On May 21, 1962 the Baltimore Orioles signed Robin Roberts. It seemed to be the marriage of a player on his last legs with a franchise in need of any body capable of taking the field. Instead, it would launch a second wind for the long-time Phillie.
Now that Carlos Delgado is out for at least two months with hip surgery, the Mets have announced that his vacated clean-up spot will be occupied primarily by Gary Sheffield. Whether that will prove enough to help fill Delgado’s absence—Sheffield does have nearly a 1.000 OPS in the clean-up spot as of this writing—remains to be seen.
But what makes his insertion into such a prominent place in the Mets’ lineup noteworthy is that Sheffield was plucked from the scrap heap. Last year, the once-feared slugger hit just .225 and that, combined with his defensive inadequacies, was enough for Detroit to cut him this spring, eating $14 million in salary.
Of course, Sheffield is not the first aging player to be let loose by one team only to turn up on another looking at least somewhat revived. Few resurgences were as unexpected as that of Robin Roberts in 1962.
In his prime, Roberts was an elite starter, winning 138 games from 1950 through 1955 with a 2.93 ERA while averaging more than 320 innings a year . All those innings seemed to catch up to Roberts in the second part of the decade: He went from leading the league in wins for four straight years, ending in ’55, to leading the league in losses in 1956 and ’57.
He would bounce back slightly in 1958, but his final three seasons with the Phils were largely gruesome. Roberts was perhaps never worse than in 1961, when he went 1-10 with a 5.85 ERA. Even in his best seasons, Roberts had been prone to the home run. In fact, he’s the all-time leader in homers allowed with 505. Nonetheless, Roberts’ 1961 saw his gopher ball tendencies run wild, allowing on a per inning basis the third most homers in the league among those with at least 100 innings pitched.
Roberts’ propensity for the home run was only compounded by allowing nearly 12 hits per nine innings, the worst figure of his career and one of only two seasons (the other being his last season in the majors) when he allowed more than 10 hits per nine.
After the 1961 campaign, the Phillies sold their erstwhile ace—then the franchise leader in wins and still topping their leader board in complete games and strikeouts—to the Yankees. The eventual World Champs couldn’t find a role for Roberts. He didn’t to appear in a game before being released on May 21, the same day he signed with the Orioles.
For many, this would have appeared to be the end of the line. His 1961 season was miserable; he was released from a relatively adroit organization and had had an ERA below 4.07 just once in the previous six years.
If Roberts’ career had ended after the 1961 season, he would have made an interesting Hall of Fame candidate. Although his 1950s prime was outstanding, Roberts’ career totals to that point included just 234 wins and a 114 ERA+. Similar pitchers include Luis Tiant (229, 114) and Waite Hoyt (237, 111), neither of whom has come close to Hall of Fame election.
Luckily for Roberts, 1961 would not even be close to the end of his career. Signed by an Orioles team that had lost 97 games the year the before, Roberts made his Orioles debut with two scoreless innings in relief. He followed that up with a no-decision in his first start, then took the loss in his second start.
After that, however, Roberts seemingly discovered his old form. From June to the end of the year Roberts went 10-8 while the rest of the O’s pitching staff came in at 45-54. Even better, Roberts had a 2.76 ERA during the run. For the year, he finished with the second best ERA in the league.
The next season, the 36 year-old Roberts pitched more than 250 innings, good for fifth in the American League and did so with a better than average ERA. Steve Barber established himself as the ace of the O’s staff, but Roberts remained a contributor. The next season he threw just over 200 innings, and did so with the American League’s ninth best ERA.
All said, for his first three years in Baltimore Roberts went 37-29, 3.03 (117 ERA+) with six shutouts, averaging 215 innings a year. Not only are those good numbers in their own right, they are even more so when compared to Roberts’ three final years in Philadelphia when he went 28-43, 4.47 (90 ERA+) and averaged fewer innings per season.
After Roberts started the season 5-7 in Baltimore in 1965, the O’s released him and he signed with the still-new Astros. Pitching in the cavernous Astrodome no doubt suited Roberts and his homer-prone style. Making 10 starts for the gruesome Astros (65-97), Roberts went 5-2, 1.89.
Roberts’ first start for Houston was especially fulfilling: He pitched a shutout against the Phillies, allowing just four hits and one walk while striking out six. Indeed, his first three starts for the Astros saw him throw three complete games—two shutouts—while not allowing a single home run.
That would be the last good year of Roberts’ career, his bag of tricks apparently emptied. He was worse than average for both the Astros and Cubs in ’66, and though he pitched for a Phillies minor league team in 1967, he never returned to the majors.
But after his post-1961 second wind, Roberts could hardly complain. He won 52 more games, pitched nearly 1,000 innings and added 33 more complete games to his total. (He remains second on the post-integration complete game list.) All this was enough to ensure Roberts’ Hall of Fame election, an event that came in 1976; Roberts appeared on more than 85 percent of ballots.
So while it seems unlikely that Sheffield will have quite the post-release career that Roberts did, Mets fans should take heart in knowing that just because one team believes a player no longer worthy of a roster spot, it isn’t necessarily the case.