Really Bad Teams
Some teams are bad, but at least they have one or two good players to root for. Then there are the really bad teams, who don’t even have a bona fide all-star. You have to be a hard-core fan – or maybe just a masochist — to follow a team like that. In the history of MLB since 1901, only seven teams had no player — either position or pitcher — to earn 2.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), as determined by baseball-reference.com. Following is a brief description of each team – and, yes, they all finished last in their league.
1952 Detroit Tigers (50-104) This team was the only one on the list to have a total WAR that was not near or below zero, at +8.6, but they were eight games below their Pythagorean expectation. The most recognizable position player was Vic Wertz, who actually put up a .246/.352/.498/17/51 line (AVG/OBP/SLG/HR/RBI) in 85 games. He just missed 2.0 WAR, with 1.9, before being traded to the Browns in August. In fact, the Tigers performed equally poorly before and after the trade. Walt Dropo had a .279/.320/.479/23/70 line, but managed only a 1.0 WAR, partly thanks to -0.5 defensive (dWAR) contribution. The pitching staff actually had some recognizable names – Virgil Trucks, Hal Newhouser, Fred Hutchinson (who took over as manager mid-way through the season), and Dizzy Trout – all in their 30’s – but none quite reached the 2.0 WAR level. Hall-of-Famer Newhouser was starting to break down in 1952, and he pitched sparingly in the first half of the season. Hutchinson went on to manage another 11 years with the Tigers, Cardinals and Reds, but the Tigers showed scant improvement in 1952 under his reign — he had much better luck with the Reds in the early 1960’s.
1949 Washington Senators (50-104) Their “star” position player was Eddie Robinson (.294/.381/.459/18/78), who would have achieved exactly 2.0 WAR except for his -0.3 dWAR. The other notable position player was a young Eddie “Walking Man” Yost, with a .253/.383/.391/9/45 line. He was also hampered by a -0.5 dWAR. The only other player name that I recognized was Sam Mele, who had a mediocre 10-year career before going on to capably manage the Twins for seven years in the 1960’s. On the mound the Senators were led by Sid Hudson and Ray Scarborough, with 1.8 and 1.4 WAR each. Paul Calvert “contributed” 160 2/3 IP at sub-replacement level, -0.7 WAR. Their manager, Joe Kuhel, who was a solid player with an 18-year career at first base with the Senators and White Sox, finished up a two-year managerial stint with the Senators in 1949 with a 106-201 record, and never managed again.
1928 Philadelphia Phillies (43-109) Their wretched record was a mix of bad play (they had -5.0 total WAR) and bad luck (they were eight games below Pythagorean expectation). Their best player was a young Chuck Klein, in his first year of a Hall-of-Fame career, with a .360/.396/.577/11/34 line in 64 games. Their second-best player was another rookie, Don Hurst (.285/.391/.508/19/64 in 107 games), who would lead the NL in RBI in 1932 with 143. Cy Williams, near the end of a nice 19-year career (30.6 WAR), dropped off considerably from the year before, putting up just a .256/.400/.445/12/37 line. With nobody in their prime, the team’s offense performed poorly, but the pitching was even worse — last in the league with a 5.61 ERA. Their best pitcher was Ray Benge (8-18 with a 4.55 ERA), in his first full season, who finished his career with a 96 ERA+. Their manager, Burt Shotton, was also in his first year on the bench; he managed the Phillies to only one winning season in six years (78-76, fourth place, in 1932), but did go on to lead the Dodgers to pennants in 1947 and 1949.
1927 Boston Red Sox (51-103) Their only starting position player with an OPS+ above 100 (Ira Flagstead at 103) posted a .285/.374/.401/4/69 line, leading the team in RBI. The rest of the starting line-up was totally forgettable. The pitching staff was led by three obscure players – Slim Harriss, Danny McFayden, and Jack Russell, the latter two of which went on to long though undistinguished careers. Future Hall-of-Famer Red Ruffing was just 22, in the middle of a mediocre six-year stint with the Bosox – he didn’t make his mark until after being traded to the Yankees in 1930. Boston got $50,000 and Cedric Durst in return; Durst never pitched again in the majors after 1930, but Ruffing went on to go 241-124 for the Yankees — the curse was continuing to work its magic. The manager Bill Carrigan had won two World Series with the Bosox in 1915/1916 as player/manager, after which he quit to raise his family and run a chain of movie theatres. He was talked into a return to managing, but his three year record in 1927-1929 with the Red Sox was a dismal 166-295, finishing last every year.
1919 Philadelphia Athletics (36-104) The second-worst team on the list in terms of total WAR (at -8.4), they were also five games below Pythagorean expectation. Their best position players were George Burns, fresh off the year he led the league in hits, Tillie Walker, who had led the NL in HR the year before, and Braggo Roth, who was traded to the Red Sox in mid-year. 1919 was somewhat shortened by the war, so Roth might have reached 2.0 WAR in a full season, but the other two were apparently so bad on defense that they wouldn’t have made it anyway (dWAR of -0.9 and -0.8). I’m no baseball historian, so I didn’t recognize one name on the pitching staff – Scott Perry led the way with 1.7 WAR, with a 4-17 record (!) and 3.58 ERA (which equates to 96 ERA+). Their manager, Connie Mack, may be in the Hall of Fame, but he was in the sixth season of a string of eight years where the A’s finished last. I guess when you manage for 53 years, a few really bad seasons don’t detract so much from nine pennants and five World Series titles. Even so, his record would have looked a lot better if he had quit managing after 1914, when he had 1371 wins and 972 losses; he ended up at 3731-3948. Mack also managed for 13 years after being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937 – his highest finish during that time was fourth, in 1948, and his record from 1938 on was just 768-1136. Way to rest on your laurels, although to be fair he did manage until he was 87!
1915 Baltimore Terrapins (47-107) The Baltimore who? The Terrapins were in the Federal League, which may not count as a major league for some people, but they did field a major league stinker of a team in 1915. They had the worst WAR of any on the list (-8.9), and were eight games below Pythagorean expectation, too. [An aside: comparing the WAR values with team records for the 1915 Federal League seems to indicate that replacement level players would have a 62-90 record, which is a little high – the NL and AL values were 54-99 and 49-103, respectively, for 1915. This might be an indication of the relative weakness of the league.] Their offensive leaders were Jimmy Walsh, Steve Evans, and part-time catcher Fred Jacklitsch, who combined for a whopping 1.7 WAR. Only Jacklitsch made it back to the major leagues after the Federal League folded, and that was in a single game as a defensive replacement. The top pitchers were the amazing Jack Quinn, who pitched until just after his 50th birthday, amassing a record of 247-218 and ERA of 3.29 through 1933, and Rankin Johnson, who only pitched one more year, quitting at the young age of 30. Also pitching (poorly) for the Terrapins was Future Hall-of-Famer Chief Bender, who went 4-16 with a 3.99 ERA (80 ERA+, -0.6 WAR) in a one-year stint in the Federal League – he should have stayed in Philadelphia with the A’s, where he was 109-39 with a 2.05 ERA (132 ERA+) the previous six years. His return to Philadelphia with the Phillies in 1916 was mediocre at best (7-7, 3.74 ERA), although in 1917 he did post a 8-2 record and 1.67 ERA in limited action. Player/manager Otto Knabe managed only two years, both for the Terrapins, and ended with a 131-177 record – Baltimore had come in third place the year before with an 84-70 record.
1903 Washington Senators (43-94) Last but not least — or maybe they are least, as they were the only team to make the list twice – we have the 1903 Washington Senators. The player with the highest offensive WAR for the 1903 Senators – at 1.2 – was pitcher Al Orth, which pretty much sums up the futility of the Senators offense in 1903. On the other hand, they were the only team on the list to perform above their Pythagorean expectation, by two wins. Future Hall-of-Famer Ed Delahanty was next with 0.9 WAR; he either died from an accident or was killed (opinions vary) halfway through the season. The Senators actually improved marginally after that, going 27-51. The team had some great names, though: Scoops Carey, Boileryard Clarke, Rabbit Robinson and Ducky Holmes all added color, but, unfortunately, all also had negative WAR. Highball Wilson was the most effective pitcher, going 7-18 with a 3.31 ERA (82 ERA+). Their manager, Tom Loftus, never managed again in the major leagues, ending a nine-year career with a 454-580 record.
Since all of these teams are rather old – they all played before I was born – there is one more team that gets an honorable mention. They are the most recent team to have no players with a WAR above 2.5 (not counting the strike-shortened year 1981):
1978 Toronto Blue Jays (59-102) Next to last in the AL in both runs scored and ERA, they had a number of well-known position players: Roy Howell, an aging Rico Carty, Alan Ashby and Bob Bailor all had between 1.0 and 2.0 WAR. Carty was traded to Oakland mid-year, and had 3.0 WAR overall for the year. Negative contributors included, in order of decreasing WAR: Garth Iorg, Rick Cerone, John Mayberry, an older Willie Horton, and a very young Willie Upshaw. Horton was acquired from the A’s for Carty – Horton was .205/.228/.328/3/19 in 33 games after the trade for the Jays, while Carty went .277/.368/.560/11/31 in 41 games for Oakland – oops. Carty returned to Toronto the next year – his last – and posted -0.4 WAR; oops, again. Horton moved on to Seattle the next year and got 29 HR/106 RBI. Sometimes you can’t win for losing. Jim Clancy, Victor Cruz, and Jesse Jefferson earned 2.4, 2.4 and 2.3 WAR, respectively, from the mound. Clancy went on to a long though unremarkable 15-year career, but not much was heard from Cruz and Jefferson again, as they hit the high point of their career in 1978. The manager, Roy Hartsfield, was very consistent for all three years that he managed, going 54-107, 59-102, and 53-109 in 1977-1979; 1978 was actually the high point for the team as a whole.
So there you have it, a list of really bad teams with no bright spots, or if there was a good player, he didn’t play the entire year for one reason or another.
Expanding the criteria, there have been 60 teams since 1901 who had no player with at least a 3.0 WAR – the old Senators/Twins franchise achieved this ten times, followed by the Braves with eight (in Atlanta and Boston, but not while in Milwaukee), the Phillies with six, and the Athletics with five (in three different incarnations – Philadelphia, Kansas City and Oakland). The Cardinals did it four times, three times in four years starting in 1903 and once in 1994. Eleven teams have always had at least one player with 3.0 WAR: the Angels, Astros, Brewers/Pilots, Diamondbacks, Giants, Indians, Mariners, Nationals/Expos, Rays, Rockies, and Yankees. Only the Giants, Indians and Yankees in this group are not expansion teams.
Anyway, the next time your team has a death-grip on the cellar, just be thankful that they probably have at least one or two very good players to root for. If not, then at least you can say that they can be added to a very exclusive list.