Phil Niekro had died today at the age of 81, the latest in the long line of Hall of Famers whose lives were claimed in 2020.
Niekro, who is probably the best knuckleballer in major league history, didn’t break in until 1964, when he was 25. He was with the Braves their final two years in Milwaukee, then was a fixture in Atlanta through the 1983 season. Like fellow knuckleballer Charlie Hough when Hough was with the Rangers, Niekro was a stalwart on a lot of bad teams, leading the National League in losses in four straight seasons from 1977-80 despite accumulating 29.7 bWAR in that stretch, including a 10.0 bWAR in 1978. As a result, he got little support in the Cy Young balloting, and only made two playoff starts.
Niekro joined the New York Yankees in 1984, and spent time with the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays as well. After Toronto released him in 1987, the Braves signed him in late September, and he made one final start for the Braves before retiring.
Niekro’s numbers are impressive — he had 318 career wins, is 11th all time in strikeouts, 12 top 10 finishes among pitchers in bWAR (including a six year stretch where he finished at least fourth), had three top 4 finishes in ERA, won five Gold Gloves, and finished first four different times in starts, complete games, and innings. Niekro got little support in the Cy Young voting, however, appearing on ballots just five times, with a high finish of second in 1969, and didn’t get voted into the Hall until his fifth year on the ballot. His lack of respect seemed to be a result of him being viewed as a gimmick pitcher who compiled numbers for bad teams because the knuckleball allowed him to log logs of innings; still, his career ERA+ of 115 is the same as Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, and Jim Bunning, and better than Nolan Ryan’s 112.
Niekro is one of many prominent baseball figures to pass in 2020 — fellow Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Al Kaline and Tom Seaver have all died this year, as well as Dick Allen, Tony Fernandez, Jim Wynn, Bob Watson, Damaso Garcia, Ron Perranoski, Don Larsen, Glenn Beckert, Jay Johnstone, and former Rangers Claudell Washington and Roger Moret.