Eulogy for a Phillie

Some guys just don’t get the credit they deserve in the game. Robin Roberts, who died last week, was one of those.

It’s not that people speak ill of him. No one diminishes his accomplishments or says he should be pushed out of Cooperstown. Nothing like that. In fact, when reminded of Roberts, most will admit he was a hell of a pitcher. But that sentence also reveals Roberts’ problem: people have to be reminded of him. His career and accomplishments largely glanced off the game’s collective accomplishments.

The greatness of Robin Roberts

In his prime from 1950-55, he posted six consecutive 20-win seasons. This wasn’t some cheap, run support-aided accomplishment. In fact, his Phillies club generally played .500 when he wasn’t on the mound. In 1952, he went 28-7—posting the most wins in a single season by any NL pitcher in the last 75 years—despite playing for a squad that otherwise went 59-60. In his New Historical Abstract, Bill James lists Roberts as baseball’s best pitcher in 1950, 1953, 1954 and 1955.

From 1950 to 1955, there was Robin Roberts, and then there was everyone else.

Roberts won 179 games before his 30th birthday, which is the third highest total by any pitcher since the end of the Deadball Era. Only Hal Newhouser and Catfish Hunter top him, at 188 and 184 wins, respectively. They have an edge over Roberts as they had earlier starts. Roberts collected only seven wins before his 22nd birthday while Hunter accumulated 30, and Newhouser 26 by that time.

In a very literal sense, no one this side of Walter Johnson has worked as hard as Robin Roberts did in his prime. In Roberts’ glory run from 1950-1955, he not only went 138-78 with an ERA+ of 135, but he tossed a Herculian 1,937.2 innings.

You know how Livan Hernandez has seemed like the 21st century’s ultimate rubber-armed workhorse? Well, he’s thrown about as many innings in the last nine years as Roberts did in those six. In the last six seasons, Mark Buehrle has been the game’s greatest innings eater, with 1,319 IP lodged. Roberts had nearly 50 percent more than that.

Wait, this is the wrong way to describe Roberts’ durability in his prime, though. The previous paragraph comes off more like belittling the moderns than raising up Roberts. The point isn’t that Roberts towered over current pitchers, but that he achieved things no one else in the liveball era did.

Here’s one way of looking at it: Below is a list of the biggest workloads attained by any pitcher over a six-year period since 1920. (To make the list a little clearer, I’ll only list each pitcher once, so once Roberts’ 1950-55 stretch makes it, his 1951-56 period is automatically disqualified). Here are the 10 most impressive workloads since 1920:

Name	          Years	    IP
Gaylord Perry	1969-74	1943.0
Robin Roberts	1950-55	1937.2
Mickey Lolich	1969-74	1873.1
Phil Niekro	1974-79	1855.1
Fergie Jenkins	1969-74	1838.0
Don Drysdale	1962-67	1815.0
Wilbur Wood	1970-75	1803.1
Carl Hubbell	1932-37	1774.0
Catfish Hunter	1971-76	1770.1
Hal Newhouser	1944-49	1767.2

Roberts comes in second place, but there’s a catch. Top man Gaylord Perry, like every non-Roberts hurler in the top seven, pitched in the 162-game era. Take Roberts’ innings, divide by 154 and multiply by 162, and he’d be at 2,038.1 innings. I have no idea if he would’ve thrown that much more, but he sure as heck would’ve cleared the 5.1-inning gap separating him from Perry. If Roberts is anywhere near 2,040 innings, then Perry is the only one within 20 IP/year.

Even that chart doesn’t really do Roberts justice, either. Not only is that group dominated by 162-game schedulers, but by those who pitched in the early 1970s, when for various reasons managers leaned harder on their starters than any other period since WWII.

Let’s look at Roberts in context of his peers. Here are the top ten innings eaters from 1950-55 in all MLB:

Name	            IP
Robin Roberts	1937.2
Warren Spahn	1688.1
Bob Lemon	1617.1
Early Wynn	1526.0
Mike Garcia	1471.1
Murry Dickson	1434.1
Billy Pierce	1380.2
Bob Rush	1353.1
Ned Garver	1339.0
Sal Maglie	1239.0

Well now, that’s one heckuva lead. The four highest single-season IP totals in those half-dozen years all came from Roberts. While he threw more than 300 innings each year, the rest of MLB amassed only a trio of 300 IP performances.

Not only did Roberts average over 320 IP per year from 1950-55, but only Warren Spahn was within 50 innings of that seasonal average. And even there, Roberts tossed 14.8 percent more IP than Spahn. For a modern comparison, from 2004-09, quantity king Mark Buehrle tossed 14.3 percent more innings than Dan Haren, who is 18th on the IP list in that period.

When Roberts tossed 346.2 innings in 1953 (the most by any NL pitcher in the last 90 years), the league’s next highest workload was 265.2 IP. Roberts cleared that mark by the 119th game in the season. The AL leader was scarcely closer, coming in at 286.2 innings.

Simply put, Roberts towered over his peers in a way that no other pitcher in memory has. In part he achieved this by in-game durability. He rather famously completed 28 consecutive starts in 1952-53. Most amazingly, in the third game in that stretch, he went the distance in a 17-inning game, beating the Braves 7-6. Even though he faced 71 batters in that game (!!), in the ensuing two weeks Roberts started three more games and posted a 1.00 ERA in that spell.

Still, the complete games weren’t the real reason Roberts was the early 1950s king of quantity. He also started far more frequently than anyone else. Here are the most starts by any hurler from 1950-55:

Name	         GS
Robin Roberts	232
Warren Spahn	208
Bob Lemon	207
Early Wynn	196
Mike Garcia	195
Bob Rush	188
Murry Dickson	176
Billy Pierce	174
Ned Garver	173
Vic Raschi	171

That 24 GS lead Roberts has over second place is greater than the lead the 2004-09 GS king (Derek Lowe!) has on 21st place (Cliff Lee).

There’s a hazy and incorrect image people have of baseball back in the day. People know there was once upon a time something called the four-man rotation, so they assume it existed as far back as anyone can remember. Not really. There were too many doubleheaders to allow for any standard, set rotation. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that any standardized ABCD rotation really came into vogue. Before then, the main workhorses would normally start about 30-35 games a year.

From the entry of the liveball until expansion, there were only 106 times a pitcher started 37 games in a season (which is one-fourth of their 154 games). Roberts did it seven times, while no one else achieved it more than five times. What’s more, Roberts did it seven consecutive seasons. The next best consecutive stretch was Bobo Newsom, with four straight years at 37-plus starts.

Roberts didn’t just eke over the 37-start line, either. He started 38 or more games five times, again the most by any pitcher from 1920-60. (Bob Feller was the runner up, with three seasons.) Roberts also posted more seasons with 39 starts than anyone else from 1920-60. By starting more often than anyone else and completing them on a regular basis, Roberts dominated the game.

Actually, all the above describes only part of how he dominated the game. It wasn’t just his durability, but his ability. He was fantastic out there.

From 1950-55, he posted an ERA+ of 135, which tied him with Billy Pierce for best adjusted ERA with 1,000 or more IP in that period. Warren Spahn is a distant runner up, at 128. Pierce was great, but he only threw two-thirds as many innings as Roberts.

Roberts’ key was his control. He led the league in fewest walks per inning four times and came in second another four times. In 1957, he was second in the league in fewest BB/IP despite leading MLB in intentional walks. He ended his career with 1.73 BB/9IP, which is the seventh best total by anyone with at least 2,000 IP since 1920. That possibly undersells Roberts again, as he threw more than 4,000 innings and none of the half-dozen men above him topped 2,600 innings.

Partially because of his control, Roberts almost never plunked a batter. He hit 54 batters in 4,688.2 innings. In contrast, Casey Fossum hit his 55th batter before completing 665 MLB innings.

This control came in handy for Roberts, because he had one clear Achilles’ Heel: the long ball. He allowed 505 homers, which is still the most in history (though Jamie Moyer could pass him this year). In 1955, Roberts set a record by allowing 41 homers in a year. That record lasted until the next year, when Roberts allowed 46 longballs, which remained the record for a generation. In 1957, Roberts allowed 40 homers for a third time, and he’s still the only person to do that. He got batters out when the ball was where he wanted it to be, but they tagged him when it wasn’t.

Roberts and memory

The question of how could someone who so completely dominated baseball in his prime be overlooked? Several things hurt Roberts.

First, after his amazing first act, the rest of Roberts’ career was something of a let down. After tying for best ERA+ for pitchers from 1950-55, Roberts had the worst ERA+ among any of the 28 pitchers with 1,000-plus IP tossed from 1956-61. Ouch. In 1957, he went 10-22 for a team that finished 77-77. It’s even worse when you realize that only one 20-game loser played for a team with a winning record in the last 85 years. Double ouch.

However durable his arm was, the man was human and he pitched his arm off. This shouldn’t be too surprising. In one of my favorite historical factoids, of the 16 liveball hurlers that won 150 games before turning 30, only one (Greg Maddux) won 300 in his career. The others either abruptly retired after a total arm blow out in their early 30s (Don Drysdale, Wes Ferrell), or were only a shell of themselves – as was Roberts. He later rallied, but after his glory run, Roberts went 126-143 with an ERA+ of 100.

It also didn’t help that his peak came with the game’s traditional sad sack franchise, the Phillies. The squad is so lore-less that Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary didn’t even mention them. (Well, I’ve heard that anyway). Sure, that’s largely a knock on the movie, but it’s also a sign of the Phillies’ place in the game’s consciousness. You couldn’t get away with that with the Yankees, for instance. Even in Philly, Roberts’ place has been largely subsumed by another starting pitcher who won even more games: Steve Carlton.

That said, the Phillies were better in Roberts’ peak than the above paragraph indicates. Instead of sad sacks, the 1950 Phillies won a pennant after an exciting pennant race. Yet even this doesn’t give Roberts as much attention as he deserves. That 1950 pennant race was immediately overshadowed the next year by arguably the greatest pennant race ever, the 1951 Bobby Thomson one.

More importantly, Philly’s pennant came at the wrong point in Roberts’ prime. It came during the first of his six-straight 20 win seasons. The public was just getting to know Roberts that year at the same time that they were learning about the surprising Philadelphia squad. Had the big pennant push come a few years later, Roberts would’ve been the established star on the pennant winners, and thus gotten more attention. Instead, he wasn’t even the most renowned pitcher on the 1950 Phillies. That honor went to Jim Konstanty, the relief pitcher who won the MVP.

Perhaps most importantly, Roberts suffers because he was the last really great pitcher before the creation of the Cy Young Award. The Award began in 1956, just in time for Roberts to not earn it. From 1950-55, Roberts twice received more MVP votes than any other NL pitcher and was thrice runner up among hurlers. (To be fair, baseball awarded only one Cy Young for all baseball until the 1960s, but Roberts still would’ve won one or two awards.)

Roberts was always a well-regarded pitcher, but it’s a shame that he wasn’t given quite as much acclaim as he deserved.

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Comments

  1. Bob Ritter said...

    My dad, a lifetime A’s fan took me to my first baseball game to see the A’s play the Orioles in 1963 with Roberts pitching for the O’s.  He appreciated Roberts and wanted his son to see him pitch.  The 37 year old Roberts went 13 1/3 that day but lost to to A’s.

  2. Andrew said...

    In fairness to Roberts, he DID have a decent second wind with the Orioles in the early 1960s. From 1962 to 1965 (when he was ages 35-38), he had a 47-38 record—of the 65 pitchers in that span who had 600+ IP, his 2.98 ERA was 14th-best.

  3. Steve Brosemer said...

    Thanks for the rundown on RR. My late father called him the NL’s right handed Whitey Ford. I tip my hat to the Robin and mourn the family’s loss.

  4. Kinanik said...

    It seems to me that we tend to evaluate players based on the way the game is played after the player retires. During the time people were reflecting most on RR’s career, pitching statistics were absurd (in the 60’s), and Roberts looked less impressive in comparison, even though his numbers would have looked pretty good in any dead ball era.

    I feel like the same thing happened to hitters in the 60’s and 80’s, and pitchers in the 50’s, maybe the 70’s and (who knows) the 1990-2000’s. We’ll see what happens.

  5. Andrew said...

    RE: Phillies not being mentioned in the Ken Burns BASEBALL doc… The 1910s episode DID feature Grover Cleveland Alexander’s years with the Phils, and the coffee-table book included George Will’s rhapsodizing about Richie Ashburn during the 1950s, Bill James discussing Dick Allen’s lifetime stats and Gerald Early remembering being a rare black fan of the Phillies in the 1960s.

    But other than that, precious little. The final installment went into minute detail over each World Series from 1970 through 1979 and then IMMEDIATELY into… the 1981 strike.

  6. Northern Rebel said...

    I was too young to see Roberts play, but always admired him for what credibility he gave to an otherwise lackluster team.

    The reason he pitched so many innings, is because he is all they had! Even he said he was exhausted by the end of the 1950 season, because he and Curt Simmons seemed to pitch every other day.

    Even when he had Simmons, or Murray Dickson in the rotation, he routinely pitched close to 100 innings more than his #2.

    Ironically, Curt Simmons benefited from this phenomenon years later, when Gene Mauch used only two pitchers in the last two weeks of 1964, with less than successful results, allowing Simmons’ Cardinals to overtake the Phillies for the pennant.

    Compare men like Robin Roberts to some of the modern stars like say A-Rod. Roberts went out every start, and pitched his heart out, win or lose, while today’s players are more worried about whether their uniform is tight enough in the right places.

    R.I.P. Robin Roberts: one of the last blue collar American pitchers.

    Stay healthy Bob Feller, another aging patriotic American ballplayer. Even though I am only 52, I know what you guys meant to baseball, and our country!

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