The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Phil Niekro”

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

Pitching WAR Analysis: The First Seven Years

Using my previous post about Roy Oswalt as a jumping off point, I decided to analyze forty semi-random pitchers’ cumulative WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for their first seven consecutive years in the Majors.  Working under the assumption that Roy Oswalt would rate higher than the average Dick Ruthven, Roger Pavlik or John Burkett, I didn’t hesitate to compare Oswalt’s WAR for Seasons 1-7 against many of the best pitchers in history.

In some cases, I decided to skip a particular season for a starting pitcher who made just a handful of starts in an injury abbreviated year, and move on to his next full season.  For a handful of these pitchers, seven consecutive full seasons of pitching was about all they could muster.

As with all lists, it begins with the caveat that we are looking at a snapshot of a player’s career, as measured by just one of many available statistics.  So don’t (and I don’t really think there was a chance that you might have) wave this around as either evidence of my ignorance (which it may very well be) or as proof that could win you a bet in a pub argument (and why wasn’t I invited?)

In order then, from highest WAR to lowest, first seven seasons as a starting pitcher, since 1900, (leaving out about a million relevant pitchers):

English: Portrait of baseball player Christy M...

Image via Wikipedia

1)  Walter Johnson (you were expecting maybe Buzz Capra?) – 57.0

2)  Grover Cleveland Alexander – 54.2

3)  Tom Seaver – 52.0

4)  Lefty Grove – 51.2

5)  Bob Feller – 49.5

6)  Roger Clemens – 46.9

7)  Robin Roberts – 46.3

8)  Ferguson Jenkins – 45.8

9)  Warren Spahn – 44.2

10) Pedro Martinez – 43.4

10) Christy Mathewson – 43.4

12) Rube Waddell – 41.9

13)  Johan Santana – 39.8

14)  Don Drysdale – 38.2

15)  Roy Halladay – 38.1

16) Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown – 37.6

17) Dave Stieb – (Yes, he really was this good) – 36.3

18) Steve Carlton – 36.0

19) Brett Saberhagen – 35.9

20) Dizzy Dean – 35.7

21) Phil Niekro – 35.4

22) Bob Gibson – 35.3

23) Nolan Ryan – 34.7

24) Randy Johnson – 34.6

25) Dwight Gooden – 34.4

26) Ron Guidry – 34.0

26) Sandy Koufax – 34.0

28) Mike Mussina – 32.9

29) Roy Oswalt – 32.7

30) Greg Maddux – 31.6

31) Curt Schilling – 29.2

32) Cliff Lee – 28.7

33) Jim Bunning – 28.4

34) Whitey Ford – 26.6

35) Don Sutton – 25.2

36) Jack Morris – 22.7

37) John Smoltz – 21.0

38) Kevin Brown – 20.8

38) Tom Glavine – 20.8

40) Catfish Hunter – 15.2

Keeping in mind that these numbers do not represent the final WAR totals of each of these pitchers’ respective careers, what does this data tell us?

For one thing, Oswalt’s first seven years measure up pretty well with pitchers like Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina, and are close on the heals of power pitchers like Gooden, Guidry and Koufax.*

*Incidentally, I love the synchronicity of those particular three pitchers, each of whom had a few great years, then burned out rather quickly.

It is also clear that if a pitcher is able to accumulate 40 WAR or better in his first seven years, he is very likely on his way to a Hall of Fame career.  On the other hand, if a pitcher accumulates 30-40 WAR in his first seven years, it is nearly impossible to predict if the rest of his career will buttress, or undermine, his HOF chances.

This list, which, let me remind you, is not meant to be comprehensive, also reminds us that our perceptions of baseball players are largely formed early in their careers, and that’s how we tend to remember them regardless of what they do for the rest of their careers.

Thus, some players like Kevin Brown never seem to get their due as excellent pitchers because the initial years of their careers were not terribly impressive.  Meanwhile, many, perhaps most baseball fans, are aware of the early greatness of Gooden, Guidry, Dizzy Dean, and others who didn’t last terribly long.

Finally, let this list be a cautionary tale that it is awfully difficult to accurately and objectively evaluate a pitcher’s career while it is still in progress.  It is not until he has tossed his final pitch and walked off the mound for the last time that we can begin to appreciate his contribution to baseball, and his place among the immortals.

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