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The search for the nicest pitcher in baseball history

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In order to achieve Eternal Niceness, a pitcher must finish their career 69-69, 4.20 ERA. Meet the pitchers who are vying to be baseball’s Great Nice Hope.

New York Mets  v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

“Please?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!”

These are all examples of the good manners that we learn from a young age. Polite behaviors such as these help us function in regular society when we’re dealing with people so we don’t come off as ungrateful jackwagons. If you’re extremely online as I and many in the parlance of our times are, you probably know that Online in general and Twitter in particular has a system of manners all its own. One of these manners, as any experienced Twitter user knows, is that they must reply with one word when somebody tweets the number “69”:

Nice.

Why? It’s just how it works. When somebody’s standing in your way, you say “excuse me,” when somebody sneezes, you say “bless you,” and when you see a tweet with 69 in it, you reply “nice.” That’s the etiquette, and if you know this, you probably also know there’s a similar set of manners surrounding the number “420.”

Baseball is a game of numbers, and fortunately, little internet quirks like these translate to baseball statistics pretty easily. Recently, I made a pair of fortunate discoveries in Baseball-Reference searches, and they got me thinking: Has any MLB pitcher ever finished his career 69-69 with a 4.20 ERA? I mention the two fortunate internet searches because, as luck would have it, there are actually THREE active pitchers in MLB on the cusp of this feat, which I am calling achieving “Eternal Niceness.” We’ll introduce them later.

Unfortunately, I have to be the person to break it to you: No pitcher in major league history has finished his career achieving Eternal Niceness. The baseball gods haven’t blessed us yet with this gift, but it’s fine. I’m not mad, I’m actually laughing, because we have the chance to experience and live through it together. If some random pitcher with a handlebar mustache who pitched in the 1880s accomplished this feat, would anybody back then have known or cared about it? Sure, the guy might be a legend today, but he wouldn’t have been able to bask in the niceness of his own career. Baseball-Reference wasn’t a thing, and I think they were also pretty busy fighting Cholera back then.

While no pitcher thus far has achieved Eternal Niceness, pitchers can achieve Partial Niceness, and there have been many who have. It’s not the stuff of legends but in the grand scheme of life, it’s pretty impressive to get 69 wins over a career. Did you know there are only 25 pitchers in major league history who have won exactly 69 games?

On the flip side, 21 pitchers in MLB history have lost 69 games. Now I’ve never had the misfortune of losing a baseball game in the major leagues and I never will, but I would imagine it’s discouraging to get tagged with a loss. Just imagine getting hit with over 60 of them. If you’re going to end your career with that many losses, reaching the 69-loss plateau and Partial Niceness seems like a nice consolation prize.

In order to actually achieve Eternal Niceness, you must finish your career with a 69-69 record and that has been surprisingly tough to do –– there are four pitchers in MLB history who currently have a career 69-69 record. These lucky guys are Elmer Knetzer (3.15 ERA) who pitched in the majors from 1909-1917, Red Barrett (3.53 ERA) who pitched from 1937-1949, Mickey McDermott (3.91 ERA) who got into big league games from 1948-1961, and Jeremy Hellickson, who is currently a free agent but presumably still active.

While won/loss record is just one part of achieving Eternal Niceness, the good news is that you don’t even have to rack up a ton of appearances and innings to achieve Partial Niceness. Pitching to a 4.20 ERA will get you there. Wouldn’t you know it, there are 29 men who are lucky enough to say they’ve achieved this feat.

As you can see, two active hurlers own the nice ERA: Erasmo Ramirez of the Mariners and Roenis Elias of the Red Sox. Keep up the nice work, guys.

Speaking of active pitchers, there are a few who are in range but have low or no odds of finishing their careers with the nice line. Ivan Nova (69-55, 4.27 ERA) would have to go 0-14 while simultaneously lowering his ERA seven hundreths of a point. Jaime Garcia’s (67-55, 3.69 ERA) record isn’t far off, but he’s been too good and would have to spend some serious time getting shelled (at least his ERA is currently partially nice). Homer Bailey’s (66-63, 4.42 ERA) ERA is likely too high to get back down to 4.20 at this point in his career while also only going 3-6. And Brandon McCarthy (63-72, 4.15 ERA), despite being in range in the wins and ERA categories, has already lost too many games to qualify for Eternal Niceness. Sorry, Brandon.

Finally, we get to the most important part of this whole piece: the three active pitchers who have at least an outside chance of achieving this feat in the near future. Now any young, trailblazing pitcher could ultimately end up being The Great Nice Hope, as I’m calling it, but because these guys are currently in range, they deserve to have an extra eye focused on their performance throughout the coming season. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve already mentioned two of them, but there’s one more who may in fact have the best shot.

  • Jon Niese (69-68, 4.07 ERA)

At 31 years old, Niese’s once promising career has come to a halt. After a dismal 2016 split between the Pirates and Mets, Niese took a season off and has resurfaced in Rangers camp this spring in hopes of getting back to the big leagues. That 2016 season did a number on Niese’s career ERA, bumping it from 3.91 at the end of a decent 2015 with the Mets to where it currently sits. While that was clearly a negative for Niese’s job fortunes, it’s a plus for his chances at Eternal Niceness.

What does he need to do to achieve Eternal Niceness? Niese can only afford to lose 1 game, which makes his case a little tricky but still feasible. Should he repeat his disastrous 6-game 2016 sample with the Mets where he allowed 14 runs in 11 innings, his ERA would jump up to 4.14. That would get him closer, but he’d still need to get pounded a bit more. Should he allow 17 runs without recording a single out, Niese would reach a 4.20 ERA. Throwing 6 innings and allowing 20 runs would also allow him to reach a 4.20 ERA.

Odds: Possible, but he’ll need to get shellacked while only taking one loss.

  • Jeremy Hellickson (69-69, 4.12 ERA)

Hellickson was awful across 30 starts last season with the Phillies and Orioles after a resurgent 2016 in Philly, and he’s still on the free agent market as of this writing. Similar to Niese, his record also makes this tricky as he cannot afford a single decision but also must bump his ERA up by eight-hundreths of a point. On the plus side, Hellickson has thrown fewer innings than Niese while accruing a higher ERA, so he’s at least closer.

What does he need to do to achieve Eternal Niceness? If Hellickson allows 10 runs without recording an out while somehow managing to get a no decision, he’d achieve a state of Eternal Niceness. If he throws 5 innings, he’d have to allow 13 runs to reach 4.20. Like Niese, he’d need to get rocked a couple of times and then immediately hang ‘em up in order to achieve Eternal Niceness.

Odds: Easier path to reaching the ERA but the W/L record will make it tough.

  • Clayton Richard (61-68, 4.33 ERA)

That’s right, baseball’s Great Nice Hope will be pitching for the Padres this year. Richard’s a nondescript, soft tossing lefty who’s pitched in the majors since 2008 with the White Sox, Padres, and Cubs. Despite being older, he’s thrown fewer innings than Niese and Hellickson, so it’ll be a little easier for his ERA to fluctuate. He’s also got an 8-win cushion to play with while needing his ERA to go down—if he pitches well while also going 8-1, he could do this thing. The flip side here is that if Richard pitches that well, he’s presumably not retiring anytime soon, which means he’d likely end up with too many decisions.

What does he need to do to achieve Eternal Niceness? Unlike Niese and Hellickson, Richard needs his ERA to go down, not up. If he throws 33 scoreless innings, he’ll get his ERA down to 4.20. Over 100 innings of work, Richard would need to allow 33 runs (a 2.97 ERA) to get down to 4.20, and through 200 innings, he’d have to allow 77 runs (a 3.47 ERA) for the season. Clearly, this would necessitate a major improvement in his ability at age 34.

Odds: He has the best chance of the three, though sitting on 68 losses gives little room for error on what looks to be a mediocre-to-subpar Padres team. Also, he seems unlikely to retire at 69-69, 4.20 if he pitches as well as he’d have to in order to get there.