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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro dead at 81

Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro passed away Saturday after a battle with cancer. He was 81 years old.

Niekro rode his knuckleball to 5,404 innings pitched—the most of any pitcher who started his career in the live ball era. But Niekro, who pitched for 21 of his 24 big league seasons with the Braves, was more than simply durable. His 318 wins and 3,342 strikeouts are a testament to a pitcher who was often untouchable.

“Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive and memorable pitchers of his generation,” said Commissioner Rob Manfred. “In the last century, no pitcher threw more than Phil’s 5,404 innings. His knuckleball led him to five All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons for the Atlanta Braves, the 300-win club, and ultimately, to Cooperstown.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: December 27, 2020 at 12:33 PM | 49 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: obituaries, phil niekro

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   1. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: December 27, 2020 at 12:47 PM (#5996108)
that's 7 HOFers this year.... fuck 2020
   2. Scott Lange Posted: December 27, 2020 at 12:48 PM (#5996109)
31 wins in his 20s, 166 more in his 30s, 114 more in his 40s (based on bbref age). 17-4, leading the Braves to an unfathomable division title, at age 43. 16-8 with a 123 ERA+ at age 45. What a legend.
   3. The Duke Posted: December 27, 2020 at 12:50 PM (#5996110)
I don’t know what was the worst year for hall of famers but this had to be one of the worst. Plus there several ball of very good players who passed as well.
   4. asinwreck Posted: December 27, 2020 at 12:50 PM (#5996111)
RIP. Now Wilbur Wood assumes the duties of Greatest Living Knuckler.
   5. karlmagnus Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:14 PM (#5996116)
I'd argue Wakefield was better than Wood, though it's close. Significantly better W-L record, though Wood's two best seasons were better. WaR doesn't agree with me, but I don't trust WaR.
   6. puck Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:14 PM (#5996117)
Neil Best
@sportswatch

Starting rotation of pitchers who have died in 2020: Seaver, Gibson, Ford, Niekro, Larsen
   7. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:17 PM (#5996118)
that's 7 HOFers this year.... #### 2020

And strangely, very few of the deaths were COVID.

RIP Phil!
   8. gef the talking mongoose, peppery hostile Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:18 PM (#5996119)
Well, dammit to hell. Got his autograph on the event program at an auction benefitting the Boys Club (I think) in Little Rock about 25 years ago.
   9. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:18 PM (#5996120)
I don’t know what was the worst year for hall of famers but this had to be one of the worst

this is now the worst

Plus there several ball of very good players who passed as well

twitter says another 10 non-HOFers who made at least one All Star game
   10. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:22 PM (#5996121)
   11. Howie Menckel Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:39 PM (#5996126)
Neil Best
@sportswatch
·
46m
Seven baseball Hall of Famers also died in 1972, including Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, who obviously became a Hall of Famer after his death.
   12. Dr. Chaleeko Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:42 PM (#5996128)
Yeah, imagine if he had a normal career path and knuckleballer his way toward 400 wins and 6000 innings!
   13. Tulo's Fishy Mullet (mrams) Posted: December 27, 2020 at 01:58 PM (#5996132)
He could've (along with Harvey Kuehn) snuck on to the field for any Old-timers games and fit right in, nobody would've batted an eye.
   14. Ziggy: social distancing since 1980 Posted: December 27, 2020 at 02:15 PM (#5996133)
When he said "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee", Muhammed Ali was talking about himself. But he should have been talking about Niekro's knuckler.
   15. Tulo's Fishy Mullet (mrams) Posted: December 27, 2020 at 02:38 PM (#5996135)
I always wondered if Ueckers story about Niekro was true. I heard him say that he was catching Niekro once and he struck a guy out and Uke says he never touched the ball. Guy swung and missed, two PB, then strike three hit Uecker in the shinguard and caromed out to Clete Boyer who threw out the batter, 2-5-3.
   16. sanny manguillen Posted: December 27, 2020 at 02:51 PM (#5996137)
BB-Ref has 109 deaths so far this year, against 97 in 2019 and 98 in 2018. They actually have 102 recorded in 2011. There will probably be some stragglers among less well-known players and maybe some Latin players who get reported after January 1.
   17. salvomania Posted: December 27, 2020 at 02:59 PM (#5996138)
I'd argue Wakefield was better than Wood, though it's close. Significantly better W-L record, though Wood's two best seasons were better. WaR doesn't agree with me, but I don't trust WaR.

If WAR doesn't smell right to you, check out their respective Wins Above Average (which seems to better reflect quality over quantity): 26.0 for Wood, 3.9 for Wakefield.
   18. The Duke Posted: December 27, 2020 at 03:05 PM (#5996139)
What a great pitching line. You don’t see that progression very much anymore. My first Christmas card in Atlanta had my wife and I in front of the Niekro statue. Another hero from my youth gone.
   19. Posada Posse Posted: December 27, 2020 at 03:11 PM (#5996140)
Niekro was the muse for many of Uecker's jokes over the years. When the Niekro parents went to the ballpark to see a Phil vs. Joe matchup in 1967, Uecker said that he saw the Niekro parents in the stands more during that game than Joe and Phil did during that weekend, of course, by having to retrieve so many of Phil's knuckleball passed balls at the backstop. Uecker: "The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up." Uecker had 27 passed balls in only 77 games in 1967, mostly as Niekro's personal catcher, or personal "chaser" as Uecker said
   20. puck Posted: December 27, 2020 at 03:50 PM (#5996141)
What a memorable player and career. Niekro was a big reason why baseball has been fun.
   21. Howie Menckel Posted: December 27, 2020 at 04:48 PM (#5996148)
(doesn't include guys who were so old, like Frank Bolling or Eddie Kasko, that their careers pre-dated my Topps card collecting)

'DIED IN 2020' STARS

SP Tom Seaver
SP Bob Gibson
SP Whitey Ford
SP Phil Niekro
SP Johnny Antonelli
SP Mike McCormick

SP Don Larsen
SP Matt Keough
SP Roger Moret

RP Lindy McDaniel
RP Ron Perranoski
RP Ed Farmer

C Hal Smith
1B Bob Watson
2B Joe Morgan
3B Dick Allen
SS Tony Fernandez
OF Al Kaline
OF Lou Brock
OF Jim Wynn

C Biff Pocoroba
C Don Pavletich
C Mike Ryan
1B-OF Bob Oliver
2B Tony Taylor
2B Glenn Beckert
2B Damaso Garcia
2B Horace Clarke
SS-3B-2B Denis Menke
SS-2B-3B Phil Linz
OF Claudell Washington
OF Jay Johnstone
OF Lou Johnson
   22. Walt Davis Posted: December 27, 2020 at 05:16 PM (#5996152)
RIP Phil. I always had a soft spot for the old guys getting it done with guile -- Wilhelm then Niekro in baseball, Blanda and Jurgensen in football.

Sorry for the over-technicality, etc. but league expansion eventually leads to more deaths of ballplayers. Those who debuted in 1961 would be (give or take) 80+ now, those who debuted with the 2nd expansion would be 70. We're gonna have to get used to lots of ballplayers dying every year. How many are HoFers will vary by the relative HoF induction rates.
   23. baxter Posted: December 27, 2020 at 05:22 PM (#5996153)
In winning game 300, did not use knuckleball until striking out final batter on 3 pitches. I think I remember reading that. If not, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
   24. Lonnie Smith for president Posted: December 27, 2020 at 05:28 PM (#5996154)
Lots of great memories watching Knucksie flutter away summer evenings on ye olde WTBS. I thought immediately, however, of the (so charming it better be true) tale often told by Skip, Ernie, and the Perfesser of how Niekro answered the phone when a reliever was being summoned: "hello, Braves bullpen" was always the coach's greeting. I know his telephone etiquette is still superb, wherever his calls have been forwarded. Thanks for everything, Phil.
   25. AndrewJ Posted: December 27, 2020 at 05:43 PM (#5996155)
Niekro's fourth all-time in batters faced, with 22,677. The current leader, Bartolo Colon -- who's 47 -- has 14,655.
   26. Walt Davis Posted: December 27, 2020 at 06:52 PM (#5996161)
Tom Candiotti belongs in the best living knuckleballer mix. 42 WAR, 19 WAA ... and a 151-164 career record. His 2,725 IP are a smidgen more than Wood but a 108 vs 114 ERA+ deficit and the WAR gap. Wakefield is about 500 IP ahead of Candiotti and is at a 105 ERA+. Wakefield has the highest BB rate and WHIP of the three and easily the worst HR/9 so easily the worst FIP but all of those at least partly due to era and park differences.

Despite its reputation as an uncontrollable pitch impossible to hit, the top knuckleballers don't have particularly high K-rates or particularly high BB-rates and Niekro, Wood and Candiotti all ended up around 2 K/BB. Wilhelm actually had the highest K-rate and K/BB of this bunch; he had the least innings though.

To adjust for Wakefield's extra IP, we can partially cherry-pick his ages 28-42 which comes to 2711 IP, between Wood and Candiotti. That brings his ERA+ up to 109, a period of 35 WAR, 9 WAA. Still short of the other two and it's about the best we can make him look. He doesn't appear particularly hurt by any of the WAR compnents. His raw RA9 is only a bit below the RA9opp to start with, the park factor and role components "help" him. His UER rate doesn't seem much different than the other two and his defenses are credited as only a bit better than average. Wood has a bigger RA9-RA9opp gap, the same park factor, less boost from his role but is "credited" with poor defense -- he'll still be ahead of Wakefield even if we zero out both defenses. Candiottie has the biggest raw RA9-RA9opp gap but also the lowest PF. He also had poor defenses and if we zeroed out his defense, he and Wake would be about a dead WAR heat.

So I think best living knuckleballer has to go to Wood (age 79). Best ERA+, best peak, best WAR/WAA, best WAR/WAA even if we ignore the defense adjustment. And chances are even if you did demonstrate that the PFs or opponent adjustments aren't quite right, that would probably only bring Candiotti or Wakefield level with Wood.
   27. The Honorable Ardo Posted: December 27, 2020 at 06:52 PM (#5996162)
Howie, your #21 reminds me of the birthday teams. The "died in 2020" team would waltz to a World Series victory; they're far better than this year's Dodgers. Would that be true of the 2018 or 2019 teams?
   28. The Duke Posted: December 27, 2020 at 07:05 PM (#5996163)
The MLB page has a brief blurb on Niekro which closes with his 200th victory as narrated by Mel Allen on This Week in Baseball. We should all be so luck as to have Mel Allen doing our eulogy
   29. bfan Posted: December 27, 2020 at 07:21 PM (#5996164)
Wilbur Wood’s 1971, 72 and 73 seasons were something to behold for excellence and volume. Look at this innings pitched, in modern times.
   30. Mike A Posted: December 27, 2020 at 07:36 PM (#5996165)
The 1982 Braves were the team that made me a baseball fan. It's sad to see that four of that team have passed away in 2020 - Bob Watson, Claudell Washington, Biff Pocoroba, and Phil. A little piece of the childhood...

My brother knew Phil a bit - worked with him on some charity events and went fishing on occasion. Always spoke highly of him. RIP.
   31. Howie Menckel Posted: December 27, 2020 at 07:42 PM (#5996166)
Howie, your #21 reminds me of the birthday teams.


picking a starting lineup is interesting, maybe

CF Jim Wynn
2B Joe Morgan
RF Al Kaline
3B Dick Allen
1B Bob Watson
SS Tony Fernandez
LF Lou Brock
C Hal Smith
SP Tom Seaver

buts lots of other ways to go, depends in part also on the SP for the opposing year's team that day
   32. Eric J can SABER all he wants to Posted: December 27, 2020 at 07:57 PM (#5996168)
Tom Candiotti belongs in the best living knuckleballer mix. 42 WAR, 19 WAA ... and a 151-164 career record. His 2,725 IP are a smidgen more than Wood but a 108 vs 114 ERA+ deficit and the WAR gap. Wakefield is about 500 IP ahead of Candiotti and is at a 105 ERA+. Wakefield has the highest BB rate and WHIP of the three and easily the worst HR/9 so easily the worst FIP but all of those at least partly due to era and park differences.

For all his legendary workload in the early '70s, over half of Wood's career appearances came in relief; his famous '71 season was the first time he'd had as many as 10 starts. (WAR accounts for this and still has Wood ahead, but it's worth bringing up; it's the reason both Candiotti and Wakefield have more career innings than a guy who exceeded 320 innings four years in a row.)
   33. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: December 27, 2020 at 08:34 PM (#5996172)
The 2012 documentary Knuckleball! focuses on Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, but it also spends some time with Niekro. One of the things I learned from it is that Phil coached an all-women baseball team for several years after his retirement. They played against men’s semi-pro teams and actually did reasonably well (Wikipedia says they finished with a winning record their final season). This is briefly mentioned in the MLB obituary as well.

RIP.
   34. Cblau Posted: December 27, 2020 at 08:55 PM (#5996173)
To be clear, that's the Hal Smith who hit the biggest HR in baseball history, not the one who caught for the Cardinals in the same era.
   35. Howie Menckel Posted: December 27, 2020 at 09:35 PM (#5996175)
also from Post 21, that's 1B-OF Bob Oliver who died this year, not OF-1B Al Oliver (who is 74 and was born 3 1/2 years after the unrelated Bob - and it's Bob who was the father of P Darren Oliver).
   36. sanny manguillen Posted: December 27, 2020 at 10:20 PM (#5996179)
Bob and Al Oliver were coughed up by the Pirate system three years apart, they were teammates at Macon in 1967.

The Pirates released Wakefield in 1995. The records usually record that the Pirates traded Wood for Juan Pizarro (as a PTBNL) in 1967, but the newspaper accounts are all over the place and it may have been two sales with the prices set off, or something.

If the 2020 team wants to knock the walls down, Bob Watson caught 200 games in the minors and occasionally caught early in his major league career. He caught two consecutive full games in 1973, when the Astro outfield was Watson-Cedeno-Wynn and they tried to find a place for Tommie Agee.
   37. What did Billy Ripken have against ElRoy Face? Posted: December 27, 2020 at 11:16 PM (#5996185)
Niekro's soul left his body and floated upward, but as it neared the pearly gates, it dived down and in. St. Peter had to go chase it down as Brock rounded second and headed for third.
   38. Howie Menckel Posted: December 27, 2020 at 11:44 PM (#5996188)
looks like Snell to the Padres in a blockbuster

for uber-prospect P Patino, C Mejia, and 2 more young arms
   39. Itchy Row Posted: December 28, 2020 at 12:00 PM (#5996229)
In Niekro's first appearance, he faced one hitter, getting Jim Davenport to ground out to end the inning after the previous 11 Giants had reached base. In Niekro's last inning of his last appearance, eight straight Giants reached base, the first five of them against Niekro. A kind of symmetry, I guess, in a knuckleball way.
   40. Rally Posted: December 28, 2020 at 12:09 PM (#5996231)
In Niekro’s first professional season he was a teammate of Pat Jordan, also in his first season. Amazing how different they ended up in longevity. Niekro was retired 10 years when Jordan made his last professional mound appearance.
   41. salvomania Posted: December 28, 2020 at 03:33 PM (#5996263)
Niekro was retired 10 years when Jordan made his last professional mound appearance.

OK, you made me look that one up!
   42. Walt Davis Posted: December 28, 2020 at 04:43 PM (#5996282)
The knuckler as reliever was pretty much standard practice at the time. Wilhelm of course was almost exclusively a reliever. Niekro was pretty exclusively a reliever until the middle of his age-28 seeason when he was tossed into the rotation ... and stayed there for 20 seasons. Maybe that broke the mold but Candiotti and Wakefield were pretty exlusively starters when they debuted although Wake became a swingman for ages 32-35 (Candiotti not until 39).

So Wood's usage through 1970 was pretty standard for the time (not that we have enough knucklers to really establish a pattern). The main reason he falls shy of Wakefield (and obviously Niekro) in IP is because, unlike the other guys being discussed here, he didn't last into his early 40s. Through age 33, Wood had about 650 more IP than Niekro, 900 more than Candiotti and 1000 more than Wakefield. Unfortunately he had just 350 innings left. There's an alternate universe where Wood is Niekro.
   43. Ron J Posted: December 28, 2020 at 04:47 PM (#5996283)
#40 Kind of funny to think that in the 1980s Bill James wrote a very clever piece that pointed out how old Niekro was in baseball terms. Older than Ken Hubbs would have been if he hadn't died 2o some years before the piece was written.

References to guys who had been out of the game for a long time. With a tag line of "but Niekro is older than ..."

A favorite player from my youth. RIP.
   44. Ron J Posted: December 28, 2020 at 04:49 PM (#5996285)
#42 There were other knucklers back then. Craig Wright had a good chapter on the subject in The Diamond Appraised.
   45. Starring Bradley Scotchman as RMc Posted: December 28, 2020 at 04:50 PM (#5996286)
Niekro broke in (semi-famously) with the 1959 McCook Braves of the Nebraska State League, who were managed by Bill Steinecke.

Steinecke broke in with the 1927 Waterloo (IA) Hawks of the Mississippi Valley League, which featured former major-leaguer Jim Grant.

Grant broke in with the 1916 Des Moines Boosters of the Western League, who were managed by Frank Isbell.

Isbell played nine seasons for the White Sox (actually, ten, including 1900, when the AL was not a major league) and broke in with the 1896 St. Paul Saints (aka Apostles) of the Western League, which had a whole bunch of big-league players, including 37-year-old Tony Mullane.

Mullane, The Apollo of the Box, fell 16 wins shy of the Hall of Fame and broke in with the 1881 Detroit Wolverines, who featured Lon Knight.

Knight broke in with the 1875 Philadelphia Athletics, who had 35-year-old Al Reach.

Reach broke in with the 1861 Eckford club of Brooklyn, who that season played a match with the club from Newburgh, New York, which is about ten miles from my house.
   46. Steve Parris, Je t'aime Posted: December 29, 2020 at 10:26 AM (#5996365)
In winning game 300, did not use knuckleball until striking out final batter on 3 pitches. I think I remember reading that. If not, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

That is how Posnanski tells it in his Baseball 100 essay on Niekro (83), which was a delight. The final K was his old teammate, Jeff Burroughs.

Anyway, because of that knuckleball, people didn’t see Niekro’s greatness. And that’s when this germ of an idea came into his head, this idea of pitching a whole game without throwing one knuckler.

“I wanted to show,” he said, “not only myself but also everybody else — all those guys who said that the only thing that kept me in the game all those years was my knuckler — that I was more than a knuckleball pitcher. I wanted to show them that I deserved to be where I was.”

...

“What the hell is going on out here?” Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph said to Niekro as he approached the mound.

“Not gonna throw one,” Niekro said.

Randolph looked hard at Niekro and then smiled. “Go for it,” he said.

...

“In the end, I wanted the knuckler,” Niekro would say, “not because I didn’t think I could win without it, but because I just couldn’t see myself pitching the most important game of my career without throwing one.”
   47. TomH Posted: December 30, 2020 at 08:11 AM (#5996560)
Phil Niekro, answer to a great trivia question: what pitcher threw the most innings in the last 110 years (1911-2020)?

(I would have guessed Nolan Ryan, who I assume probably threw the most PITCHES)
   48. Rowland Office Supplies Posted: December 30, 2020 at 05:26 PM (#5996704)
The 1982 Braves were the team that made me a baseball fan.


Knucksie shutting out the Pods and driving in all the runs with a homer on that killer west coast road trip the last week of the season, man.
   49. What did Billy Ripken have against ElRoy Face? Posted: December 30, 2020 at 05:35 PM (#5996709)
In winning game 300, did not use knuckleball until striking out final batter on 3 pitches. I think I remember reading that. If not, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

That is how Posnanski tells it in his Baseball 100 essay on Niekro (83), which was a delight. The final K was his old teammate, Jeff Burroughs.
I think it was the day after Toronto clinched, and the last day of the season with the ALCS starting two days later - check out the lineup they fielded. And I don't think even those guys were trying particularly hard.

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