The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Bad Ballpalyers

As I was performing some spring cleaning of my basement (in a futile effort to try and find the title for my wife's car), I came upon an old (1993) copy of the SABR Baseball Research Journal. One of the articles featured a "Least Valuable Player" award system (Al Yellon's "Bottom of the Heap Awards", BRJ22, 1993).

I was immediately intrigued, and remembered that I had done some work with the Lahman Baseball Database in creating both Cy Young Points (mentioned elsewhere in this fine blog) and Offensive Fibonacci Win Points. I decided to rank the two categories for each season from 1871-2007 (boy, we're spoiled in this Age of Information, ain't we?) and find the low and high totals for each season - giving us the "least valuable players/pitchers" in each league for every year.

The player with the worst single-season OFIB total was Jim Levey, who had a really bad -12.8 OFIB rating in 1933 for the Saint Louis Browns as their shortstop. He was so bad that season, the next year he quit baseball... and went to play football with the Pittsburgh Pirates of the NFL. He played three years for the Pirates (who were renamed the Steelers in 1940) as a back.

Oddly enough, the worst CYP total was for the man who threw the first no-hitter in National League history, George Washington "Grin" Bradley. Three years after his no-hitter, he went 13-40 for the Troy Haymakers of the NL; that was the worst season of his career.

I organized the lists to see who was the "worst of the worst" the most times in their careers. There was one name that came up six times on the list: Bill Bergen is universally considered the worst ballplayer (offensively) in major league baseball history. For six out of the seven seasons from 1904 to 1910, he had the worst OFIB as the backstop for the Brooklyn Robins. He was, however, universally regarded as the best defensive catcher in the NL. When his skills eroded in 1911, he moved on to the minors where he played through 1920.

Then there's the somewhat sad case of Hal Lanier. Lanier is better known for being the manager of the Houston Astros back in 1986, but he was originally a all-star rookie in 1964 for the Giants. The following season, however, he was involved in a beaning during the pre-season that left him with a severe case of epilepsy. For five years, he struggled to hit while the Giants tried moving him from shortstop to second base. Over a five year period (1965-69), he was the worst player in baseball, posting a -44.8 OFIB. Now, I know what likely happened - the Giants felt sorry for him, and they kept trying to make room for him in their lineup. However, by doing so they cost their team essentially nine games a year in the standings; The two key players that were the backups to Lanier on the Giants were Tito Fuentes and Jim Davenport. Over the same period of time, their combined OFIB was 0.1 (Davenport was 2.6, Fuentes was -2.5 without playing in 1968). Considering that the Giants were within 10 games of the pennant each year, keeping Lanier probably cost the team three or possibly four pennants. When Chris Speier took over as the Giants' SS in 1971, the team finally won a pennant (but lost to the Pirates in the NLCS).

As for the pitchers: The career highlight of Milt Gaston was when he roomed with Lou Gehrig in his first season in the majors in 1924. The following year, he was traded to the Saint Louis Browns, and went 15-14 with a 4.41 ERA. It was downhill after that. Gaston posted three seasons (1931 with the Red Sox, and 1932 and 1934 with the White Sox) where his combined CYP total was -30.6. He meets a grand total of 2.0 of the Hall of Fame Standards. His only other claims to fame was that his brother Alex was his catcher in 1929 with the BoSox, and that he lived to age 100.

The king of the "Worst Pitchers", though, is Si Johnson. He pitched for the Reds from 1928-36, but it's the stretch from 1931 to 1934 that is simply amazing: he lost 19, 15, 18 and 22 games in each of those years (respectively). The only year where his ERA was below the league average (1932) was the year he posted his career single-season high in wins - with 13. At the beginning of the 1936 season, after two games in relief for the Reds, Johnson was traded to the Saint Louis Cardinals. He was part of an attempted patchwork of fourth starters for the Cards during the late 1930's, and the Birds dropped to sixth in 1938. He spent all of 1939 in the minors, and was drafted by the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft in October of that year. He pitched for three and a half years with the Phillies, posting his last truly bad season in 1942 with an 8-19 record and a 3.69 ERA. He led the NL in worst CYP totals each of those five seasons, combining for a -28.2 CYP total and the most times leading the league in worst CYP. He was 8-3 with 2 saves in 1943 when his draft card came up. He spent the last half of 1943 through VJ-Day in 1945 in the Navy - avoiding more last-place finishes with the Phillies. He did return to play in the majors for two more years, but he still wasn't the greatest pitcher. His final record was 101-165, with a 4.09 ERA (8% worse than the league average during his career) and a 1.401 ratio. His claim to fame was that he struck out Babe Ruth in one of the Bambino's last AB in the major leagues. He finished with the Braves in 1947, the year before the Braves won their first NL pennant since 1914. After he retired, he became a fireman at Sheridan Correctional Center in Sheridan, Illinois. He passed away in 1994.