The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: The Final Chapter

The final choice was the hardest.

I’d already established 4/5th’s of my all-time, under-appreciated Hall of Fame rotation, and had just the one slot left.  I considered, and rejected, about half a dozen other pitchers.  The one I chose may not come as a surprise to you, but it was a bit of a surprise to me.

But before we move on, allow me to list the other members of my entire under-appreciated HOF roster.  Each one is highlighted so you can go back and read each of my prior posts in this series.  (Note:  Some of the earlier posts in this series featured two players.)

1B  Roger Connor

2B  Joe Gordon

3B  Eddie Mathews

SS  Arky Vaughan

C  Gary Carter

LF  Jesse Burkett

CF  Richie Ashburn

RF  Harry Heilmann

SP  Kid Nichols

SP  Hal Newhouser

SP  Eddie Plank

SP  Dazzy Vance

Not a  lot of household names, and that was exactly the point of this series.

So, without further digression, let me introduce to you the final member of my team.  You may remember him as Knucksie, usually the best player on lots of bad Braves teams in the 1970’s.

English: Phil Niekro signing an autograph in 1982.

English: Phil Niekro signing an autograph in 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philip Henry Niekro, of Bridgeport, OH, was better than you might think.

First, let me list the reasons why I wasn’t excited about choosing Niekro in the first place:

1)  He never won a Cy Young award.

2)  I don’t remember him ever being in the conversation regarding the best pitchers of his era while he was active.

3)  He threw a goofy, trick-pitch, the knuckle-ball.  Real men throw fastballs, hard sliders and power curves.  Niekro was more a horticulturist than a warrior.

4)  He led his league in losses four times, losing twenty games in two of those years.  Also, his career winning percentage was a mediocre .537.

5)  He played for the Braves, one of the most boring teams in mid-to-late ’70’s America.

6)  Did I mention he gave up more hits (5,044) than any other pitcher in the 20th century?

So, what’s to like?  Well, upon closer examination, there is the impressive career WAR of 91.7, tenth best all-time among pitchers.

Moreover, Phil Niekro is also fourth all-time in innings pitched (5,404), and eleventh in strikeouts (3,342.)  In addition, Niekro’s 716 career starts ranks 5th in baseball history.

Niekro also won 318 games in his career while pitching for mostly bad or mediocre teams.  He led the N.L. in wins twice, and posted three 20-win seasons and a 19-win campaign as well.  His career win total ranks 16th on the all-time list.

Addressing the issue of his lack of Cy Young awards, Niekro was (using WAR as a measurement) the most valuable pitcher in the N.L. in both 1978-79.  Yet he finished just sixth in Cy Young voting in each of those two seasons.  He did finish as high as second in Cy Young voting in 1969, and he finished 3rd in 1974.

Niekro led his league in ERA once, ERA+ once, strikeouts once, win-loss percentage once, and in complete games, starts, and innings pitched four times each.

Perhaps the best illustration of Niekro’s true value to his team is to compare his own record to the annual  win-loss records of his teams.

In his career, over a period of 20 consecutive seasons (1967-86), Niekro posted a win-loss record of 305-255, fifty games over .500.  That works out to a .544 winning percentage.

Meanwhile, his teams, over that same period, finished with a cumulative record of 1,552-1,636, 84 more losses than wins, which works out to a .487 winning percentage.

Niekro, then, was .057 percent better than the teams for which he pitched, not an insignificant amount.

Here’s another way to look at it.  Let’s break down those 20 seasons by looking at how many times Niekro finished with a record over .500, right at .500, or below .500:

1)  Over .500 – 14 times

2)  Exactly .500 – 2 times

3)  Under .500 – 4 times

Now let’s compare that to what his teams accomplished overall during those same 20 years:

1)  Over .500 – 9 times

2)  Exactly .500 – 1 time

3)  Under .500 – 10 times

So Niekro accumulated five more winning seasons than his teams did, and he posted six fewer seasons with a losing record than did his teams.

Clearly, Niekro’s overall career win-loss mark was hampered to a certain extent by the teams for which he toiled.  If he had been lucky enough to pitch for Don Sutton’s Dodgers during that same period of time, it is highly likely that Niekro’s overall career win-loss percentage would have been higher than the .537 mark he ultimately posted.

In fact, if you were to add just one win per season for those twenty seasons, which seems on the low side of fair, he would have finished his career with 338 wins.  That total would have placed Niekro just outside of the top ten all-time in career victories, just four behind 19th century star Tim Keefe.

Phil Niekro finally called it quits at age 48 in 1987.  A five-time All Star selection, Niekro also won five Gold Gloves in his career.  The BBWAA elected Niekro to the Hall of Fame in his fourth year on the ballot, in 1997.

Obviously, then, Phil Niekro was a warrior after all, albeit a quiet one.

And those are the ones whom we should hold in the highest regard.

Regardless of whether you agree with my choices for my all-time under-appreciated HOF team, I hope you have enjoyed this series.  I have already begun work on my next series, which I will launch next week.

Once again, thank you for reading.

Bill

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50 thoughts on “The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: The Final Chapter

  1. Pingback: Jumble Spoiler – 07/07/14 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

  2. Bill, I’ve been working on a new project called The Hall of Stats (set to launch next month!). I’ve got a single number for each player in history. 100 is what should be the Hall of Fame borderline. Above it, you’re in. Below it, you’re out.

    Just thought it might be neat to see where each player on your “team” ranks.

    Worth noting, this is all based on Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement and Wins Above Average.

    SP Kid Nichols (239)
    3B Eddie Mathews (190)
    SP Phil Niekro (184)
    1B Roger Connor (183)
    SP Eddie Plank (168)
    C Gary Carter (165)
    SS Arky Vaughan (150)
    RF Harry Heilmann (135)
    SP Dazzy Vance (127)
    SP Hal Newhouser (126)
    CF Richie Ashburn (117)
    2B Joe Gordon (116)
    LF Jesse Burkett (113)

    • Adam, I’m definitely interested in seeing your project when it’s complete. Nice to know all of my guys are “above average.” Curious as to where players like Reggie Smith, Dwight Evans and Dale Murphy rank.
      Thanks for the info,
      Bill

      • Sure thing!

        Reggie Smith: 123
        Dwight Evans: 120
        Dale Murphy: 84

        Remember, 100 represents where the Hall of Fame borderline *should* be (based on the Hall’s current population). There are actually 69 Hall of Famers below 100. 34 are actually behind Murphy.

      • So, what, roughly 1/3rd of all the player in The Hall fall below the line? That’s even a bit worse than I imagined.
        Look at Smith and Evans! I knew they were underrated. Murphy surprised me a bit, but as you point out, he’s still a better choice than many others already in The Hall.
        I am of the opinion that players from the approximate years 1972-89 are seriously under-represented in The Hall, while players from the 1920’s-WWII are seriously over-represented. And I think much of that has been a misunderstanding of how much the game changed during that era.
        Thanks for that,
        Bill

      • It’s an interesting notion that Evans and Smith both are clearly above the HOf line by Adam’s methodology–but they’re comparable to a whole lot of players like Brian Giles, Fred Lynn, Larry Doby and others–some who are in and some who are out. I’m wondering if there is a minimum number where you can look at the guys who are there and say, “Oh, yeah–this is a Hall of Famer.”

      • Personally, I’m not sure that a number quite that perfect could or should ever exist. I think the game is just too nuanced to arrive at the perfect number. Also, I think a little bit of subjectivity is not necessarily a bad thing. Clearly, the process can, and should, be greatly refined from its current state of arbitrariness and confusion. Adam’s work goes a long way towards helping us have a much clearer picture of what we mean by “value” as far as Hall candidates are concerned. But, at some level, the Hall only exists because it holds a place in our collective imaginations. If we turn the entire process into an algorithm (and I don’t mean any disrespect at all to Adam and others), then we remove the human element entirely. At that point, the current interest and excitement that is generated by these annual conversations probably disappears, or is greatly diminished.

      • Right. Even thought I’ve come up with this magic number, it’s not perfect. Some of the findings feel right. Some do not.

        What I do know, however, is that my number and the Hall of Fame agree about 2/3 of the time. That leaves the other 1/3. I happen to believe that the 1/3 chosen by the magic number is much better than the 1/3 chosen by the Hall voters.

        The players my system lists as egregious snubs are:
        Jeff Bagwell
        Larry Walker
        Bill Dahlen
        Lou Whitaker
        Alan Trammell
        Bobby Grich
        Kevin Brown
        Jack Glasscock
        Rick Reuschel
        Edgar Martinez
        Luis Tiant
        Tim Raines
        David Cone

        Those are the players who:

        1. Are eligible
        2. Are not banned
        3. Have a Hall Rating of 125 or better
        4. Are not 19th century pitchers (my system does overrate them a bit still)

        I think it’s a solid list. I’d take them over a bunch of players in the Hall of Fame.

      • Adam, I definitely agree with you on that. And again, I have a great deal of respect for the work your doing on this topic. I find the numbers to be fascinating. And I love your list. I’ll take your players over the inferior alternatives anytime. Glad to see that Larry Walker is on it. Way too many people seem to believe that his numbers were just a by-product of Coors Field.
        How does Minnie Minoso pan out using your system?
        Great work, man.

    • I agree with Bill–the debates concerning the HOF by and large concern the guys who seem to be just above or just below the “line.” Having a clearly marked line of demarcation–above it, you’re in, below it, you’re out–is a fascinating idea.

  3. What’s your opinion on Earl Averill perhaps being an under-appreciated hall of famer, William?

    • I dunno, Glen–to me, Averill has that Moises Alou “OK, he’s awful good but immortal?” kind of sheen to his career.

      • Yeah, at some point, you get to a whole host of players for whom HOF induction appears to be arbitrary. So, for example, Jim Rice is in, but Dwight Evans isn’t. Edd Roush is in, but Dave Parker isn’t. Earle Combs is in, but Reggie Smith isn’t. Andre Dawson is in, but Tim Raines isn’t. Chuck Klein is in, but Dale Murphy isn’t. Hack Wilson is in, but Larry Walker isn’t. Harry Hooper is in; Carl Furillo isn’t.
        In each case, it’s hard to see why the one is in, while the other is not. There is no obvious difference as far as I can see between any of them, except that in some cases, the wrong guy is in The Hall.

    • Basically, he was Jim Edmonds without the glove. I’d put Edmonds in The Hall before Averill. For some reason, Averill got a very late start in the Majors because he preferred to be a florist than a ballplayer. If he’d had a more traditional entry, (say, age 23), he might have had a bit more on his resume to vouch for him. The BBWAA certainly didn’t think there was enough there; he never reached 6% of the vote. The Veteran’s Committee, after an extended campaign by his supporters, finally put him in The Hall in ’75, 13 years after the BBWAA dropped him for good.
      I wouldn’t say Averill was under-appreciated necessarily, but he certainly does deserve to be remembered. Whether he belongs in The Hall or not is debatable. If he’s in, it’s hard to see why Dale Murphy isn’t.

    • I’ve got Averill as sitting on the outside. Not by a huge amount, but enough. My similarity scores have him similar to Chuck Klein, Ellis Burks, Babe Herman, Fred Lynn, and Jack Fournier. So, some Hall of Famers, but all were questionable.

      • Exactly what I was just trying to get at in my last comment to W.K. There’s an awful lot of the arbitrary here when it comes to HOF induction.

      • Fred Lynn. Now THERE’S a guy who might have made the Hall of Fame if he didn’t play out his option and sign with California. That ruined his career, as Fenway was tailor-made for his swing. His swing was certainly not ideal for Anaheim Stadium.

        Glen

      • Well, Lynn actually got traded to California, though he did later sign as a free agent with Baltimore. But I think you’re right that if he’d been able to continue to pad his numbers at Fenway, like Jim Rice, his HOF case would have been more appealing to the voters.

      • Think of that outfield—Lynn, Evans, and Rice.

        The least valuable one got in the Hall of Fame.

  4. Bill, this was a fitting end to a great series. I am looking forward to the next one.

    By the way, I agree with you about the quiet ones.

    Cheers,
    Allan

    • Thank you, Allan. I’ve already started doing the research. The writing, of course, is always the hard part.
      Best Regards,
      Bill

    • Adam, I was never particularly a big fan of Jim Rice, but why do you say that he was the least “valuable” member of the three of those players- Evans, Rice, and Lynn? Least valuable in what way?

      Glen

      • Hey Glen, glad you asked. It’s a topic I’m a fan of. 🙂

        Let’s just list some basic “value” statistics, which is the baseline for what I mean:

        Wins Above Replacement:
        Evans 62.8
        Lynn 46.7
        Rice 44.3

        Wins Above Average:
        Evans 33.0
        Lynn 24.2
        Rice 18.9

        Hall Factor (which is my own creation that combines these two with some other weights):
        Evans: 120
        Lynn: 93
        Rice: 82

        Of course, it goes against conventional wisdom to rank them like that. I think most baseball fans would go Rice, Evans, Lynn. The fact is, Evans walked a lot. Rice did not. Lynn didn’t walk a ton, but walked a bit more than Rice. Here’s their OPS+ numbers (an “advanced” stat, but one that more people know):
        Lynn: 129
        Rice: 128
        Evans: 127

        Pretty damn similar. But the fact is that this is a rate stat and Evans did this in 10,569 plate appearances while Rice had 9,058 and Lynn had 7,923. Here’s how their WAR batting runs above average come out:
        Evans: 353
        Rice: 292
        Lynn: 254

        Here’s a huge one. Rice was worth -42 runs just because of all the double plays he hit into. That’s 14% of his value. And that’s not captured in batting average, OPS, OPS+, etc. WAR captures it.

        As for position, Lynn was the strongest by playing center while the others lose a lot of value playing corners.

        In terms of defense, Rice rated at a tick above average while Lynn was a tick below. Evans’ arm was legendary and gives him a large boost.

        In short, Evans was far and away the best of the three. By a mile. I see Rice and Lynn as similar, though the value stats see Lynn a bit ahead. I think they basically provided the same value, but Lynn did it with a bit less playing time because of injuries.

  5. Niekro was on the Yankees late in his career. If they had won the East in ‘84 or ‘85, and gone on to win the Series with Niekro, in his mid-40s, helping them, his image would be very different.

  6. All right! Along with Gary Carter, this is the second of your “under-appreciated” line up that I’ve a) heard of, b) remember and c) have actually seen play.

    I have to confess, I must not remember him QUITE as well as I thought, because my first thought after reading this was “What about the emery board?”

    But, no–thanks to a little research, I’m clear on that now.

    • I also want to add that this was a worthy cap to a great and fairly ambitious series.

    • Well, You’re one up on me. Gary Carter is the only one that I actually saw play live and in person. I do remember watching Niekro pitch on T.V., though. More often than not, the Mets were about as bad as the Braves in those days, so he probably had pretty good success against them.
      And, yes, Niekro’s only “trick” pitch appears to have been his bread and butter knuckle-ball. Gaylord Perry on the other hand….
      Cheers, man.
      Bill

  7. Mike Cornelius on said:

    Bill, a great finish to an outstanding series. As King Felix proved, today’s Cy Young voters might have been more cognizant of the quality of the team that Niekro was pitching for.
    Mike

  8. Northern Narratives on said:

    I was happy that Bert Blyleven finally got into the Hall of Fame. I hope that Niekro makes it too.

  9. I think one thing about Niekro is that not only is he under-appreciated, but mis-appreciated. I think folks look at him as a guy who is in Cooperstown as a somewhat above-average pitcher who the knuckleball allowed to hang around long enough to compile bulk numbers. As you and Adam both illustrate, he was a top-shelf pitcher for a considerable amount of time, a guy whose odd pitch and often lousy ballclubs disguised the fact that he was an elite-level talent.

  10. Enjoyed the series, Bill. Thank YOU.

    Glen

  11. So, now that I got that out of the way, I’ve done a couple bits of research on Phil Niekro.

    In 30% of his losses (82 of them!), he went seven or more innings while allowing three runs or less. That’s a lot of losses in games where he pitched incredibly well. http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2011/8/2/2339298/tough-losses

    No pitcher in history was hurt more by his defense. His defense cost him 110 runs more than the average pitcher had to go through. Plus, that’s a full FORTY PERCENT more than the next pitcher (Tom Candiotti). http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2011/8/17/2366827/hurt-and-helped-by-the-defense

    Brooks Robinson & Co. helped Jim Palmer allow 144 fewer runs than an average pitcher while Niekro’s defense cost him 110. That’s about a 25-WAR difference based solely on the defense behind them, not even looking into the raw numbers. That is insane.

    Phil Niekro has been screwed his entire career. He was screwed by the Hall of Fame voters. I’m so happy to see him included here.

    Phil Niekro was one of the most valuable pitchers of all time.

    • Wow, Adam. I had no idea about those defensive numbers. They really do go a long way to showing how much better he was than the team of which he was a part. I knew that Palmer benefited a lot, but didn’t realize the difference was so vast. Thanks for doing that research, and glad I could make your weekend!
      Cheers, Bill

  12. I feel like one of the bloggers in their mommy’s basement that got Bert Blyleven in the Hall of Fame! I’ve been crying for Niekro since this series started! Yes!

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