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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 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.

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of this series.  So far, our roster of the Hall of Fame’s most under-appreciated players looks like this:

1B – Roger Connor

2B – Joe Gordon

SS – Arky Vaughan

3B – Eddie Mathews

C  – Gary Carter

LF – Jesse Burkett

Not a bad team.  Let’s flesh it out now with a center fielder and a right fielder, shall we?

English: Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder ....

English: Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder . Levels and saturation adjusted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Center Field – Richie Ashburn:  Why Richie Ashburn, and not someone like Max Carey, Hugh Duffy or Billy Hamilton?

For one thing, Ashburn had a higher career WAR (60.2) than either Duffy or Carey, and about the same as Hamilton.  Also, Ashburn, as far as dWAR is concerned, was a better defensive center fielder than any of them.

Ashburn’s range in center field was excellent. He led the N.L. in Range Factor ten times in his career.  Ashburn also led all outfielders in his league in putouts nine times, and assists four times.

In his rookie year in 1948, the 21-year old Ashburn batted .333 and topped the N.L. with 32 stolen bases.

In just his third season in the Majors, at age 23, Ashburn was a key member of the Phillies “Whiz Kids” team that won the N.L. Pennant by two games over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ashburn led the league that year in triples with 14 while batting over .300 and playing solid defense in center field.

As a hitter, Ashburn didn’t generate much power (just 29 career homers), but he was an on-base machine.  He finished first in the N.L. in walks four times, and in hits three times.  In six seasons (including his first and last) he topped a .400 on-base percentage.

On the other side of the ledger, Ashburn was very difficult to strike out.  During his twelve prime years with the Phillies (1948-59), Ashburn never struck out as many as 50 times in a season.

Ashburn was also very difficult to double-up.  In eight of his seasons, he grounded into fewer than five double plays.  In three additional seasons, he grounded into fewer than ten.

For eight straight seasons, (1951-58), Ashburn scored at least 90 runs in every season.  He also led the league in hits three times, topping 200 hits in each of those three years.

Playing the final season of his 15-year Major League career with the hapless ’62 Mets, 35-year old Ashburn posted a .306 batting average and an outstanding .424 on-base percentage, still the third highest single season on-base percentage in Mets history.

Ashburn retired after the ’62 season at age 35 having netted 2,574 hits to go along with nearly 1,200 walks, a .308 career batting average, and an even more impressive .396 career on-base percentage. He scored 1,322 runs, slashed 109 triples and stole 234 bases.

Despite those numbers, and the reputation of being one of the greatest lead-off hitters, and excellent defensive center fielders of his generation, Ashburn never received much more than 40% of the vote of the BBWAA.  After his name fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in 1982, it wasn’t until 13-years later in 1995 that the Veteran’s Committee finally inducted Ashburn into the HOF.

Richie Ashburn died a couple of years later, in 1997, at age 70.  He is still among the Phillies’  all-time leaders in several offensive categories such as base hits, runs scored, walks and on-base percentage.

Right Field – Harry Heilmann:  Harry Heilmann was, along with Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and Al Kaline, one of the greatest outfielders in Detroit Tigers history.

Heilmann was one of the few baseball players born on the west coast before the turn of the twentieth century.  Born in San Francisco on August 3, 1894, Heilmann debuted with the Tigers in 1914 at age 19.  Given his German heritage (on his father’s side), one has to wonder if this young German Catholic teenager didn’t experience at least some bigotry around America as the First World War settled like a steel cloud over Europe that summer.

Heilmann didn’t stick with the big club immediately, and spent the summer of 1915 in the minors.  But by 1916, he had become a permanent resident of the Detroit outfield, playing alongside Ty Cobb.    Through 1920, Heilmann was a very good player, though not yet a great one.  Heilmann’s breakout season was 1921, when he turned 26-years old.

In 1926, Heilmann won the A.L. batting title with a .394 batting average, besting teammate Ty Cobb by five points.  He also led the league in hits with 237.  He slugged 42 doubles, 14 triples and 19 home runs.  He finished second in the league in OPS+ (167), WAR (6.5), RBI (139), Slugging Percentage (.606) and Total Bases (365.)

Heilmann went on to win a total of four batting titles, in alternating years, from 1921 to 1927.  His batting averages in those four years were .394, .403, .393, and .398.  He also topped .300 in eight additional seasons in his 17-year career.

Heilmann’s .342 career batting average ranks 12th on the all-time list, just a couple of points shy of Ted Williams.

In fact, Heilmann was the last A.L. player to hit .400 (.403 in 1923) until Ted Williams accomplished that feat by hitting .406 in 1941.

Heilmann’s On Base Plus Slugging Percentage of .930 ranks ahead of Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker and Frank Robinson, among others.  His career OPS+ (148) ranks 40th all-time, ahead of Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell.

Heilmann finished in the top five in MVP voting in his league four times, and he was the best player in the A.L. in 1925, posting a WAR of 6.5.  His career WAR of 67.3 is better than HOF players Ed Delahanty, Tony Gwynn, Al Simmons, Eddie Murray and Duke Snider.

After spending the first 15 years of his career with the Tigers, Heilmann caught on with the Reds for a season and a half.  In his last full season as a player in 1930, Heilmann hit .333 and drove in 91 runs.  He retired in 1932 at age 37.

Heilmann finished his career with 183 homers, 1,539 RBI, 542 doubles and 151 triples.

Despite all of these accomplishments, Heilmann was not elected into the Hall of Fame until his 13th year on the ballot in 1952.  Unfortunately, Heilmann had already died of cancer in 1951.  While on his deathbed, however, his former teammate and sometimes nemesis Ty Cobb came to visit him.  Cobb, in a rare act of empathy, told Heilmann that he had been voted into the Hall of Fame that summer so that Heilmann could die a happy man.

Which just goes to show, sometimes good lurks in the hearts of even the coldest men.

NEXT UP:  The Pitchers

The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Qualitative Analysis, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the first 45 players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The purpose of doing so was to determine if it is true, as so many claim, that The Hall was once the exclusive domain of the truly excellent, the best of the best.

After examining all the players inducted into The Hall through 1949, we have to conclude that even in its early years, the BBWAA and the various Old Timers Committees were already arriving at some questionable choices for player inductions into the Hall of Fame.

Fully 38% of the first 45 players chosen can be regarded as specious choices.

Although my analysis is not entirely a matter of sabermetrics, modern measurements like WAR, OPS+ and ERA+ do figure prominently in my evaluations.

Now let’s take a look at the subsequent players elected into The Hall for the years 1951-69.

1951 — BBWAA: Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott

Nine-time All Star, three-time MVP Jimmie Foxx, who came within two homers of matching Ruth’s

Jimmie Foxx of the Boston Red Sox, cropped fro...

Image via Wikipedia

single season record just five years after it was set, received just 9% of the vote in his first year on the ballot in 1936.  A word of caution to the Class of 2012, that’s what a crowded ballot can do.

Ott, like Foxx, topped 500 home runs, thus helping to create the myth that 500 home runs is the standard by which power hitters must be judged to gain entrance into The Hall.

1952 – BBWAA:  Harry Heilmann, Paul Waner

Heilmann, with a pocket full of batting titles and a career OPS+ of 148, received 1.7% of the vote from the BBWAA in 1942.  A decade later, without producing so much as a bunt single in the interim, the same BBWAA gave him 86.8% of the vote.

This Waner brother (Big Poison) actually does belong in The Hall.

1953 — BBWAA: Dizzy Dean, Al Simmons. VC: Chief Bender, Bobby Wallace

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the dorsal fin of the Veteran’s Committee appears on the horizon.

The Veteran’s Committee absolutely loves light-hitting, slick fielding middle infielders.  Bobby Wallace’s defensive WAR (11.9) is the same as Bill Mazeroski’s, and is very close to Rabbit Maranville’s 11.8 as well as Phil Rizzuto’s 11.0.  Theoretically, this should bode well for Omar Vizquel (13.3) once he becomes eligible.  Undoubtedly, some will argue that a Vizquel induction would seriously erode the high standards of The Hall.  Clearly, as you can see, that would not be the case.

Dean had a great run, but flamed out fast.  He had five great seasons in a row, winning an MVP award along with two second place finishes, and one other good year.  Essentially, he paved the way for Sandy Koufax, and his equally brief run of greatness, to make it into The Hall.

Chief Bender, a Native-American of the Chippewa tribe, pitched for three A’s championship teams in

Chief (Charles Albert) Bender, pitcher and inf...

Image via Wikipedia

the early years of the 20th century.  In his rookie season, 1903, he led the league by plunking 25 hitters in 270 inning pitched.  Don’t mess with the Chippewa.  But his career ERA+, 112, and his WAR, 38.5, are significantly lower than the vast majority of pitchers elected to The Hall up to this point.

1954 — BBWAA: Bill Dickey, Rabbit Maranville, Bill Terry.

Eleven-time All Star Bill Dickey is still among the ten best catchers who ever played the game, so at the time of his induction, few catchers in history had ever been as good as he was.

Rabbit Maranville:  See Bobby Wallace above.

Bill Terry was similar to George Sisler in that he was a slick-fielding first baseman who hit for high averages, but delivered little else of significance between the foul poles.  Won a batting title.  Career Offensive WAR 48.1.  Essentially, he was John Olerud.

1955 — BBWAA: Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance. VC: Home Run Baker, Ray Schalk.

Hard to believe that by 1955, Joltin’ Joe was already eligible for the Hall of Fame.  In his short 13-year career, he finished in the top ten in MVP voting ten times, winning the award three times.  Certainly an obvious choice for The Hall.  Interestingly, his closest modern comparable player (according to Baseball-Reference) eligible for The Hall is Larry Walker.

For seven consecutive seasons, from age 31-37, Dazzy Vance led the N.L. in strikeouts.  I’m of the opinion that this kind of dominance merits Hall membership.

Of the pair of catchers elected, Gabby Hartnett was a solid choice, but Ray Schalk was a poor one.  In fact, Schalk’s election set the bar so low (at least for catchers) that it is possible to make a case that Butch Wynegar deserves to be inducted into The Hall.

Mark McGwire hit 583 home runs.  Home Run Baker hit 96.  They both led their league in home runs four times.  McGwire’s career WAR was 63.1.  Baker’s was 63.7.  This is as good an indication as any of how misleading traditional counting stats (home runs, batting average, RBI, etc.) can be.  Baker does belong in The Hall.

Ted Lyon’s election set the stage for later misfires like Eppa Rixey, Burleigh Grimes, Red Ruffing and Waite Hoyt.

1956 — BBWAA: Joe Cronin, Hank Greenberg.

Two solid choices for the Hall of Fame.

1957 — VC: Sam Crawford

MLB career leader in triples with 309.  Career OPS+ 144.  Career WAR 76.6.  Solid choice.

1959 — VC: Zack Wheat.

Wheat is a marginal HOF’er.  Won a single, empty batting title in 1918 (18 extra base hits.)  OPS+ 129 is the same as Freddy Lynn.  Career WAR 57.8 puts him in Willie Davis territory.

During the 1950’s, then, just 14 of 21 players inducted into the Hall of Fame were high quality choices.  Therefore, about one-third of all the players inducted during this decade were of questionable merit (or worse.)  Thus, out of the first 66 players inducted into The Hall between 1936-59, just 42 were what can be described as high quality choices.  That represents just about 64% of all players chosen up to this point.

This begs the question, so when does this Golden Age of the Hall of Fame actually begin?  Perhaps we’ll have better luck during the 1960’s, the next installment of this series.

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