All hail the greatness of Knucksie

Sunday, February 22 2009 @ 01:58 AM EST

Contributed by: Mick Doherty

While scouring the greatness that is for something entirely unrelated to this story, I noticed a really striking thing about a team I haven't thought about at all in three decades -- the 1977-79 Atlanta Braves. Seriously, can you, with confidence, name a single member of those teams? Of course you can -- at the time, former Jay Phil Niekro hadn't even reached his 40th birthday.

But Niekro was truly remarkable those three years, compared to the rest of his Atlanta pitching mates. Nothing agsinst those guys -- there were some other names you'll know, like Dick Ruthven, Andy Messersmith, and for about 20 minutes, even Jim Bouton. But Knucksie, still only about two-thirds down the path toward his 300th career win, and a decade off his brief foray into Toronto baseball, was truly exceptional. Read on and see if you can think of anyone else who's done something similar.

In 1977, Niekro threw 330.3 innings for the Braves, finishing 16-20. Focus on that first number -- that season, no other Brave hurler threw even half that many innings, and only three besides Niekro even cracked the 100-inning mark. The second-leading winner on the team was Ruthven (7-13), who also chalked up the second-most innings, 151 -- not even enough to qualify for the ERA title!

In 1978, Niekro threw 334.3 innings for new manager Bobby Cox and the Braves, finishing 19-18. Once again, just three other pitchers cracked the 100-inning barrier, with rookie Larry McWilliams, who did not throw 100 innings, second on the team in wins. The young lefty, at 9-3, was -- along with 65-inning swingman Adrian Devine (5-4) -- the only Brave other than Niekro to crack the .500 barrier.

In 1979, again for Cox, Niekro threw 342 innings for the Braves, finishing 21-20 -- that's no typo, he's the only pitcher in the last 35 years to both win and lose 20 games in the same season. That season, he did have something of a supporting cast -- sort of -- as no less than four other Braves starters cracked the 100-inning barrier, from Eddie Solomon at 186 to Mickey (brother of Rick) Mahler at exactly 100. The second-leading winner on the team was Rick Matula (not Mahler) with eight. Rick Mahler did debut that season, with 15 largely ineffective relief appearances.

It wasn't until 1980, when Doyle Alexander arrived to lock down 231 2/3 IP and win 14 games that the Braves had a legitimate #2 starter -- which allowed Niekro to "drop" his workload all the way to 275 innings. Rick Mahler made two more brief appearances in 1980 but was still a season away from joining Niekro as a mainstay (of sorts) in the Atlanta rotation.

So from 1977-79, the ineffable knuckleballer Niekro threw more than 1,000 innings for the Braves, and though he was "just" 56-58 over that three-year span, he took the mound 132 times, including 129 starts. He had 65 complete games, meaning he completed more than half of the games he started (65/129).

If I'm doing my math right, the Braves who were second to Niekro in those categories over that same three-year span ... well, in lieu of listing all the guys who were, frankly, "filler" between Niekro starts, "top" honors go to (games not started are not shown) Buddy Solomon (17-26 over 54 starts, 380.2 IP, 4 CG); Preston Hanna (10-20 over 52 starts, 224.2 IP, 1 CG); Mickey Mahler (10-24 over 44 starts, 257.2 IP, 2 CG); Larry McWilliams (12-5 over 28 starts, 165.2 IP, 4 CG, 1978-79 only); Dick Ruthven (9-19, 36 starts, 232 IP, 8 CG, parts of 1977-78 only).

That's right, after Ruthven's decent 1976 (14 wins) and preceding Rick Mahler's emergence in the early 1980s, the Braves weren't worried about finding a fourth or fifth starter -- they didn't really have a #2 guy! In that three-year span, only one Brave starter won as many games total as Niekro did in any one single season (Solomon's 17 wins surpasses Niekro's '77 total of 16 by the slimmest of margins). While Niekro was completing 65 starts over that stretch, those other five were combining to complete a total of 19. By himself, Niekro won 56 games (and lost 58) in that stretch, while the other five combined for 58 wins (and 94 losses).

Forget "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" of an earlier Braves generation (Boston vintage) ... in the late 1970s, Knucksie was earning his Hall pass via "Niekro and pain, let's pray for rain"!