Class of: 1997 (BBWAA, 80.3%)
Key Stats: 318 Wins, 3342 K’s, 86 ERA-
Phil Niekro is the most famous knuckleball pitcher of all-time. Niekro used his flighty pitch to become one of a small handful of pitchers who won 300 or more games and struck out over 3000 batters. He was also one of a small handful of players (along with Kirby Puckett, Gary Carter, Don Sutton and Bert Blyleven) specifically named by Reggie Jackson as someone that didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. In the same interview, Reggie said he thought that Andy Pettitte belonged in the Hall of Fame and Jack Morris was the dominant pitcher from Blyleven’s era (so we know he’s full of wrong). That interview published by Sports Illustrated back in 2012 was what started me on this path of writing about the Hall of Fame and ranking the Hall of Famers. Was Reggie right, though?
Of course he wasn’t. At the end of his career, among pitchers with 5000 innings in their careers, Niekro ranked 8th in WAR and 9th in ERA- out of 11 pitchers. Let that last number sink in a little bit. Only 11 pitchers in the history of the game threw as many innings as Phil Niekro had. Of those 11, only four were contemporaries of Niekro in Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry and Sutton. The most recent of the rest was Pete Alexander, so that’s going back quite a distance. That means that Niekro accomplished a feat that legends of the game like Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson never did. Overall, even to this day Niekro ranks 4th all-time in innings pitched, with the only three above him being Pud Galvin, Cy Young and Walter Johnson (how shocked were you to not see Nolan Ryan’s name in that group?).
Niekro’s durability can sometimes make his numbers seem like they were due to accumulation rather than dominance. And, to be fair, there were a lot of great pitchers in Niekro’s career. It’s not wrong to say that guys like Seaver, Carlton, Perry, Ryan, Blyleven and Sutton were better pitchers. However, this isn’t a case like Sam Rice where he was rarely dominant. Following a rough three-year start to his career where he was used primarily as a relief pitcher, Niekro put up a run of 13 out of 14 seasons with more than 3.2 WAR, with the lone exception of a WAR of 1.8 in 1970. In that 14-year run (from 1967-1980), Niekro won 227 games (while on some poor Braves teams), was worth 66.2 WAR, threw over 3900 innings and struck out over 2500 batters. All of these totals ranked in the top-6 of the majors, and demonstrate that when Niekro was at his best, he could roll with the big boys. One thing that separated him from the other pitchers was his ability to come out of the bullpen. During that 14-year stretch, Niekro actually recorded 21 saves, which speaks to his ability to pitch frequently.
The last seven years of his career, though, saw Niekro go through a very gradual decline phase while he chased his 300th win. He still was somewhat valuable (12.5 WAR), but certainly not what he was at his peak. That gradual decline does hurt his ranking a bit. But what hurts him more is his walk-rate. Niekro’s knuckler was famous for its ability to dance all over the zone, so while Niekro racked up his fair share of strikeouts, he also gave up quite a few walks. He walked over 1800 guys in his career, which is still third-most ever behind Ryan and Carlton. Niekro had the better adjusted ERA between the three, but his walk rate combined with a higher homerun rate (thanks to playing in Atlanta’s Launching Pad) and a smaller strikeout rate (Ryan and Carlton were two of the best strikeout artists in history) resulted in him having a slightly below average FIP, which hurt a lot of his value stats.
One of the reasons I use both RA9-WAR and WAR (which is based on a pitcher’s FIP) instead of just one of the two is because using both paints a clearer picture of the pitcher’s dominance. Only 22 pitchers have an RA9-WAR above 90, and at Niekro’s retirement, that number was only 18. At his retirement, only 16 pitchers had a WAR above 75. The number of pitchers who met both of those marks was only 14. Niekro easily had a case at his retirement of being a top-15 or at worst top-20 pitcher of all-time. There is no doubt that Niekro deserves the highest honor in the game. Some of his peers outpitched him, but he outpitched a lot of people, too.