11 unbelievable facts about Niekro's career

December 27th, 2020

The baseball world lost a legend Saturday in Phil Niekro, who passed away at the age of 81 after a battle with cancer.

Niekro, one of a record seven Hall of Fame players to die in 2020, was a knuckleballer, and his legendary career was unique in many ways. His tenure was defined by longevity: despite not debuting until he was 25 years old in 1964, he pitched 24 seasons, with his final game coming when he was 48 in 1987. 

He pitched for the Braves, Indians, Yankees and Blue Jays in his career. He was a five-time All-Star, won five Gold Glove Awards, and led the Majors in ERA at 1.87 in 1967. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Here are 11 amazing facts about Niekro’s career.

• He threw 1,977 innings after turning 40, the most of any pitcher all time. The next-most such innings belong to Jack Quinn, in a distant second place with 1,566. With all of those innings, Niekro also tallied the most wins after turning 40, with 121. The only other pitcher with even 100 such wins was Jamie Moyer, with 105.

• And it isn’t just the over-40 crowd where Niekro was among the innings leaders. His 5,404 career innings pitched are fourth most all time behind Cy Young (7,356), Pud Galvin (6,003 1/3) and Walter Johnson (5,914 1/3). Johnson is the only other pitcher of that quartet who debuted in the modern era (since 1900), along with Niekro. And Niekro is the only one to debut in the live-ball era (since 1920).

• Niekro didn’t just pitch a ton of innings -- he did it at a high level. The knuckleballer accumulated 97.0 career WAR as a pitcher according to Baseball Reference, 11th-most among pitchers all time. He had a 3.35 ERA over 24 seasons.

• Niekro reached heights we haven’t seen lately with his innings totals. He threw 300 or more innings in a season four times, in 1974 and 1977-79. How different is that from today’s game? No pitcher has thrown 300 innings in a season since 1980, when Steve Carlton did it, and Niekro is the last to throw 300-plus innings in consecutive seasons. In 1980, there had been at least one individual 300-inning season each year since 1962.

• Part of how he totaled so many innings? Complete games. He pitched 245 complete games in his career, including 65 in a three-season span at ages 38-40. He’s the last pitcher to throw 20 or more complete games in consecutive seasons, doing so from 1977-79. The most complete games of any active pitcher for his entire career is 26, by Justin Verlander -- over the course of a 16-year career.

• Niekro threw 104 complete games after turning 40, third-most in the modern era behind Cy Young (178) and Warren Spahn (114).

• It wasn’t all innings, though. Niekro racked up 3,342 career strikeouts in his career, 11th-most all time. He’s one of 18 pitchers to reach the 3,000 strikeout plateau, and one of 10 of those to also notch 300 wins, with 318.

• In 1979, Niekro had a particularly unique season. He led the National League in wins with 21 while leading the Majors in losses with 20. He’s the only pitcher in the modern era to lead his league in both wins and losses in the same season, according to Elias. And he did it for the last-place Braves, making him one of nine pitchers to win 20 games for a last-place team (division since 1969, league prior to that) in the modern era.

He made 44 starts that year, the most in any season of his career, and threw a career-best 23 complete games. His 1979 campaign was the last time a pitcher made more than 40 starts in a season.

• Two of his milestone games are worth calling out specifically. On Aug. 5, 1973, Niekro threw a no-hitter for the Braves against the Padres. And on the final day of the 1985 season as a member of the Yankees, he recorded his 300th career win -- infamously not throwing a single knuckleball until the final batter of the game.

• Niekro’s brother Joe also pitched in the Majors and totaled 221 wins. Together with Phil’s 318 wins, the two combined for 539 wins, the most by any brother combination in Major League history.

• Niekro spent almost his entire career with the Braves, pitching the first 20 years of his career for them, as well as the final game of his career in 1987. He threw 740 games in a Braves uniform, the most in franchise history. His 2,912 career strikeouts with the club are second behind John Smoltz (3,011). And his 268 wins rank third behind Warren Spahn (356) and Kid Nichols (330), who pitched from 1890-1901.