Friday, October 5, 2012

#221 Joe Niekro - Houston Astros

This is the 16th Topps card of Joe Niekro's long career.  Niekro looks like he could fit right in with the cast of Frasier as a long lost Crane brother.
Player:  Joe Niekro came up through the Cubs organization and but didn't really distinguish himself until much later in his career.  Making his debut with Chicago in '67, he pitched well enough (3.34 ERA, 106 ERA+ in 169.2) to be the Cubs opening day starter in '68.  He was pretty hittable and his 4.31 is pretty bad given the low scoring environment. 
Late in April 1969, Niekro was dealt to the expansion Padres where he pitched decently but won only 8 games despite a league average ERA.  Traded for the second time in his young career, Niekro landed in Detroit.  Niekro won 12 games in 1970 but his role decreased over the next two years. 
Niekro was reunited with his older brother Phil in Atlanta in '73 and began to throw his knuckler more often.  The pitch had always been in his repertoire but he hadn't used it regularly.  He pitched in 20 games out of the pen but was pretty ordinary with a 4.13 ERA.  He started '74 at AAA Richmond and earned a mid season call-up but was used mainly out of the pen with a 3.56 ERA in 43 frames.
The Braves traded Niekro to the Astros after the '74 season and he worked as a swingman the next two years.  He logged 206 innings with ERA's of 3.07 and 3.36 while making 17 starts when needed.  Niekro began the season in the same role but ended the year in the rotation.  He logged 180 innings and won 13 with a 3.04 ERA.
Niekro would be a major contributor to the Astros rotation for the next eight years.  After a 14 win season in '78, he won 21 and 20 games the next two seasons and finished top four in Cy Young voting both years.  Niekro pitched ten scoreless innings in Game 3 of the '80 NLCS but the Astros lost 1-0 in 11. 
Niekro had a fine '81 season (2.82 ERA) and once again was unscored upon in the postseason.  In Game 2 of the NLDS he threw eight shutout innings but the Astros did not score, losing 1-0 in 11 innings to the Dodgers. 
In 1982 Niekro was at his best, winning 17 of his 35 starts with a tiny 2.47 ERA in an impressive 270 innings.  Niekro was productive and reliable the next two years as he led the NL in games started with 38 in both '83 and '84.  In '85 he was traded in September to the Yankees where he won two of his three starts to finish with 11 wins on the year.
Niekro was aging and no longer pitching half his games in the offense oppressing Astrodome and it began to show.  He made 25 starts in '86 but had a poor 4.85 ERA, the first time his ERA crept north of four since 1973.  Niekro was traded by the Yankees to the Twins in '87 and was hit hard.  He made the postseason roster and pitched two scoreless innings in the World Series as the Twins beat the Cardinals.  The 43 year-old was knocked around pretty good in '88 and was released after allowing 13 runs in 11.2 innings.
Stuff:  Early in his career fastball, slider, curve.  As his career progressed he threw a knuckler more often.

Flipside:  The 1982 season was his best as far as ERA with the low 2.47 mark.  Niekro was remarkably consistent while with the Astros as his ERA never was higher than 3.86

Oddball:  Niekro's long career provides many tidbits- the emery board incident which drew a 10 game suspension, teaming up with Phil for the most wins among brothers in MLB history, or Joe visiting the mound when Phil was going for win #300.  My favorite oddity of Joe's career was that in 1,165 trips to the plate he hit only one home run and it was hit off his brother on 5/29/1976.  The homer tied the game in the 7th inning, a game the Astros went on to win.

History:  Niekro had a fine career that culminated with him winning a World Series with the Twins in '87.  Along the way he won 221 games and baffled plenty of batters with his assortment of knucklers, sliders, and "other" pitches.  In 20 career postseason innings Niekro did not allow a run.
Sadly Niekro passed away in 2006 due to a brain aneurysm.

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