The Ten Greatest Seasons Played for Terrible Teams: Part I

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.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Arizona Diamond Backs, Baseball History, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburg Pirates, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners

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