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.