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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.

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