The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Kid Nichols”

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.

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