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Robin Roberts and the Whiz Kids


Another great tribute from Posnanski. Roberts was just a tremendous pitcher for his first 8 years (and had a second wave of very good pitching after joining the Orioles in the 60s), although because of the relative failure of his teams doesn’t seem to get discussed in that light as much as he should. R.I.P.

As someone who cut his baseball fan’s teeth on the Dick Williams Expos, and then became a follower of the Mariners (along with the 60s Giants, one of the few teams to squander even more front-line talent) from watching a wave of exciting prospects in Calgary, for a long time I’ve been fascinated by the Whiz Kids. The 1950 Phillies won the pennant with a very young team whose young core went on to long, productive careers — and yet never came close to winning again. On an interesting recent discussion on his pay site, Bill James argues that this was a product of lazy roster construction: the Phillies kept falling behind because they didn’t care how good the supporting cast was, and especially faced with two outstanding organizations in New York City this wasn’t going to cut it. This is, I think, an important lesson: while a team’s best players are often blamed for a team’s disappointing performance, the disappointment is much more likely to result from the surrounding talent not being good enough. Since I’m not sure about lengthy quotes of stuff from behind the paywall, a couple of relevant classic quotes about my beloved dead team, from the 1984 and 1985 Abstracts, respectively:

To put this in plain, unmistakable English, Doug Flynn does just as much to destroy the Montreal offense as Tim Raines can do to build it. If you give him the opportunity, Doug Flynn can do just as much to lose games with his bat as Tim Raines can do to win them. And Bill Virdon chose to give him that opportunity…My point is that the Expos’ problems, while they may very well have their origin in some aloof, distant intangible, do not find their way into the loss column by some mystical route. The Expos lose games because specific ballplayers fail to do specific things. The Expos have the core of a great team, but they are not ever going to win as long as they surround that core with Doug Flynns and Ray Burrises.

The 1984 Expos, not meaning to slight Charlie Lea or anything, had essentially two strengths. In Gary Carter, the Expos had one of the greatest catchers in the history of baseball. In Tim Raines, they had the outstanding leadoff man in the history of the National League…so what do they do? They trade off the catcher and worry about the center fielder’s throwing arm. It’s crazy, but if you’re losing and you’re frustrated, it seems logical. Losing teams focus their frustrations on their best players…

These remain important insights, I think. In some way, it’s a tribute to Roberts, Ashburn at all that today’s Phillies have taken over their division by learning this lesson: they’re actually supplemented their impressive core with some care and attention rather than (with the exception of the idiotic Abreu trade) taking out some early disappointments on their core players.

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