Year Inducted: 1997 (BBWAA, 5th ballot, 380/473)
When RA Dickey won the Cy Young Award in 2012 for the Mets, his knuckleball was the talk of baseball. Clocking in at 80 or more MPH, it was able to move at rates that defied logic. Dickey was compared a lot to former knuckleball pitchers like Hoyt Wilhelm, Tim Wakefield and of course, the legendary Phil Niekro. Dickey obviously didn’t maintain his dominance, but his 2012 season was a great way to remind everyone of how good Niekro really was.
Niekro pitched for a quarter century, mostly with the Braves, winning 318 games against 274 losses. Niekro had an ERA of 3.35, which was 14% better than league average. In 5400 innings, he struck out 3342 batters while walking 1809. Knucksie logged a lot of time at the top of the leader boards for innings, starts and walks. His trade-mark knuckleball would be fairly wild, so he ended up leading the league in walks 3 times in his career, and walked over 100 batters in 6 of his big-league seasons.
It’s unfortunate that his walks were so high, because that hurts a lot of his advanced stats. Niekro’s FIP was only 3.62, 5% better than league average in his career. He also, spending a decent amount of time in Atlanta’s Launching Pad, gave up a lot of home runs in his career. He surrendered nearly 500 home runs in his 5400 innings, more than players like Al Kaline and Willie Stargell would hit in their respective careers.
Niekro is one of a small handful of pitchers who have managed to both win 300 games and strikeout 3000 batters. A feat that great pitchers such as Bob Gibson, Cy Young and Christy Mathewson were never able to accomplish. Knucksie obviously had his faults (the walks, the hard contact, etc.), but his accomplishments using a pitch that is difficult to master make him one of the best pitchers of all-time. He probably hung on a little too long to reach the 300 win mark, as many pitchers often do, but his numbers are still very good compared to those in his era, making him a great pick for the Hall of Fame.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 9/7/16: Another look at a pitcher from the first generation of starters, this one winning the pitching Triple Crown in 1894 and was almost solely responsible for the plate being 60 feet and 6 inches away from the mound.