An Elegy for Robin Roberts (1926-2010)

Robin Roberts has always been one of my favorite old-time players. He’s been almost an exception among retired Phillies stars—a seemingly normal, reserved guy. When your team’s retired stars include Pete Rose, Lenny Dykstra, Curt Schilling, and Jim Bunning, it’s refreshing to see someone with the capacity to stay out of the limelight and, it seemed, to enjoy it there. Roberts, was, apart from Mike Schmidt, probably the greatest homegrown player the Phillies ever had, and the thoughts and prayers of the Phillies community and their fans are with his family, I’m sure.

But that’s not what this post is about. Roberts was a unique pitcher. He threw very hard, but didn’t strike anyone out. Well, that’s not entirely true—he struck out 2,357 men in his career, more than most pitchers do. But he didn’t strike men out at a great rate, only 4.52 K/9 for his career. That’s only half a batter per 9 innings better than Kyle Kendrick, whose inability to strike men out has led to him being a largely ineffective major league pitcher, as I’ve said in this space many times. So how did Roberts manage to pull off such a remarkable career with so few strikeouts?

Part of this is because, in his era, strikeouts weren’t as common as they are today. Walter Johnson became the first pitcher to strike out 3,000 men in 1923. No one else would reach that milestone until Bob Gibson did it in 1974. Since then, 14 others have done it, including guys like Schilling, John Smoltz, and Bert Blyleven who, while all truly great players, are probably not anywhere near the top 16 pitchers of all time.

Roberts had so much success while striking out so few batters because, ironically, of his commitment to the strike zone. That was his greatest success.

There are, generally speaking, two approaches to pitching. The first is to try to strike everyone out. There is a class of pitchers, usually endowed with thunderbolt fastballs and/or ballistic curves, who would just as soon send their infielders home when they take the mound. These are no-compromise pitchers who strike out a ton of batters, walk just as many, and tend not to give up a whole lot in between. Being a hard thrower helps, but it is not a requirement. I’d put Randy Wolf and his death-by-a-thousand-knuckle-curves approach in this category, even though he hardly breaks 90 with his fastball. I’d call Nolan Ryan the most perfect exemplar of this type of pitcher and Sandy Koufax the most effective. For current examples, look at Clayton Kershaw and A.J. Burnett. Burnett once walked nine batters in a no-hitter, a quintessential all-or-nothing performance.

The other extreme is to throw nothing but strikes. These pitchers don’t strike as many batters out, but they minimize the effect of their lack of strikeouts by getting a ton of ground balls and weak pop-ups and by never walking anyone. After his third full season, Roberts only once walked as many as two batters per nine innings. Nolan Ryan, per inning, struck out twice as many batters as Roberts but walked more than three times as many batters.

Of course, these pitchers tend to take their lumps when things aren’t going well (Roberts famously gave up more home runs in his career than any other pitcher), but when they’re on, they can be very effective on very few pitches. Roy Halladay is a pitcher like this, who never walks anyone, doesn’t strike out a ton of people, but lives on weak contact.

In this day and age of 500-foot home runs and high on-base percentages, I’m not sure Roberts could have done as well as he did in the 1950s without changing his approach somewhat. But when the guys with the mitt-popping fastballs and big overhand curves are getting so much credit, I think it’s appropriate to honor those pitchers who get up there and get the job done with a minimum of bullshit. What’s more, the fewer batters you strike out, the more you have to do other things well in order to succeed. Looking at Roberts’ strikeout totals and his success highlights how well he did those other things.

As the noted baseball luminary Crash Davis once said, “Strikeouts are boring, and besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls—it’s more democratic.”

If that’s the case, the baseball world just lost one of the greatest democratizing forces in its history. Thank you, Robin Roberts. You will be missed.



  1. BurrGundy

    May 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Nice eulogy to a great pitcher — Robin Roberts. He was also a really decent person. He was my dad’s favorite ballplayer of all time. From 1950 to 1956, Roberts averaged over 26 complete games PER SEASON and over 300 INNINGS !!!! In his career he pitched 305 complete games, compared to Steve Carlton’s 254, Jim Bunning’s 151 and Nolan Ryan’s 222. He had more complete games than victories, and would traditionally pitch the entire game because he always threw strikes. In his career he had 45 shutouts and over 242 innings pitched throughout his career of 19 years. THIS MAN WAS A GREAT PITCHER. The cornerstone to the Phillies in the 50’s.

  2. Manny

    May 6, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Nice article. RIP Roberts.

  3. George

    May 6, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    It’s sad that some moron like Dykstra, or a tax evader and chronic gambler, such as Rose will probably get more obituary space than a quiet guy like Roberts. I’m glad he’s at least getting some notice; a very nice write-up here.

    I do disagree, though, that Roberts may not have done as well now as in the fifties. Modern hitters simply strike out more because they try to kill more pitches. With his pinpoint control, Roberts probably would just have had more strikeouts than he did way back when.

    He was a great pitcher, didn’t throw at batters, and with a better team would have easily won 300.

  4. Choo Choo Coleman

    May 6, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Excellent piece! The Roberts / Ryan comparison is a very penetrating comparison of differing techinques for pitching success.

    One of the most memorable highlights of Robert’s career occurred on May 13, 1954, when he gave up a lead-off home run to Cincinnati Reds player (then known as the “Redlegs”) Bobby Adams and then retired 27 consecutive batters to win 8-1, on a one-hit game.

    He consistently (11 of 14 years) had a better winning percentage than did the Phillies in games in which he had no decision. Overall, the Phillies were 1020-1136 from 1948-1961. Roberts was 234-199 in that span, for a winning percentage of .5404. Without his decisions, the Phils were 786-937, for a winning percentage of .4562. He was thus .0842 better than his team.

    In an interview long after he retired, he was asked why he was unable to post 300 career victories. He replied by saying had he played for a better team than the mediocre 1950’s Phillies, he may have won 400! Also, legend has it that after he was finally demoted back to the minors at the end of his career in 1967, that they had to forcibly tear the uniform off his body to make him retire.

    His book “The Whiz Kids And the 1950 Pennant ” is definitely a worth while read for anyone interested in Phillies history. It also provides many insights into the inner pysche of Roberts.

  5. whizkidfanatic

    May 6, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Condolences to the Roberts family. I trust they know how much this man was respected and admired.

    For me his passing represents the official end of my childhood. The memories he has left with me will never end. I have written before in the 100 Greatest Phillies of my memories watching him pitch. He was a great pitcher, a gamer who battled every inning and every pitch. Yet even more important, he was a class act. A gentleman and ambassador for baseball par excellence. That I chose him to be my boyhood hero and then got to meet him and know him a bit when I was in my 60’s is beyond my wildest dreams come true. A class act all the way, he will be missed.

    Rest in Peace old friend and know that you made a difference.

  6. Marshall Garvey

    May 6, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Exceptional analysis Michael. I’m a Twins fan (but have always really liked the Phils, and am a frequent reader of this blog), and would like to extend my condolences to the Roberts family, the team, and the fans. Roberts is a favorite of mine as well and I was happy to see him get more press last year during the WS. Along the lines of what George said above, what’s sad is that a humble guy like this probably won’t get the adequate acknowledgment upon his passing when he absolutely deserves it (at least in comparison to someone more controversial). His six consecutive 20-win seasons alone are phenomenal. Especially in this era of the setup man and closer, I’d like to see a starter anchor a staff as exceptionally as he did in the 50’s. RIP Robin, you will be missed by all!

  7. San Diego Mike

    May 6, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    When I was 8 and growing up in Chicago, my dad took me to a Sunday double header between the Cubs and Phillies. I wanted to get autographs of the hometown Cubs but they walked right past a bunch of us kids waiting for them after batting practice. My dad could see my disappointment and suggested we try the area where the Phillies came off the field between games. I got autographs from Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts! Robin looked down at me and asked, “Are you a Phillie fan, kid?” I gushed, “Yes sir!” And here I am, 60 years later, still a die-hard Phillie fan and living in San Diego. I never forgot how nice Whitey and Robin were and how they converted me on the spot that day back in 1951. Good bless you, Robin.

  8. Jeff of Nova

    May 6, 2010 at 5:59 pm


    That is a great story!! My mom grew up in the same neighborhood where Robin Roberts lived, she always tells me stories of how wonderful a person he was:)

  9. Brooks

    May 7, 2010 at 1:37 am

    Baumann, RR was not only a great pitcher but a great member of this community for years (my dad used to play golf with him at his course).
    This sounds like a perfect story line, following up on not just his prowess & talent as a baseball player but his role in the community. I’ll bet there is a lot we dont know about the man.

  10. Corey Seidman

    May 7, 2010 at 4:08 am

    Great stuff.

  11. bigmyc

    May 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Superb story, SD Mike. Thanks for sharing that. You got me with that one…to top it off, you just had to throw his Whiteness in there, didn’t ya? Misty eye’d, I tell ya.

  12. Mike Dicello

    May 7, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    Very well said!

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