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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 3

This is the third installment of a six part series analyzing the most under-appreciated players in the baseball Hall of Fame.  For a more complete explanation of the purpose of this series, click on Part 1.   Click here is you missed Part 2.

To this point, I have identified 4/5ths of my infield.  From left to right, they are third baseman Eddie Mathews, shortstop Arky Vaughan, second baseman Joe Gordon and first baseman Roger Connor.

Now let’s find out who my catcher and my left-fielder are, shall we?

Catcher – Gary Carter:  If you ask most baseball fans, even the smart ones (I’m talking to you, oh faithful reader), to name the top ten catchers in baseball history, you may or may not find Gary Carter’s name on that list.  It’s just as likely, if not more so,  that Bob Boone, Ted Simmons, and Thurman Munson would be named instead of Gary Carter.

Now, I’m not here to argue the merits of whether or not any of those three catchers should be in the HOF, where Carter is already a member.  All three were very fine catchers in their day.  Yet why is it that Gary Carter, as far as his reputation is concerned, seems to exist on the periphery of these lists?

The fact is, Gary Carter was one of the top five (not merely the top ten) catchers of all time.

I wrote a post about Carter just after his death back in February on this topic, but allow me to list some of the highlights.

Gary Carter’s career dWAR, (a measure of his defensive value), was 25.4.  Johnny Bench, who many people regard as the greatest catcher ever, had a career dWAR of 19.3.

Carter had six seasons with a dWAR of 2.0 or better.  Bench had three seasons at that level.  Jim Sundberg, also held in high regard as a great defensive catcher, had a career dWAR of 25.0 and five seasons of at least 2.0 dWAR.

Stunningly, Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Bill Dickey, and Mickey Cochrane combined for exactly one season of 2.0 dWAR.  So, even if you add Johnny Bench to that group, you still come up two seasons short of Gary Carter’s six seasons of 2.0 dWAR.

Therefore, it is pretty clear that Gary Carter was one of the top three defensive catchers of all time.

Carter won five Silver Sluggers and was an eleven time All Star.

Carter hit 324 home runs in his career, more than HOF catchers Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane combined.  Of those 324 homers, he hit 298 of them as a catcher, good for 6th on the all-time homer list for catchers.

Carter’s career WAR, including his offense, was 66.4.  Only one catcher in history, Johnny Bench, had a higher career WAR among catchers (72.3).  This includes relatively recent catchers like Pudge Rodriguez and Mike Piazza.

Keep in mind, however, that in 1999, when the All Century Team was being voted upon, the panel that compiled the list placed the names of eight catchers on the ballot.  Gary Carter’s name was not among them.

Keep in mind, too, that after Carter died about seven months ago, Reggie Jackson was quoted as saying that he didn’t consider Carter to be a “real” Hall of Famer.

It’s hard to believe that a player as highly productive as Carter was, who should have benefited from playing (and thriving) in New York City with the Mets during the mid-1980’s, could be so readily marginalized and forgotten.

Perhaps his stature will rise, as it should, in the future.

Jesse Burkett

Jesse Burkett (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Left-Field – Jesse Burkett:  

Jesse Burkett was born in Wheeling, WV a few years after the Civil War ended (to the extent that it ended at all in West Virginia) in 1868.  A relatively small man (5’8″, 155 pounds), Burkett broke into the Majors with Brooklyn in 1890 at age 21.  He played for 16 seasons, through 1905, retiring at age 36.

Burkett came within four points (.396 in 1899) of being one of only three men in baseball history to hit .400 three times.  The other two players are Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby.

Burkett won three batting titles, led his league in hits three times, twice in runs scored and twice in total bases.  He had six 200-hit seasons, (Tony Gwynn had five.)

Burkett scored over 100 runs nine times.  Lou Brock, in contrast, reached 100 runs scored seven times.  Burkett’s 1,720 runs scored ranks 25th all-time.

Jesse Burkett’s career batting average of .338 is tied with Tony Gwynn for 18th best all-time.

With 182 career triples, Burkett is 15th on that particular list.

Was Burkett just another 19th century Baltimore-Chop singles hitter?  Well, his career OPS+ was 140, the same as Duke Snider, Vlad Guerrerro and Gary Sheffield, and one point better than a somewhat more famous 19th century player, King Kelly.

Burkett was not only a very fine player, he was quite a character, although apparently devoid of a sense of humor.  He was once thrown out of both games of a double-header.

In the first game, he refused to leave the field, so the umpire declared the game a forfeit win for the opposing team (Louisville.)  After being thrown out of the second game, again for arguing, Burkett once again refused to leave the field.  This time, the umpire had six policemen remove Burkett from the diamond.

Burkett’s career WAR of 60.5 puts him in the same company, relatively speaking, with a couple of other HOF left-fielders, Ed Delahanty (66.5) and Billy Williams (59.5).  Both of those players were on my short list of left-fielders whom I considered for my under-appreciated list.  Ultimately, though, I decided that, to the extent that baseball fans are familiar with 19th century players, Delahanty is a bit more well-known than is Burkett.

And as for Billy Williams, it was a close call, but Williams’ Black Ink score in Baseball-Reference.com was 18, while Burkett’s was 31.

That suggests that, despite their very similar WAR scores, Burkett was more of an impact player in his day than was Williams.  While I don’t doubt that Williams was under-appreciated, Burkett is all but completely forgotten in most baseball communities.

Burkett was voted into the baseball HOF in 1946 by the Veteran’s Committee.  One of the few 19th- century stars to still be alive when voted into The Hall, Burkett died in Worcester, MA in 1953, age 84.

In my next installment, I will reveal my picks for center-field and right-field on my All-Time Under-Appreciated Hall of Fame All Star Team.

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 1

Is it possible that a player in the Baseball Hall of Fame could be considered under-appreciated?  Isn’t membership in those hallowed halls evidence enough that a particular player’s legacy has been abundantly lauded?

Yet it is true in baseball, as in other walks of life, that even those honored can be quickly overshadowed by subsequent (or even prior) honorees.

For example, the actor Robert Duvall has won an Oscar, two Emmy’s, and four Golden Globe Awards.  Yet his name seldom seems to roll easily off the tongues of people discussing the best actors of the past forty years.  On the other hand, Duvall’s contemporary, Robert DeNiro, is ubiquitous on the vast majority of Best Actor lists.  Duvall has received critical acclaim, but still seems to be generally under-appreciated.

But enough prologue.  Let’s get down to business.

It needs to be stated upfront, of course, that choosing a list of under-appreciated players is in large part an exercise in the subjective.  After all, your list will probably look quite different from mine.  We all have our biases, and we all choose the statistics most useful to suit our needs.

Having said that, today’s post (the first of six planned posts on this topic) will focus on the first two players in this series who comprise the right side of my infield.  Here, then, is the initial installment of my All-Time Hall of Fame Most Under-Appreciated Team:

1888 N403 Yum Yum Tobacco Roger Connor, Redemp...

1888 N403 Yum Yum Tobacco Roger Connor, Redemption Back SGC 60 EX 5 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First Base – Roger Connor:  Born in Waterbury, CT in 1857, Connor played his entire 18-year career (but for one season in the ill-fated Player’s League) in the National League.  He retired in 1897 at age 39, having amassed an incredible 233 triples (fifth most in history).

Playing primarily for the Trojans, the Giants and the Browns, Connor had more seasons of 100+ runs scored (8), than Lou Brock.  He had as many 100 RBI seasons as Mickey Mantle, and his career WAR (80.6) is a bit higher than Ken Griffey, Jr.’s 79.2

Connor’s OPS+ (153) was better than Honus Wagner’s mark of 151.  Connor is credited with being the first player to ever hit an out-of-the-park Grand Slam, and the first to hit a home run completely out of the Polo Grounds.

A big man, listed at 6’3″, 220 pounds, Connor both threw and hit left-handed.  He could hit for average (.316 career), he could hit for power (led N.L. in home runs in 1890), he could steal a base (7 times he topped 20 steals), and he could play some defense (a solid 6.2 dWAR.)

Perhaps most impressively, Connor’s 138 career home runs remained the M.L.B. record for 23 years after his retirement, until Babe Ruth shattered the mark in 1921.

Roger Connor died in his hometown of Waterbury, CT in January 1931.  A victim of the Florida real estate crash of the early 1920’s, Connor and his wife are buried side-by-side in unmarked graves in Waterbury’s St. Josephs’s Cemetery.

Second Base – Joe Gordon:  Although there are at least a couple of Yankees who probably don’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame (Herb Pennock and Phil Rizzuto come to mind), Joe Gordon has long been an under-appreciated player.

Other Yankee second basemen have been more widely known over the decades, players like Tony Lazzeri, Billy Martin, Bobby Richardson, Willie Randolph, and now, Robinson Cano.  But, with the possible exception of Cano, no second baseman in Yankee history was better than Joe Gordon.

Gordon was born in Los Angeles in 1915, but his family later moved north to Oregon.  Drafted by the Yankees as an amateur free agent, he immediately made an impact in New York, swatting 25 homers and driving in 96 runs for the 1938 Yankees.  This incredible team also featured Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey.

In 1942, at the age of 27, Gordon won the A.L. MVP award.

Up through 1943, when Joe Gordon was still in his prime (28-years old), he’d already enjoyed six highly productive years with the Yanks.  He had averaged 24 homers and 95 RBI per year, and had accumulated 33.3 WAR (about what Cano has generated in his first eight years.)

Then came WWII, or rather, Gordon’s call to duty in a war that was already half over.  The War cost Gordon two full years (1944-’45.)  In 1946, he got injured in spring training and had a terrible year.  He was traded to Cleveland the next season for pitcher Allie Reynolds.

The trade worked out well for both teams.  Gordon went on to lead the Tribe to a World Series victory over the Boston Braves in the ’48 World Series.  His 32 homers that year remained the A.L. record for a second baseman for 53 years, until 2001.

During Gordon’s tenure with the Yankees, he played in exactly 1,000 games, and he garnered exactly 1,000 hits.

Joe Gordon’s 253 home runs remains the career record by an A.L. second baseman.  That is a remarkable total, considering both of his home ball parks did not favor right-handed power hitters, also recalling that he missed a couple of his prime years to war.

Finally, Gordon’s resume is further buttressed by a stellar defensive reputation.  His career 22.4 dWAR is better than that of any second baseman in history not named Bill Mazeroski.  Gordon’s overall career WAR of 54.0 is better than that of Chase Utley, Jeff Kent, Nellie Fox, Tony Lazzeri and Bobby Doerr, to name but a few other highly productive second basemen.

Joe Gordon died of a heart attack in 1978, age 63.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame 30 years later, in 2009.  It shouldn’t have taken that long.

In the next installment of this series, I will take a look at the left side of the infield of my All-Time Under-Appreciated team.

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