In what has been an unimaginably agonizing year for many of us in multiple respects, the unpleasantness continued yesterday when we lost Phil Niekro, yet another all-time great from the baseball world taken from us recently.
When I think of Phil Niekro, two things come to mind. First, he pitched in what was the best era of starting pitching the game has ever seen (the roster of pitchers in their prime from the late 60s through the early 80s is staggering) and he was in the top half of that group. And secondly, if we grade pitchers based on their ability to give their teams a competitive advantage by being better than league average, than not many pitchers in the games’ history gave their team a competitive advantage more often than Niekro did.
Niekro debuted in 1964 at age 25 and over his first three seasons appeared in 79 games, all but one in relief. Then in 1967, at age 28, he got an opportunity to be a spot starter (20 starts) and reliever (26 relief appearances) and he came through for the Braves by leading the National League in ERA and ERA+ over 207 innings pitched.
In 1968, he became a full time starter and over the next thirteen seasons, averaged 284 innings per season with a 121 ERA+ (100 is league average, so 21% better than league average). Over that 13 season stretch, he led the NL in wins twice, innings pitched four times, strikeouts once, posted seven seasons of 6 WAR or better, had four top six Cy Young award finishes, three All-Star nods, three seasons in which he received MVP votes, and won three Gold Glove awards. And in spite of leading the league in innings and starts four times each, he averaged close to four relief appearances per season as well over that 13 season stretch.
As mentioned, the era was an elite one for starting pitchers, and Niekro was in the top half of that elite group. Consider that from 1965 through 1984, we saw the prime and the bulk of the careers of Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Catfish Hunter, Ferguson Jenkins, Bert Blyleven, Don Sutton, Dennis Eckersly, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant, and Mickey Lolich – six 300 game winners, 13 Hall of Famers and a few guys with good Cooperstown cases.
Among that group from ’65 through ’84, Niekro was 2nd in both WAR and IP, 4th in wins, and 7th in both adjusted ERA and FIP.
And if you’re thinking those numbers are more due to durability and not his level of dominance, you may want to reconsider. His K% was better than both Palmer’s and Hunter’s and his BB% was lower than Carlton’s, Palmer’s, and Ryan’s (And exactly the same as Gibson’s).
After a 1983 season in which he posted double digit wins, an over .500 winning percentage, over 200 IP with a league average ERA, the Braves chose not to re-sign him. My guess is they were thinking a new contract for a then 45 year old was too much of a commitment.
They were wrong.
The Yankees signed Niekro for $1.15 million over two seasons in the spring of 1984. Over ‘84, ’85, then ’86 with Cleveland, Niekro averaged double digit wins, a better than .500 winning percentage, over 200 IP and a better than league average ERA for the three season stretch – at ages 45-47.
And with specific regards to his tenure in pinstripes Yankee fans, I’m sure you remember that he was good as a Yankee but do you realize how good? Over 1984-85, 26 pitchers threw 400 IP or more in the AL. Niekro was 3rd in winning %, 8th in wins, 9th in K%, 10th in ERA and was a 1984 All-Star.
When considering the totality of his career, only seven MLB pitchers since integration have been good enough to throw 5,000 IP – Niekro is first with 5,404. Also since integration, only Clemens, Seaver, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson accumulated more WAR than Niekro.
Perhaps part of the longevity was due to being a knuckleball pitcher, but it was far, far more than that – claiming otherwise does a disservice to his dominance. Niekro’s career adjusted ERA is the same as Carlton’s and better than Ryan’s.
I’m going to leave you with that – the guy who threw 60 something miles per hour was harder to score runs off of than the guy who threw 100 something.
RIP Knucksie, our knuckles are pointed to the sky today.
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