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I’m going to start off by mocking the ignorance of the so-called expert baseball writers who vote on the Hall of Fame: it is ridiculous that Phil Niekro had to wait five years for induction, and makes clear that baseball writers are collectively a group of fools who wouldn’t know a great player from Tony Womack. Knucksie was a great pitcher, a dominant pitcher for all that he threw in the seventies on a good day, and focusing on his won/loss records was simply stupid. Nobody could have won with the teams the Braves put out there in the seventies. Of course, it’s no surprise that the idiots who didn’t vote Phil the two to four Cy Young Awards he actually deserved didn’t vote him into the Hall on time.
Part of the problem is that Niekro pitched until he was 48, which makes people think of him as a journeyman type, but that’s deceptive on two fronts. First, he got started pretty late: his first really full season was at 28, so his real career wasn’t any longer than a lot of other guys. Second, he was still a useful pitcher, not someone just hanging around, as late as the age of 47.
Phil made it to the majors for the first time in 1964, with the Milwaukee Braves; he made it to stay in 1966. At the time, the belief was that pitchers who threw the knuckleball as their main pitch (as opposed to the pitchers who threw it as a changeup, a style that is no longer found) were best suited to relief. Hoyt Wilhelm had had a lot of success as a relief ace, but Niekro found himself in middle and long relief for the first three years of his career.
In 1967, he finally was moved to the rotation (20 starts in 46 appearances) and went 11-9 with a 1.87 ERA, winning the ERA title. In 1968, he was 14-12, 2.59. In 1969, with an offensive boom fueled by the strike zone expansion, he actually cut his ERA to 2.56, went 23-13, and lost the Cy Young to Tom Seaver, who was even better, and who beat him in the first game of the NLCS.
Knucksie had a rough 1970, along with most of the rest of the Braves, but rebounded in 1971. His ERAs in these seasons are good; his won/loss records less so. In 1974 he was blatantly robbed of the Cy Young; he went 20-13 with a 2.38 ERA, but finished third to a pair of future teammates/washouts, Mike Marshall and Andy Messersmith, who had higher ERAs — in Dodger Stadium — and many fewer than Niekro’s 302 innings pitched.
The Braves’ offense, post-Aaron, collapsed, and the pitching other than Phil wasn’t any great shakes; Niekro inherited Hank’s role as the franchise player. From 1977-1980 he led the league in starts every year, with 43, 42, 44, and 38. He didn’t get relieved very often either, so he led the league in innings pitched the first three years of the period, and wound up with wacky won/loss records: 16-20, 19-18, 21-20, 15-18. If the Braves had scored any runs or had any defense, he’d be a legend.
Even knuckleballers wear down, and that sort of usage ended in 1981. In 1982, he had another great year, 17-4, though his ERA was only a little above average. He was only average in 1983, and after the season the Braves foolishly and offensively released him. He caught on with the Yankees and had a big year in 1984, 16-8, and pitched in the All-Star game for only the second time. He was league-average in 1985, and won his 300th game at the end of the season. Another decent year, this with the Indians followed, then he finally lost it. After a stop in Toronto, Niekro hooked on with the Braves at the end of the 1987 season, throwing three innings.
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