair bit more than it does Robinson's. Not a negative for Robinson of course, since he grades out quite well with the glove, Utley ranked #4 in dWAR on my peak list.


War's defense is regressed somewhat(from what I can remember) for players prior to at least 1987, so there is a very real possibility that rfield for Robinson is noticeably underrating his defensive value.
   31. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: April 17, 2014 at 04:33 PM (#4688079)
and the second teammate left the NFL to pursue a decades long movie career.

Woody Strode?


Right. It should be in the second link.

----------------------------------------------

Six months before Robinson integrated the Majors, not one, but two of his USC football teammates re-integrated the NFL.

Better hope there aren't any Bruin alumni look at this thread, lest you incur their undying wrath. :)


No ####. And to think I've had many of Robinson's UCLA football programs over the years. But at least my finger didn't slip when I was mentioning Kenny Washington's son's college.
   32. BDC Posted: April 17, 2014 at 04:44 PM (#4688087)
dlf, you raise very interesting points about JR's intrinsic qualities & abilities.

Shumway, it is ironic but understandable. Racist coaches could hide behind the vague nature of contributions to team sports and say that they just couldn't find good black intangible team players. But a knockout or a higher jump us what it is.
   33. GordonShumway Posted: April 17, 2014 at 05:00 PM (#4688099)
Shumway, it is ironic but understandable. Racist coaches could hide behind the vague nature of contributions to team sports and say that they just couldn't find good black intangible team players. But a knockout or a higher jump us what it is.


Good point.
   34. Walt Davis Posted: April 17, 2014 at 05:46 PM (#4688129)
A thought experiment ...

as noted, Robinson would have (likely) missed the war years regardless. But what might his career looked like if the color line had fallen in the early 30s?

I assume he'd have likely missed all of ages 24-26 and at least some of 27. Pre-war, the highest through-23 WAR totals that are in Robinson's class and rough skill set:

Cobb 36
Vaughan 27
Hornsby 27
Magee 24
Collins 21
Speaker 20
DiMaggio 18

I know Magee's name but not a huge amount about him and was a bit surprised to see him here. But from 04-08, he hit 295/356/422 with 200 SB -- that's pretty Robinson-esque, especially given the power of the era. He was not Robinson's defensive equal though.

DiMaggio is probably the easiest comp for this faux-Robinson because he missed three years due to the war as well and he walked away from the game while still a good player at about the same age as Robinson.

If we want to keep the war out of our little fantasy, you've still got most of those same guys plus all the players who came after Robinson. Morgan is the most obvious comp. ARod, F Robinson, Henderson, Kaline are not unreasonable. If we still have Robinson's career end when it did then somebody like Mantle or Clemente give us a reasonable guesstimate (94 to 110 WAR). Or some mix of the 3B trio -- Boggs, Brett, Jones.

The key question is when does faux-Robinson's career end? From 28-35, he's 8th in post-integration WAR. If we take as his comps every post-integration player with at least 45 WAR in those ages, we get 16 players with Robinson pretty much smack in the middle (esp if we drop Mays who is just way ahead of everybody).

Robinson was still very good at 36, 37 in less playing time. (Utley comp again?) If we take a look at those players from age 36 on, toss out Bonds, the median is Henderson with 12 and most of our comps above are in that range: F Robinson 11, Clemente 12 (in just 2 seasons), Boggs 15, Morgan 15. Robinson himself managed a not-shabby 7.

If we look at those same guys through age 27, the median WAR is the terrible comp of Ted Williams at 45. The better median comp then is probably Musial at 48. There are essentially just two groups here -- 6 guys clustered from 24 to 27; 6 guys clustered from 45 to 51. "Unfortunately", Morgan, Carew, Boggs, Clemente are in that lower group and they're probably closer to Robinson. The upper group almost all have substantial power although Rickey is similar.

Contrast that though with our pre-integration comps where we had Robinson putting up 18+ WAR through age 23 and we've got to give him a good chance to move into that 45+ WAR group through age 27.

So we could add anywhere from about 35 to 50 WAR to Robinson's total. Same conclusion -- add 35 and he's Clemente/Ripken; add 50 and he's Mantle/Henderson. Morgan and F Robinson sit roughly 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through that range. And of course we can't rule out a May or Aaron career.
   35. toratoratora Posted: April 17, 2014 at 06:38 PM (#4688143)
Taking part in the MMP project has really reinforced how good JR was in his peak. He won MMP in 51 and 52, finished 4th in 1950. He'll also finish high in 49.
I've been a baseball fan all my life. Fully acquainted with James view of JR. Still, the MMP really opened my eyes. Before taking part,I would would have said he was a helluva player, but never imagined him being the best player in baseball back to back (So far other BtB winners are Mays, Ripken, Morgan and Trout). Off the top of my head,I would have guessed Musial or Williams to be much more likely candidates.
I look at JR and wonder what he could have done had he been dedicated to baseball from day one. Then I think about Willie Mays and Rickey Henderson, who also liked football better than baseball, and wonder how many HoF'ers have been lost to the NFL and NBA.

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