Remembering former Tiger pitcher Jeff Robinson

Jeff Robinson's 1988 Topps baseball card.

Jeff Robinson’s 1988 Topps baseball card.

It is hard to think of Jeff Robinson without thinking of the 1988 baseball season.

Robinson, who died Sunday at age 52 at his home in Kansas City after a seven-week illness, was the Detroit Tigers’ best pitcher in 1988 when they had a rotation of Jack Morris, Frank Tanana, Doyle Alexander and Walt Terrell.

Detroit won 88 games in 1988 and finished one game out of first place in the AL East Division. Robinson, who was 13-6 with a 2.98 ERA in 1988, missed the final month because of an injury to the index and middle fingers on his right hand. Had he stayed healthy, he might have helped make up the one-game deficit to the Boston Red Sox.

Robinson, a right-hander, enjoyed most of his success at Tiger Stadium despite the ballpark’s overhang and short fence in right field. In 51 career games at Tiger Stadium, Robinson was 21-10 with a 3.97 ERA, and opposing batters hit .213 against him with an OPS of .665.
However, he wasn’t able to translate that success to the road. He finished his Tigers career 36-26 with an ERA of 4.65, and opponents hit .239 against him with a .732 OPS.

Robinson was drafted out of Azusa Pacific University by the Tigers in the third round of the 1983 amateur draft. It was his third time being drafted as the Blue Jays took him in the 17th round of the 1979 draft and the Padres chose him in the 40th round of the 1980 draft.

After four years in the minors, Robinson made it to Detroit in 1987. He started the Tigers’ sixth game of the season and, in his major-league debut, he allowed one run on six hits in seven innings in a 7-1 victory over the White Sox at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Robinson stayed in the rotation for most of the year but did go to the bullpen for the first half of May. He finished his rookie season 9-6 with a 5.37 ERA and threw his first major-league shutout on August 7, 1987, against the New York Yankees at Tiger Stadium.

The Tigers rallied in September to win the AL East Division title in 1987, but he did not see much action in the final weeks. He made just one appearance in relief after September 6 because he lost his spot in the rotation when Doyle Alexander was acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Braves.

Robinson did make one appearance in the ALCS. He entered Game 5 with two outs in the top of the ninth inning and gave up a run-scoring double to Greg Gagne before retiring Kirby Puckett on a grounder back to the mound as the Twins won the AL pennant with a 9-5 victory.

The 1988 season was his best season. Robinson led all AL pitchers with at least 150 innings in fewest hits allowed per nine innings with 6.331 (he gave up just 121 hits in 172 innings). And as good as he was in 1988, he was even better that season at Tiger Stadium, where he was 9-2 with a 2.19 ERA. Opposing batters hit just .167 (57-for-341) – yes, .167 – against him at home for a meager OPS of .518.

Robinson had four complete games, including a shutout, a one-hitter and a two-hitter in 1988. On July 28, 1988, Frank White’s single in the fourth inning was the only hit he allowed in a 7-1 victory at Tiger Stadium.

Robinson took a no-hitter into the sixth inning on July 5, 1988, against the Angels at Tiger Stadium before Brian Downing broke it up with a home run. A two-out single in the ninth by Wally Joyner made it a two-hitter as Detroit won 6-1. His lone shutout in 1988 came on April 26, also against the Angels at Tiger Stadium, in a 6-0 Tigers victory.

Robinson had a fastball that topper 90 miles per hour along with a slider and a forkball, and Detroit was 16-7 in his starts in 1988.

“I think he might be the best forkball pitcher in baseball,” Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said in late July of 1988.

Robinson, who stood 6 feet, 6 inches, and weight 210 pounds, was an imposing figure on the mound with his build and reddish-brown mustache.

“This guy is a horse,” Anderson said. “He’s got the best stuff on the staff. He throws 92 to 95 miles per hour. He’s got stuff like Morris. He’s 6-foot-7 (listed at 6-6), and he’s staring at you from the mound, and that’s a big man.

“He’s very intimidating. This guy is for real. This is no fly-by-night guy.”

Robinson also didn’t shy away from pitching inside.

“That’s really my whole game, pitching inside,” he said. “I don’t go out there to knock somebody down, but if the situation calls for it, I don’t mind doing it. And if the ball gets away and I hit somebody, well, that’s just the way it goes.”

However, Robinson’s 1988 season was cut short in late August when he had a circulatory disorder in the index and middle fingers of his right hand. Robinson was frustrated to miss out on key September games for the second consecutive season.

“I just want to contribute,” he said. “When you spend all season trying to help your team win, it’s not much fun sitting out when the most important games are played.”

The injury was a sign of things to come for Robinson.

He tossed a four-hit shutout in his second start of 1989 in a 3-0 victory over the Twins at Tiger Stadium and appeared to be on his way to another stellar season, but it didn’t happen. He went on the disabled list in May with tendinitis in his right elbow, and a month later he missed four weeks with a sore rib cage.

“He’s throwing differently,” Anderson said when Robinson was on the shelf with the elbow problem. “We don’t want to start him again until he’s throwing more like he usually throws.”

After the early shutout, Robinson made 14 more starts in 1989 without a complete game and had just one complete game in 27 starts in 1990. That was a four-hit shutout in a 12-0 victory at Texas on May 16.

However, the consistency he showed in 1988 was gone, and his numbers skyrocketed. He was 4-5 with a 4.73 ERA in 1989 and 10-9 with a 5.96 ERA in 1990. A poor strikeout-to-walk ratio also caught up with him as he had 134 walks and 116 strikeouts in the 1989-90 seasons.

Robinson was traded to the Baltimore Orioles after the 1990 season for catcher Mickey Tettleton, and that turned out to be a great trade for Detroit. Robinson spent one year with the Orioles and split the 1992 season between Texas and Pittsburgh.

The Pirates released him on July 25, 1992, and the Tigers signed him and sent him to Toledo of the Class AAA International League. He was 1-2 with an 8.04 ERA in 13 relief appearances for the Mud Hens and was released after the season, which turned out to be his final year in professional baseball.

After his playing days, Robinson served as a pitching director, coach and instructor at the Natural Baseball Academy in Olathe, Kansas.
“Jeff helped teach pitchers the finer points of the game, such as pitch selection, how to read a hitter’s tendencies, and many of the unwritten rules of the game,” the Natural Baseball Academy said on its web site after his death. “Jeff may have given the appearance of being gruff and grumpy, but really he was a soft spoken, caring person, who just wanted players to give their all and to love to play baseball.”