Sunday, February 10, 2013

Best Pitching Season of the 1950s

Robin Roberts 1953 (9.4 bWAR)

To this day, Roberts remains one of the most underrated and underappreciated pitchers in baseball history. He wasn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer and he wasn't selected to baseball's All-Century Team. His name rarely comes up in the discussion of greatest hurlers, even when that list is narrowed down to men who pitched exclusively after Jackie Robinson busted through the color barrier in 1947.

So why doesn't Roberts, who won 20 games in six (almost seven) straight years, made seven consecutive All-Star teams and started five of them, get the credit he deserves? I have a few theories:
  1. Roberts never won a World Series, mainly because the Philadelphia Phillies were a second division team for most of his time there (through no fault of his own). Good players on bad teams are always doomed to be underrated. When the Phils beat the Brooklyn Dodgers on the final day of the 1950 season to clinch their first NL pennant in 35 years, the Whiz Kids were swept by the Bronx Bombers of Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford.
  2. He failed to win 300 games, but came awfully close. Tommy John and Bert Blyleven are the only pitchers to eclipse his 286 career wins without reaching 300. If Roberts played for better teams, or had even just one more good season, he would have passed the threshold with ease.
  3. Roberts was not a big strikeout pitcher the way Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan were. Despite twice leading the majors in punchouts, he did not blow hitters away. In fact, he struck out one batter for every two innings he pitched. Roberts was more of a control pitcher who succeeded by keeping the ball in the strike zone/limiting his walks, as evidenced by his career 1.7 BB/9 ratio.
  4. Roberts never threw a no-hitter, much less a perfect game, though he did toss a one-hitter on May 13th, 1954 against the Cincinnati Reds.
  5. His massive workloads caught up with him and led to premature decline. Over the final ten years of his career, Roberts lost more games than he won and compiled a 102 ERA+. When the 1960s rolled around he was washed up, reduced to mere afterthought as the sport became dominated by elite pitchers such as Koufax, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale and Juan Marichal.
  6. Roberts never won an MVP despite accumulating 1.93 award shares and never won a Cy Young, though he probably could have taken one or two if the award had been invented five years earlier.
  7. Despite playing in an era that produced gems such as "The Say Hey Kid" (Willie Mays), "The Commerce Comet" (Mickey Mantle) and "The Duke of Flatbush" (Duke Snider), Roberts never received a nickname from the Philadelphia faithful.
  8. Roberts did his best work 60 years ago, long before many baseball fans were even born. Most Baby Boomers were still in diapers when he was at his peak.
  9. Roberts did not have much of a personality. He wasn't quotable like Berra, arrogant like Ted Williams or a scrappy fighter like Billy Martin. Instead, he was quiet and more reserved like Musial and DiMaggio. He lets his performance speak for itself.
None of that changes the fact that Roberts was quite possibly the best pitcher of the 1950s, especially during the first half of the decade when he was at the top of his game.

Fresh off a dominant 1952 in which he won 28 games and finished runner-up to Hank Sauer in that year's headscratching MVP results, Roberts was even better in '53. The 26 year-old won two legs of the pitching Triple Crown by leading the majors with 23 wins and 198 strikeouts, but settled for second in ERA with his 2.75 mark. He also posted the lowest walk rate and highest K/BB ratio in the bigs.  More impressively, Roberts completed 33 of his 41 starts (both ML-leading totals) on his way to totaling 346 and two-thirds innings pitched, 60 more than any other major league pitcher (Bob Lemon).

Roberts finished sixth in the MVP race but did receive one first-place vote, which was more than either Stan Musial or Jackie Robinson could say that year. Had there been a Cy Young award that year he probably would have won it. Then again, he may have lost out to Warren Spahn, who won 23 games as well but with the best ERA (2.10) and WHIP (1.06) in baseball.

  • Opponents batted .244/.278/.348 against Roberts but tagged him for 30 home runs that year, starting a streak of eight straight seasons in which he served up at least that many gopher balls
  • Was much better facing righties than lefties. Southpaws posted a .783 OPS against him, nearly 200 points higher than the .584 righthanded batters managed against him
  • Was also much better at home, where his 2.18 ERA was over a full run better than it was everywhere else 
  • Average GameScore was 61
  • The Phillies were 26-17 (.605) when Roberts pitched, 57-54 (.514) when he didn't 
  • Roberts completed his first 20 starts of the season, going 13-6-1 with the one tie coming in a rain-shortened game against Stan Musial's St. Louis Cardinals. In the final game of the streak, he fired ten shutout innings against the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Started the Midsummer Classic and blanked the Junior Circuit in three innings, holding them to just one hit (a Gus Zernial single) while fanning two (Hank Bauer and Billy Pierce)
  • Saved two nine-inning games in the span of five days in August. Nowadays, it's unheard of for starting pitchers to come out of the bullpen unless the game goes deep into extra innings. Can you imagine Jim Leyland calling on Justin Verlander to close out a ballgame twice in the same week?
  • Pitch totals for this season are incomplete, but records show he threw 159 pitches at Ebbetts Field in a 7-6 loss on May 9th. Two months later, in another start in Brooklyn, he ran the pitch count up to 151 in an extra-inning loss. The Dodgers won 105 games that year on the back of the major league's most prolific offense, a run-scoring machine that featured NL MVP Roy Campanella, Snider, Robinson, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, NL Rookie of the Year Jim Gilliam, and NL batting champ Carl Furillo
  • Roberts was a model of consistency for most of the season but faltered at the finish line when he endured a September swoon. Check out his monthly ERA splits and guess which one does not belong
        April--2.63 ERA
        May--2.35 ERA
        June--2.40 ERA
        July--2.41 ERA
        August--2.45 ERA
        September--4.56 ERA
  • Last but not least, here's his earned run breakdown
        0 runs--5 starts
        1 run--11 starts
        2 runs--7 starts
        3 runs--4 starts
        4 runs--5 starts
        5+ runs--12 starts

Best offensive season of the 1950s--Mickey Mantle (1956)

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