Monday, October 23, 2006
Since I began doing some reading into the Phillies history I’ve discovered what an exceptional player Roberts was, but I am utterly stunned that Robin Roberts isn’t more remembered for his achievements by both Phillies fans and the baseball community at large. For being a Hall of Fame inductee – in fact, Roberts is the Phillies first Hall of Famer – he is curiously uncelebrated for his achievements with the Phillies and is largely unknown to most fans. One of the things that I am hopeful for with this series of posts is to shed more historical light on Robin Roberts. He deserves to be honored and remembered for being not only one of the greatest Phillies of all-time but perhaps the greatest pitcher the Phillies have ever had, even considering Steve Carlton. Robin Roberts was a giant in the history of the Phillies and it is time he gets his due.
Simply put, Robin Roberts was the best pitcher in baseball during the 1950s. From 1950-1956 he was an All-Star each year and placed in the top ten of the MVP voting five times, in 1950 and between 1952 and 1955. He led the N.L. in innings pitched from 1951 to 1955, led the NL in victories between 1952 and 1955, and had the best walk-to-strikeout ratio of an NL pitcher from 1952 to 1954, and again in 1956 and 1959. He also surrendered the fewest walks per nine innings pitched from 1952 to 1954 and in 1956. He started the All-Star Game for the NL five times (1950-1951, 1953-1955). He was the most dominant pitcher of his era.
Let me start off by saying that I am going to be using a lot of stats in this article. If you are confused about what I’m talking about, then here are the stats I refer to defined:
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).
DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.
HR/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP
Roberts career began in Michigan after his discharge from the Army Air Force in 1945. A talented athlete, he played basketball on a scholarship and a little baseball at Michigan State. After playing independent league ball in 1947, Roberts was signed to a deal with the Phillies and joined the minor league team in Wilmington, Delaware in 1948 where he made short work of the opposition. The Phillies sent him up to Philadelphia at the age of 22. Roberts remembered that he traveled from Hagerstown, Maryland, where his team was playing a game to Wilmington and then up to Philadelphia to Shibe Park where he was approached by then-manager Ben Chapman when he arrived at 6:00 P.M. After Chapman asked Roberts how he felt, he simply informed that he was making his major league debut in two hours against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberts lost, but allowed just five hits.
His first season with the Phillies was a triumph: he went 7-9 with a 3.19 ERA. It was a very successful debut. He was still developing his skills and his control wasn’t quite there, as he walked 3.74 batters per nine innings that season. In 1949 Roberts established himself as the team’s ace, going 15-15 with a 3.69 ERA. Here are some of his stats from that season, showing the strides that he was making as a pitcher:
FIP ERA: 3.59
Generally, a trend emerges from the 1949 season that will stay with Roberts throughout his career. He doesn’t get many strikeouts, but he’s pretty good about surrendering home runs and he’s stingy with the walks allowed. Remembered one umpire who worked the National League in the ‘50s: “Roberts was a great pitcher. He was an umpire’s delight to work the plate with because he had uncanny control. The ball was always in or near the strike zone, and he had the players swinging at the ball all of the time. They weren’t waiting for bases on balls because Roberts didn’t give up bases on balls or very few of them.” (Page 360, Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers quoting Jocko.) Roberts is also durable in 1949, throwing 226 and two-thirds of an inning. Part of that was Roberts delivery towards home plate. According to Eddie Sawyer, Roberts manager: “[Roberts] had a very easy delivery. I call it symmetry of motion. It just flowed, pitch after pitch. He made it look easy.” (Page 360, Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, quoting The Man in the Dugout.)
The Golden Era: 1950 – 1955
Roberts best seasons were between 1950 and 1955, six years where the Phillies, to varying degrees, were in contention for the National League pennant. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked Robin Roberts has the sixteenth best pitcher of all-time, noting that between 1950 and 1955 Roberts led all pitchers in Win Shares, with the exception of 1951, where the Giants Sal Maglie narrowly bested him 27.75 to 27.71. In discussing Roberts remarkable achievements, James noted that Roberts probably never received the credit he was due in history because he never won the Cy Young Award, in part because the Cy Young Award was created in 1956, just when Roberts exceptional period of dominance came to an end. During that time Roberts was named The Sporting News pitcher of the year three times, so he likely would have won the Cy Young those seasons.
Roberts run, appropriately, kicks off with the Wiz Kids.
In 1950 Roberts has his first truly great statistical season, going 20-11 with a 3.02 ERA. Take a closer look at his numbers:
FIP ERA: 3.55
At first glance, Roberts did surrender a lot of home runs – 29 – but that was largely a product of facing the second-highest number of batters in the NL that season: 1,228. Despite throwing as many innings as he did Roberts still did better than the NL averages for home runs allowed (0.89), walks (3.71) and strikeouts (4.09).
Roberts faced a lot of stress in 1950. After Curt Simmons, who went 17-8 with a 3.40 ERA that season, joined the National Guard following the outbreak of the Korean War, Roberts was carrying the Phillies for part of their run for the pennant and for nearly all of September. After Simmons and Jim Konstanty, the quality of the Phillies pitching staff fell off dramatically, leaving Roberts and Konstanty largely carrying the team to the pennant. In late July, for example, Roberts hurled three consecutive shutouts, keeping the opposition scoreless for thirty-two and two-thirds innings. Down the stretch, with the Phillies offense struggling to score runs, it was Roberts masterful pitching that kept the Phillies in the hunt for the playoffs.
On October 1, 1950, Roberts pitched one of the most important games in Phillies history. (See, Part XII of this series.) Leading the Brooklyn Dodgers by a game on the last day of the season the Phillies needed to win to avoid a playoff against the Dodgers for the pennant. The Phillies were reeling, having lost their last five games, including a 7-3 loss to the Dodgers the day prior. If they didn’t win, the Dodgers would have the edge in the playoff and the Phillies would have blown an insurmountable lead for the pennant.
Roberts blanked the Dodgers, the best offensive team in the National League, nearly all game long, surrendering a fluke home run to Pee Wee Reese in the sixth inning. In the bottom of the ninth the Dodgers nearly won the game when Duke Snider singled to centerfield and the Dodgers waved Cal Abrams home to score the winning run. Richie Ashburn snared Snider’s hit and hurled the ball to home plate to gun Abrams out. After Roberts survived the rest of the ninth, Dick Sisler hit a three run home run at the top of the tenth inning to give the Phillies a 4-1 lead. Roberts retired the side at the bottom of the tenth inning, despite having gotten lime into his eyes during the top of the tenth when he slid into third base. Ashburn was the hero, Sisler got the big hit, but it was Roberts clutch pitching which shut down the most dangerous team in the National League, holding them to a single run on five hits and three walks in ten innings of work. Roberts performance that day is even more impressive when you consider it was the third start he had worked in five days.
Without Roberts masterful pitching there would have been no tie game, there would have been no throw by Ashburn, there would have been no home run by Sisler and no pennant for the Wiz Kids.
Too tired to pitch Game One of the World Series, Roberts pitched in Game Two, four days after the climatic 4-1 win over the Dodgers. Roberts again hurled ten innings, surrendering ten hits and three walks. Roberts got just one run in support from the Phillies hitters, a sac fly from Ashburn to even the game at 1-1 in the fifth inning. Tied at 1-1, Roberts finally cracked in the top of the tenth inning, surrendering a lead-off home run to Joe DiMaggio, the only home run DiMaggio hit in the series. The Yankees won 2-1. Two days later the Yankees closed out the sweep of the Wiz Kids with a 5-2 victory at Yankee Stadium. Roberts hurled the eighth inning of the game, pressed into service to keep the Phillies faint hopes to win alive.
In 1951 the Wiz Kids stunned the baseball world and Philadelphia fans by going just 73-81, finishing twenty-three games out of first place. Memories of the Wiz Kids dramatic pennant were erased by the Giants climatic comeback and the Dynasty That Was To Be was nevermore. Nearly every player on the Phillies roster slumped that season. Despite the fact that the Phillies team DER dropped from second to fourth and their team ERA dropped from first to fourth, Roberts came back in 1951 with the same dominance. In a grim season, Roberts was a ray of hope for the future.
Roberts went 21-15 with a 3.03 ERA in 1951. A closer look at his stats gives you an idea about how dominant he was that season:
FIP ERA: 3.07
The 1951 season represents a bit of a turning point for Roberts. His walks continued to drop, the home runs dropped as well and he became even tougher to get a hit off of. It was Roberts first season to lead the National League in innings pitched as well. Once more he was second in batters faced. All of this playing for a team that had difficulty supplying him with runs even when they were playing well. The ’51 Phillies were sixth in the NL in runs scored, down from fourth in ’50. The ’51 Phils scored seventy-four fewer runs than the ’50 team did, so wins were far harder to come by.
The transition to ace pitcher was complete:
1949 1950 1951
HR/9: 0.60 0.86 0.57
BB/9: 2.98 2.27 1.83
K/9: 3.77 4.32 3.63
WHIP: 1.34 1.17 1.10
FIP ERA: 3.59 3.55 3.07
But the ’51 campaign was a massive failure for the Phillies. They fought to finish fifth and left fans anticipating another pennant bitterly disappointed. Eddie Sawyer’s days as manager were numbered. He was gone in ’52, as the Phillies climbed back to respectability. To help Roberts, Curt Simmons returned from the Army and was spectacular in 1952, going 14-8 with a 2.82 ERA*, but the Phillies offense was still much worse than the rest of the NL, and the Phillies defense was just fifth in the NL in DER.
The 1952 Phillies got off to a lousy start, fired Eddie Sawyer and promptly rolled off 59 wins in their last 91 games (.648), going from sixth place and seventeen and a half games out of first place to fourth place, just nine and a half games out. The ’52 Phils hot finish convinced many that the Return of the Wiz Kids were right around the corner.
* Earlier I noted that Roberts started the All-Star Game for the NL every season between 1950 and 1955 save one, 1952. Simmons started the ’52 All-Star Game for the NL. A Phillies pitcher started the All-Star Game every year from 1950 to 1955 (and then Curt Simmons started the '57 game). That was how dominant the Phillies pitching was in the ‘50s.
The ’52 season was also Roberts greatest. He went 28-7 with a 2.59 ERA that season and thoroughly dominated the National League. A major factor in Roberts success was his decision to adopt the Giants Sal Maglie’s “hard curve” that season to replace his own slow curve which he felt didn’t work. (Neyer / James Guide to Pitchers, page 360, quoting My Life in Baseball.) Here is a closer look at those numbers:
FIP ERA: 2.86
Roberts dominance that season was scary. Roberts obliterated the NL averages that season for home runs (0.74), walks (3.39) and WHIP (1.34). Roberts finished under the league average for strikeouts (4.28), but his control of the strike-zone and ability to get the opposition to put weak hits into play were the reasons why he was so special.
That season he led the National League in wins with twenty-eight, a whopping ten more than the Giants Maglie; had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the N.L., 3.29, much better than the Cubs Warren Hacker at 2.71; allowed the fewest walks per nine innings, 0.29 better than Hacker; faced the most batters, 1,310, 120 more than the Braves Warren Spahn; threw the most innings, 330, forty more than Spahn, started the most games, 37, two more than Spahn; and threw the most complete games, 30, nine more than the Pirates Murry Dickson. He finished second in WHIP to Hacker (0.946), and third in ERA, behind Hacker (2.58) and the Giants Hoyt Wilhelm (2.43). Stunningly, Roberts completed his final twenty-eight starts in 1952. Think about that in our age of five, six, seven inning starts: Robin Roberts went the distance twenty-eight consecutive times in 1952.
Roberts and Simmons were the one-two punch that the Phillies had dearly lacked in 1951 and were a major reason why the team once more had the best ERA in the N.L. Roberts ability to control the strike-zone is a major reason why the Phillies averaged nearly a walk fewer per nine innings than any other National League team (2.4, better than the Cardinals 3.3). Roberts was so good in 1952 that he actually finished second in the MVP voting to the Cubs Hank Sauer, getting 211 votes to Sauer’s 226. I would never expect to see a pitcher factor much in the MVP voting today, and I can’t fathom that one would nearly beat a position player for the award in the 1950s, an era that valued hitting over pitching. (Though teammate Jim Konstanty did just that in 1950.)
The next season Roberts ran his consecutive complete games streak to thirty-three on his way to a 23-16 record with a 2.75 ERA. The ’53 Phillies played well, but couldn’t survive an injury to Curt Simmons and watched as the Brooklyn Dodgers won the pennant in a walk. The ’53 team won 83 games but the Dodger went 105-49 and buried the Phillies twenty-two games out of first. Still, it was another great season for Roberts:
FIP ERA: 3.20
He finished tied for first in wins with Warren Spahn, first in strikeouts (the first time he led the National League in this category), first in walks per nine innings, first in games started with 41, first in complete games with 33 (nine more than Spahn), first in innings pitched with 346 & 2/3 (eighty-one more than Spahn), first in batters faced with 1,422 (a whopping 357 more than Spahn) and first in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 3.25, 0.89 better than the Cardinals Harvey Haddix. Roberts had the second-best WHIP (best: Spahn at 1.058) and the second-best ERA (best: Spahn at 2.10). Warren Spahn might have posted impressive stats, but he did so on a team that provided him with plenty of run support and he threw many fewer innings – eighty-one fewer to be exact – than Roberts.
Once more Roberts was in the thick of the MVP voting, finishing sixth. The run-away winner of the MVP award that season was the Dodgers Campanella, who got 297 of the maximum 336 votes.
The 1954 was the continuation of a familiar pattern for Roberts as a Phillie. The team had promise but would falter badly, while he would be left to try to keep the Phillies in the mix. The Phillies pitching staff was the third-best in the majors that season, allowing just a 3.59 ERA, almost exclusively a product of Roberts sterling pitching. The problem was that their offense couldn’t generate enough runs to convert Roberts good starts into victories. In 1953 Roberts was the losing pitcher in 16 games. He’d lose another 15 in 1954. Roberts did win 23 games in 1954, the fifth consecutive season he won twenty or more games.
Roberts was again spectacular for the Phillies:
FIP ERA: 3.23
He led the National League in wins, strikeouts, complete games, games started, WHIP, walks allowed per nine innings, strikeout-to-walk ratio, innings pitched and batters faced. He finished sixth in ERA. During the ’54 campaign Roberts tossed a pair of one-hitters and went fifteen innings to win a game 3-2 against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 17th, 1954. Roberts finished seventh in the MVP voting that season.
The 1955 season was marked a bit of a turning point for Roberts. Between 1951 and 1954 his FIP ERA had been 3.07, 2.86, 3.20 and 3.23. Now it would climb somewhat, to 3.59, the highest it had been since 1949. He still pitched well in 1955, but it was the end of his dominating period over the National League. It was also the last time that he would start the All-Star Game for the National League, and the last time he would win twenty or more games, which he had done six consecutive seasons. Roberts went 23-14 with a 3.28 ERA that season.
FIP ERA: 3.59
Roberts still led the National League in wins, innings, batters faced, complete games and games started, but he finished second in walks allowed per nine innings, WHIP, strikeouts, and strikeout-to-walk ratio to the Dodgers Don Newcombe. Roberts also finished fifth in ERA. Once more the Phillies disappointed, losing 21 of their first 31 games. On May 18th, they were already fourteen games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers. Their season was finished, despite winning forty of their last sixty-nine games. They finished twenty-one and a half games out of the pennant race. 1955 also represented the end of the Phillies period of success during the 1950s. Despite disappointing fans by not returning to the World Series during the early 1950s, the Phillies had generally been in the mix and had finished fourth each season thanks to their strong pitching staff, which had been one of the best consistently each season.
So how does Roberts run of dominance look to us, some fifty years later? Utterly astonishing. Just compare Roberts walk rate to that of his contemporaries:
BB/9: Roberts / League / Diff.
1950: 2.27 / 3.75 / 1.48
1951: 1.83 / 3.57 / 1.74
1952: 1.22 / 3.45 / 2.23
1953: 1.58 / 3.52 / 1.94
1954: 1.50 / 3.67 / 2.17
1955: 1.56 / 3.53 / 1.97
Aside from 1950 and 1951, every season Roberts was twice as good as what the rest of the league was doing. Take the ’52 season: Roberts allowed just 45 walks in 330 innings of work, or 1.22 per nine innings. The rest of the National League allowed 3.45, nearly three times as many as Roberts. Roberts was simply in his own world. Nobody could touch him. Nobody, in this era, the 1950s, where the walk to strikeout ratio was somewhere near 1-to-1 … well, specifically between 1950 and 1955 there were 25,920 walks and 30,805 strikeouts in the National League, meaning there were 1.19 strikeouts to walks … could do what Robin Roberts was doing. He was so stingy with the walks that his good-to-average strikeout numbers still gave him a 2.71 to 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That’s better than twice as good as what the rest of the league was doing. Oh, and Roberts hurled so many innings during this time that when you delete his numbers from the rest of the National League, the N.L.’s overall K/BB ratio falls to 1.17. A single player made a significant change to the league’s stats.
In his Historical Abstract, Bill James named Robin Roberts the best pitcher in baseball during the 1950s four times: 1950, 1953, 1954 and 1955 (interestingly, not awarding Roberts with the top spot for his best statistical season, 1952). Here is an overview of those stats for the 1950s:
W-L ERA WHIP
1950: 20-11 3.02 1.18
1951: 21-15 3.03 1.10
1952: 28-7 2.59 1.02
1953: 23-16 2.75 1.11
1954: 23-15 2.97 1.02
1955: 23-14 3.28 1.13
HR/9 BB/9 K/9
1950: 0.86 2.27 4.32
1951: 0.57 1.83 3.63
1952: 0.60 1.22 4.03
1953: 0.78 1.58 5.14
1954: 0.94 1.50 4.95
1955: 1.21 1.56 4.72
I really only think that there is one other pitcher who had the kind of impact on his era like Robin Roberts: Sandy Koufax. The comparison isn’t perfect – Koufax was a strikeout artist, Roberts wasn’t – but they were both dominant in their leagues during their times. What interests me about the comparison between Roberts and Koufax is that Roberts accomplished his remarkable feats during the era of offense, when teams scored runs in bushels. Koufax was the most dominant pitcher in an era where pitchers held all of the cards. For example, Koufax allowed just 1.68 walks per nine innings in 1963. The league average that season was lower than it had been in the 1950s: 2.82. While Koufax was doing remarkable things during the 1960s, Roberts was a statistical anomaly, a pitcher who was dominant in an era where the batters held the cards. In 1963 there were 2.09 strikeouts to walks. In 1964 the K/BB ratio was 2.10 to 1. In 1965 it was 2.03 to 1. Koufax was a remarkable pitcher, but he must be considered in his context. He was getting a lot of strikeouts and keeping guys from getting walks, but he did so in an era where pitchers were starting to dominate. Roberts has to be evaluated in his context as well: his stats contrast well with Koufax and he did that in a offense-friendly era.
In addition to comparing their performances on the mound in their respective periods, I also think it is interesting to compare Sandy Koufax’s temperament to Roberts. Both had reputations for being calm, polite players who won the respect of their peers because they didn’t engage in absurd posturing or loud, obnoxious behavior. T.O. could have learned from both of these guys. Roberts himself said: “I was mainly a one-pitch pitcher, although sometimes I mixed in a curveball when I was ahead in the count. I could put my fastball where I wanted it, but I was sometimes criticized for not pitching inside more and not knocking hitters down … Well, lots of people talked about knocking batters down but few did it. And it just wasn’t me. I just went after people with my best stuff and let the batters hit it if they could. That was my act, and it got me through eighteen years in the big leagues.” Neyer / James Guides to Pitchers, page 360, quoting My Life in Baseball by Robin Roberts.) Said Eddie Sawyer: “[Roberts] would never throw at hitters. They knew this and would go up there and take a toehold, but he would still get them out. He did it with speed, control and stamina.” (Neyer / James Guides to Pitchers, page 360, quoting The Man in the Dugout.) Koufax and Roberts both conducted themselves with grace and dignity, traits that modern players seem to hold in short supply.
Koufax, who retired from baseball following the 1966 World Series at roughly the same time as Roberts (1967), got into the Hall of Fame quickly, whereas Roberts was forced to wait a few years before being elected. Underrated, undervalued by history, Roberts remarkable run has gone largely unremembered. This was a pitcher every bit as good as Sandy Koufax, but who had the misfortune to toil on a team that was not in New York or Los Angeles, and who never won the World Series as Koufax did in 1963 and 1965. Ken Burns Baseball series spent considerable time on Koufax and the ’60s Dodgers (actually they spent loads of time on the Dodgers regardless of the era), but to my recollection Robin Roberts and the Wiz Kids rated nary a mention.
Bill James argued in his Historical Baseball Abstract that Koufax deserves special recognition beyond simply being a great pitcher for being THE integral part of the Dodgers ’63, ’65 and ’66 pennant-winners, a factor to James that makes Koufax great beyond his raw numbers. I submit that Roberts tough performance in 1950 – pitching the decisive game of the season on three days rest after having started two games within the last five days, then allowing just one run in ten innings while pitching the climatic tenth with irritated, blurred vision – makes him THE integral part of the Wiz Kids run to the pennant. I think that Roberts deserves recognition for that and credit for being great beyond his statistics.
One little aside before I move onto Roberts final seasons with the Phillies – Roberts was, for a pitcher, a okay hitter. In 1955 he had a .360 OBP (he was 27-for-107 with eighteen walks), with two home runs, four triples, nine doubles, 13 RBIs, and 12 runs scored. His GPA that season was .279 and he had 18 Runs Created. His performance was a bit of an anomaly, but something to consider in evaluating his remarkable career.
Toiling in Obscurity: 1956 – 1961
Roberts run came to an end in 1955, but he still continued to be a dominant pitcher for some time. In 1956 the Phillies pitching was the worst in the National League. The decline in the quality of the Phillies pitching can be directly traced to Roberts struggles that season. Hampered by a leg injury, for the first time since 1949 he failed to win twenty games, going 19-18, losing his chance for a twentieth win on the final day of the season. Roberts also allowed 46 home runs that season, a major league record. His ERA jumped from 2.97 in ’54 to 3.28 in ’55 to 4.45 in ’56.
FIP ERA: 3.65
While the decline in Roberts output seemed dramatic, it really wasn’t. His FIP barely inched up compared to what he did in ’55, and he actually did slightly better with walks and strikeouts that season. Roberts had been losing a lot of games for a while, a product of the fact that he was pitching so many of the Phillies innings and absorbing a lot of the losses in games where they couldn’t do any better than muster a run or two. Roberts simply gave up a few more home runs than he usually did in 1956, but the effect on his career was considerable.
Roberts finished just twenty-third in the MVP voting in 1956, with seven votes out of 336. He once more led the National League in walks allowed per nine innings, in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and in complete games. But 1956 marked the start of a new, more difficult time for Roberts.
In 1957 the Phillies were 77-77 and finished eighteen games out of first place. Roberts also had a difficult season, going 10-22 with a 4.07 ERA.
FIP ERA: 4.15
The 1957 season seems a clear case where the Phillies anemic offense cost Roberts a number of games. Roberts pitched so many games with so many innings that he racked up many decisions and often lost games that might have gone to other pitchers. The twenty-two losses looked much worse than they were, but clearly he was back-sliding somewhat.
The following season, 1958, Roberts rebounded. That season he went 17-14 with a much-improved 3.24 ERA, his best since 1954. Statistically, Roberts turned in a terrific season:
FIP ERA: 3.62
The problem for the Phillies was that they had cratered badly, dropping from 77-77 and fifth place to 69-85 eighth place, dead last in the N.L. It was the Phillies first dead-last finish since 1947. Despite the Phillies blunders Richie Ashburn had won the batting title and had his most productive season offensively. Roberts ranked on the leader boards as well, finishing third in WHIP, fourth in innings pitched and batters faced, second in complete games, and second in strikeouts-to-walk ratio and in walks allowed per nine innings. Surely the last Wiz Kids knew that the end was near.
1959 brought a second consecutive last-place finish for the Phillies. Many of the former Wiz Kids left at this juncture. Richie Ashburn slumped badly in ’59 and went to the Cubs after the season ended. Willie Jones and Granny Hammer retired. Roberts continued on, still amassing impressive stats. He went 15-17 that season with a 4.27 ERA, over a run higher than it had been in 1958, although I’d note that Roberts FIP ERA was relatively unchanged, which suggests that the problems might have been more with the (poor) quality of the Phillies defense than with Roberts. Notice that Ashburn had his worst season as a Phillie that year, a factor that strongly impacted the defense that surrounded Roberts on the field.
Roberts did his best, however. For the fifth and final time he led the N.L. in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and finished third in walks allowed per nine innings. He was thirty-two and it was his twelfth major league season:
FIP ERA: 3.75
The 1950’s were over. It was a bitterly disappointing era for the Phillies: they had begun it by winning the N.L. pennant with a young team and never returned. Despite this, Roberts had a great decade.
On Opening Day, 1960, Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons were the sole Phillies left on the roster that played for the Wiz Kids. Simmons was released on May 17th and made his way to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he’d help win the 1964 World Series, and Roberts became the lone leftover from the ’50 team. He, once more, turned in a strong performance as, once more, the Phillies limped to an eighth place finish, trailing the Pirates that season by thirty-six games. Roberts went 12-16 with a 4.02 ERA. The decline in the quality of the fielders behind Roberts appears to be a major factor here as Roberts actual ERA climbed higher than his FIP:
FIP ERA: 3.81
The 1961 season was an utter disaster for the Phillies. Between July 28 and August 20, 1961, the Phillies dropped twenty-three consecutive games. The team lost 107 games that season, a tough feat to accomplish in an era when they played just 154 games. Roberts clashed with abrasive manager Gene Mauch – who stated that season that Roberts threw “like Betsy Ross” and would led the Phillies into their epic collapse in 1964 – and struggled badly, having his worst statistical season ever, going 1-10 with a 5.85 ERA:
FIP ERA: 4.51
It was the end of the road for Roberts with the Phillies. Since 1955 he had pitched well, but he couldn’t match that level of dominance he achieved from 1950 – 1955:
W-L ERA WHIP
1956: 19-18 4.45 1.24
1957: 10-22 4.07 1.16
1958: 17-14 3.24 1.19
1959: 15-17 4.27 1.17
1960: 12-16 4.02 1.22
1961: 1-10 5.86 1.51
HR/9 BB/9 K/9
1956: 1.39 1.21 4.75
1957: 1.44 1.55 4.61
1958: 1.00 1.70 4.34
1959: 1.18 1.22 4.79
1960: 1.17 1.29 4.63
1961: 1.46 1.76 4.15
To compare how dominant Roberts was during the earlier half of the 1950s, check out the differences between the two halves of the decade:
W – L ERA WHIP
1950 – 1955: 138-78 2.93 1.09
1956 – 1961: 74-97 4.16 1.22
The interesting thing is that, aside from Home Runs, Roberts actually posted somewhat better stats in the latter part of the decade:
HR/9 BB/9 K/9
1950 – 1955: 0.82 1.65 4.47
1956 – 1961: 1.26 1.42 4.58
This is utter speculation on my part, but I wonder if the Phillies decline in defense during the latter part of the decade significantly impacted Roberts performance. Had the Wiz Kids gone on and become a dynasty, Roberts might have gone on winning twenty games a season, that mystical number that separates “good” pitchers from “great” ones. He almost certainly would have won twenty games in 1956 and 1958, and he might have even posted a .500 record in 1957, when he lost those twenty-two games. My point in noting this is that one of the reasons why Roberts is under-valued in baseball history is that he dropped off after the ’55 season in the eyes of many observers. I don’t believe he suffered that much of a drop-off. From 1950 to 1960 he was basically the same pitcher, but the Phillies collapse late in the decade was poison to Roberts career. Thanks to this swoon Roberts fell short in getting to 300 career victories, that benchmark we all expect of great pitchers.
Toward the Hall of Fame: 1962 – 1966
In the fall of 1961 the Phillies sold Roberts to the Yankees for $25,000. The Phillies also retired Roberts #36 at the start of the season. Both he and the Phillies had moved on.
The Yanks promptly released Roberts prior to the 1962 season, whereupon he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. Roberts was rejuvenated with the Orioles. A young team trying to build for the future to compete with the Yankees, Roberts gave the Orioles just what they needed: an experienced veteran pitcher to teach them the ropes. The 1962 season was Roberts fifteenth in the major leagues. He was thirty-five. He pitched the next three and a half seasons, helping the young Orioles make the transition to become a contender. They actually briefly challenged the Yankees in 1964, the Yanks last great year, and came back to win the World Series over the L.A. Dodgers in a stunning upset in 1966. Roberts was long gone by then, however, having signed as a free agent during the 1965 campaign with the Houston Astros after having been released by the Orioles.
Roberts stay in Houston was brief. He finished the 1965 campaign and pitched for the beginning of the 1966 season with the Astros but was released once more. Roberts signed with the Chicago Cubs, finishing out the 1966 campaign, before being released once more. Here are Roberts stats from those seasons:
W-L ERA WHIP
1962: 10-9 2.78 1.13
1963: 14-13 3.33 1.07
1964: 13-7 2.91 1.25
1965: 10-9 2.98 1.05
1966: 5-8 4.28 1.44
HR/9 BB/9 K/9
1962: 0.80 1.93 4.80
1963: 1.25 1.43 4.44
1964: 0.79 2.29 4.81
1965: 0.85 1.42 4.58
1966: 1.21 1.69 4.34
1965: Baltimore & Houston
1966: Houston & Chicago
Here is how those seasons in Baltimore, Houston and Chicago stack up to his two Phillies eras:
W – L ERA WHIP
1950 – 1955: 138-78 2.93 1.09
1956 – 1961: 74-97 4.16 1.22
1962 – 1966: 52-46 3.19 1.16
HR/9 BB/9 K/9
1950 – 1955: 0.82 1.65 4.47
1956 – 1961: 1.26 1.42 4.58
1962 – 1966: 0.98 1.74 4.61
Roberts actually tried to return to the Phillies for the 1967 season and spent time in the minor leagues pitching before electing to call it quits. He was forty years old and had hurled 4,688 & 2/3 innings in his career, facing 19,174 batters. He had won 286 games and lost 245.
Currently, Robin Roberts ranks twentieth in baseball history in innings pitched, twenty-sixth in wins, eighteenth in games started, thirty-eighth in complete games and eighteenth in batters faced. In Phillies history Roberts ranks second to Steve Carlton in wins and strikeouts and first in innings and games. What is remarkable to me is that Roberts is the Phillies all-time leader in complete games, having thrown more than any other pitcher, including the Phillies dead-ball era ace, Pete Alexander.
Roberts had an interesting assessment of his career: “I had a fine right arm and a great delivery, but I pitched too much and wore myself down. I wasn’t quite selfish enough or smart enough.” (The Quotable Baseball Fanatic, page 278.) Roberts felt that he tried to do too much and spread himself too thin to help the team. Here is what Robin Roberts did in his career in terms of Win Shares, a pretty good illustration of how tough and valuable he was:
162 Game Average: 27.04
In the final analysis, Robin Roberts was an extra-ordinary pitcher, the likes of which we will probably never see again … okay, Roger Clemens, maybe … As I wrote this and as I began to read about the Wiz Kids I was struck by how little Roberts achievements mattered in the minds of the fandom and in the minds of baseball historians. So obsessed with New York, so blinded by the bright flame that was Sandy Koufax 1961 – 1966 run, historians remembering the 1950s and 1960s focused like a laser beam on the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Giants and on Koufax and utterly let Roberts memory drift away. Robin Roberts was the finest pitcher of the 1950s, and his successes in that decade were tremendous. He deserves to be remembered for being the most important player on the Wiz Kids in 1950, to be remembered for being one of the Phillies two greatest pitchers (Steve Carlton being the other), and for being the finest, most dominating pitcher of the 1950s.
The next time you go to Citizens Bank Ballpark think about what #36 did for the Phillies and remember. Now I know who that Robin Roberts guy was, and he was great.
Tomorrow I will shift my attention back to the World Series. Meanwhile, I have thoughts on the Eagles-Bucs game at The Bird Blog.
Roberts had a strange habit while on the mound. Between pitches he would bend over and smooth out his pant legs. It wasn't until after several years of warching this odd ritual that I heard him explain that he was stretching his back.
And he did what starters did in those days--complete games. I think he had 30 or more for a couple of years.
The guy was also modest. He ended his baseball career as a college coach (somewhere in Florida I think). I heard that on the first day of practice he handed his recruits a stat sheet showing his major league career. He told them to have a look at it because they wouldn't speak about it again.
There is a Roberts statue at Citizens Bank, but it's true that it's probably the worst-placed statue there -- Schmitty and Carlton are much more prominent as they face the parking lots and the subway stations, and Ashburn's got the entire outfield alley, of course. I only saw the Roberts one the first time I went there and wandered around the entire perimeter. It IS sort of odd.
It's Whiz Kids, not Wiz Kids.
As I wrote just before the Phils reached 10,000 losses, Roberts started the very first major league game I ever attended -- July 17, 1957. Unfortunately, he was ejected from the game before the top of the 2nd, so I only saw him pitch a 1-2-3 first inning.