Earlier this year, Bob Costas conducted an interview with Phillies great Dick Allen. As predicted, Costas asked him all about playing during the turbulent 1960s, the controversy he often stirred up as an outspoken athlete and his reputation for hitting tape-measure blasts.
At the end of the interview, Allen gave his opinion on who he thought the better Phillie was, Robin Roberts or Mike Schmidt. It’s generally an unfair comparison between a pitcher and position player, but much like he did during his playing days, Allen gave the controversial answer when he said Roberts. Costas pressed him on that briefly, but Allen simply replied that Roberts took the mound for nine innings every time out and dominated hitters.
In retrospect, Allen’s opinion is understandable, considering that he played when Roberts was already a pitching legend and Schmidt wasn’t on the map yet. It’s not surprising Allen would defer to the elder Hall of Famer.
But who really was a greater Phillie?
Several Top Ten Phillies lists found online all rank Schmidt higher than Roberts, though lists like that always tend to favor hitters over pitchers. Schmidt also helped Philadelphia to win its first-ever World Series title, and he added three MVP awards and numerous Gold Gloves. To be fair, Roberts guided Philly to its first World Series in 35 years in 1950, and the Gold Glove and Cy Young awards didn’t exist during his prime.
The only way to truly compare a pitcher and a hitter from two different eras is to see how they match up with their top contemporaries. Roberts’ were likely Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford, while Schmidt’s top competition were fellow third basemen Brooks Robinson and Darrell Evans.
Roberts was widely considered the best pitcher in baseball from 1950-1955, but his career ERA of 3.41 was significantly higher than Spahn (3.09) or Ford (2.75). His winning percentage was also the worst of the three, but he also had the lowest run support.
Allen wasn’t exaggerating about Roberts’ durability. He led the league in innings pitched for five straight years, and his 346 2/3 innings in 1953 are second-most by a Hall of Fame pitcher in a single season after World War II. He threw more than 300 innings in a season six times.
However, Spahn managed to pitch at a high level later into his career. He only threw more than 300 innings in a season twice, but he was still easily cracking the 200-inning mark into his 40s. Spahn pitched more seasons and innings than Roberts, while allowing 71 fewer home runs. That was perhaps Roberts’ biggest drawback; he wasn’t a ground-ball pitcher. He also never struck out 200 batters in a season – not as dominant as Allen originally suggested.
Saber-metrically speaking, one aspect of pitching that Roberts did dominate throughout his career was control. Though Ford posted the highest career strikeout rate of 5.6 per nine innings, Roberts’ strikeout per walk rate of 2.61 was far ahead of Ford and Spahn, who both posted a 1.8 mark. Roberts had the best WHIP (1.17) among the three, and his BB/9 rate of 1.7 is ranked 45th all-time and ninth among Hall of Fame pitchers.
Those final numbers help Roberts’ case, but Schmidt’s comparisons to Robinson and Evans aren’t nearly as hazy.
Robinson, dubbed “The Human Vacuum Cleaner,” was a better fielding third baseman than Schmidt, with a higher career range factor and fielding percentage, but Schmidt trumps the other two in nearly every offensive category. Phillies fans know about his 548 home runs, but Schmidt’s career OPS of .908 ranks 27th all-time among Hall of Fame hitters. Schmidt also set all-time team marks in runs, hits, RBI, walks and total bases.
According to the numbers, you can make an argument for and against Roberts’ superiority over his peers, but Schmidt was clearly the best. He also played during one of the organization’s most successful periods, further brightening his spotlight.
Sorry, Dick, looks like you got this one wrong. The best pitcher in baseball for a brief time doesn’t compare to arguably the best hitting third baseman in history, regardless of the discrepancy between pitching every fourth day and playing every day. Maybe Costas should have asked Allen’s opinion about a more sensible pitcher-hitter comparison like Schmidt and Steve Carlton. I put it to all of you to hash that one out.