Fun with Errors

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baltimore Orioles, Baseball History, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Oakland A's, Philadelphia Phillies

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