With each league’s leading home run hitter in 2016 (Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter) still waiting to receive a 2017 contract, it got me thinking about slugger Dave Nicholson. If Nicholson is remembered at all today, it is for setting the single season strikeout record of 175 in 1963, which lasted until Bobby Bonds (187) set the new record in 1969.
Nicholson had a brief major league career, mainly because everything was stacked against him. He was probably as good a player as today’s Mark Reynolds, a player who has earned more than $27 million in his major league career.
Nicholson played at a time when players with great power, but low batting averages and high strikeout totals, were not valued for their actual contributions on offense. Add to that the facts that the mid- and late 1960’s when Nicholson played were a terrible time for major league hitters and also that Nicholson played his prime years for two teams, the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros, that played in ballparks terrible for power hitters, and it’s easy to understand why Nicholson was drummed out of MLB after only seven seasons and 1,662 major league plate appearances.
Nicholson had only three seasons in which he managed more than 300 plate appearances, but he was better in each of those three seasons than anyone at the time realized. For the 1963 and 1964 White Sox, teams that finished second each season behind the New York Yankees with records of 94-68 and 98-64, Nicholson’s .738 and .693 OPS numbers don’t seem too impressive. However, this was good enough for 3rd out of eight White Sox players with at least 300 plate appearances in 1963 and 4th out of ten players with that many plate appearances in 1964.
In 1966 for the Houston Astros, a team that went 72-90, and, raw numbers to the contrary, had much better hitting than pitching, his .767 OPS was third best out of nine players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan and catcher John Bateman, but ahead of Jim Wynn, Rusty Staub and Lee Maye, the former two of whom were long recognized as major league stars. Lee Maye had a much more successful major league career than Nicholson, as the kind of player (he hit for average but didn’t have much power or walk much) who was much more valued in his day than today. Playing today, Nicholson’s and Maye’s career plate appearances would probably be reversed.
As the game and the popular understanding of the game change over time, different skills are more or less valued. There are some players, most notably Gavvy Cravath, who would have been Hall of Famers if they had just been born a generation earlier or later than they actually were.