The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Eddie Plank”

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

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 7

Because I am a both a baseball and an American history geek, back in 1994, a few months before the MLB lockout, a couple of friends and I decided to go on a tour of both the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Baseball Hall of Fame (it’s amazing what you can get away with when you don’t yet have kids.)

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA (Photo credit: Don & Suzan)

We had a great time, of course, standing on top of the summit of Little Round Top, then, a couple of days later, viewing Lou Gehrig’s address book (behind a glass case, of course.)  Somewhere along the way, between all the beer, baseball, and bullet holes in Gettysburg’s buildings, I happened to notice that the name of one baseball player seemed to pop up from time to time in both venues.

It was “Gettysburg” Eddie Plank.  Allow me to tell you a little bit about him.

Eddie Plank was born in Gettysburg, PA, just twelve years after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Raised on a family farm just north of the battlefield, it was not unusual in those days for a farmer to uncover the remains of a lost and forgotten soldier who died in a lonely location on the vast battlefield.

Plank didn’t even start playing baseball until he was seventeen.  Trying out as a pitcher for the Gettysburg College team, he made the squad as a left-handed pitcher (yes, another one in this series) who threw the ball awkwardly across his body.  He never actually attended Gettysburg College, but eventually harnessed his delivery enough to become a decent pitcher for their team.

Having gotten something of a late start, he didn’t make his MLB debut until 1901, when he was already 25-years old.  He then went on to pitch in the Majors, primarily for the Philadelphia Athletics, for the next 17 seasons.

In his rookie campaign, he posted a very decent 17-13 record.  He then went on to enjoy eight 20-win seasons over the next sixteen years.  In fact, only once in the next eight years did he fail to win at least 19 games in a season (he was injured in 1908.)

Plank helped lead Philadelphia to a pair of World Series triumphs over the Giants in 1911 and 1913.

English: Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewar...

English: Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank, pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the statistics that impress me the most about Eddie Plank:

1)  He was the first left-handed pitcher to top 300 wins.  No other southpaw reached 300 wins until Warren Spahn and Steve Carlton came along several decades later.

2)  His 69 career shutouts are the fifth-highest total of all-time, and the most ever by a lefty.  He threw as many shutouts in his career as HOF pitchers Sandy Koufax and Dazzy Vance combined.

3)  His career WAR of 82.0 ranks 17th best all-time among pitchers.  His career WAR is higher than HOF pitchers John Clarkson, Steve Carlton, Pud Galvin, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Nolan Ryan, Robin Roberts, Old Hoss Radbourn, Carl Hubbell, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and many others.

4)  Over the last 15 seasons of his 17-year career (he also pitched for the Terriers and the Browns), his highest ERA in any season was 2.87, and in his final season, at age 41, he posted a 1.79 ERA in 131 innings pitched.

5)  In six World Series starts, he posted a 1.32 ERA across 54.2 innings.

Eddie Plank finished his career in 1917, just as young American Doughboys were being sent overseas to fight the War to End All Wars.  He returned to his family farm in Gettysburg, leading tours across the old battlefield.  At age 50, just nine years after he retired from baseball, Eddie Plank suffered a stroke and died.  He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg.

[Eddie Plank, Philadelphia AL (baseball)] (LOC)

[Eddie Plank, Philadelphia AL (baseball)] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Eddie Plank posted a career record of 326-194 with an ERA of 2.35.  Of the 24 pitchers who have won at least 300 games in their careers, just six pitchers other than Plank avoided also losing 200 games.

Those six pitcher are Christy Mathewson, John Clarkson, Old Hoss Radbourn, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Lefty Grove.  That’s some pretty impressive company to be associated with.  And only Johnson and Grove were also left-handed.

About a decade after Plank died, the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened for business up in Cooperstown, NY.  After five years on the ballot, Plank never topped 27% of the ballots submitted by the BBWAA.  Eventually, it would take the Old Timers Committee to elect Plank in 1946, along with ten other players, some of whom actually belonged in the HOF.

So Eddie Plank joins Kid Nichols and Hal Newhouser as the third pitcher on my all-time, under-appreciated Hall of Fame squad.  I will be adding two more pitchers to my rotation.  I hope you’ll come back to find out who they are.

Happy Endings: The Art of Going Out On Top

Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once it was announced that Andy Pettitte was going to come out of retirement to pitch yet another season for the Yankees, the first thing I thought was, why bother?  What does he have left to prove?  He has 240 regular season wins to his credit, plus another 19 playoff game wins.  Pettitte will turn 40-years old in June.  Why take the risk of potentially embarrassing himself in front of his fans?

Meanwhile, Chipper Jones is heading the other way, recently announcing that 2o12 will be his final season in the Majors.  When he was healthy enough to play, Chipper (who turns 40 in April) put up some decent numbers last season.  Again, though, one has to wonder why it is even necessary to attempt one more season.  Like Pettitte, Jones has had a long and distinguished career, so why risk going out with a sub-par performance?

This led me to consider how few players in baseball history have retired at or near the top of their game.  After examining the final seasons of many of baseball’s best players, the answer is damn few.

If Pettitte had decided to stay retired, his final performance in 2010, an 11-3 record in 21 starts with a 3.28 ERA (and an ERA+ of 132), would actually qualify as one of the finest final season performances by any pitcher in baseball history.

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, if Chipper Jones had retired after last season when he swatted 33 doubles to go along with his 18 homers, 70 RBI and OPS+ of 123, he could have held his head high.

This is not to say that Chipper or Pettitte will perform terribly in 2012, but baseball’s long history of final performances is one long, ugly indictment of playing one season too many.

Having said that, here are eight random final season performances that were actually quite impressive.  In some cases, the player was forced into retirement due to physical reasons.  In other cases, the player had become so controversial that no team would sign him, regardless of his ability to remain productive.

Albert Belle

Albert Belle (Photo credit: Keith Fujimoto)

1)  Albert (Joey) Belle – You remember him best, perhaps, as the infamous sociopath who tried to run over some kids with his car on Halloween night.  You might also remember that Belle was one hell of a hitter during his career.  As far as I can tell, Belle is the only player in history to drive in at least 95 runs in every one of his full seasons in the Majors, including 103 in 2000, his final season.

In 2000, Belle cranked 37 doubles to go with 23 homers and a .281 batting average for the Orioles.  His OPS was .817.  While not one of his greatest years, it was far superior to the average final season of most Major League sluggers.  He retired at the age of 33.

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank,...

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank, pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Eddie Plank – “Gettysburg”  Eddie Plank, unlike the vast majority of highly successful pitchers, Plank did just fine in his last season in the Majors.  Although his record in his final season in 1917 (pitching for the St. Louis Browns) was just  5-6, he posted a sparkling 1.79 ERA in 131 innings.  His ERA+ was an outstanding 147.  Clearly, this 41-year old future HOF’er had something left in the tank.  But he wisely decided to call it quits after that final season.

3)  Reggie Smith –  One of the most underrated players in baseball history, and one of the top 50 players not in the Hall of Fame, Smith enjoyed his final hurrah in 1982 at the age of 37 while playing for the San Francisco Giants.  Entering ’82, Smith was just four homers shy of 300 for his career.  He ended up slugging 18 while playing his home games in Candlestick Park, a notoriously difficult park for hitters.

Smith’s triple slash line in ’82:  .284 / .364 / .470, with an OPS+ of 134, were remarkably similar to his overall career numbers:  .287 / .366 / .489, OPS+ of 137.  In other words, Smith was about as productive in his final season as he had been in any previous average year.  That’s not at all a bad way to go out.

4)  Tony Gwynn– Even in his final season at age 41, was anyone really surprised that Gwynn batted .324?  Granted, he played in just 71 games in 2001, but his OPS+ during those plate appearance, 127, was pretty close to his career OPS+ of 132.  Gwynn was essentially the same professional hitter at age 41 as he had been much earlier in his career.

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5)  Jackie Robinson –  Given the relentless abuse heaped upon him day after day, year after year, it’s a wonder he played as long as he did.

Robinson was already 28-years old when he debuted in the Majors in 1947.  He played a solid decade before retiring after the 1956 season at the age of 37.  During this decade, he was a career .311 hitter who scored at least 99 runs in each of his first seven seasons.  His career OPS+ was an excellent 131.

In his final season, despite playing in just 117 games, Robinson drew 60 walks while striking out just 32 times, posting a .382 on-base percentage.  He posted an outstanding dWAR of 1.9, and a respectable overall WAR of 4.6, third best on the 1st place Dodgers.  He also finished 16th in MVP voting, not a bad way to end a legendary career.

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inn...

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inning of 12 August 1992 game between San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Game boxscore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Will Clark – Will “The Thrill” Clark was one of my favorite players of the late 1980’s into the early ’90’s.  He played with intensity, had a beautiful left-handed line-drive swing, and was nimble around first base.  His career OPS+ of 137 is the same as the aforementioned Reggie Smith, and is better than those of Hall of Famers Bill Terry, George Brett, Al Kaline, and Paul Waner.

His final season in the year 2000 did nothing to blemish his fine career.  In splitting his season between Baltimore and St. Louis, Clark posted a fine triple slash line of .318 / .419 / .546 and an OPS+ of 144 in 507 plate appearances.  His overall WAR was a respectable 4.1.  Retiring at the age of 36, Clark certainly went out at the top of his game.

7)  Mike Mussina –  That rarest of rare pitchers, Mussina decided to retire after winning 20 games for the first time in his career (at age 39) while pitching for the New York Yankees in 2008.  As far as I know, no health issues would have prevented him from returning for yet another season at the age of 40.  Clearly, he decided he’d had enough.

Those 20 victories pushed his career total to 270, and probable induction into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer ...

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer in a 1961 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8)  Sandy Koufax – Koufax and Mussina are the only two pitchers since 1920 who retired after posting 20-win seasons.  Mussina did it out of choice.  Koufax was forced into retirement due to chronic pain in his elbow.

It’s interesting to speculate how much longer Koufax would have pitched had he not suffered from this lingering pain.  Would he have eventually bounced around like Steve Carlton in his final years, trying to recapture lost glory?  And if he had tried to pitch while declining in effectiveness year after year, would his legendary reputation have become diminished over time?

Regardless, Koufax’s final season in 1966 at age 30, pitching for the L.A. Dodgers, was the single finest final performance in baseball history.  En route to his third Cy Young award over four seasons, Koufax posted a 27-9 record, a 1.73 ERA (which led the league for the fifth straight year), 27 complete games in 41 starts (both of which led the league), 317 strikeouts, and a ridiculous ERA+ of 190.  His WAR was 10.8, matching his career high set in 1963.

I think Neil Young had it correct when he said it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

Regarding Chipper Jones and Andy Pettitte, it remains to be seen if their final seasons will match those listed above, or if their respective final seasons were one year too many.

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