Niekro’s best season came in 1967 when he led the Majors in ERA and ERA+, posting superhuman marks for a pedestrian Braves team that finished 24.5 games back of the pennant.
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Niekro, a knuckleballer who pitched with four teams from 1964 and 1987 had a spotty career. His 1979 campaign is perhaps one of the weirdest seasons in MLB history. Niekro tossed 342 innings, a mark that has not been reached since. He posted a record of 21-20 that year, joining 1973’s Wilbur Wood as the only pitchers to earn that distinction in the Live Ball Era (since 1920).
For much of Niekro’s career, he was only slightly better than the average pitcher. He has a lifetime 115 ERA+, 15% better than the average pitcher.
Niekro is a 300-game winner, boasting 245 complete games, 45 shutouts, and more than 5,400 innings pitched. He is also a member of the 3,000-strikeout club although he never surpassed 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings. In many ways, Niekro is a relic of the past, but his 1967 season was particularly special.
Atlanta Braves History: The 1967 Season
Among pitchers to throw 200 innings in a season, Niekro’s 1.87 ERA ranks third in Atlanta Braves history. It trails Greg Maddux‘s 1994 and 1995 campaigns, perhaps the two best pitching seasons in MLB history. Only Bill James (1914) and Tommy Bond (1879) join the knuckler.
While Niekro eventually made 716 starts including 595 with the Braves, he only had one start coming into the 1967 season.
The 1967 season was much of the same for Niekro. He was the de facto closer for Atlanta, saving a handful of games early in the season. By June 13, Niekro had appeared in 24 games, finishing 18 of them. He had seven saves, a pair of blown saves, and a hold. Across 41 innings, he posted a 1.73 ERA. After recording his seventh save of the season, Niekro transitioned to a rotation spot for the remainder of the season. He began innocently enough, tossing a nine-inning shutout at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. Niekro made four more appearances in June, earning a save and tossing three quality starts.
In July of that year, Niekro ascended to another level. In five starts, Niekro threw four complete games and allowed just six earned runs. Niekro walked six batters in the stretch to post an eye-popping 0.844 WHIP, supplementing his 1.27 ERA.
August was not quite as kind to Niekro, but he maintained a microscopic walk rate for a knuckleballer while reducing hard contact. In 47 innings (including a a pair of complete games and 9.1 innings pitched contest), Niekro surrendered one home run. His 2.47 ERA in the span was respectable, and he picked up a trio of wins and his ninth save of the season.
In September, Niekro hurled 38.2 innings to the tune of a 2.33 ERA. With that, he added his ninth and tenth complete games of the season.
A Unique Piece of Atlanta Braves History
On the surface, Niekro’s numbers are excellent, but a dive into how Niekro was utilized paints a unique picture. In 150 years of MLB history, pitchers generally are starters or relievers; they do one or the other in a season, but rarely both. Niekro did, however, do both, starting 20 games and finishing 20 games in the 1967 season. He is one of only 18 players to ever do so. The most recent is Rick Camp of the 1982 Braves.
Among those 18 players, Niekro had the most success. Despite pitching in the Live-Ball Era, Niekro had the lowest ERA, beating stiff competition from Tom Hughes and Ed Walsh. His ERA+ was 30 points higher than Walsh’s 149 back in 1912.
Complete games and saves are not the end-all-be-all when it comes to pitching statistics, but again, Niekro is one of a kind. In MLB history, 12 men have had a season with nine saves and 10 complete games. Niekro is the last man to do it, and with the rapid decline of complete games, he will almost certainly be the last member of the group.
While Niekro is far from being the best pitcher in MLB history, or even Atlanta Braves history for that matter, he left a unique mark on baseball. Niekro used his knuckleball to face the fourth-most batters in MLB history. Niekro was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, forever immortalizing his unique career with the Braves, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Cleveland Indians.
Sadly, Niekro passed away in December of 2020, following a long battle with cancer; he was 81.
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