The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

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:

Kid Nichols (pictured) is tied with Charles Ra...

Kid Nichols (pictured) is tied with Charles Radbourn for the most earned runs allowed in a single season. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: The 1890 Boston Beaneaters team photo...

English: The 1890 Boston Beaneaters team photo. Top row: L-R: James “Chippy” McGarr (IF), Harry Staley (P), Patsy Donovan (CF), Charles Ganzel (utility), William Joyce (3B), William Daley (P), Tommy Tucker (1B). Middle row: L-R: Kid Nichols (P), Herman Long (SS), Charles Bennett (C), Frank Selee (Mgr.), John Clarkson (P), Jim Whitney (P), Steve Brodie (RF). Bottom Row: L-F: Bobby Lowe (SS/CF/3B), Paul Revere Radford (utility), Tom Brown (OF). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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19 thoughts on “The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 5

  1. I love this choice. I wrote about Kid Nichols being the most egregious snub from Graham Womack’s Hall of Fame Inner Circle project:

    http://baseballpastandpresent.com/2012/07/19/hall-fame-circle/

    In fact, I’d have to say that either Kid Nichols or Gary Carter are the most underrated in the entire Hall for me.

  2. Another deserving dude I hadn’t previously heard of.
    You mention that at 5’10 Nichols was “moderately small.” That’s definitely small for a modern pitcher (I just breezed through a few team rosters and found just a handful ((’cause literally, you can hold these runts in your hand)) of pitchers under 6’0.), but was it small for a pitcher born just a few years after the end of the Civil War? Nichols would have been a giant among ordinary men.

    The seven 30+ win seasons is pretty amazing, considering the last guy to do it once did it in the 60s (and was a mob-affiliated criminal last I heard).

    • Hey man, Yeah, I was using modern standards regarding his height. I’m 5’10” myself, so I’m smaller today, on average, than he was back then. I checked back on the heights of most of his contemporaries, and few, if any were taller than he was. In fact, it turns out that Cy Young may have been the biggest pitcher of his day, 6’2″, 210 pounds, but he straddled the 20th century (which couldn’t have been very comfortable for him.)
      Thanks for reading, and for the comment.
      Cheers, Bill

  3. Certainly a good choice to start your staff. I’ve always thought Nichols falls between the mountains that are Young and Johnson and Mathewson. It’s good to see someone else think he deserves to be remembered.
    Lefty next time?
    v

    • Hi, V. Yeah, those 19th century guys sure do fall through the cracks. As far as Lefty, if you mean Grove, the next guy’ll probably be a bit more obscure than that. If you mean a lefty in general, I’m not really going to try to achieve some level of balance between right-handed pitchers and lefties.
      Thanks for dropping by,
      Bill

  4. As Alex says, it seems the pitchers before 1900, unless they’re Cy Young, are either not thought of at all or are dismissed as being from the crude, unformed era of baseball, so why should anyone keep track of what they did? I have really no idea how legitimate that dismissal is, but you keep hearing about how the best thing is to judge players against their contemporaries, and yet that doesn’t apply to the 1800s players.

    • Hey Alex, Well, I guess part of it is that for a number of baseball fans, Babe Ruth was the inventor of modern baseball. Sure, there was some guy named Ty Cobb, but he was mean and nasty, and a southerner to boot, and he never patted kids on the head before, during and after baseball games. It’s kind of like the history of cinema. Sure, on some level people are aware that there were such things as silent movies, but “real” cinema didn’t get started until “Gone With the Wind,” or “The Wizard of Oz,” or perhaps with “Star Wars.” So what came earlier gets left to art-house studios and Theater majors in college. The 19th century baseball guys played by somewhat different rules, played for teams like the Beaneaters, the Bridegrooms and the Cowboys that sound vaguely ridiculous to modern ears (except to football fans), and sported unreasonable names like Heinie or Honus.
      Also, media (or the relative lack thereof) probably has something to do with it as well. Before 1900, a baseball fan had only the newspaper to follow the game. Radio didn’t come until much later, let alone T.V. So the game itself, and, by proxy, the players’ reputations, rarely became national in the same sense that every baseball fan across the country today is very familiar with a Derek Jeter, an Albert Pujols, or a Tim Lincecum. Local fans enjoyed their local players, and that was the norm.
      Actually, I’m not sure the pitchers who competed in the first decade or so after 1900 fare much better, in terms of fan knowledge / appreciation / reputation, etc. In fact, I have just such a pitcher in mind for one of my next posts.
      Thanks for dropping by, Arne. Hope my reply was at least marginally useful.
      Bill

  5. Alex Putterman on said:

    Another choice I can get behind. Nichols makes for an obvious ace of this staff.

    My question though is why Nichols was so unappreciated, in his time and in ours. What made him so forgettable? I’m noticing his raw ERAs aren’t quite as impressive as his ERA+ numbers; did he play in a (relative to the time) small ballpark? Or were people unenthusiastic about his shortish career (by years, certainly not by innings), especially relative to Cy Young? Or do most people just ignore 19th century players unless they have an award named for them? Anyone have any clue?

    • Hi Alex, Those are some big questions. As far as HOF voting is concerned, the early years (1930 and 1940’s) were characterized by several changes in how elections were held, how often they were held, who would sit on the committees, etc. This led to a major muddling of the entire process. For example, in 1939, nine guys were added to the Hall, but exactly zero were added in each of the two subsequent years. Some guy named Rogers Hornsby was the lone addition in ’42. No one was elected in ’43. In ’44, Commissioner Landis dropped dead, so they put him in The Hall (well, not literally.) There was much gnashing of teeth that no one was being elected into The Hall. The Hall itself didn’t like this, either, because it was bad for business.
      So, in ’45 and ’46, the newly stocked Veteran’s Committee went on an absolute rampage, electing 21 guys in just two years. Some of those men were great choices, some were questionable, and a few were just downright bad. As far as Nichols, and how he was overlooked for so long, I think it says much more about the voting procedures of The Hall itself than it does about Nichols’ career numbers.
      Personal connections, team affiliations, writers with a grudge (or, alternatively, with fond childhood memories of a certain player) all of these things played at least as much of a role in choosing who got in, when they got in, and who was left out.
      Finally, Americans have short attention spans and even shorter memories. If guys like Tinkers, Evers and Chance are immortalized in a poem, they have a shot at being remembered (not to mention, becoming overrated.) But without some sort of hook that the average person can connect with, mere talent and accomplishments often go for naught.
      Thanks, Alex. I appreciate your interest.
      Bill

  6. If I was born Charles Augustus, I’d be thankful for a nickname like “Kid.”

  7. Kid Nichols: the ace of my all-time Braves team. That’s right, ahead of Warren Spahn and Greg Maddux. Good choice.

  8. Enjoyed this very much. Pretty cool that he also played 20 games in the outfield and six games at first base.

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