Archive for July 2012

San Francisco Giants Acquire Marco Scutaro from the Rockies

July 28, 2012

The Giants have made their first major trade before the July 31st trade deadline, acquiring shortstop Marco Scutaro from the Colorado Rockies for AAA middle infielder Charlie Culberson.  While the Giants need help at shortstop and third base, this move looks a lot like last year’s deadline trade for shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

Like Cabrera last year, Scutaro is now 36 and looks like a player nearing the end of the line.  Some of his poor offensive performance this year may have to do with playing in the National League for the first time since 2003.  However, a .684 OPS, even for a shortstop, is poor when you play your home games at Coors Field.  More specifically, Scutaro has a home OPS of .793 and a road OPS of only .570 this season, which was about Cabrera’s OPS (.573) for the 2011 season.

Scutaro could, of course, get hot and really help the Giants.  It’s just that at this moment in time, he looks too much like Orlando Cabrera one year ago.

I’m not a big fan of Charlie Culberson, but the trade is a good move for the Rockies, given that Scutaro isn’t likely to do much for them in the future and Culberson is still young enough at age 23 to develop into a valuable major league player.

My biggest criticism of Culberson is that I don’t believe he has major league level command of the strike zone.  In nearly 2,600 career minor league plate appearances, he’s averaged 34 walks and 119 strike outs for every 600 plate appearances, which is terrible.

After that much playing experience, it’s highly questionable that he’s ever going to develop the plate discipline he’d need to be successful major league hitter, even for a middle infielder.  His tools are strong (he was a former sandwich pick, 51st player selected in the 2007 Draft), but unless he can learn to lay off pitches out of the strike zone, he’ll never be a major league hitter.

Bid McPhee and Other Exceptional Defensive Performances, Part II

July 27, 2012

Another unremembered star who had an exceptional defensive season was 3Bman Harlond “Darkie” Clift for the 1937 St. Louis Browns.  That year, Clift set what were then all-time major league records for 3Bmen, 405 assists and 50 double plays.  Clift also led the AL that year in errors with 34, but you can’t have everything.

Clift wasn’t just a glove man.  That season he hit .306 with a .960 OPS and drove in 118 runs.

1937 wasn’t a fluke performance from Clift.  In 1938, he again drove in 118 runs, raised his OPS to .977, led the AL 3Bmen in putouts and fielding percentage, and his 31 double plays turned was only one shy of the league lead.

Even with these exceptional performances from Clift, the St. Louis Browns were hopeless, finishing 46-108 in 1937 and 55-97 in 1938.  Clift probably should have been included in my list of greatest seasons for terrible teams for his 1937 season, but the competition was fierce.

1937 and 1938 were the peak years of Harlond’s career, but for a nine year period from 1934 through 1942, Clift averaged 108 runs scored and 83 RBIs per year, while playing well above average defense at third.

The player who broke Clift’s third base assists and double plays records was Graig Nettles, in his 1971 campaign for the Cleveland Indians, when he recorded 412 assists and 54 double plays, records which still stand.  Nettles made only 16 errors that year.

Like Clift, Nettles was no slouch at the plate in ’71.  Although he hit only .261, Nettles hit 28 HRs (one fewer than Clift in ’37) and drew more than 80 walks.

In fact, Clift’s 1937 and Nettles’ 1971 are extremely comparable.  Even taking into account that the AL in 1937 was a much better league for hitters than it was in 1971, Clift’s offensive numbers are slightly, but clearly, better.  On the other hand, Nettles’ defensive numbers are slightly, but clearly, better than Clift’s.

Unfortunately, the 1971 Indians didn’t do much better than the 1937 Browns, finishing 60-102.  One player, no matter how well he plays, just doesn’t make that much of a difference by himself.

A few more exceptional defensive performances:

The Padres’ Ozzie “The Wizard of Oz” Smith in 1980 (621) and the Pirates’ Glenn “Buckshot” Wright in 1924 (601) are the only two shortstops ever to record 600 or more assists in a season.

Ryan Sandberg‘s 571 assists for the 1983 Cubs are the most by a major league 2Bman since 1930. Except for Sandberg and Aaron Hill‘s 560 assists for the 2007 Blue Jays, all the seasons in the top ten were between 1922 and 1936.  I have no idea why so many ground balls to second were apparently hit in the first 20 years of the lively ball era.

Gary Carter‘s 108 assists for the 1980 Montreal Expos are the most by a catcher since 1928.

The most assists by a right fielder in the modern era (since 1920) is Chuck Klein‘s 44 for the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies.  The story behind Klein’s record-setting season is the incredibly short right-field wall at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl.  A right fielder with a strong, or at least accurate, arm who could also play the caroms off the wall had a lot of opportunities to throw out base runners thinking double out of the box.

It’s worth noting, however, that while Phillies’ right fielders generally put up impressive assist totals at the Baker Bowl, Gavvy “Cactus” Cravath (34 assists in 1914) is the only Phillies’ right fielder who came with ten of Klein’s 1930 total between 1900 and 1938, the year the Baker Bowl closed.

The post-World War II record for right fielder assists is 26, set by the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente in 1961 and matched by fellow Pirate Dave Parker in 1977.  The post-World War II record for center field and left field assists are CF Willie Mays‘ 22 in 1955 and LF Gary Ward‘s 24 in 1983.

Mike Boddicker‘s 49 putouts for the 1984 Orioles is fifth most for a pitcher all-time and the most since 1886.  The only other pitchers to record at least 40 putouts since 1912 are Oil Can Boyd (42 in 1985) and Kevin Brown twice (41 in 1999 and 40 in 1995).

Jody Davis‘ 89 base runners caught stealing for the 1986 Cubs is the most by any catcher since 1920, the first year of the lively ball era.  Mike Piazza‘s 155 stolen bases allowed in 1996 is the most allowed by any catcher since 1917.  Piazza actually led the NL with 59 base runners caught stealing in his rookie year of 1993, but his ability to catch base stealers went straight down from there.

Geno Petralli‘s 35 passed balls for the 1987 Texas Rangers is the most by a catcher in any year since 1898.  He accomplished this dubious distinction in only 63 games played behind the dish that season.

Petralli’s exceptional season was entirely the result of whom he was catching.  Knuckleballer Charlie Hough was the Rangers’ staff ace that year, and his knuckler was a dancing butterfly that year.  Rangers catchers were charged with 73 passed balls in 1987, the vast majority when Hough was pitching.

It didn’t really matter who was catching Hough — it was not uncommon for four, five or even six passed balls to be charged in one of his starts.  However, official scorers clearly placed the blame on Hough’s catchers for the failure to stop his pitches — Hough was charged with only 12 wild pitches that year, even though he also led the AL that year with 19 hit batters.

Of the Rangers’ three catchers that season, Petralli ended up being charged with the most passed balls simply because he caught Hough most often — Petralli caught all or part of 24 of Hough’s 40 starts that year. At least opposing hitters had nearly as much trouble hitting Hough’s offerings as his catchers had catching them.  The Rangers went 22-18 in his starts, as opposed to 53-69 when someone else started, in spite of all the passed balls.

Bid McPhee and Other Exceptional Defensive Performances: Part I

July 26, 2012

Perhaps the Hall of Famer that contemporary fans are least familiar with is long-time Cincinnati Reds 2Bman John “Bid” McPhee.  McPhee was essentially the Bill Mazeroski of the 19th Century, only with a better bat than Maz.

Like Mazeroski, who spent all 17 years of his major league career playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, McPhee spent all 18 years of his major league career playing for the Cincinnati Red Stockings/Reds, first in the American Association and then in the National League, when the Cincinnati franchise switched leagues in 1890, in connection with a dispute with St. Louis Browns’ owner Chris Van Der Ahe over selection of a new American Association league president and fallout from the formation of the new Players’ League.

McPhee was almost certainly the best defensive 2Bman of the 19th century.  Bid led his league in putouts, assists or double plays an astounding 25 times in his career.  By way of comparison, other top second base leaders in these three categories in the 19th century are Fred “Dandelion” Pfeffer (19), Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlop (8), Lou Bierbauer and “Black” Jack Burdock (7), John “Cub” Stricker (6) and “Move Up” Joe Gerhardt (5).

Two of McPhee’s single-season defensive feats are particularly noteworthy.  In 1886, Bid set the all-time record for 2Bmen with 529 putouts.  No one has come close to that number before or since.  The closest is Bobby Grich‘s 484 putouts for the 1974 Orioles, 88 years later.

In 1893, McPhee became the first middle infielder in major league history to participate in 100 or more double plays in a season, when he recorded 101.  The next middle infielder to turn 100 or more double plays was Giants’ shortstop and fellow HOFer Dave “Beauty” Bancroft in 1921.

One thing I do not know is exactly how McPhee made his double plays.  Presumably, the classic 6-4-3 and 5-4-3 double plays of today’s game were less common in the 19th century, due to the lack of modern fielding gloves.  Also, in an era when home runs were rare and errors were frequent, teams ran and ran and ran, trying to put pressure on the other team’s defense.  I suspect that a lot more double plays in those days involved doubling off base runners after a fly ball or line drive was caught or of the stike-’em-out/throw-’em-out variety.

However, Bid accomplished his double plays, his double plays were just as valuable then as they are today.  McPhee led his league 11 times in this category over a 12 year period.  In comparison, Bill Mazeroski, who holds the single season record with 161 double plays set in 1966, led his league only eight times in double plays turned.

Bid’s election to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 2000 was almost certainly the result of the recent rise of sabermetrics and a bettter understanding of offensive performances and the value of defensive performances.

McPhee hit only .272 for this career, but he had power (his 189 triples is 11th all-time and his 53 career home runs was a significant number for a player who played his entire major league career in the 19th century), he drew a lot of walks, and he stole 568 bases in his career. As a result, McPhee was a terrific lead-off hitter, scoring more than 100 runs in ten different seasons and finishing his career with 1684 runs scored.

McPhee spent his entire career playing in a small market on teams that more often than not were out of contention (in McPhee’s 18 seasons, his teams won one pennant and finished 2nd or 3rd five other times), and it was easy for McPhee to be forgotten with the passage of time.  His 2000 election to the Hall of Fame did much to right that wrong.

The Strangeglove Award

July 23, 2012

Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart was a slugging 1Bman in the 1950’s and 1960’s who had “the bad hands.”  Historically bad hands, in fact.

Between 1958 and 1964, Stuart led his league’s 1Bmen in errors committed seven consecutive seasons (NL five times, then AL twice).  His 29 errors for the 1963 Boston Red Sox is the most by a 1Bman in any season since 1919.

In honor of Dick Stuart, I thought it would be fun to award a “Strangeglove Award” to each active player who made the most errors in a season at his position at any time in his career.  Here is my list by position:

C Jason Kendall, 18 for the 1996 Pirates (I consider Kendall still active, as he is currently attempting a comeback with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Royals’ AA club; Brian McCann (2010), Russell Martin (2007) and Dioner Navarro (2007) all made 14 errors in a season.)

1B Ryan Howard, 19 for the 2008 Phillies.  Another slugging 1Bman who struggles on defense.

2B Alfonso Soriano, 23 for both the 2002 Yankees and 2004 Rangers.  Given the fact that Soriano is now a terrible left fielder, it’s now a little hard to believe he once played second at the major league level.  Of course, he did.  Among players, still playing 2B, Rickie Weeks‘ 22 errors for the 2006 Brewers leads the way.

3B Mark Reynolds, 34 for the 2008 Diamondbacks.  Reynolds’ career as a major league starter is in jeopardy, as he doesn’t field well enough to start at third (career .928 fielding percentage) and doesn’t hit well enough to start at first (career .806 OPS).

SS Ian Desmond, 34 for the 2010 Nationals.  Desmond made only 23 errors in 2011 and is a pace to make about 21 errors in 2012, so his 2010 total looks to be a rookie year one-off.

LF Adam Dunn, 12 for the 2006 Reds.  Adam Dunn is widely considered the worst defensive outfielder in baseball, given his poor range and high error rates (Dunn leads all active left fielders with 60 career errors).  Now that he has adjusted to the American League after his lost 2011 season, he has at last found his true position: designated hitter.

Alfonso Soriano merits note here.  He made 11 errors as the Nationals’ left fielder in 2006 and again as the Cubs’ left fielder in 2009.  Soriano is currently third among both active 2Bmen and active left fielders for most career errors made at each of these positions.  Alfonso gets the “Stone Hands” device on his Strangeglove Award for his unmeritorious service at two different positions.

CF Carlos Beltran, 12 for the 1999 Royals.  Another high rookie year total; young players don’t just improve at the plate.  Even so, Beltran leads all active center fielders by a wide margin with 60 careers errors.

RF Vladimir Guerrero, 19 for the 1999 Montreal Expos.  (I’m also considering Bad Vlad still active, because he is not officially retired, and he did play eight games this year for the Blue Jays’ AAA team, the Las Vegas 51s, before being released at his request on June 12th when the Jays had not promoted him to the major league team.  He’s waiting around for some team to give him a call.  Justin Upton made 13 errors for the 2011 Diamondbacks.)

Bad Vlad had a great right field arm but made almost as many errors as assists in his career (125 errors and 126 assists).  His 125 career errors is almost twice that of Bobby Abreu (69), second most among active right fielders.

P Rick Ankiel (2000), Ramon Ortiz (2005), A.J. Burnett (2008) and Matt Garza (2011) each made seven errors in a season.  The last pitcher to make 10 errors in a season was Joe Kennedy for the 2002 Devil Rays. Kennedy died of heart failure during the 2007 off-season at age 28.

Fun with Errors

July 21, 2012

The record for errors made in a single season is an astounding 122 set by shortstop Herman “Germany” Long in 1889 and matched by shortstop Billy Shindle in 1890.

All 18 times a player made at least 100 errors in a season occurred between 1884 and 1893 (17 of these seasons occurred between 1886 and 1893).  This was a period during which the number of games played each season was increasing, but use of fielder’s gloves was not yet universal.

The last major league defender to play bare-handed was 3Bman Jerry Denny (who Bill James has described as the “last real man”), whose major league career ended in 1894.  Denny was ambidextrous and wanted to keep both hands free to make the throw to first in any given circumstance.

The most errors by any major league player since 1893 is 98 by 1903 Cleveland Naps’ (the team later called the Indians were then named after their superstar 2Bman Napoleon “Nap” LaJoie) shortstop John Gochnaur.  To the extent that anyone remembers Gochnaur at all today, it is due to his ignominious distinction as perhaps the worst regular player in major league history.

As a 26 year old rookie in 1902, Gochnaur provided slightly below average defense at shortstop, but hit only .185 with an awful .485 OPS for the then-called Cleveland Broncos.  Even in the dead-ball era, these offensive numbers were terrible — of the 79 other American League players with at least 200 at-bats that year, none hit less than .206; and the Broncos gave Gochnaur 459 ABs, second most on the team!

For that fine performance from a rookie who was not particularly young, the 1903 Naps ran Gochnaur out there for 134 of the team’s 140 games.  Gochnaur rewarded the Naps with another .185 batting average, again the worst in the American League for any player with at least 200 at-bats (although Gochnaur raised his OPS to a lusty .505), and set the post-1893 record for errors in a season.  Gochnaur finished third in the league in double plays turned, but failed to crack the top three (in an eight-team league) in any other defensive category.

Gochnaur was then shipped out to the San Francisco Seals of the young Pacific Coast League, where Gochnaur brought along his complete inability to hit.  Gochnaur hit a combined .172 with no power over the next three seasons in the PCL in nearly 1,500 at-bats.

What made high-level professional teams think this guy was the answer at shortstop? In fairness to Gochnaur he hit fairly well at Dayton in 1900 and 1901 and at Des Moines in 1907.  However, it seems clear that B-level minor league ball was Gochnaur’s level.

One of the reasons that the 1916 Philadelphia A’s finished 36-117, the worst won-loss record of the 20th Century, was the fact that rookie shortstop Whitey Witt made 78 errors.  In the 96 major league seasons since then, only two players (Larry Kopf’s 68 in 1917 and Dave Bancroft’s 64 in 1918) have come within 15 errors of Witt’s 1916 total.  Ouch!

Witt was eventually moved off shortstop and in the fullness of time developed into a good major league player.  Witt is best remembered as the Yankees’ center fielder who was knocked out by a well-aimed pop bottle as he tried to catch a fly ball in St. Louis on September 16, 1922 , with the Browns and Yankees battling for the pennant in their last big show-down of the season.

The incident nearly caused a riot, but the Yankees held on to win the game 2-1 as Yankees’ ace Bob Shawkey out-dueled Browns’ ace Urban Shocker.  The Yankees ended up winning the pennant by exactly one game over the Browns, who had what was probably their best season in their 52 years in St. Louis, before becoming today’s Baltimore Orioles in 1954.

The last players to make 60 errors in a season were Al Brancato, who made 61 errors for the Philadelphia A’s in 1941, and Lonnie Frey, who made 62 errors for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1936.

The post-World War II record for errors in a season is held by the infamous Roy Smalley, Jr. (his son, who was a better player, was Roy Smalley III), who committed 51 errors as shortstop for the 1950 Cubs.  Smalley had so much trouble making the throw to first that year that one Chicago sports writer famously re-wrote “Tinker to Evers to Chance” as “[Wayne] Terwilliger to Smalley to the dug out.”

The last player to make as many as 40 errors in a season is shortstop Jose Offerman, who made 42 errors for the 1992 Dodgers.  Offerman is the only player since 1978 to make 40 or more errors in a season.

Note that every single player identified above for the numbers of errors he made in a season primarily played shortstop the year his fielding hands failed him.  This is the reason why defense is so highly valued at shortstop and thus why so many major league shortstops can’t do much with the bat.

The Ten Greatest Seasons Played for Terrible Teams: Part II

July 20, 2012

Continuing on with the five greatest seasons played for terrible teams:

5.  (Tie)  Dmitri Young for the 2003 Tigers (43-119) and Rusty Staub for the 1969 Montreal Expos (52-110).  Dmitri Young hit .297 with 29 HRs and a .909 OPS for the worst team since the 1962 Mets.  Dmitri was the only player on the Tigers that year with an OPS as high as .775.  The pitching wasn’t any better, and the Tigers lost and lost and lost.

Rusty Staub had a terrific season for the awful, expansion Expos.  He hit .302 with 29 HRs and a .952 OPS. Although Rusty Staub had a slightly better season than Dmitri Young, Young’s Tigers were worse, and Staub’s Expos had a few other players who hit well that year, namely Mack Jones and Ron Fairly who played well in a part-time role after being acquired from the Dodgers.  As such, it seems fair to rank them together.

4.  Rogers Hornsby for the 1928 Boston Braves (50-103).  The Rajah led the Senior Circuit in batting average (.387), on-base percentage (.498) and slugging percentage (.632), but the Braves still couldn’t quite manage to win a game for every two that they lost.  Perhaps some of it had to do with the fact that Hornsby was the Braves’ manager for most of the season.

Hornsby had a reputation as a difficult man to get along with in the clubhouse, and, with the exception of the 1926 Cardinals, the teams he managed tended to get worse rather than better the longer he managed them.

The Braves had a few other position players who could hit for average (George Sisler his .340 and Lance Richbourg his .337), but no one but Hornsby hit with any power, and the pitching wasn’t good.

Unlike Chuck Klein, who is listed as 6th on this list in Part I of this series, Hornsby’s road OPS was actually a few points higher than his home OPS in 1928.

3.  Ned Garver for the 1951 St. Louis Browns (52-102).  The small right-hander went 20-12 for the 1951 Browns, making him the only pitcher in the last 100 years to win 20 games for a team that lost at least 100 (Irv Young went 20-21 for the 1905 Braves, who lost 103).  In my mind, that’s good enough for third on this list, even though his ERA that year was an unspectacular 3.73.

The Browns went 21-12 in the games in which he pitched (and 19-11 in the games he started), a .636 winning percentage.  In games in which Garver did not pitch, the Browns went 31-90, a .256 winning percentage.  Garver also led the AL that year with 24 complete games.

A certain amount of Garver’s terrific record that year comes down to dumb luck: the Browns scored when he was pitching.  Even so, a once-in-a-hundred-years season deserves recognition.

2.  Wally Berger for the 1935 Boston Braves (38-115). The 1935 Braves were another of the all-time worst teams, and, except for Wally Berger, likely had the worst offense of the modern era (i.e. since 1920).

Berger hit 34 HRs and drove in 130 runs, leading the Senior Circuit in both categories that year.  The Braves’ next best in these two categories were 6 (Babe Ruth in only 92 plate appearances in the final year of his career — even hitting .181 and playing the outfield as poorly as a fat 40 year old, the Braves should probably have found a way to keep him around beyond the end of May, given their other options) and 60.  Berger’s .903 OPS was 195 points better than Hal Lee’s .708, the only other Braves’ player who had at least 200 plate appearances and an OPS over .700.

Somewhat surprisingly, Berger walked only 50 times in 1935.  However, on a team this bad, there may not have been much need to pitch around him.

Berger isn’t well remembered today, but he was fine player for some bad Braves teams in the 1930’s.  He finished with an even .300 major league batting average in more than 5,000 at-bats, hit at least 34 HRs in a season three times, and drove in more than 100 runs four times.

Berger wasn’t particularly young (24) when the Braves acquired him from the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League for the 1930 season, and like a lot of players of his day, he was over the hill a couple of years into his 30’s.  As a result, he wasn’t able to put up the career numbers that would make him better remembered today.

1.  Steve Carlton for the 1972 Phillies (59-97).  Lefty went an incredible 27-10 for a terrible team (at least when he wasn’t pitching).  He won the pitcher’s Triple Crown that year with a 1.97 ERA and 310 strikeouts.  His 12.1 WAR was nearly three wins better than the NL’s next best (Joe Morgan at 9.3).  Carlton’s 1972 is without question one of the most amazing seasons any pitcher has ever had.

The Phillies went 29-12 in his 41 starts, good for a .707 winning percentage.  Over the course of a 162 game season, this projects to a record of 115-47.  In the games in which someone else started for the Phillies, the team went 30-85, a .261 winning percentage; or, projected over 162 games, 42-120.

In other words, when Steve Carlton pitched, the 1972 Phillies were an historically great team, and when he didn’t, they were historically bad.  Of course, Carlton was only able to start a quarter of the Phillies’ games that year, and the team finished with the worst record in the National League that season.  Carlton’s 1972 campaign was truly a one-of-a-kind performance.

More Honorable Mentions.  A few other players and seasons are worth mentioning here.

Ernie Banks for the 1954 through 1961 Cubs.  No list of great players for bad teams would be complete without some mention of the years when Ernie Banks was the youthful shortstop of the Chicago Cubs.

These Cubs teams were not historically bad, however; they were merely bad.  Although none of the Cubs teams had a winning record during this eight year stretch, only the 1956 Cubs and the 1960 Cubs (both went 60-94) finished with winning percentages below .400. (The 1962 Cubs lost 103 games, but Banks had been moved to first base by then.)

I would rank Banks’ performance in 1960 as the more impressive.  That year he only hit .271, but slugged 41 HRs to lead the NL and drove in 117, good for third.  At shortstop that year, he lead the Senior Circuit in putouts, assists, double plays and fielding percentage.

Baseball Reference lists Banks as third in the NL that year in offensive WAR behind Willie Mays and Eddie Matthews and just ahead of Hank Aaron.  He is listed as second in the NL in defensive WAR, behind only Dick Groat, the shortstop for the pennant winning Pirates, and tied with the Dodgers’ Junior Gilliam.  A fine, fine season any way you slice it.

Roy Sievers for the 1957 and 1958 Senators, and Jeff Burroughs for the 1973 Rangers and the 1977 Braves.  Roy Sievers and Jeff Burroughs deserve recognition for their repeated excellence for terrible teams.

In 1957 Sievers hit .301 (8th) with 42 HRs (1st), 114 RBIs (1st) and a .967 OPS (3rd behind Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, who both had monster years in this category) for a Senators team that went 55-99.  In 1958, Sievers hit .295 with 39 HRs (3rd), 108 RBIs (3rd) and a .900 OPS (6th) for a Senators team that went 61-93. In 1973 and 1977 Burroughs twice finished second in his league in home runs for teams that went 57-105 and 61-101 respectively.

Sievers and Burroughs were both poor defensive outfielders, but their hitting more than made up for it.

Finally, no article on great performances on terrible team would be complete without a mention of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20-134) and the 1916 Philadelphia A’s (36-117), two of the worst teams ever.

For those of you who don’t know the story, the 1899 Spiders had the same ownership as the St. Louis Perfectos, who became known as the Cardinals the next year.  The owner looted the Cleveland franchise of players in order to field a contender in St. Louis.  The Perfectos finished in fifth place with an 84-67 record, and the Spiders finished with the worst record in baseball history.

After that season the National League passed a rule that no one could have an ownership interest in more than one franchise for obvious reasons.  Also, after the 1899 season, the NL dropped its Cleveland, Baltimore, Louisville and Washington franchises, opening the door for the upstart American League a year later.

The best players on the 1899 Spiders were probably veteran 2Bman Joe Quinn, who hit .286 and led the league’s 2Bmen with a .962 fielding percentage, and center fielder “Buttermilk” Tommy Dowd, who led the team’s starters with a .333 on-base percentage and a .668 OPS.  The ’99 Spiders were a bad, bad team.

The story of the 1916 A’s is that after winning four pennants and three World Series in the five years between 1910 and 1914, the team was getting old and the A’s, playing in Philadelphia in what was already proving to be one-team market, couldn’t afford to pay their stars what they were worth.

Star pitchers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender jumped to the Federal League, and Frank “Home Run” Baker sat out the 1915 season when A’s manager Connie Mack would not renegotiate the terms of Baker’s three-year contract.  Mack ultimately sold Baker to the Yankees, and also sold or traded away 2Bman Eddie Collins, SS Jack Berry and promising younger players OF Eddie Murphy and pitchers Bob Shawkey and Herb Pennock, between the end of the 1914 season and the beginning of the 1916 season.

Mack did not completely gut the team, holding onto 1Bman Stuffy McInnis and CF Amos Strunk, both of whom had contributed to the 1911, 1913 and 1914 pennant winners, and also catcher Wally Schang and pitcher “Bullet Joe” Bush, both of whom had contributed to the 1913 and 1914 pennant winners. Nevertheless, the A’s fell apart immediately, falling to 43-109 in 1915 and declining further to 36-117 in 1916, the worst of the 20th century.

McInnis led the 1916 A’s with 60 RBIs and hit .295.  Strunk led the team with a .316 batting average.  Schang hit .266 and led the team with seven HRs. Joe Bush went 15-24 with a 2.57 ERA.  The rest of the team’s pitching was abysmal for the dead-ball era, and with Connie Mack unwilling or unable to spend the money to acquire some fresh young talent, the A’s won less than one out of every four games they played.

Part I of this series can be found here.

The Ten Greatest Seasons Played for Terrible Teams: Part I

July 18, 2012

Back in 2003, the Detroit Tigers were astoundingly bad.  They finished 43-119, the worst record of any major league team since the expansion New York Mets of 1962 (40-120).

As bad as they were, the Tigers had one player who had a terrific year that season: Dmitri Young.  On a team with almost no hitting, Young hit .297 with 29 HRs and a .909 OPS.  He was far and away the best performer on that team, and his performance that lost season was something I always remembered Dmitri for.

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the best seasons by players playing on truly awful teams since 1901.  My list is, of course, subjective, with extra credit going to players on truly the worst teams and to those players who did something particularly noteworthy.

Also, one of the most difficult things to do in baseball is for a pitcher to win games and post a strong winning percentage on teams that don’t win.  Thus, I gave pitchers special credit for wins and winning percentage.

Here goes in reverse order.

10 (Tie).  Randy Johnson for the 2004 Diamondbacks (51-111); Felix Hernandez for the 2010 Mariners (61-101).  Randy Johnson went 16-14 with a 2.60 ERA (2nd) and 290 strikeouts (1st).  Randy had the highest pitcher’s WAR (8.1) in the NL that year.  Even so, the D-Backs went 16-19 in his 35 starts, a .457 winning percentage, compared to 35-92 (.276) when someone else started.  As I said, it is extremely difficult for a pitcher to win games for a terrible team, no matter how well he pitches.

King Felix was the Cy Young Award winner in the Junior Circuit in 2010, despite a mediocre 13-12 record, because he led the AL in ERA (2.27) and pitcher’s WAR (6.8) and was only one off the lead in strikeouts (232).  The Mariners went 17-17 (.500) in the games Hernandez started, as opposed to 44-84 (.344) when someone else started.

Honorable Mention: Rick Reuschel for the 1985 Pirates (57-104); and Wilber Cooper for the 1917 Pirates (51-103). Reuschel went 14-8 with a 2.27 ERA (4th) for a bad Pirates team.  Wilber Cooper went 17-11 with a 2.36 ERA for another bad Pirates team.

9.  Frank Thomas for the 1962 Mets (40-120).  The ’62 Mets were the the worst team in living memory and is still fondly recalled by those old enough as a collection of players too old or too lacking in talent to beat anyone.  While that is mainly true, 33 year old left fielder Frank Thomas had his last great season as a successful major league slugger.

Thomas’ 34 HRs and 94 RBIs led the Mets in those categories by 18 and 35, respectively.  Even so, there wasn’t much Thomas could do to help a team this bad win.  For example, Thomas had five games in which he hit two home runs that year, all of which the Mets lost.

Thomas was also the best player on a couple of bad Pirates teams in the mid-1950’s.

8.  Ralph Kiner for the 1952 Pirates (42-112) and the 1950 Pirates (57-96).  Ralph Kiner is remembered to this day for the fine seasons he had for some truly awful Pirates teams in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.  1950 and 1952 are the best examples.

For the 1952 Pirates, the third worst team in terms of winning percentage since WWII, after the 1962 Mets and the 2003 Tigers, Kiner hit 37 HRs, good enough to tie for the league lead with that year’s NL MVP Hank Sauer.  Although Kiner hit only .244 that season, he led the Senior Circuit with 110 walks and finished with the league’s sixth best on-base percentage.

The 1950 Pirates were a much better team, relatively speaking, than the 1952 Pirates, but Kiner also had a much better season.  His 47 HRs lead the NL by 11, and his .998 OPS was second only to Stan Musial’s 1.034.

Kiner’s outfield defense was terrible, but his combination of power and walks was so prodigious that it eventually got him elected to the Hall of Fame.

7.  Ichiro Suzuki for the 2004 Mariners (63-99).  A number of players have won batting titles for last place teams; I rank Ichiro’s 2004 campaign as the best of the bunch.

Ichiro led the Junior Circuit with a .372 batting average and 9.0 WAR that year and set the single season hits record with 262.  Despite getting himself on base more than 300 times that season and running well enough to steal 36 bases in 47 attempts, Ichiro still scored only 101 runs, which says a lot about what the rest of the Mariners’ line up was doing that year.

Honorable Mention: Tony Gwynn for the 1987 Padres (65-97) and Edgar Martinez for the 1992 Mariners (64-98).  Gwynn led the NL with a .370 batting average and 8.3 WAR and also stole 56 bases (2nd).  Martinez the AL with a .343 batting average and hit 18 HRs; his .948 OPS was third best in the Junior Circuit.

6.  Chuck Klein for the 1933 Phillies (60-92).   Chuck Klein won the Triple Crown that year with a .368 batting average, 28 HRs and 120 RBIs.  He also lead the Senior Circuit in on-base percentage (.422) and slugging percentage (.602) that year.

Klein would rank higher on this list, except that he played his home games in the Baker Bowl, perhaps the best hitters’ park for left-handed sluggers in MLB history, at least since 1910.  The Baker Bowl was 280 feet down the right-field foul line and little more than 300 feet to right center, relying on a 60 foot high right-field wall to keep balls in the yard.

In fact, in 1933 Klein had a 1.305 OPS at home at the Baker Bowl but only a .774 OPS on the road.  Wow!  That puts Coors Field to shame.  Over his major league career, Klein’s home OPS was more than 200 points better than his road OPS, and after he was traded to the Cubs in 1934, he ceased to be a great player, although injuries and age also played a part in his decline as a hitter.

Also, the 1933 Phillies were not nearly as bad as some of the other teams on this list.

Stay tuned for Part II of this two-part series.

More on the Effects of MLB’s Slotting System for Draft Picks

July 5, 2012

I saw an interesting article on Sports Illustrated’s website stating that numerous draft picks at the bottom of the top ten rounds are signing bonuses for only $1,000, as teams try to save money to give other draftees more than slot money.

The Red Sox signed their 7th round pick Kyle Krause, a small right-hander who had a fine year as a senior at the University of Portland.  Krause wasn’t sure that he would be drafted by anyone, so he was willing to sign for a mere $1,000, agreed upon in advance of the draft.  The Red Sox thereby saved $142,000 on their top ten round pool to give to another prospect they like better.

The Red Sox, Mets and Blue Jays did the same thing again in the tenth round, thereby saving $124,000 in slot money on each of these picks.  The Red Sox used the extra money from the 7th and 10th rounds to sign their first round pick, Scott Boras client SS Deven Marrero for $2.05 million, well over slot.

In fact, Marrero had only fallen down to the Red Sox at the 24th pick because of his signability issues.  The mock drafts I’ve seen had him going somewhere between the 8th and 16th picks.

This strategy makes a lot of sense to me.  The odds of picking a useful major league player after the first six rounds is pretty slim, and by the 10th round slimmer still.  It does happen, of course, but as a matter of percentages, not all that often.  It makes a lot more sense to free up money so you can sign a player drafted in the top 100 or 200 you really want.

Interestingly, the Pirates are not one of the teams identified to have found an amateur player who would sign cheap in the later of the first ten rounds to free up money to sign their first round pick Mark Appel.  However, the Bucs did save $136,000 by signing their supplemental 1st round pick (45th overall), Texas Tech outfielder Barrett Barnes, for a cool $1 million.

It’s likely the Pirates will use any extra money they have after signing their remaining top ten round picks, plus the up to 5% overage, in order to make the highest possible offer to Appel/Boras at the July 15, 2012 signing deadline without costing the team future draft picks.  The Pirates could sorely use a pitcher like Mark Appel, but they realize Appel doesn’t have a lot of leverage, given that his only other options are going back to Stanford for his senior year or pitching in an independent A league, neither of which is likely to get him selected as one of the top three or four picks in next year’s draft.

The D-Train Is Done

July 3, 2012

The Orioles have confirmed that Dontrelle Willis is retiring at age 30.  It’s a shame.

Willis is from Alameda, California, not far from where I live in Berkeley.  He took the National League by storm as a young pitcher and ended up being another cautionary tale of making a pitcher younger than age 25 throw too many innings, following in the footsteps of Larry Dierker and Dwight “Doc” Gooden, and many others.

The thing I always loved about Dontrelle was his enthusiasm when he was young and good.  He was one of the best hitting pitchers of the last ten years — a little over a month ago, I rated him the second best hitting pitcher in MLB, behind only Micah Owings, based on reasonably objective criteria — and he clearly loved to play the game when the talent was bursting out of his uniform.

It doesn’t sound like Dontrelle had much of that old enthusiasm left.  After a mediocre performance as the Reds’ second-half fifth starter in 2011 (Dontrelle went 1-6 with a 5.00 ERA in 13 starts), he signed with the Phillies last December for around a $1 million, according to and wikipedia.

However, the Phillies released him in the middle of Spring Training (mid-March), which makes me think that Dontrelle had signed to a minor league contract or that Dontrelle had problems with the Phillies’ idea to re-invent him as a relief pitcher.  Dontrelle latched on with the Orioles, but after three April relief appearances Dontrelle asked for his release. The O’s wouldn’t give it too him, instead putting him on the reserve list.

Part of the dispute was apparently over whether or not Dontrelle was willing to be a relief pitcher, the Orioles, like the Phillies, thinking that’s where his future lay.  Dontrelle threatened to file a grievance through the players’ union, and he and the O’s ended up working out a deal where he would get another chance to start.  He made exactly one start for AAA Norfolk on June 28, gave four runs, all earned, in 2.2 innings, and has now apparently decided to retire.

There has been a lot of speculation about why Dontrelle flamed out, including being treated for an anxiety disorder in early 2009, but I’ll always believe that most of it was the fact that Dontrelle threw so many innings between age 21 and 24 (853.2, including his minor league innings).  I suspect that the anxiety disorder was in some part due to Dontrelle’s loss of confidence after his arm had given out.

One thing is for certain: Dontrelle’s command, at least based on his walk totals, deteriorated steadily after the 2005 season, until it reached the point where he wasn’t a major league pitcher any more.

Dontrelle was good just long enough to cash in with a three-year $29 million contract the Tigers gave him before the 2008 season.   Let’s hope he has some of that money left to take care of his young family now that his baseball career is apparently over.

If Dontrelle still has a love for the game, he could always go to the Independent-A Atlantic League for $3,000 to $5,000 a month and try to re-invent himself as position player.  His career major league .244 batting average and .665 OPS suggests there is an outside chance he could do it.  At this moment, though, that doesn’t seem very likely.

Dontrelle, I will miss you, and I hope your life beyond professional baseball is a good one.

San Francisco Giants sign Gustavo Cabrera and Nathanael Javier

July 2, 2012

Ben Badler of Baseball America reports that the Giants signed Baseball America’s 5th best Latin amateur Gustavo Cabrera for $1.3 million. ranks him as their top prospect.

The 16 year old Dominican centerfielder is 6′ and 190 lbs.  Cabrera has great tools, but his bat is a question mark.

The Giants also signed 3Bman Nathanael Javier, who is also Dominican and also from Santo Domingo, for $500,000. ranks Javier as the 11th best prospect available.  Baseball America reports the signing bonus as $475,000. Here’s a scouting report on Nathanael Javier.

The Giants have about $1.1 million left of their $2.9 million pool in 2012 for signing foreign free agent amateurs.

At least six Latin amateurs have signed for at least $1 million dollars so far, topped by Dominican shortstop Amed Rosario, whom the Mets signed for $1.75 million and Venezuelan SS/CF Franklin Barreto, whom the Blue Jays were expected to give nearly $2 million.

Teams will clearly have to decide whether they are going to choose quality or quantity.  For example, the Blue Jays also signed a second Venezuelan shortstop Luis Castro, who Baseball America rated the 9th best international prospect and ranked 12th.  The Jays must be pushing up against their entire $2.9 million allotment on these two players alone, if the early reports on Franklin Barreto’s signing bonus are accurate.