Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 15, 2010
BASEBALL: Rapid Robin
Meant to link to this earlier - Chris Jaffe writes an obituary for Robin Roberts, as a pitcher, that hits on the key point: Roberts' incredible workloads. When I was working with translated pitching stats some years back, there were four guys who really stood out for their workloads at their peak, relative to the years they pitched in: Roberts in the early 50s, Bob Feller in the late 30s to the season of his return from the war, Phil Niekro in the late 70s, and John Clarkson in the mid-late 1880s. But Niekro was a knuckleballer, and Clarkson was just doing what everybody else had been doing 5 years earlier; only 12 pitchers between 1924 and 1962 threw 320 innings in a season, and three of those were Roberts in consecutive seasons (in that 3-year stretch he averaged 338 innings and 31 complete games), and three others were Feller, albeit separated by four years in which Feller didn't pitch due to the war. Roberts tossed 300 innings six years in a row and less than 3 innings short of a seventh, at a time when the #2 workhorse in the game (Warren Spahn) was miles behind.
Roberts in his prime was sort of like Mariano Rivera throwing 300 innings a year, in that he threw so hard with so much movement and control that he scarcely needed a breaking ball (obviously, he was more homer-prone - Jamie Moyer may soon break his career record of 505 homers allowed, but it's a record that has withstood many challenges). Like Walter Johnson, Satchel Paige and Lefty Grove, all of whom that was true of to some extent at their peaks, he made heavier use of a curve as he got older (Paige reportedly didn't really develop his curve until he was pitching in the International League around age 50 and left the majors). As with Johnson and Paige, such heavy reliance on the fastball undoubtedly contributed to his ability to carry fantastic workloads with minimal stress.
Roberts, by his telling, became an elite pitcher in an instant and lost it as quickly. In his autobiography, My Life in Baseball, he explains that his mechanics just fell into place one day as a college pitcher in the summer of 1947, giving him great velocity with little stress on his arm; a year later, he was a major league pitcher, and he continued on carrying those eye-popping workloads until near the end of the 1955 season, his sixth in a row of 20 wins and 300 innings, when his manager, Mayo Smith, in a quest to get the team to finish at .500, pushed him too hard. Roberts threw 10 innings on August 14 against the Dodgers, albeit throwing just 123 pitches (pitch counts in that era are available only for Dodgers games, as the team tracked them (while Roberts was economical with his pitches, he cracked the 150 pitch mark twice in 1953, once in 1954, once in 1957, and once in 1958, including a 12-inning 190-pitch monstrosity on Opening Day in 1957). He threw 9 innings (90 pitches) against the Dodgers August 19, to run his record to 20-9 with a 2.83 ERA. Then, the next day - August 20, 1955 - Smith had Roberts come back to relieve, getting the save in a 3-2 win. He faced only one batter - Don Newcombe, pinch hitting - and got him. Then, Smith had Roberts warm up the next day as well, but didn't use him. After his next start, on August 25, Roberts couldn't straighten his arm, and the rest of the season he went 3-5 with a 5.37 ERA and just 17 K in 57 innings, beginning a long string of sore-armed seasons. The man who had dominated National League starting pitching for six seasons would go 74-97 with a 4.16 ERA (94 ERA+) and barely more than a strikeout every other inning from 1956-61 until the 34-year-old Roberts bottomed out at 1-10, 5.85 ERA in 1961, got cut by the Phillies and cut by the Yankees before reinventing himself to go 47-38 with a 2.98 ERA with the Orioles and Astros from age 35-38.
And that's before you get into his pioneering work in the Players' Association.
I met Roberts at an autograph event about 5 years ago - I mentioned that I'd read his book - and he sort of reminded me, in a good way, of Don Rumsfeld, a square-jawed, square-shouldered Illinoisian in his mid-70s, still looking physically strong and mentally quick. He reportedly watched the Phillies game the night before he died.