Some guys just seem to do their best when their opponents are the worst.
Well, I guess technically that’s true of everyone; part of being the worst is giving up the worst, after all. But some players take it to the next level. They whip the hell out of the little teams of this earth but then bomb out notably against actual teams.
These guys are the bumslayers. They know how to beat the teams anyone can beat and then flail around helplessly the rest of the time.
Let’s look at the biggest bumslayers of all time. In particular, let’s look at pitchers. After all, they have by far the biggest effect on the outcome of the games they start. Baseball-Reference.com offers career splits for everyone from 1916 onward, and I looked at all the guys with at least 100 wins in that time. We’ll use that as our sample size for looking for bumslayers.
We’ll use a few stats here: winning percentage, ERA, and OPS. Here’s how we determine membership. First, take the 456 guys with 100 wins and then rank them three ways: 1) ERA difference versus good teams and bums, 2) Difference in OPS against a pitcher by champs and chumps, and 3) winning percentage difference.
Once you have those ranks, add them up for a cumulative ranking. That gets you the final rankings, right?
Well, almost. There are a few tweaks needed. You see, some of the results don’t quite fit. Part of being a bumslayer is being both good against the bad teams and bad against the good teams. You might think that looking at the differences in records would yield the list perfectly, but it doesn’t. It turns out that some guys are so devastatingly effective against good teams that they make the list even though they’re actually halfway decent against good teams.
Technically speaking, they are bumslayers in the truest sense: they thwart bad teams like no one else. But here bumslayer means someone that can only slay bums. So we’ll throw out everyone with a career winning percentage of .450 or better against good teams. (Yeah, .450 isn’t a great mark, but we’re looking for the guys who are truly hapless against non-suck squads).
As long as we’re making tweaks, let’s add another: a pitcher must have 100 starts against bums and 100 starts against others. May as well look at guys with enough heft to their career to be worth looking at.
With that out of the way, here are the dozen biggest bumslayers of them all.
12. Scott Erickson
Erickson is our most recent bumslayer. If you look at his career record, its all pretty generic: a 142-136 record with a 4.59 ERA, good for an almost perfectly average 98 ERA+. Perfectly average, just like a man with one foot in ice water and the other in boiling water is, on average, doing fine.
Against bad teams, Erickson was 83-53 (.610) with a 4.09 ERA. But when good teams arrived, Erickson fell apart. His ERA ballooned by damn near a full point to 5.08 while he went 59-83.
Erickson’s main problem was one he couldn’t blame on his teammates for offensive or defensive non-support. His homers rate jumped up dramatically. He held bums to 0.71 home runs per nine innings, but with good teams that mark was 1.03.
(If you’re curious, the biggest bumslayer among pitchers who played in 2012 was Kevin Millwood. Well, Roy Oswalt has a worse score, followed by CC Sabathia, but those guys actually have been around .500 against good teams. Ryan Dempster also scores as a bigger bumslayer than Millwood and has a .415 winning percentage against good squads, but he hasn’t quite slayed enough bums, with only a .584 winning percentage against bad teams.)
11. Andy Messersmith
Messersmith is famous as the pitcher who ended the reserve clause and became a free agent. (He also became the first free agent bust, but that’s another story).
Messersmith has one of the biggest winning percentage differentials of any pitcher in history. Against bums, Messersmith was 85-39 (.685), a winning percentage near what Whitey Ford and Pedro Martinez did for their careers. So his 45-60 mark (.429) against quality teams is rather disappointing. That’ll happen when a 2.47 ERA and 573 OPS inflate up to 3.30 and 643, respectively.
In fact, Messersmith’s winning percentage difference is the fourth-worst by anyone in the last 50 years. The worst is Sabathia, who doesn’t make this list because he actually has a winning record against good teams (72-70, which is a bit below his stupendous 119-32 versus bums). Second-worst is a pitcher still to come.
Third-worst is Jack Morris. Yeah, Morris is a borderline bumslayer. He went 158-66 (.705) against bums but only 96-120 (.444) against quality teams. For all the talk of knowing how to win, he clearly realized that the best times to win are when the opponent is lacking. Or in Game Seven of the World Series.
10. Ted Lyons
Here is our only Hall of Fame bumslayer. Lyone made it to Cooperstown on the backs of the bums, posting a .630 mark (145-85) against also-rans while good teams went 115-145 (.442) against him.
That was a reflection of runs Lyons allowed. Not only did his ERA expand from 3.03 to 4.27, but if you include unearned runs, opponent scoring jumped from 3.68 to 5.17. (And in Lyons’ case, unearned runs really matter. He liked to throw the knuckler, and extra helpings of unearned runs come with throwing a trick pitch like the knuckler.)
Actually, Lyons’ inclusion points out a general trend. A lot of these guys weren’t that good at striking batters out. Lyons fanned barely 1,000 batters in over 4,000 innings, and adjust for era all you want, that ain’t very good. It’s actually the worst career K rate of any Hall of Famer in the last 100 years.
Some of the other guys here also had low strikeout rates for their era. (That was the case for Erickson, our most recent bumslayer.) It makes sense if you think about it. Guys with low K rates have more balls put in play against them, and that’s a dangerous thing to do against good teams.
That also explains why most of these guys are older pitchers. Lower punchout rates back in the day made people more likely to have bigger splits versus quality clubs and the bums.
Lyons struck out chumps and champs at equal rates, but he allowed a lot more walks to good teams.
He’s part of the answer to one of the most impossible trivia questions of all time: Who are the only pitchers between Cy Young and expansion to beat every major league club? Answer: MacFayden, Waite Hoyt, Tom Zachary, and Hank Borowy.
Despite losing over two-thirds of his decisions against good teams (.321), MacFayden won nearly two-thirds against bad teams (.620). He has the sixth-highest differential of any pitcher with at least 100 career wins since 1916.
8. Eric Show
Show, still the all-time winningest Padre pitcher, is the other guy with a starker winning percentage split. Against contenders, he was a dismal 36-58 (.383), but he lit up pretenders: 65-31 (.677).
No wonder he lost Game One of the 1984 NLCS, 13-0. In fact, in three postseason starts, he lasted a total of eight innings, yet he still found the time to offer up seven gopher balls in his postseason experiences.
Like several of these guys, Show achieved a fairly average overall career mark by having bipolar splits against teams. The highest-ranked pitcher bumslayer from the last half-century, Show was another guy who wasn’t very good at striking out hitters.
7. Flint Rhem
A 1920s-30s pitcher, Rhem is most famous for his off-field behavior, typically involving his drinking problem. He was one of those pitchers who never lived up to his potential. Perhaps he had an easier time overcoming his problems when the opponents weren’t very good.
The most well-known story about Rhem was his infamous “kidnapping” during the 1930 pennant race. With his Cardinals and the Dodgers vying for the pennant, Rhem was supposed to start against Brooklyn in mid-September. Instead, he turned up missing and later claimed that gangsters kidnapped him and forced him to drink all sorts of horrible stuff. No one believed the story, but given how Rhem did against good teams, maybe the Cardinals were better off.
He thrashed bad teams but good: a 3.66 ERA and 64-37 (.634) career mark. Against quality clubs, it was Mr. Hyde instead of Dr. Jekyll: 4.79 ERA and a 41-60 (.406) mark. Maybe those gangsters should’ve kidnapped him a few more times.
Both of his postseason starts were disasters. He allowed three runs in four innings against the Yankees in the 1926 World Series. Against the 1930 A’s he was even worse, surrendering six runs (four earned) in just 3.1 frames.
The 1959 Cy Young Award runner-up is yet another pitcher with seemingly moderate career numbers (102-101 record, 108 ERA+) who is a man with one foot in ice water and the other in boiling water.
Jones has the distinction of the biggest winning percentage split of anyone on this list. An impressive 63-32 (.663) against the weak sisters of baseball, Jones stumbled to a 39-69 (.361) record against everyone else.
Jones may be the worst on this list, but he’s not the worst all time. Alex Kellner takes that pride by going 50-89 (.360) against good teams but 51-23 (.689) against bad teams. (Kellner misses the overall list because he lacks the necessary number of starts, but his bumslaying record is still impressive enough to deserve a mention.)
Jones also trails two other pitchers: Fred Frankhouse (.707 versus bad teams, .397 versus good) and Spud Chandler (a nice 38-31 versus good teams, but an insane 71-12 versus bad ones). Frankhouse didn’t have enough starts, and Chandler’s winning record versus good teams disqualifies him.
5. Wills Hudlin
A good, though never great, pitcher in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly with the Indians, Hudlin ended up like most of the guys here: an overall record right around .500 (158-156) and a similarly even ERA+ (102). Is this system biased against .500 pitchers or something?
No, not really. If you think about it, those guys should score highest. Better pitchers will be hard-pressed to make the list because, at a certain point, if you’re that good, you won’t faceplant against the better teams too badly. Lesser pitchers shouldn’t make this list because they won’t slay as many bums.
Hudlin had an impressive awful ERA split: 3.77 versus 5.25. That’s the second-worst ever behind the following:
Bums Quality DIF Pitcher 3.63 5.39 1.76 George Blaeholder 3.45 5.21 1.76 Ray Benge 2.98 4.6 1.62 Bruce Kison 3.38 4.96 1.58 Lefty Stewart 2.43 3.96 1.53 Jered Weaver 3.77 5.25 1.48 Willis Hudlin
Blaeholder deserves some special mention. Aside from being tied for worst ERA differential, he also has the worst OPS differential: 784 versus 659. He doesn’t make the final list because his winning percentage difference is surprisingly meager (.402 versus good teams, but only .514 versus bums).
Another long-forgotten pitcher, Gray is one of just two pitchers here with a losing career record (MacFayden is the other one). Gray is also the first person to rank in the “top” 30 in every category, something that will be true of those coming up as well.
Gray’s weak spot—er, make that weakest spot—is ERA difference. At a mark of 3.51 versus chumps and 4.90 against champs, he just missed the chart above.
Okay, now here we have an honest-to-God notable pitcher. This is someone Bill James ranked as the 61st-best pitcher in baseball history in his Historical Baseball Abstract. But here he is because he ranks in the bottom 20 in every category.
Want to talk ERA? Trucks’ ERA exploded when he had to face good teams: 3.97 versus 2.76.
Want to talk OPS? I haven’t mentioned it too much because, well frankly, it’s less catchy that the others, but players on good teams had nearly a 100-point advantage over bum batters against Trucks: 695 versus 603.
Want to walk winning percentage? Trucks went 101-40 (.716) against bums but 76-95 (.444) against bad teams. Granted, he barely qualifies for this list given I stipulated that a pitcher had to be .450 or worse against good teams, but given his overall bad marks, Trucks earns his place here.
Again, it’s a prominent pitcher, in this case a two-time 20-game winner and 1954 NL ERA champion. With a career ERA+ of 116, he was quite a bit better than an average pitcher. Then again, his overall numbers can be quite deceiving. Forget the typical Jekyll/Hyde performance shared by all bumslayers, what really sets Antonelli apart is how much of his career workload came against bums.
Only 801 of his career 1,992.1 innings came against teams .500 or better, barely 40 percent of his career total. Of the 456 players in the database, only three had a smaller percentage of innings come against good teams: Jim Hearn, George Pipgras, and Pat Hentgen. (Aand in Hentgen’s case it was by the smallest of slivers, just two-thousands of a percent difference between Antonelli and him.)
Antonelli has the worst OPS difference of anyone listed here, 111 points (744 by superior squads, 633 by lesser clubs).
In his defense, Antonelli was great in his only World Series performance. He helped the 1954 Giants sweep the Indians with a complete-game victory in one contest and a save in the fourth and final game.
Stewart was a 1920s-30s AL pitcher who ended with exactly the sort of record you’d expect: 101-98 with a slightly above-average park-adjusted ERA.
On the one hand, Stewart’s placement reveals an internal bias in the system. It’s not a bias in favor of .500 pitchers, but for guys who pitched in the AL in the 1920s and 30s. Back in the days of yore, there was a much bigger split between good teams and bad teams. This stark separation causing that era to have more bumslayers here, such as Gray, Hudlin, and Stewart. In fact, Stewart and Gray were teammates on the Browns, alongside George Blaeholder, the king of the ERA and OPS differential.
Okay, but even if an era bias hurts Stewart, he still scores worse than anyone in his era here, which makes him a legitimate pick for No. 1 Bumslayer.
As noted already, he has the fourth-worst ERA differential. His OPS rank is nearly as bad, 647 for bad teams, 753 for good teams, one of the few men to be over 100. All that helped him post a 61-34 (.642) record against bums but 40-64 (.385) against quality clubs. Good teams turned the bumslayer into a slayed bum.
In fact, of the 12 guys listed here, Stewart also has the worst change in walk rate. He walked just 1.98 per nine innings when facing weak clubs, but that number zoomed to 3.19 versus good teams. Of the 456 guys on file, only Ellis Kinder had a worse split.
Similarly, his home run rate doubled from 0.40 per nine innings to 0.82, the eighth-worst increase by any of the pitchers. The worst? Yup, that’s right, Stewart’s old partner in crime, George Blaeholder, from 0.51 per nine to 1.10.
Terrible ERA split. Terrible OPS split. Terrible winning percentage split. Terrible home run split. Terrible base-on-balls split. Is there any way Stewart doesn’t come off terrible? Actually, yeah. He did a better job striking out hitters on good teams. His improvement is actually one of the 10 best on file there. Good figure. (The worst? Jim Maloney.)
Still, despite that, Stewart comes off as the bumslayer of all bumslayers.
References & Resources
I first heard the term “bumslayer” listening to WSCR 670 AM in Chicago. From memory, it comes from former Boers & Bernstein producer Jason Goff.