In 1979, Phil Neikro won 21 games and lost 20. The feat is not unique to Neikro though. Wilber Wood did the same thing a few years earlier. But the feat is rare in the live ball era of baseball. Prior to 1920, it happened a lot and before 1900, it really happened a lot. But Neikro's season in 1979 might be the last of its kind in this day of five men rotations and pitch counts and relief specialists. And thus, Neikro's season was special.
The Braves were terrible that season and finished in sixth place for the second straight time under their new manager, Bobby Cox. It was Cox's first stint with the Braves before his side trip to the Blue Jays for a few seasons. But Cox wasn't yet known as a great manager. In fact, if you lived in Atlanta at the time, nobody would even call him a good manager. The Braves lost 94 games and won only 66. Phil Neikro won 30% of them.
Neikro made an incredible 44 starts that season. 33 starts is the modern day norm. Neikro pitched 342 innings. The norm today is around 220. He completed 23 of his starts. He gave an astounding 113 walks and still managed, with all those innings, to post a 3.0 walks per nine innings total. He gave up an astounding 41 homers, or the average number of homers Hank Aaron hit in a season. But probably the most amazing stat of Neikro's season was that he got a decision in 41 of his 44 starts.
Consider that no other Braves' pitcher that season made more than 31 starts. Consider that only one reliever on the team had more appearances (Gene Garber, the closer). Consider that Neikro posted all those innings and all those losses and still had a 120 ERA+ that season. He pitched so many games that he had the fourteenth most plate appearances for the team that season.
In 1979, Neikro faced 1435 batters. Their slash line was: .241/.306/.384. That adds up to an OPS of .691. He averaged 7.77 innings per start. That year he had two or less runs of support from his offense 13 times. He would go 1-11 in those starts. His team would score five runs or less in 29 of his starts. His record in those starts was 7-20. They didn't record pitches thrown in those days. In his game logs for that year, only two games have the amount of pitches recorded. One of them was for 158 pitches. It would be safe to state that Neikro probably averaged around 130 pitches a start. This was just 31 years ago, but there is no relationship to what he did that year and the baseball played today in Major League Baseball.
And the thing of it was, this was nothing new for Neikro. He led the league in innings pitched in 1974, 1977, 1978 and 1979. He led the league in games started in from 1977 through 1980. During those years (77-80), he posted ERA+ figures of 111, 142, 120 and 102. But during those four years, he lost twenty games twice and lost 18 games the other two times. His record during that time was 71-76 though he pitched that well and completed 77 of his starts. He even managed five relief appearances during those years and recorded a save.
Oh, yeah. The Fan left out one pertinent fact about 1979. Phil Neikro was 40 years old at the time. He would pitch eight more seasons after that one including a memorable 1984 where he went 16-8 for the Yankees with a 3.09 ERA (123 ERA+) in 31 starts.
Many will question whether Phil Neikro belongs in the Hall of Fame. But there was nobody else like him. Yes, Wilber Wood was another great knuckleball pitcher, but he never had the breadth of career that Neikro did. Neikro pitched in the big leagues for 24 seasons and won 318 games. Yes, he lost 274 games. But he played for some truly awful teams. His 1979 season will always be a memorable one for this writer. And the Fan truly never expects to see another one like it.