Inside Baseball: Robin Roberts Was One Of The Greats — For Awhile

Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts died Thursday. Which gives us an excuse to talk about how great he truly was, and why he is a cautionary tale for today’s pitchers.

In 1952, Roberts went 28-7 for the Phillies, and no other pitcher in the NL won more than 18 games. He threw 330 innings, which was 40 more than anybody else in the league, and he finished third in the NL with a 2.59 ERA. Years ago, I developed a formula to adjust a pitcher’s won-lost record for his team and his era — you know, because nobody wins 28 games these days. If I recall correctly, Roberts’ 28-7 mark in 1952 came out as the best won-lost record in baseball history; at the least, it was very close to the top.

Along with that 28-7 record, Roberts’ VORP was 68.2, which means he was 68 runs better than a theoretical replacement pitcher. Bob Rush was second in the NL in VORP at 51.7. In other words, by one measurement, Roberts was 16.5 runs better than any other pitcher in the league. And still the voters gave the MVP to Cubs outfielder Hank Sauer. It remains one of the most egregious MVP votes in history, and probably the only one in which the winner had the nickname of “The Honker.”

In 1953, Roberts pitched 81 more innings than anybody in the NL, and was second in ERA. His VORP that year was 90.1. But because he went “only” 23-16, he was sixth in MVP voting, after finishing second the previous year. There was no Cy Young Award in those days.

Roberts was, without a doubt, one of the great workhorses in major-league history. From 1951-55, he led the majors in innings pitched every year, usually by a large margin. He also led the majors in wins four straight years, games started six straight years, complete games five straight, etc.

And by then, his arm was all worn out. Through 1955, his 28-year-old season, Roberts had a winning percentage of .611 and an ERA of 3.02. After that, the numbers were .468 and 3.78. He continued to pitch for another decade, but his effectiveness experienced a sharp decline after 1955.

Relative to his era, Roberts probably pitched more innings over a five-year span than anybody in history. And it’s not a coincidence that he was never the same after the age of 28. That is exactly the reason why nobody pitches 250 innings anymore, let alone 350.

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