>By The Common Man
Last week’s big debate over whether Felix Hernandez deserves the AL Cy Young (he does), and the sudden realization that Hernandez has been so good that more mainstream reporters, like Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman, were supporting his candidacy, got The Common Man to wondering about the best seasons ever by players on terrible squads. Hernandez’s 2010 has been terrific, but prior to this year, it was in danger of going unrecognized because of his low (13) win total. Who else might have been overlooked because of their teammates?
So TCM looked at the top WAR seasons (BR.com method) by players whose teams finished with a winning percentage below .400, and then accounted for the number of games their teams played. Here are the top 40 greatest seasons on terrible teams:
40) George Sisler (St. Louis Browns, 1917, WAR: 5.6)When discussing the greatest 1B of all time, Gorgeous George Sisler often gets overlooked because the back end of his career was pretty pedestrian and because the old St. Louis Browns don’t exactly have a large fanbase these days. But in his original Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James pays tribute to him, “George Sisler is probably the only player other than Gehrig who can reasonably be considered the greatest first baseman ever in terms of peak value…. Sisler was a different type of player; he didn’t have the home run pop, but he hit for a higher average, was faster and a better defensive player than Gehrig, and the comparison between the two is not easy.”Sisler had only been a position player for a year and a half when the 1917 season started (converting from pitcher), and the Browns would scuffle to a 57-97 record because their pitching staff would finish with -5.1 WAR, which was not quite enough to cancel out Sisler’s 5.6. The 1B hit .353/.390/.453, with 37 SB, 30 doubles, and nine triples. His OPS+ was 161.
Sisler would go on to become a dominant force in the late teens and early ‘20s, and had just finished (arguably) his greatest season in 1922 (he hit .420) and won the MVP, when he was stricken with a case of acute sinusitis. While this doesn’t sound serious, he developed an infection that spread to his optic nerve, and he began seeing double. After sitting out all of 1923, he came back but was never the offensive force he was before. In his first 8 seasons, his OPS+ was 154 and was 46.2 wins above replacement. In his last 7, it was 97 and he had just 4.2 WAR.
39) Rusty Staub (Montreal Expos, 19769, 5.9 WAR)Le Grande Orange played for a lot of bad teams in his 23 seasons, suffering through tough times with the Astros, Expos, Mets, and Tigers (and Expos and Mets again). He was usually a defensive liability, but a gifted and patient hitter, who flashed some power at his peak. In 1969, the Expos were a brand new ballclub, and selected a lot of veterans in the expansion draft. They packaged two of these, Matty Alou (the Jose Molina of the Alou brothers) and Donn Clendenon to Houston.
Clendenon refused to report to his new team and announced his retirement, and the two clubs engaged in a vicious fight over who would get Staub in 1969. The Astros actually filed suit in Federal Court to receive damages from the Expos and Major League Baseball, after Commissioner Bowie Kuhn upheld the deal, but ordered the Expos to send additional players or money to Houston to replace Clendenon. The Commissioner forced Astros owner Roy Hofheinz to apologize, after he told reporters that “in six weeks, Kuhn has done more to destroy baseball than its enemies in 100 years.” Staub also threatened to retire rather than go back to Houston, saying “If I am not in a Montreal uniform when all this is finally settled, the chances of my continuing in baseball are slim. I can exist without baseball. I love the game and I know it might kill me to quit, but there’s nothing that says I have to keep taking all this. Eventually, Clendenon “changed his mind” once he was no longer part of the deal, and the Montreal would deal him to the Mets for prospects. The Expos would send Jack Billingham, a reliever, and $100,000 to Houston to complete the deal.
In Montreal, in Parq Jarry, and away from the Astrodome, Staub blossomed, hitting .302/.426/.526 with 29 homers. As an expansion team, of course, the Expos were terrible, and lost 110 games.
38) Rick Reuschel (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1985, 5.9 WAR)
For the better part of three seasons, it looked like Big Daddy was never going to be an effective pitcher again. Once their 20 game winner, and workhorse, Reuschel must have been surprised when the Cubs traded him to the Yankees at the deadline in 1981, and Reuschel was integral to their stretch run. That offseason, he held out for a two-year deal and got it, but developed a sore shoulder in Spring Training. It required surgery on his labrum, and he was out for all of 1982. Frustrated, the Yankees released him in 1983, and he resigned with the Cubs and went all the way down to single-A ball. He worked his way back, but only pitched four games in September.His 1984 was as disastrous for him as it was great for the Cubs, who made the postseason for the first time since 1945. Due to collusion amongst the owners, only players who their former team didn’t want anymore changed clubs in the offseason, but the Cubs had seen enough of their former ace. Pittsburgh was scuffling and in last place. Despite having a strong pitching staff (they allowed the fewest runs in the NL in 1984), they took a chance of Reuschel. Unfortunately, everyone regressed…everyone, that is, except Reuschel, who had a 2.27 ERA in 196 innings and won 14 games for a club that would only win 57 (and would lose 104). Reinvigorated, Reuschel would pitch for another year and a half in Pittsburgh, before heading up the San Francisco Giants staff until he was past his 40th birthday.
37) Al Leiter (Toronto Blue Jays, 1995, 5.3 WAR)
On the surface, Al Leiter’s 1995 doesn’t look like much. An 11-11 record. A 3.64 ERA. Leading the league in walks (108) and wild pitches (14). But Leiter balanced that by striking out 7.5 batters per 9 innings, and by keeping the ball in the ballpark (.7 HR/9). It also helped that, with his 2/1 FB/GB ratio, he had Devon White shagging flies in CF. The Jays were showing their age since winning their last World Series in 1993, and Leiter got out of town before the rebuilding started in earnest. He signed with the Marlins that offseason, and developed into one of the better lefty starters in the game for a couple years.
36) Bob Friend (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1955, 5.7 WAR)
For 15 years, Bob Friend was a heck of a pitcher. He also, paradoxically, was a big loser. The Common Man doesn’t mean that in its most pejorative sense. Rather, he means that Friend was the losing pitcher of a lot of games, as a function of playing for a lot of bad Pirates squads. Despite an ERA+ of 103, over his first seven seasons, he was 21 games under .500. He finished his career with 230 losses (against 197 wins), which is second all time among players with a record under .500. The reason, of course, that he lost so many games (so very, very many), is that he was a good pitcher, unquestioningly the ace of the Pirates, and in the days before free agency, there was nowhere he could go.
In 1955, the Pirates were rounding out a terrible five year stretch, coinciding with Friend’s first five years, in which they averaged 101 losses a year. Friend, however, had reached his peak, taking almost a full walk off of his BB/9, and getting somewhat hit-lucky, Friend’s ERA dipped to 2.83, which led the National League. While he had been a swingman, Friend was inserted into the rotation full time in 1956, and would lead the NL in games started for the next three years, and IP for the next two. In 1958, despite an ERA+ of just 105, Friend parlayed above average run support into 22 wins.
35) Mitchell Page (Oakland A’s, 1977, 6.0 WAR)
The A’s, of course, had been gutted by free agency and Charlie Finley’s refusal to pay the going rae for salaries. Sal Bando, Don Baylor, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, and Gene Tenace all filed for free agency as quickly as they could. None of them resigned. That left the A’s looking for new starters at C, 1B, 3B, SS, LF. To fill some of the holes the club dealt Phil Garner and two other players to the Pirates for Page and five others (which, frankly, was a terrific deal for a rebuilding club like the A’s. In addition to Page, they netted other players who would from the foundation of the next solid A’s teams, including Rick Langford and Tony Armas, and some pitching help in Doc Medich.Page was installed in LF and made a huge impact in his first Major League action, hitting .307/.405/.521 with 21 homers, 78 BB, and 42 SB (against 5 CS). Page looked like he could do it all. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, but was utterly jobbed out of the award by Eddie Murray. The Common Man doesn’t know what happened next, but Page simply couldn’t keep up that pace. He declined for the next two seasons, becoming a DH who wasn’t even a league average hitter (as the A’s found their new LF, a pretty fast kid named Rickey). His stolen bases dropped from 42 to 23 to 17 (with 16 CS). He had a slight resurgence as a platoon DH in 1980, but never got more than 101 PAs after that.
34) Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners, 2010, 6.0 WAR)
Felix finished with 13 wins, a 2.27 ERA, 232 Ks, and 249.2 innings. He was unquestionably the most valuable pitcher in the American League.
33) Rick Rhoden (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1986, 6.1 WAR)
Just getting to the Major Leagues could have been enough for Rhoden, who overcame significant leg problems that forced him to walk with a cane until he was 12. Just six years later, he was a 1st round pick for the Dodgers in the amateur draft. Rhoden, like Rick Reuschel, established himself as a promising young starter in the 1970s, but developed injury problems (bone spurs in his shoulder) that almost derailed his career. Still, it was not clear that Rhoden was any more than a competent pitcher until he was 30. Starting in ’83, however, Rhoden became one of the better pitches in the National League, and put together two terrific seasons in ’84 and ’86 for the hapless Bucs. In 1986, Rhoden had his best year, winning 15 games and posting an ERA of 2.84 in 253.2 innings. The Pirates took advantage of his great season, and spun him to the Yankees for, among others, Doug Drabek.
32) Ray Herbert (Kansas City Athletics, 1960, 5.8 WAR)
Ray Herbert’s career took a long time to get going. He looked to the world like the Tigers’ next big prospect in 1950 and 1951, but was drafted into the Korean War for a year. When he returned, first the Tigers, then the A’s both viewed him as a swingman until 1959. But the A’s were terrible enough to try anything, and Herbert rewarded them the next year with his best season. He cut down significantly on his walks and home runs, and had a 3.28 ERA in 252 innings (122 ERA+). Of course, he got little run support and would finish 14-15 on the year. In his prime, from 1958-1963, Herbert would be just slightly above average as a major league starter, but parlayed one more great season (1962) into 20 wins and an All Star appearance.
31) Johnny Mize (New York Giants, 1946, 5.8 WAR)
Mize’s 359 homers don’t seem Hall of Fame worthy until you realize that The Big Cat took three full seasons (prime seasons, from age 30-32) off for World War II. When he returned, he seemed to be trying to make up for all the hits he missed while in the service. Swinging better than ever before, Mize hit .339/.438/.579, with 22 homers, through August 4. He was hit by a pitch in the Mayor’s Trophy Game, an exhibition organized by the Yankees and Giants to benefit sandlot ball in NYC, and broke his hand.* After missing a month, Mize came back and immediately broke his toe and was done for the year. It’s ok, with the second worse pitching staff in the league, the Giants weren’t doing anything in ’46 anyway. Despite missing almost two months, Mize finished with a 185 OPS+ and 5.8 WAR. One wonders what he would have done without the injuries.
*Let’s acknowledge a couple things here. 1) It’s cool that there was extra baseball going on for fans as late as the 1940s and 1950s, and great that stars were willing to play in it. 2) There is no way this would happen today. They had to cancel the Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown because teams didn’t want to do it, for Pete’s sake. Stars wouldn’t even get to sniff the field, for fear of injury. And if they did happen to trip down some steps and sprain an ankle while in the dugout, the exhibitions would end, the dugout bulldozed, and the field left to fallow. Such is the era we live in. The Mayor’s Trophy Game lasted until the Giants and Dodges bolted for the West Coast, and was revived against the Mets in 1963. The last one was played in 1983. In their heyday, the games would attract 30-50,000 fans, including a high in 1951 of 71,289.
30) Guy Morton (Cleveland Indians, 1915, 5.8)
In 1915, Cleveland faced its first season since 1902 without Napoleon Lajoie, and so they changed their name from the Naps to the Indians. What didn’t change was that the team was terrible, losing 95 games and finishing in 7th place in the AL. But a youth movement was under way, as the newly christened Tribe sought to rebuild in the wake of their icon. The average age of the Indians in 1915 was just 24.5 years old. Indeed, you can see the foundations of the 1920 World Championship team in this club, as C Steve O’Neill, 2B Bill Wambsganss, SS Ray Chapman, and OF Elmer Smith (all under 24) played regularly.The only carryover on the pitching staff was Guy Morton, who had his only really bad season for the Championship squad. In 1915, he was a 22 year old in just his second season. And was considered by some to be the second fastest pitcher in the American League after Walter Johnson. In May of ’15, an unidentified writer (as reported in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers) said, he still looked good because of his great speed and his curve, which is said to break faster than that of any pitcher in the league.” Morton had a 16-15 record, with a 2.14 ERA (143 ERA+) in 240 innings. He would never be quite that good again, settling in as a very effective swingman for the Tribe until 1924. After his release, Morton bounced around the minors until 1931.
29) Harlond Clift (St. Louis Browns, 1937, 5.9 WAR)
Harlond Clift was the first of the prototypical slugging 3B, (Jim Baker, in The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract called him “the primeval Mike Schmidt”) the first 3B ever to hit 30 HR. Clift was almost as good in ’38, when he hit 34 homers, but he played for a far worse team in ’37 (the Browns lost 108 games). He hit .306/.413/.546 with 29 homers, 36 2B, and 103 R, and 118 RBI. More from Baker: “It was Harlond Clift’s business to play third base for the St. Louis Browns for the better part of the thirties and early forties. This was not a glamour position in Clift’s profession; it was roughly equivalent, let us say, to teaching astronomy at the Colorado School of Mining…. Not only was he a Brown, but he was a Brown when the ebb and flow of fortune had reduced them to an all-time low.”
28) Sam McDowell (Cleveland Indians, 1969, 6.3 WAR)
Sam McDowell walked a very tight line between wild and effectively wild. He led the American League in walks as many times (five) as he led it in strikeouts. He was considered the fastest pitcher in the baseball for much of the ‘60s, and, when he was on, was a dominant presence on the mound for the otherwise hapless Indians. McDowell was on in ’69, but was far from at his best. Still, with 18 wins (against 14 losses) and a 2.94 ERA, and 279 Ks in 285 IP, Sudden Sam was still plenty dominant. Sadly, McDowell only had one more great season left in him, as he slowly drank his way out of the majors at the age of 32. He found new life, however, as a drug and alcohol counselor, and has spent a lot of his post-baseball career working with teens.
27) Dolph Camilli (Philadelphia Phillies, 1937, 6 WAR)
Camilli was a powerful and patient slugger that the Phils fleeced the Cubs out of in 1934 in a challenge trade. But the Phillies o the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s were a sorry bunch. They were in the midst of a 16 year streak of finishing under .500 (and 30 out of 31 years), and barely drew more than 200,000 fans in ’37. So after Camili destroyed NL pitchers to the tune of .339/.446/.587 (170 OPS+), with 27 homers, Philadelphia did what it always did with valuable commodities. It sold him to the Dodgers for a 22 year old 1B (who never played in Philly) and $45,000. No wonder everyone in Philadelphia is so damn angry. Camilli is almost certainly the last prominent baseball player to be named Adolph (even though the spelling is different).
26) Bob Johnson (Philadelphia A’s, 1939, 6 WAR)
“Indian” Bob Johnson is one of the best players no one has heard of. He got a relatively late start, debuting as a 27 year old, after several years starring in the Pacific Coast League. And Johnson had the misfortune of debuting just as Connie Mack began dismantling his second dynasty. Indeed, Johnson was essentially replacing Al Simmons, who had been shipped off to the White Sox. And the A’s would remain pitiful (with the exception of Johnson’s rookie year) until he himself was finally traded/sold to the Senators. 1939 was Johnson’s best season, even though his power was down somewhat. But his average jumped to .338 and his OBP to .440, which kept his SLG right in line with previous seasons. He scored 115 runs and drove in 114, and even stole 15 bases (a career high). Johnson was so unappreciated that, despite a .296/.394/.506 career mark and 288 homers, he doesn’t even get a mention in Rob Neyer’s Big Book for Baseball Lineups.
25) Tom Seaver (New York Mets, 1967, 6.4 WAR)
The Mets were an absolute joke until Tom Seaver showed up. It’s not much of an exaggeration to suggest that Tom Terrific simply willed the Mets into respectability. 1967 was Seaver’s rookie year, and he won 16 games and posted a 2.76 ERA (122 OPS+) in 251 innings, with 18 CG in 35 starts. Seaver’s breakup with the Mets was a famous debacle (that The Common Man chronicled here). But the Mets did not have a winning percentage below .400 again until after Seaver left. For whatever his problems with Mets management, Seaver did nothing but help the Mets for 11 years.
24) Dave Stieb (Toronto Blue Jays, 1981, 4.2 WAR)
This is going to make Bill pretty happy, as Stieb is The Official Retired Pitcher of his old blog, as well as his half of this one. Stieb is simultaneously the best and most unappreciated pitcher of the 1980s. While 1981 wasn’t his best season, it was also the last bad year the Jays would have with Stieb on the roster as their unquestioned ace. Stieb was drafted in 1978, in the 5th round, as an outfielder out of Southern Illinois University. He switched to pitching full time later that summer after hitting just .192. By 1979, he was in Toronto’s rotation, throwing a nasty sinking fastball and a nastier slider. In 1981, Stieb went 11-10 with a 3.19 ERA (124 ERA+) in 183 innings in the strike shortened 1981. That he managed to win 11 is amazing, given that the Jays averaged just 2.8 runs in his 25 starts, while the league averaged 4.07 R/G.
23) Roy Thomas (Philadelphia Phillies, 1903, 5.4 WAR)
In 1900, the Phillies won 94 games and came in 3rd in the NL. Roy Thomas, in just his second year, was one of their stars, hitting .316/.451/.335 and scoring 132 runs thanks to 115 walks. That winter, Nap Lajoie and three of the team’s starters jumped to Connie Mack’s new Athletics. Believe it or not, the Phils improved, as they focused on using fewer (and better) pitchers, and their runs allowed jumped from 7th to 2nd in the NL. Following the end of the season, every other Phillie that mattered also jumped (Monte Cross, Bill Duggleby, and Elmer Flick to the A’s; Ed Delahanty, Al Orth, Happy Townsend, and Harry Wolverton to the Senators, and Red Donahue to the Browns). By the end of 1902, every single member of the starting lineup in 1901 was gone…except for Roy Thomas. Thomas stayed. Understandably, given how they had been gutted, the Phillies were awful. They lost 81 games in 1902, 86 in 1903, and “peaked” at 100 in 1904. Thomas stuck with them, putting up year after year of .400 OBPs. He was at his best in 1903, when he hit .327/.453/.365 (142 OPS+, and the best SLG of his career). He walked 107 times and scored 88 runs. Thomas may have had the least power of any good player in league history. According to The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Thomas “batted with one hand about eight inches from the knob and the other about half-way up the bat, sort of a combination of Ty Cobb and Nellie Fox. This helped him to foul off baseballs seemingly at will. Frank Lieb wrote that Thomas, “could drive a pitcher crazy by standing at the plate and fouling off balls as lng as it suited his fancy. He once fouled off 22 balls before working the pitcher for a walk.” His career WAR (42.8) is better than Brian Giles, Nomar Garciaparra, Jose Canseco, and…wait for it…Jim Rice. Maybe Thomas drew so many walks because he and his .043 ISO were so feared.
22) Graig Nettles (Cleveland Indians, 1971, 6.5 WAR)
This one hurts. The Twins had Graig and his brother Jim in their systems, and had been jerking Graig around between positions and with little defined role. In 1970, the team planned to use Harmon Killebrew at 3B (apparently because they just had to get Rich Reese and his .261/.332/.371 into the lineup) and didn’t have any place for Nettles. They also believed they needed a 3rd starter behind Jim Perry and Jim Kaat. So they dealt Nettles, Dean Chance, Ted Uhlander, and Bob Miller to the Indians for Luis Tiant and Stan Williams. Williams proved to be an excellent reliever for a year, but Tiant’s Twins career lasted just 17 starts before he broke his scapula (shoulder). Nettles would go on to be one of the best (and most overlooked) 3B in baseball history, though he toiled in the shadows of Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and George Brett for much of his career.
In 1971, Nettles had a good year at the plate, hitting .261/.350/.435 (114 OPS+) with 28 HR and his usual stellar defense. In November of 1972, the Yankees traded four players to get Nettles. The four prospects provided almost no value to the Indians, but Nettles gave the Yanks 11 terrific years, and was the most valuable player on both the 1977 and 1978 Yankee squads, according to WAR.
21) Topsy Hartsel (Chicago Orphans, 1901, 5.7 WAR)
Before they were the Cubs, Chicago’s National League franchise was known as the Orphans, after Cap Anson retired and left the team. Without Anson, the team drifted. When the AL was organized, like many NL clubs, several players jumped (most to the White Sox), and got even worse. To replace Jack McCarthy, the team purchased the 27 year old Topsy Hartsel from Indianapolis.Hartsel was absolutely brilliant, hitting .335/.414/.475 (162 OPS+) and stealing 41 bases. By August, however, American League teams came fishing for talent. Hartsel told reporters, “Yes, I have received a flattering offer from the Ameican league for next season. They offer me more than I am getting and assure me of a solid contract. I am well satisfied with my treatment here and think I may come to terms with Mr. Hart. I have told him I would not sign until he has had a chance to bid for my services. There the matter rests for the present.” Whatever Hart offered, it wasn’t enough. In October, Hartsel was lured away by Connie Mack and his Philadelphia A’s, for whom he would star for the next 10 years, winning the World Series with the club in 1910.
20) Jimmy Ring (Philadephia Phillies, 1923, 6.4 WAR)
Man, the Phillies dominate this list with 6 players out of 40. That’s what happens when your club finishes under .400 26 times in a century, and you actively punt 31 consecutive seasons, and when you sell off anybody who is any good as soon as they’re worth something.Ring was a journeyman pitcher wth control problems who lucked his way into one big (and strange) season in 1923, when he posted the second highest WAR in the NL (for pitchers) despite leading the league in both walks and earned runs. Thanks to playing in a bandbox, Ring’s 3.87 ERA still translated to a 119 ERA+ and his 304.1 IP added significantly to his cumulative value. Ring won 18 games that year for a team that won only 50. Given the nature of the Phillies’ home park (the Baker Bowl), it’s difficult to calculate how run support affected him. His team scored a third run per game less in his starts, but he went 12-6 on the road (where the team would have scored less often), and 6-10 at home. Weird season.
19) Cy Young (Boston Americans, 1907, 6.3 WAR)
You would have been forgiven, after 1906, if you thought Cy Young was done. He had just lost 21 games and posted the worst ERA+ of his career (86 on a 3.19 ERA). He was about to turn 40 and had pitched his fewest innings since his rookie year in 1890. Plus, the “Americans” were terrible, losing 105 games in 154 tries. A reasonable fan might have expected Boston to cut bait on The Cyclone and rebuild with kids.But they didn’t. So Young went into 1907 still as the undisputed ace of the Boston staff, and responded in kind. He won 21 games and posted an ERA of 1.99, and completed 33 of his 37 starts with 6 shutouts. He threw 343.1 innings. But his underlying stats suggest that something strange was going on. He succeeded wildly even though his BB/9 doubled, and his K/BB plummeted. But he still led the AL in WHIP. In 1906, the Sox had a defensive efficiency of .677, meaning that 32.3% of balls in play were hits or errors. This was decidedly below average (6th overall) in the American League, and far closer to last in the AL than to the 5th ranked defense. Young suffered immensely, giving up a .298 BABIP that was far out of character for both himself and his era. In 1907, Boston’s defensive efficiency jumped to .710 (29% of balls in play were not recorded as outs), as Boston replaced seven of their eight regular starters (only 2B Hobe Ferris survived the purge). As a consequence, the team’s offense was the worst in the American League (almost a third of a run per game behind the next worst team), but five of their six pitchers with more than 100 IP had an ERA+ of more than 100. While all the Boston pitchers benefitted from this change, none more so than Young, whose BABIP dropped to .256 according to FanGraphs. Mystery solved.
18) Mario Soto (Cincinnati Reds, 1982, 7 WAR)
Pity Mario Soto, whose best three seasons came during Cincinnati’s worst three seasons from 1967-1989. Even though he would win 17 and 18 games in ’83 and ’84 respectively, 1982 is clearly Sonto’s best season. He won just 14 games (thanks to Cincy’s pitiful 61-101 record), but led the NL in WHIP, K/9 (9.6) and K/BB (3.86) in 257.2 innings. Sports Illustrated called him “baseball’s latest and most unusual strikeout sensation, a rare combination of fire and ice…. Soto’s fastball averages 94 mph and his changeup a mere 84. No wonder hitters aren’t exactly sure what’s coming at them.”
Soto developed shoulder problems in ’85 and ’86, and they eventually forced him out of baseball. Given that he led the NL in complete games in both ’83 and ’84, it’s tempting to say he was abused.
17) Chuck Knoblauch (Minnesota Twins, 1995, 6.5 WAR)
Jeezus, what a jackass he turned out to be. Sorry. Sorry. TCM is still bitter over Knoblauch’s trade demands and bad behavior as a Twin. Knoblauch was beloved in Minnesota in the mid-‘90s, seen as a gritty, hardworking, team-first hustler. The kind of player everyone pretends David Eckstein is. Only after he left did stories start to surface about how much of a tool he was.
But in 1995, Knobby may have actually been a better long-term bet than Craig Biggio, if you can believe it. Biggio was 29 already, and had been at 2B for only 4 seasons. He hit .302/.406/.483 (141 OPS+) for the Astros, and seemed to have a disturbing habit of getting hit by a pitch that was bound to hurt him in the long term. Knoblauch was just 26, hit .333/.424/.487 (136 OPS+) and was a better fielder than Bigs. Indeed, through 1997, Knoblauch had earned 29 WAR in six seasons, while Biggio had earned 33.9 in nine. Then, of course, their paths diverged. Biggio had his best season in 1997, and two more strong follow-up campaigns. Then alternated decent years with terrible ones, so that he was never really replaced at the keystone until he volunteered. Knoblauch, on the other hand, saw his value begin to decline as he allegedly adjusted his approach to hit more homers, his defensive range decreased, and (famously) lost the ability to throw the ball to first base. Forced off of 2B by his throwing problems, Knoblauch’s production at the plate plummeted even further, and he was done at 33. Biggio lasted until he was 41.
16) Chuck Klein (Philadelphia Phillies, 1933, 6.9 WAR)
Chuck Klein was so good, and his teams were so bad, he could have made this list a couple of times. But if the Yankees had put up just a little more money, he never would have made it. Klein was originally signed by the Cardinals and assigned to a team in Fort Wayne. He absolutely destroyed the ball, hitting .331/.378/.652 with 26 homers in 392 PAs. According to some sources (TCM has yet to find confirmation on this, as no one has cited this information), the Cards actually owned two clubs in this minor league, and were forced by Commissioner Landis to sell Fort Wayne. and auction the players. On either club, Klein was really the only one worth a damn, and it must have killed Branch Rickey to let him go. The Phillies, amazingly, outbid the Bombers for the young outfielder (though, really, with Ruth, Combs, and Meusel in the OF, and Gehrig at 1B, the Yanks probably didn’t have much use for him), and Klein immediately joined the big club. He hit .360/.396/.577 down the stretch and a star was born.
In ’33, Klein won both the traditional and the sabermetric Triple Crowns, hitting .368/.422/.602 (a 176 OPS+) with 28 homers and 120 RBI. He also led the league in hits (223), doubles (44) and total bases (365). The Phillies lost 92 games out of habit anyway. That offseason, they dealt Klein to the Cubs for three players and $65,000.
15) Curt Davis (Philadelphia Phillies, 1934, 6.8 WAR)
Curt Davis was already a star before he got to the Big Leagues, winning 90 games in five years in the Pacific Coast League. Playing in San Francisco with the DiMaggios, Augie Galan, Frankie Crosetti, and Lefty Gomez, Davis probably had better squads out West than he did when he joined Philadelphia.
As a 30 year old rookie in ’34, he led the NL with 51 games. He started 31 and threw 274 innings. From a John J. Ward profile in Baseball Magazine, as quoted in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, “He has an easy motion, an air of serious-minded confidence. His control is excellent and so is his mental poise….The fastball is a natural sinker. At times it will drop four or five inches…. Grover Alexander had such a fast ball and it was one of the key notes of his extraordinary career.” Indeed, Davis got the comparison to Pete Alexander a great deal. Despite his late start, he lasted 13 years in the Bigs, winning 158 games, but because of his relatively low raw totals is mostly forgotten today.
14) Randy Johnson (Arizona Diamondbacks, 2004, 7.4 WAR)
One of the best half dozen of Johnson’s career full of career-seasons for a team that lost 111 games. He was credited with 16 of their 51 victories and struck out 290 in 245.2 innings.
There are not enough superlatives to describe Johnson in 2004 or Johnson in general, but it’s probably a fair question to ask if he was the single most intimidating pitcher in Major League history. At 6’10”, with a three-quarters whip-like delivery, a 98 MPH fastball, and a death stare on the mound, facing him must have been an utterly unique experience for hitters. Other candidates probably include Bob Gibson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Carl Mays, Ewel Blackwell, Sam McDowell, and JR Richard. Others?
13) Ned Garver (St. Louis Browns, 1950, 7.1 WAR)
From 1948 through 1960, Ned Garver had an ERA+ below 100 just three times (92 in ’53, 98 in ’55, and 97 in ’58). For his trouble, he never pitched on a team that finished above 5th in the AL standings, and when the league expanded in 1960, he was chosen by the Los Angeles Angels. His career ERA+ is 112. No other player with a mark that high has a career winning percentage below his. It’s actually hard to distinguish between this season and his 1951 campaign, in which he managed to win 20 games for the last place Browns. WAR gives ’50 the advantage, and his 3.39 ERA (versus 3.73 the next year) would confirm that. But Garver should also be held partially responsible for 22 unearned runs he let in in ’50, and his BB/9 and K/9 are actually better in his 20 win season. He also had more complete games (24 to 22) in 1951, though fewer innings pitched (246 to 260). But in 1951, scoring dropped by almost half a run per game, making Garver’s performance a little less heroic.
12) Noodles Hahn (Cincinnati Reds, 1901, 6.5 WAR)
Hahn was a terrific player for the Reds around the turn of the century, who (along with Garver) is one of seven pitchers to win 20 games for a last place team. Indeed, in 1901, Hahn made sure of it by completing 41 of his 42 starts and leading the league with 375 innings pitched as a 22 year old. He would match his age in victories, 42% of his team’s total.Hahn, perhaps unique among pitchers at the time, was entirely aware of the damage he was doing to himself, telling The Sporting News, “I am wise enough to know that I cannot last forever and that I am greatly shortening my career by pitching as I did last season.” Hahn was right. He was done by the age of 27, with a dead arm, but accumulated 39.5 WAR in his first six seasons before wearing out. He had planned, however, for this eventuality, and had gone to school to become a veterinarian. He became an animal practitioner after his playing career, and continued to throw batting practice for Cincinnati until 1946.
11) Nap Rucker (Brooklyn Dodgers, 1912, 7.4 WAR)
Nap Rucker spent all 10 years of his Major League career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were only competitive in his final two years in the league, when he was breaking down at just 31. He could have made this list for his 1909 campaign as well. For clubs that went 673-848, Rucker finished his career 134-134, with a career ERA+ of 119. Among starting pitchers with more than 1,000 IP, Rucker’s .500 record is 5th lowest all time for a player with a 119 ERA+ or higher (Matt Cain’s .483 “leads”). In 1912, despite Rucker’s great season, the Dodgers would lose 95 games and Rucker would get hung with 21 of them (against 18 wins). He also posted a 2.21 ERA (though gave up almost 30 unearned runs), threw 297 innings, and led the National League in shutouts.
Rucker is one of exceedingly few left-handed knuckleballers in Big League history, adding the pitch to his repertoire later in his career. According to Neyer and James, “By 1914, at the very latest, Rucker was throwing a knuckleball not unlike that thrown 90 years later by Tim Wakefield and Steve Sparks, with his index and middle fingertips gripping the ball.” It became a legendary pitch, inspiring W.R. Hoefer in Baseball Magazine to compose:
“He used to pitch a ball with lots of smoke; and the stock of curves he carried was no joke. In the days of yesteryear he could burn the atmosphere as he made the slugging biffers swear and choke. But the sizzling speed has left his ancient wing and he throws a floating ball that doesn’t sing. Yet he fools the swatters still with his hesitation pill, smiling grimly as the clouters fail to bing. All the stuff he has is just a dinky curve with a clever head and lots of sand and nerve, but the way batters fall for his foolish looking ball shows he’s still a winning Hurling Hill Reserve. Nap lobs his fork-hand floaters o’er the plate and the batter sees ’em forty minutes late.”
10) Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners, 2004, 8.4 WAR)
A truly unique player in his time (which, thankfully, is also our time), Ichiro possesses the ability to singlehandedly make a game or a team watchable just by playing. Despite leading off and playing a corner position, he is central to the game and to his team’s chances to win. He has seems to have the ability to do the impossible, beating out hits back to the mound, standing perfectly still at the plate, hitting the ball while moving toward 1B, throwing balls that go so fast that they seem to defy gravity. Every time Ichiro’s not on-screen, the other players and broadcasters should be asking, “Where’s Ichiro?”
What a shame that Ichiro’s best season was wasted on such a terrible club. He set the Major League record for hits, besting George Sisler by five. He was one of just three regulars to post an OPS above the league average (130) with a .372/.414/.455 line, leading the AL in plate appearances (he played in 161 games), hits (of course), and batting average. He also led the league in intentional walks (as a leadoff hitter!), and won a Gold Glove. In fact, BR.com calculates that, while Suzuki was worth 26 runs just with his bat, his glove added another 27 runs above replacement.
9) Ron Santo (Chicago Cubs, 1966, 8.3 WAR)
Others have advocated strongly and eloquently for Ron Santo’s admission to the Hall of Fame. You can add The Common Man to the cacophony. There are only eight third basemen in league history with a higher WAR than Santo: Schmidt, A-Rod, Mathews, Boggs, Brett, Chipper, Molitor, and Robinson. Santo had the shortest career of all of them, and if we break it down by year, Santo comes in 6th in WAR/season.
The Cubs of Santo’s era get a bad rap as one of the reason’s he’s been ignored by Hall of Fame voters. But this was actually the last bad team he played for. The Cubs lost 103 games because their pitching was abysmal, but they jumped to 87 wins the next year and wouldn’t dip again until 1973. TCM would need to check, but if and when Santo does get the call the ’66 Cubs might be the only 100 loss team ever to have four Hall of Famers (Santo, Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, and Fergie Jenkins).
8) Phil Niekro (Atlanta Braves, 1977, 8.5 WAR)
Behold, the value of quantity over quality. From 1977-1979, Kuncksie threw 1006.2 innings, starting at least 42 games each year (and completing at least 20 of them). Each year, he led the NL in starts, IP, hits allowed, and losses. He led the league twice in earned runs, twice in walks. It was a remarkable three year stretch in which nobody on the planet pitched like Phil Niekro (not even his brother Joe).
This was, undoubtedly, the worst of the three seasons. Niekro finished below .500, lost 20 games, had a 4.03 ERA (though at The Launching Pad that was County Stadium that was a 111 ERA+), but did lead the NL with 262 Ks. Niekro was also a terrific fielder (four career gold gloves), who supposedly had a terrific pickoff move, though not much is evident in the baserunning data. Runners stole off him at a slightly above average rate, and he had 87 pickoffs in 24 seasons.
7) Dave Roberts (San Diego Padres, 1971, 8.5 WAR)
There have been four players named “Dave Roberts” in Major League history. Three of the four had their best seasons for the Padres. Maybe it’s the same guy and they keep him cryogenically frozen. Particularly since none of them ever played for the Padres at the same time. Dave Roberts I was picked by the Pads in the expansion draft in 1969 in the 39th round. This Roberts, our Roberts, was a 6’3” lefty who improved in each of his three seasons with the club, but exploded in 1971, winning 14 games with a 2.10 ERA in 269.2 innings (157 ERA+). Pete Rose, after Roberts beat the Reds 5-1, told reporters, “I can’t think of a better left-hander in the league.” Sparky Anderson was also effusive, “I’ve seen harder throwers, but Roberts tonight was the best pitcher I’ve seen all year.” His success, however, was largely a function of a 0.3 HR/9 and being extremely hit-lucky in ’71. Still, Roberts was the second or third best pitcher in the NL in ’71.
In December, the Padres cashed in and dealt him to the Astros for three prospects who never really contributed much. Practicing the Law of Conservation of Dave Robertses, however, San Diego made another Dave Roberts (this one a 3B) the first overall pick of the amateur draft in June. Roberts II went straight to the majors, and (predictably) performed horribly (.244/.275/.321) in 100 games. He got better in ’73 (3.0 WAR), but actually had a negative WAR for his Padres career (-.5). Dave Roberts I would bounce around until 1981 as a journeyman, winning 103 games and losing 125 with a 97 ERA+.
Dave Roberts III, or course, was a valuable leadoff man who was traded to the Padres after helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series. In 41 seasons, the San Diego Padres have had a Dave Roberts on their roster for 11 of them.
6) Ernie Banks (Chicago Cubs, 1960 Cubs, 8.2 WAR)
You know, of course that Ernie Banks holds the record for the most games played without ever making an appearance in the postseason. And he probably always will, given how often players change teams in this era and how many more teams make the postseason. But just think for a minute about how incompetent Cubs management had to be to squander Ernie Banks’ terrific career. In 1960, for instance, when Banks was hitting .271/.350/.554 with 41 homers, 117 RBI, and a WAR of 8.2, the other primary SS in the NL combined to hit .269/.323/.351, and had an average WAR of 1.55. So Banks was almost 6 wins better than the average SS, let alone a replacement level one. That is an amazing competitive advantage, but the Cubs were able unwilling or unable to build around. While Banks was busy destroying NL pitching, only Richie Ashburn joined him in contributing more than 1.5 WAR from the starting lineup. The pitching wasn’t much better, contributing just 2.2 WAR as a staff. Banks may not be the best player on this list, and he may not have had the best season in a losing year, and he may not have had the worst teams of any player on this list. But he was the most amazingly wasted over the course of his career.
5) Jimmie Foxx (Philadelphia A’s, 1935, 8 WAR)
Foxx was the last one out the door in Philadelphia, as Connie Mack sold off his second dynasty. In December 12, 1933, Mack dealt Max Bishop, Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, Mickey Cocrane, and George Earnshaw to various American League competitors for a handful of terrible players and $245,000. The next offseson, Mack sold off Dib Williams and Joe Cascarella, and traded Ed Coleman.
Despite Double-X putting up a typical season (.346/.461/.636, 36 homers, 115 RBI, 118 R, 182 OPS+), the team finished last in the American League in runs scored and lost 91 games. And in a flurry of winter activity in December and January of 1935, Mack completed the dismantling by selling Foxx, Footsie Malcomb, Doc Cramer, and Eric McNair to the Red Sox for four useless players and $225,000. At that point, it was a mercy killing as much as a business decision.
4) Lonnie Smith (Atlanta Braves, 1989, 8.7 WAR)
Well, The Common Man didn’t expect this at all. Sure, Lonnie Smith was a good player for a long time, but TCM had completely blanked on a remarkable 1989 for Skates, that saw him hit .315/.415/.533 (168 OPS+) with a career high 21 homers (his next highest total was 9). Smith actually came in 2nd in the NL in WAR, behind Will Clark, a full win higher than MVP winner Kevin Mitchell.
It was the very definition of a career year, and was even more surprising given that it happened when he was already 33 years old. And it was especially ironic, given that Lonnie Smith spent almost all of his career on excellent teams, reaching the World Series five times with four clubs. That his best season should come for one of the worst teams he played for is hilarious and sad. Think of the Kirk Gibson-esque reputation he would have earned if he’d had this season in ’85 for the Royals or ’91 for the Braves, rather than hacking away for a club that lost 97 games, and featured only two other players (Jeff Blauser and Oddibe McDowell) who had more than 20 PAs and an OPS+ over 100.
3) Christy Mathewson (New York Giants, 1901, 7.5 WAR)
The once proud Giants had withered under the ownership of Andrew Freedman, one of the most reviled men in the history of baseball. Freedman bought the club in 1895 and drove off many of his star players. He famously prompted ace Amos Rusie to sit out all of 1896, and The Hoosier Thunderbolt only returned when the other NL owners reached an outside settlement with him. By 1900, the Giants were a last-place club, and several players jumped to the new American League, including the recently traded for Ned Garvin, who had no interest in pitching for Freedman.
Christy Mathewson and Dummy Taylor were pretty much the only men left standing, and both had been little-used rookies the season before. Together, they would throw 56% of the Giants innings in 1901. Mathewson won 20 games with a 2.41 ERA, and completed 36 of his 38 starts, and struck out almost six batters per game. The next season, Freedman hired John McGraw to take over before selling the club to John T. Brush. McGraw and Brush would build the Giants around Mathewson into one of the three great powerhouses of the first 15 years of the 20th century, and Mathewson would become one of the greatest pitchers in Major League history.
2) Rogers Hornsby (Boston Braves, 1928, 8.5 WAR)
Rogers Hornsby was the Terrell Owens of Major League Baseball, an extremely valuable player who teams could only really handle for a season or two. He had won the World Series with the Cardinals in 1926, but they had a salary dispute and the Cards dealt him to the Giants for Frankie Frisch. Despite a terrific season at the plate and a 22-10 record managing while John McGraw was away, Rajah wore out his welcome very quickly in Flatbush. Giants President Charles Stoneham traded the 2B to the Braves for some young talent, saying “I had noticed that with McGraw away the club had adopted different methods, that the house was different and that the general method of procedure was different. The change may have been all for the better, but I felt it was not the spirit of McGraw. It dawned on me that to remedy this and prevent any possible conflict in authority it would be best to send Hornsby elsewhere.”
The Miami News was more blunt:
“A land that takes its baseball heroes seriously would like to know now ‘what’s the matter with Hornsby’ that he passes like a hot potato from one hand to another. To all appearances, it is ‘incompatibility of temperament.’ Hornsby does not fit into the teams with which he plays. He is sand in the bearings of the baseball machine. Since morale is half the battle in baseball—orany team-play sport—the defect is fatal. Hornsby’s operations outside, the race-track performances which have brought himi such unpleasant notoriety, have damaged him with the hero-worshipping public. His temperament inside the game is apparently limiting the usefulness of one of the best ballplayers of all time. The lesson of Hornsby to the baseball fans of the country 0-0and to everybody else—is written in the skies. Cooperation, harmony with one’s associates, is the price of success, not in baseball only, but in business and everything.”
Despite hitting .387/.498/.632 (200 OPS+) with 107 BB and 21 homers, the Braves dropped from 98 losses to 103, and Hornsby was not welcomed back by the Braves either. Instead, they shipped him to the Cubs for five players and $200,000. The Braves improved 10 wins and the Cubs went to the World Series. Everybody wins.
1) Steve Carlton (Philadelphia Phillies, 1972, 12.2 WAR)
Bill covered Carlton’s season here, and The Common Man agrees that Carlton’s 27 wins for a 59 win club is about as fluky as you can get. That said, that should take nothing away from the remarkable season Carlton had in 1972, when he led the NL in Wins (27), ERA (1.97), starts (41), complete games (30), innings (346.1), strikeouts (310), and K/BB (3.56).
The question shouldn’t be “how good was Carlton?” because the answer is “better than you would believe. The real question should be “how bad were the Phillies?” Philly pitchers had a 12.9 WAR in 1972, 12.2 of which came from Carlton. But amazingly, the hitters were below replacement level, coming at -0.4 WAR. Carlton was worth more than 12 wins above replacement on his own. The other 37 players on that roster combined to be worth 0.3 WAR. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the very definition of a great player, and a terrible team.