The On Deck Circle

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Archive for the tag “Hal Newhouser”

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 6

In my last post in this series, I named Kid Nichols as the ace of my all-time under-appreciated Hall of Fame pitching staff.  There are, of course, several options from which to choose for the #2 man in my rotation.  I decided to go with the Detroit Tigers’ own Hal Newhouser.

Before we go any further with this, let’s take a look at two lines of stats.  For both pitchers, we are comparing their six best consecutive seasons:

Pitcher A:  129-47, WAR – 44.4, ERA+ 160

Pitcher B:  136-56, WAR – 43.8, ERA+ 158

Also,

Pitcher A led his league in wins three times, in complete games twice, in shutouts 3 times, and in ERA+ twice.

Pitcher B led his league in wins four times, in complete games twice, in shutouts once, and in ERA+ twice.

As measured by WAR, Pitcher A was the best pitcher in his league twice, Pitcher B three times.

Pitcher A had a career WAR of 50.3, Pitcher B had a career WAR of 55.8.

They were each named to about a half-dozen All Star teams.

Both pitchers stood 6’2″, and threw left-handed.

Pitcher A made his debut at age 19.  Pitcher B, at 18.  Both came up as home-town boys.

Pitcher A made his Major League debut in 1955, just seven weeks after Pitcher B threw his final pitch.

One pitcher is dead; the other is still alive.

Pitcher A was born Sanford Braun, but you know him as Sandy Koufax.

Pitcher B was born, and remained, Hal Newhouser.

Sandy Koufax is everyone’s idea of a Hall of Famer.  Hal Newhouser was rejected by the BBWAA, topping out at just 43% of the vote in his final year on the ballot in 1975.  It wasn’t until the Veteran’s Committee inducted him 17 years later in 1992 that Hal Newhouser finally received recognition in the baseball Hall of Fame.

Koufax was a first ballot Hall of Famer, receiving 87% of the vote in 1972.

Yet, if you go back and take a look at their numbers, especially in their six best consecutive seasons, the difference between the two is not all that great.  Sure, Koufax was more of a strikeout guy, leading the league in K’s / 9 innings six times, but Newhouser led his league in that same stat four times.

One must also keep in mind that Koufax pitched in a better pitcher’s era, in a better pitcher’s park, than did Newhouser.

Sandy Koufax won three Cy Young awards, and finished 3rd in another season.  He was also voted league MVP in 1963.

Hal Newhouser won consecutive A.L. MVP awards in 1944-45, and he finished in second place in the voting in 1946.  The Cy Young award didn’t come into existence until 1956, otherwise it is reasonable to assume that Newhouser would certainly have deserved three of those awards as well.

I think the key here as to why Koufax overshadows Newhouser is primarily due to the issue of timing.  Newhouser’s best years occurred more or less in the middle of his career, which is normal for most players.

Koufax had a slow start to his career, then caught fire in the early ’60’s and never looked back.  In a sense, at least as far as the mythology and stature of SANDY KOUFAX is concerned, walking away from a highly successful career while still at the top of one’s game was a stroke of genius.  Yes, I know that he only retired due to excruciating pain in his left elbow.

But if he had continued to pitch for a few more years, it’s likely that the pain and the simple wear and tear on his arm would have resulted in a steady decline in production, mirroring what most other pitchers go through in their careers.  If that had been the case, I believe it would have diminished Koufax in the eyes of HOF voters, and he might have had a more difficult time being inducted into The Hall, despite his six amazing seasons.

Another reason, though, why I believe the mythology (and I don’t mean to imply that I think Koufax was overrated) of Koufax is far superior to the more prosaic legacy of Hal Newhouser was due to the era in which they each toiled in the Majors.

Hal Newhouser’s best seasons occurred during and just after World War II.  This was an era when bigger things than baseball were occurring in the world, when a generation of Americans labored for their daily bread, and their very lives, in factories at home in America, and on battlefields  from Salerno to Saipan.  There just wasn’t much time to romanticize a series of sporting events.

Nor was that particular generation of men and women prone to push heroes up onto pedestals.  They were generally too busy burying heroes silently.

By 1960, however, a new generation of young people, not yet at war, and just then beginning to imprint their profligate, psychological profile on an indulgent society, was in the midst of defining their own heroes.

Sandy Koufax emerged at exactly the right time.  His career clicked just as a young John Kennedy inspired this generation to embrace the present as well as the future.  Koufax turned 25 in ’61, and led the N.L. in strikeouts for the first time.  He would continue to dominate the decade through ’66, before it was clear that the Vietnam War was going nowhere, and before the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy.

Hal Newhouser, by way of contrast, became dominant in the year of the D-Day Invasion, and continued his run of success on the eve of the largely forgotten Korean War.

Newhouser’s career record of 207-150 might not impress people in the same way that, for example, Don Sutton’s 324-256 record might.  Somewhere along the line, someone got the idea, picked up naturally by others, that a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher should have 300 wins.

Certainly, if a pitcher wins 300 games, he is probably going to be worthy of Hall induction based on other career stats as well.  Yet, in their respective primes, who would you rather have pitching the big game for you?  Who would you prefer to have as your staff ace?  The pitcher who enjoyed lots of 17-11 seasons with respectable peripheral numbers, or would you have the guy that, in his best years, could knock off 25-30 wins while dominating the league in several other stats as well?

As for me, I’ll take Hal Newhouser, one of the most under-appreciated HOF pitchers of all time.

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