The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 5
To this point, we have filled in each of the slots in our batting order. Here is what my proposed batting order looks like:
1) CF Richie Ashburn
2) LF Jesse Burkett
3) RF Harry Heilmann
4) 3B Eddie Mathews
5) 1B Roger Connor
6) SS Arky Vaughan
7) C Gary Carter
8) 2B Joe Gordon
9) Pitcher Hits 9th (at least in the leagues that matter.)
Not a bad lineup when nine-time All Star Joe Gordon bats eighth.
Now, let’s build a pitching staff.
Briefly, allow me to submit that, especially pre-1920, there are a great many worthy pitching candidates who could reasonably make this list. But I will limit my pitching staff to just four pitchers (one of whom I’ll be writing about today.) It won’t surprise me a bit if your four pitching candidates for the HOF’s under-appreciated team are each different from my own, nor will I be greatly offended.
Now, please allow me introduce to you my staff ace:
Starting Pitcher – Kid Nichols: Only seven pitchers (Greg Maddux just missed being the eighth) finished their careers with a WAR of 100 or better. Charles Augustus (Kid) Nichols, born in Madison, WI and raised in British Columbia, Canada, ranks fifth.
Nichols’ 111.6 WAR was surpassed only by Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Grover Cleveland (Pete) Alexander. His career WAR is about twice as high as fellow HOF pitcher Jim Bunning, and more than three times that accumulated by Catfish Hunter. Or, to belabor the point, his WAR is about the same as HOF pitchers Lefty Gomez, Herb Pennock and Jesse Haines combined.
Nichols, a moderately small right-handed pitcher (5′ 10″), broke in with the N.L.’s Boston Beaneaters in 1890, age 20. He was an immediate success, posting a record of 27-19, while leading the league in shutouts (7), and finishing as the first runner-up in ERA+ to the Reds’ Billy Rhines.
Nichols’ 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio was also the best in the league, one of four times Nichols would lead the N.L. in that category.
1890 was also the first of five consecutive seasons Nichols would toss over 400 innings, and the first of six consecutive years in which he’d complete at least 40 of his starts. In fact, in his rookie year, he completed every one of his 47 starts, logging 424 innings while posting a 2.23 ERA.
Nichols then went on to win at least 30 games in seven of the next eight seasons, leading the league in wins three consecutive years, 1896-98.
Kid Nichols reached 300 career wins faster than any pitcher in baseball history. Through his age 30 season, he had already accumulated 310 career wins, against just 167 losses.
Eleven times in his career, Nichols won at least 21 games. That’s more times than HOF pitchers Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro and Bert Blyleven won at least 20 games in a season combined.
Nichols can also claim the dubious achievement of allowing the most earned runs (215 in 1894) in a season. His 4.75 ERA that year was by far the highest in his career. So he had an off-year, right? Well, not exactly. His ERA+ was a highly respectable 124, meaning that he was nearly 25% better than a typical replacement level pitcher.
Moreover, he finished the season with a 32-13 record. So how does one account for all those earned runs and that apparently high ERA?
In 1894, the cumulative batting average for the entire N.L., including the pitchers, was an astronomically high .309. In this 12 team league, each franchise played around 130 games in ’94. Yet the league averaged nearly a thousand runs scored per team, with Nichols’ own Boston Beaneaters leading the way with 1,220 runs scored. That’s an average of over 9 runs scored per game.
Consider that Lesson #1 in why context is so important when attempting to evaluate raw statistics.
As for Nichols, after 1901, his 12th year in Boston, there just wasn’t much left in the gas tank. In fact, he did not pitch in either 1902 or ’03, but returned in ’04 for one final excellent season, this time with the St. Louis Cardinals. Nichols enjoyed his last 20-win season in ’04, while also posting an excellent 2.02 ERA at age 34.
Two years later, in 1906, Kid Nichols called it quits for good. He had started 562 games in his career, of which he’d completed 532. He recorded 361 wins against 208 losses, good for a .634 win-loss percentage. His career ERA+ of 140 ranks 14th best all-time, a couple of percentage points better than Cy Young.
In four seasons, 1890, 1893, 1897 and 1898, Nichols was the best pitcher in the league. Obviously, there was no Cy Young award yet in those days. In fact, Cy Young was a contemporary of Nichols, and outlasted Nichols by just a few seasons.
Strange, then, that while Cy Young was voted into the Hall of Fame as part of the class of 1937, it took Nichols an extra dozen years (1949) to make it into The Hall. In fact, before ’49, Nichols never topped 4% of the votes cast for HOF induction. Such are the vagaries, then as now, of HOF voting.
Nichols still ranks 4th all-time in complete games, 7th in victories, and 11th in innings pitched,
Perhaps surprisingly, Nichols did live long enough to experience his own HOF induction. He passed away at age 83 in 1953.
Next time, in Part 6 of this series, I’ll introduce my #2 all-time, under-appreciated Hall of Fame pitcher. Thanks for reading.
- The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 2 (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)
- The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 3 (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)
- The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 4 (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)