Bill Nicholson is the best player I had never heard of.
I recently came across Willis Hudlin and his Hall Rating of 49. That led me to wonder who the best players were that I had never heard of. By “never heard of”, I mean I couldn’t tell you either the general era they played in or their position just by looking at their name. For example, I don’t know much about Murry Dickson, but I knew he was a pitcher. So, he counts as “someone I’ve heard of”.
So, Nicholson was the best player I had never heard of. That kind of surprises me, as he was pretty valuable. With 41.7 WAR and a Hall Rating of 74, he had a pretty great career.
- Nicholson ranks 448th all time in Hall Rating (among the 17,939 players to play the game).
- He ranks right behind Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez and ahead of 19th century infielder Denny Lyons.
- He actually ranks ahead of 20 members of the Hall of Fame (these are members actually inducted as players).
- He led the league in home runs twice.
- He led the league in RBI twice.
- He led the league in runs scored once.
- He led the league in total bases once.
- He finished 2nd in the MVP voting one year and third in another.
Nicholson’s list of similar players starts with Hall of Famer Earle Combs and includes Dolph Camilli, Darryl Strawberry, David Justice, Ken Williams, and Kent Hrbek. That gives you an idea of the type of player he was.
So, why haven’t I heard of him? It’s probably because all of his accomplishments pointed out in the list above took place during World War II, when many stars were overseas. Nicholson was not—and he dominated.
I know I have seen Nicholson’s name before. But I think I subconsciously associated him with Dave Nicholson, the TTO (Three True Outcomes) legend. I think because I’m so familiar with Dave (relatively speaking, compared to his actual body of work), I assumed that he and Bill were the same person. I was wrong—and I’ve been missing out on a pretty good player.
After finding Nicholson, I looked at each of the 501 players with a Hall Rating of 70 or better. I was familiar with 497 (99.2%) of them. Not bad. Beyond Nicholson, there was:
- Roy Thomas: He and Nicholson are each other’s #2 most similar player. Much of Thomas’ value came from his incredible plate patience. He led the league in walks seven times and led in OBP two times. he was a .290 hitter but had a career OBP of .413. It’s kind of incredible how little power he had. Of his 1537 hits, just 100 were doubles, 53 were triples, and seven were home runs. He walked 1042 times. Why haven’t I heard of him? I honestly think that when I saw his name I mixed him up with Roy White. Different eras and different kinds of players, I know.
- Bill Bradley: Bradley didn’t really have much black ink (he only led the league in something twice—and both of those were sacrifice hits). He was a solid third baseman for over a decade in the deadball era, hitting a relatively quiet .271 with an wRC+ of 104. He was above average defensively with 59.0. I’m not terribly surprised I haven’t heard of him. He was slightly above average at everything, which doesn’t really stand out. He has a common name, though. That may have tricked me.
- Jeff Heath: I definitley mixed Jeff Heath up with Mike Heath, though the former was so much more valuable than the latter. Jeff Heath led the league in triples twice, but received MVP votes in five difference seasons. His wRC+ was a staggering 136 as he hit .293/.370/.509 over a 14 year career (10 full years). He was an average defender and baserunner, but his hitting was worth 238.8 runs.
Bradley actually had the best peak of the trio, boasting three (consecutive) 6+ WAR seasons. In those three years, he totaled 19.6 WAR, 89 batting runs, and 28 fielding runs as he hit .317/.352/.471. Nicholson’s peak was the next-best, but came during World War II (1942–1944). He was worth 18.3 WAR, 133 runs at the plate, and two on defense. He hit .297/.386/.517 with 83 homers and 328 RBI. All of his league leading totals came from that stretch. Thomas’ top three seasons weren’t consecutive, but featured a pair of 5+ WAR seasons (and a total of 15.6 WAR). Heath’s top three seasons (his only ones with 4+ WAR) were spread out (1938, 1941, and 1948).
If you’re curious, here’s the list of every player with a 70+ Hall Rating. How many do you know?