It has been called to my attention that Joe Niekro passed away from a brain aneurysm Friday night.
Niekro was the franchise's career leader in victories, and ranks second to Larry Dierker in just about every other career pitching statistic, including shutouts, complete games, innings pitched, losses, and starts.
As one of the stories below reminded us, he is the only pitcher in Astros history to have gone ten innings in a playoff start. He in fact pitched 18 playoff innings for the Astros over the 1980 and 1981 seasons, and never gave up a run, earned or otherwise.
Despite being Phil's younger brother, Joe didn't come up as a knuckleball pitcher, relying instead on a fastball/slider mix that kept him bouncing around the majors until the Astros purchased him from the Braves in early April of 1975. The Astros at first sent him to their AAA Iowa affiliate, but had recalled him by May 5, and he spent the rest of the year with Houston, pitching mostly in relief but making a few starts toward the end of the year.
During this time, Niekro was developing his knuckleball, and Rob Neyer and Bill James in their Guide to Pitchers tell us that he had perfected it by 1978, after which the numbers took a sharp turn for the better.
He led the NL in wins in 1979, going 21 - 11, and was named The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year after the season. The Cy Young voters voted him second to Bruce Sutter.
In 1980, Niekro became the first Astro to win 20 games in back-to-back years, and it would be 25 years before Roy Oswalt duplicated his feat.
Still, even during this period of heightened success, Niekro never threw 100% knuckleballs. He continued to feature his slider and his fastball with an occasional curve until the end of his career.
During the 1985 season, Niekro surpassed Larry Dierker as the winningest pitcher in team history, but was traded to the New York Yankees with a couple of minor leaguers for Jim Deshaies in September.
The Yankees later moved Niekro to Minnesota, and it was with the Twins in 1987 that Niekro was most famously caught with a nail file upon his person.
Niekro is survived by his son, major leaguer Lance Niekro, by his second wife, and by a daughter. The Crawfish Boxes of course offers its heartfelt condolences.