Making the best of the worst

Half a year ago, I conjured up a new way of looking at the original expansion teams of 1961 and 1962. I took the players selected in the teams’ expansion drafts, and by looking at their best career performances, both for a single year and a three-year peak, calculated whether the draft classes could ever have formed a good team for the clubs selecting them. The answers were three yeses, and a dissenting no from the New York Mets.

I said at the time that I might run the experiment again for later expansions. I also diverted myself with another notion. “I’m starting to wonder,” I wrote then, “how well the best years of the 1962 Mets draft class would have stacked up against the 1899 Cleveland Spiders at their peak.”

This musing actually got a bit of support in the Comments section, and as usual, that’s good enough for me. But while re-jiggering the 1899 Spiders is a great starting point, it requires a little more to satisfy the curious baseball mind. So I am expanding the thought experiment to some of the other candidates for the worst team major league baseball has ever seen. If you aligned their players’ peak years on these awful teams, would it be enough to vault them to championships?

Joining the Spiders will be: the 2003 Tigers, a club that makes the current Astros look like contenders; the 1952 Pirates, who couldn’t quite demolish the reputation Branch Rickey had built in his career but got close; and the 1915-16 Philadelphia A’s, the result of Connie Mack‘s first great demolition of a dynasty. And because no roll call of futility would be complete without them, I will include the 1962 Mets. It won’t be just their draft class’s peak (a doleful 76-84) matching up with the Spiders, but their whole original roster.

Ground rules

This time, I am eschewing the three-year peaks, and going straight with the best year had by each player on each team. The three-year span had some utility when dealing with expansion teams, who might be expected to have an eye on the longer term. We’re slipping into something a little more fantastic here, and I won’t pretend otherwise.

But even fantasy needs boundaries: at least good fantasy does. My rules are similar to those I chose for the original article, but there are changes. For one, where insufficient plate appearances at a position were available, I filled in with replacement-level work last time. I won’t do that here. Sub-replacement players will go in where needed, which it will be a couple of times.

I calculated the average number of plate appearances and innings pitched for teams in the respective leagues, and made that the goal for each team. Being a really bad team should mean your batters have fewer plate appearances than average, and slightly fewer innings pitched as well. (They aren’t pitching the bottom of the ninth in road games as often as the rest, and probably don’t reach extra innings as often either.) Not knowing in advance how good these teams will end up with their “best-ever” rosters, I though using league averages made sense.

Positions must be filled for the whole season, as noted above. This means at least a full season’s worth of starts by the pitching staff. I’m more flexible in the field. If a majority of a player’s games were at one position, I assume he could play the whole year there. Substantial minorities get expanded consideration; how I handle a smaller minority in a peculiar case, you will see. I also allowed for pinch-hitting duty, on a sliding scale as it became more or less prevalent across eras.

I limited myself to 25 players for each roster, the same as in real life (at least for the later teams). Of course, teams never have the same 25 players on the roster for the whole season, but this serves to keep me from gaming the scenarios. Otherwise, I could stitch together high WAR-rate, low PA/IP seasons to create an artificial boost. I’ll still try to do that, but I’ll have limited maneuvering room.

When deciding what year was “best” for a player, I occasionally held open a choice between two. Sometimes it was because a player had a higher WAR rate per PA or IP in a short season contending with higher raw WAR, but a lower rate, in a fuller season. Sometimes in earlier seasons, it was because somebody had one peak as a position player, and another as a pitcher. I would select whichever season fit his team’s needs better.

Speaking of WAR, I am using bWAR throughout. Baseball-Reference just has the broader historical coverage.

Any other hiccups that crop up, I will explain as I get to them. Now it’s time to let imagination take flight. Counting down from the present day …

2003 Detroit Tigers

This most recent of the historically bad teams I’m examining throws us an early curveball, in that the peaks of its component players are not all known yet. Of the 43 men who played for that club, 10 are either still active in the majors, or are in Triple-A and have at least a plausible chance of returning to the bigs. Four of them had their best seasons in 2010 or later: Ramon Santiago, Omar Infante, Andres Torres and Fernando Rodney.

I wouldn’t say I’m counting on any of these players putting up a career best in the next year or two, but they’re still in the game. It isn’t impossible, just very, very improbable. (The best chance may lie with current minor-league pitcher Shane Loux. His career-best WAR was an 0.3 in 2008. If he got promoted and had a good short stretch, he could crack that before regression set in.) Any new personal best probably wouldn’t move the overall numbers much, but still my results are technically provisional.

The Tigers were famously on pace to beat the 1962 Mets’ modern record of 120 losses in a season, before a homestretch 5-1 surge got them to the finish line at 43-119. It was still a milestone of futility, which made it truly amazing that three years later, Detroit would win the AL pennant. That is easily the fastest rise to glory among the teams in this survey. The 1916 A’s took 13 years, the 1952 Pirates eight, the 1962 Mets needed seven to fashion their miracle, and the poor Spiders never got the chance to rebound. (If you count their syndicate-mates in St. Louis, it took 27 years for them to fly a pennant.)

The ’03 Tigers fit in with a pattern that holds fairly well across these teams: Their pitchers make a bigger hole than their position players. Detroit’s staff staggered to a -1.1 WAR on the season, while the position players managed a 5.4 WAR. if we go by the principle that a replacement-level team should perform at a .294 clip—this is where replacement level is calculated—that would make the Tigers’ expected record 52-110. Instead, their Pythagorean record was 49-113, and their actual wins and losses came to 43-119. We’ll also see this pattern a lot with the teams to come.

For points of reference, the best performance on the team was by Dmitri Young, posting a 3.4 as a half-time designated hitter, one-third time left fielder, and occasional third baseman. He’d never do better. The second best player on the Tigers was second baseman Warren Morris, with just a 1.7. Two WAR for a season is considered to be roughly average for a starting player. It says a lot that the second-best player on this team was, by that measure, below average. And it was also Morris’ best season in the majors.

The 2003 Tigers had eight players putting together their best major league seasons. In two cases, it was their only season, and several other had short careers, but this disaster of a year was still the personal peak for both Young and third baseman Eric Munson, who played 13 and nine seasons respectively. For the teams I’m looking at, eight personal bests is actually a low number.

The pitchers did moderately well in their peak seasons. The best number comes from Steve Avery, whose 16 sub-replacement innings ending his career make the team eligible for his 5.5 WAR season back with Atlanta. The strength comes from the relievers, and not only due to Fernando Rodney’s super 2012 with the Rays producing a 3.8 WAR. Other bullpen guys like Danny Patterson and Jamie Walker had nice little peaks, producing good WAR rates in 60 or 70 innings. Piece enough of those together, and things add up: in this case, to a 26.7 WAR for the pitchers’ peaks.

The position players do better, as is the expected pattern, but better even than usual. One quirk is that the starting catcher, Brandon Inge, ended up switching to third base and having his career year in the pennant season of 2006 (a 4.9). Carlos Pena leads the pack, his outstanding 2007 campaign with the Rays contributing a 7.2 WAR. Andres Torres’ 2010 with the champion Giants and Bobby Higginson‘s 2000 in Motown add five-WAR years to the mix. Overall, the peaks of the position players total up to 42.9 WAR.

To produce a record for these combined-peak teams, I’ll take the difference between peak WAR and real-life WAR, and add that to the actual win-loss record. All teams will get full-season records this time, even if real life left them short.

               Record  Real WAR  Peak WAR  Diff.  Peak Record
2003 Tigers    43-119     4.3      69.6    65.3      108-54

Thus you see the magic that the creative realignment of careers can work. The worst team of the third millennium ends up with the record of the Big Red Machine of 1975. Even the pennant winners who grew out of this club in three years’ time finished 13 games short of that mark.

But with the heightened competitive balance of our era, maybe today’s terrible is a different animal from yesterday’s terrible. Other examples of futility may not be able to measure up, the way they once measured down.

1962 New York Mets

So much has been said and written about this team than anything I add would be like piling a few more bricks atop the Great Wall of China. But as I recall, there are a few gaps in the Great Wall, so here I go.

The other teams in this article are relatively balanced in one respect. The players whose best year was behind them roughly matched with those whose best years were ahead. There’s one big exception where the rising youngsters outnumber the declining oldsters, which I’ll get to later. The ’62 Mets fall to the opposite side. In putting the team together, George Weiss and his crew picked up plenty of veterans whose peaks, high as they were, were well behind. Their success at picking out kids with a bright future was less notable.

Of the 45 original New York Mets, 10 had their career years in 1962. Two of them never played in the majors again, and the longest career among the rest was seven years, for Marv Throneberry. (Yes, Marvelous Marv had his career peak on the 1962 Mets. Seems so apt.) Of the remaining 35, 24 had their peaks in 1961 or earlier, and just 11 would have them in 1963 or later. This was not a team built for a climb toward respectability.

Look at the records of their front-line pitchers, and you would think this was the black hole of the team. We’ve learned that pitcher wins and losses are deceptive, and here’s a good example. Pitching WAR, at 3.1, was not far from the position player WAR of 6.4. Individually, the best two player seasons on the team were by starters Roger Craig and Al Jackson, at 3.0 apiece. Granted, no other pitcher reached even 1 WAR, but their years beat out the best of the position players, the 2.6 of Frank Thomas and the 2.1 of Richie Ashburn.

If you want another ray of light for the team, consider the following. Of the six teams I looked at, all had at least one starting position player with a negative WAR—except for the 1962 Mets. Joe Christopher, listed by Baseball-Reference as the starting right fielder though really just a half-time player, dances on the line with a 0.1 WAR. Marv Throneberry himself managed a 0.3. Even Chris Cannizzaro, “starting” catcher with 156 plate appearances, turns in a 0.5.

This raises a point I mentioned in the prequel article. The 1962 Mets went through catchers like flipping through pages of a book. They played six catchers, none with even 200 plate appearances. For all that instability, at least three of the backstops—Cannizzaro, Sammy Taylor and Choo Choo Coleman—turned in 0.5 WAR or better in very limited playing time. Given a full season, they were on track to post WAR numbers at least approaching two, respectable bordering on average. For all the aspects of the team derided as hapless, the position of catcher might have gotten the worst rap.

The Mets’ 40-120 record was a full 10 games below their Pythagorean projection, and worse if you looked at WAR. The 9.6 WAR compiled by the players would be expected to produce 57 wins in 160 games, a mark the Mets undershot by a stunning 17 wins. This puts the team in an early hole: WAR improvement will end up adding to the 40 wins, not the 57.

In personal bests, the Mets pitchers get boosts all around. Starters Craig, Jackson and Jay Hook get bumps from their best seasons, while 1-12 starter Bob Miller, converted to a reliever in 1971, racked up a great 3.9 WAR in less than 100 innings. Vet Vinegar Bend Mizell played out the string in ’62, but posted a 4.4 with the 1953 Cardinals.

The real bounce comes from four back-end pitchers, all with less than 16 innings for the Metsies: Galen Cisco, Dave Hillman, Herb Moford and Clem Labine. Labine is the ringer, having pitched pretty well for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, but the others had useful peaks that belie their passage through this baseball Purgatory. All told, I can wring 28.2 WAR out of the Mets’ pitchers at their zeniths.

The position players are even more fertile ground. When you’ve got Gil Hodges for first base, Richie Ashburn, Gene Woodling and Gus Bell for the outfield, and Jim Hickman (for his shockingly good 1970 with Durocher’s Cubs) filling in between those two areas, you have a great foundation. This helps balance a little infield shakiness (though Charlie Neal was quite nice at second with the 1959 Dodgers) to put together a 41.6 WAR for them. Add that up, and this is what you get:

             Record  Real WAR  Peak WAR  Diff.  Peak Record
1962 Mets    40-120     9.6      69.8    60.2      100-62

Their gain is a little less than for the 2003 Tigers, due to having a better underlying WAR—and who would have expected that? A 100-62 record doesn’t look world-beating compared to the Tigers’ peak record, but do recall that the 1969 Mets won the whole ball of wax with that very same 100-62 mark.

This represents a late vindication of the 1962 Mets. In my earlier article, they were the only one of the four early expansion teams that didn’t produce a winning record from the peaks of their expansion draft class. A new method finally gets them over the top.

1952 Pittsburgh Pirates

Branch Rickey was supposed to make the Pirates a powerhouse. He had done so with the Cardinals, thanks to his invention of farm systems, and with the Dodgers, largely through his racial re-integration of the game. His second full season as general manager at Pittsburgh, though, was much more like Dem Bums than the Boys of Summer. From seventh place in 1951, the Pirates crashed through the basement into the sub-cellar, posting a horrid 42-110 record. That’s six wins below their Pythagorean record, and 12 below what WAR indicates.

Unusually for truly terrible teams, they did it mainly with position player ineptitude. Pirates pitchers posted 7.6 WAR out of the team’s total of 8.5. They did this despite 12 of their 20 pitchers performing at sub-replacement levels, including one of the most infamous young busts of the bonus baby era, Ron Necciai (-1.1 WAR in 54.2 innings, year and career). The credit stands mostly with Murry Dickson, pitching for 5 WAR despite a 14-21 record. This beat out even Ralph Kiner (4.5, and his seventh straight home run crown) as best on the team.

The doom of the Pirates position players was the lack of a bench. Bad enough that three starting players ended up with negative WAR, but only three of the 17 bench players on the team could get their WAR above zero—and one was traded away midseason. Overall seven Pirates had more than 100 plate appearances and a WAR below water.

Two familiar names on the roster catch the eye. Gus Bell and Frank Thomas (not the one who’s getting into the Hall of Fame this afternoon, or at least soon) labored for the ’52 Bucs, and a decade later reunited on the 1962 Mets. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

But it’s instructive that they were still around to participate on that second epically bad ball team. Bell had a 15-year career, Thomas 16 years. They were good enough players to last a very long time in the major leagues. Bad teams, even truly stink-o teams, happen to good players sometimes. This is perhaps the theme of the current work, and there will be more evidence for it.

Of course, bad teams also happen to very marginal players. Six of the 1952 Pirates had their first, last and only taste of majors in that season. Three others managed to have their peak years for them, including catcher Joe Garagiola at 2.6 WAR. Garagiola would almost make a second career on the lecture circuit out of recalling how bad this team was, so it’s ironic that it represents his own personal apogee on the field.

A more unusual phenomenon is that seven of the ’52 Pirates would not play in the majors at all in 1953, yet return later to play. Two were due to military inductions, but that leaves five, all but one of whom spent multiple years in the wilderness before returning to the Show. One, Jack Phillips, was a six-year veteran before this lacuna. Of the four rookies, three were teens, with Jim Mangan the oldest at 22. This seems to have been a Rickey tactic: call up a eager youngster, plug him in, and if he doesn’t pan out, send him back to mature some more then try again. I can’t say it worked.

Looking at peak performance, the Pirates pitching staff builds on its very relative success. Along with Dickson, they had some good arms on the staff, including Howie Pollet, Bob Friend and Ron Kline. All of them contributed plentiful starts and 5.0 WAR or more in their best seasons. That provides the bulk of a 28.6 peak WAR for the pitchers.

The position players aren’t quite as fruitful. Kiner’s an obvious gold mine, and Dick Groat would mint a superb 7.1 WAR with the 1963 Cardinals (better than his 1960 MVP season), but he loses some of that value to plate-appearance restrictions in the shorter 154-game season. Both our future original Mets, Bell and Thomas, also get to contribute, but corner infield problems are a serious drag. First base nets a mere 1.7 WAR, awful for what should be peak performance at a marquee offensive position. The field players come up to an even 34 WAR.

Run them through the Brundle-team machine, and we get this:

                Record  Real WAR  Peak WAR  Diff.  Peak Record
1952 Pirates    42-110     8.5      62.6    54.1      96-58

Despite the lower win total, that’s a slight improvement on the 1962 Mets. By the way, when the Pirates, building on Rickey’s good minor-league work, finally won it all in 1960, they did it with a season record of 95-59, one game worse than this.

But at least these Pirates were trying. What happens when a ball club deliberately throws in the towel?

1915-1916 Philadelphia A’s

The collapse of the Philadelphia dynasty of the early 1910s was a result of the business of baseball overwhelming the game of baseball. Competition from the Federal League was tempting players to jump leagues, and driving up salaries in an effort by owners to keep players where they were. Connie Mack, his A’s coming off their fourth pennant in five seasons, concluded that it did not make financial sense to attempt to maintain his team’s excellence. It was better for the bottom line to sell out.

If anything, he did so too slowly. Star pitchers Eddie Plank and Albert “Chief” Bender jumped to the Federal League in early December of 1914, leaving Mack with no compensation for their departure. Days later, his hand forced, he began the dismantling of his famed “$100,000 Infield,” so named because that’s how much people thought he could get if he sold the four players’ contracts. Justifying the nickname, Mack got $50,000 from the White Sox for Eddie Collins, beginning a sell-off that only the Marlins of 1997-98 and 2012-13 have matched in recent times.

Mack’s A’s took a historic plunge from the pennant to the basement. From 99 wins in 1914, the team went to a disastrous 43-109 in 1915, and even this wasn’t enough. Mack sold off shortstop Jack Barry in mid-year to the Red Sox for $10,000. After the season, third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker, who had held out the whole year in a salary dispute, went to the Yankees for $37,500. There was more, some of which I’ll recount in a few paragraphs.

1916 was even worse than the previous nightmare. The A’s posted a 36-117 mark, for the worst winning percentage of the 20th century. They would climb out of the 100-loss catacombs in 1917, but not finish better than last place until 1922. 1915 and 1916 are the true nadir, which is why I am covering them both.

Despite the utter collapse, the 1915 A’s had a wealth of talent, past and future if not often present. To replace Collins, Mack brought in 40-year-old Nap Lajoie, an outstanding player in what was admittedly an increasingly distant past. Outfielder Amos Strunk was good and getting better, and Wally Schang had a bright future, if his present was muddled for reasons I’ll explain soon. Their pitching staff held three young and rising talents: Bullet Joe Bush, Bob Shawkey and Herb Pennock.

You likely know the latter two as stalwarts of the New York Yankees of the 1920s, which means they didn’t stick around to become the core of a resurgent A’s team. They didn’t even last out 1915. Mack sold Shawkey off in midseason to the Yankees, for a mere $3,000. Pennock, he put on waivers. Neither had dazzled in his Philadelphia work, but it was still a terrible case of double myopia on Mack’s part.

Shawkey and Pennock are emblematic of an imbalance on the team, the reverse of the one the 1962 Mets had. Nine of the 1915 A’s had had their best seasons in the past; 20 were to have them in the future. The real shocker is that 27 players on the team were having their best season ever—and for a full 20 of them, it was their only big-league season. The A’s were a revolving door that year, with 56 players passing through the roster, as opposed to 39 in their pennant campaign of 1914.

The two pitchers are also emblematic of how the A’s, who hit bedrock on ’15, would contrive to dig deeper in ’16. Despite Strunk and Bullet Joe Bush maturing into five-plus WAR players, career marks both, there was a plethora of teammates putting in sub-replacement work, primarily on the pitching staff, rendering their efforts futile. Position players were not hopeless for either squad, offering 8.5 and 9.1 WAR respectively, but the pitchers went from a horrid -2.0 WAR to a Lovecraftian -9.2. The entire 1916 A’s roster performed just a hair below replacement level.

The strong leavening of past and future stars gives the 1915 A’s good prospects in the best-year game. Shawkey and Pennock peaked close to eight WAR; Bush topped out in the high fives. There are even a couple of players who switched between the mound and the field helping the team out. Socks Seibold was a little-used shortstop in 1915, but he’d become an effective pitcher, topping out at 4.0 WAR with the 1930 Red Sox. Put together, it’s a 29.9 peak WAR for these pitchers, best in the survey.

Poised to do even better are the position players, except for a serious snag. Their primary third baseman that year was Schang, who for most of his career, including his peak, was a catcher. There’s nobody else on the team with nearly enough third base time in his peak season to fill in.

My solution was to shift a superstar. In Lajoie’s peak season of 1906, he played mainly at second, but had 15 games at third. I decided to reassign him to full-time hot corner duty, at a cost of a one-WAR deduction from his peak value. Since that value in 1906 was 10 WAR, this knocks him down to a still-studly 9.0.

But filling this hole opens another: now there’s nobody to play second base. I need someone else with infield flexibility—and there was someone who had it. Jack Barry played short on the A’s until he was sent midseason to the Red Sox. Once there, he played out the year exclusively at second base. Close enough. His peak 4.7 WAR campaign from 1913 now gets assigned to second base, filling the final hole. Led by a slightly hobbled Lajoie, the position players come up to a 42.5 WAR, the deduction just costing them top honors that now stay with the 2003 Tigers.

The further sell-off in 1916, though, takes the starch out of this great rebound, largely from the pitchers. Shawkey and Pennock are no longer around, and fill-ins like Weldon Wyckoff and Jing Johnson tended to top out at two or three WAR. The 1916 pitching staff musters a mere 19.7 peak WAR, the worst figure of all six teams.

The position players still have Lajoie around—and he’s still at third. Baker’s absence was something Mack could not cover with these teams. He kept swapping in players, to nobody’s satisfaction. This year, the pick was Charlie Pick, barely above replacement, as Schang did some catching but more left fielding. Luckily, Pick’s peak, a relative concept, came playing at second base. We need only switch Pick and Lajoie, once again imposing the one-WAR fine.

But Pick and shortstop Whitey Witt didn’t play full seasons in their peak years, leaving plenty of infield time to fill. It ends up being sub-replacement players like Lee McElwee, Otis Lawry and Harland Rowe, all of whom played only 1916 in the bigs, taking up the slack. This pulls the position player numbers down a bit, to 38.4 WAR.

          Record  Real WAR  Peak WAR  Diff.  Peak Record
1915 A's  43-109    -0.1      72.4    72.5     106-48
1916 A's  36-117     6.5      58.1    51.6      88-66

Even with the core of the team gone and a remainder with not much commitment to players with great work in their past (Lajoie the clear exception), the 1915 A’s produce a peak-year value that leaves the team stronger than any of the dynasty years that preceded it, or any of the other fantasy teams here. But Mack’s sell-off continued even after the Federal League went belly-up, and the 1916 edition was so bereft of past or future talent that, even with fantastical manipulation, they come off as no better than good, weakest of the lot.

(Incidentally, I rounded up on the 1915 A’s just for the slightly more awesome numbers. They would still have the best peak record yet, better than the 2003 Tigers, if I had rounded down.)

And now for the question that inspired this whole journey. Can the worst team ever rise to respectability, even in our dreams?

1899 Cleveland Spiders

The story isn’t quite as familiar as the 1962 Mets’, but it’s an even more dire one, and with no 1969-style happy ending. In short, Frank and Stanley Robison, owners of the Spiders, bought up the last-place St. Louis Browns in 1898. Looking to make a great team out of a good team and a bad one, they sent all the good players to St. Louis, leaving Cleveland with the dregs. St. Louis, renamed the Perfectos (“Cardinals” was yet to come) did barely better than the Spiders had the previous year. Cleveland did unfathomably worse than St. Louis had.

With the Spiders’ 20-134 mark a scorching indictment of “syndicate” ownership, the National League banned anyone in the future from owning more than one club. They also contracted the league, swollen to 12 teams after absorbing part of the American Association early in the decade, down to eight. Cleveland, a first-division squad until just the season before, was erased, never to have a chance to redeem itself.

Here this exercise faces the ultimate challenge. Can it make something good out of a cohort of players chosen specifically because they were the worse half of a larger group?

The looming task is daunting in the extreme. The Spiders’ position players managed a combined -3.1 WAR, and were far ahead of the pitching staff. Those poor beggars plumbed the depths, finishing at a -17.3 WAR—which perhaps should be rendered as 17.3 WBR (Wins Below Replacement). Not a single hurler on the team, including three who played both the field and the mound, could lift himself even to flat replacement level. They had had one who would have done so easily, but Cy Young got shipped to St. Louis.

Position players don’t improve the outlook much. Just four starters and five subs managed to post a positive WAR as position players. Two of them, Jack Stivetts and Harry Colliflower, gave it back and more with their efforts at pitching, leaving seven players total with plus WAR. And three of them got traded away in midseason, two over to St. Louis.

The best WAR on the entire team was a 1.0, shared between part-time catchers Ossee Schrecongost and Chief Zimmer. They both got traded. Third place on the team was the 0.7 of Joe Sugden, another catcher. Somehow they neglected to dump him also.

The Pythagorean record of the Spiders was 26-128, six games better than reality. (This is always true for the historically bad teams, just as historically great teams can be counted on to outperform their Pythag.) Go by WAR, and their projection is for 25-129.

If you have made it this far without flinching away in horror, you are about to get some relief. There were actually some decent, even good, players on the 1899 Spiders, just not good that year. The road leading to them, however, has a couple of ruts, starting with the pitchers.

The best pitching season for anyone who played with the 1899 Spiders was by Jack Stivetts. He compiled 7.6 WAR hurling for the 1891 St. Louis Browns of the American Association, not to mention an added 1.8 WAR batting and playing some outfield. There are two stumbling blocks with using this season. One is that the American Association was likely a weaker league than the National League, and his WAR should perhaps be docked for this disparity. It’s a fair argument, but not a decisive one.

What is decisive is that pitching was much different in 1891 than it was in 1899. You had the flat pitcher’s box rather than the mound, allowing a short run-up before release, and the pitching distance was 50 feet rather than the familiar 60 feet, six inches. Pitchers could and did throw considerably more in those circumstances. Stivetts in 1891 made 56 starts, completing 40 of them, plus had eight games in relief, for a total of 440 innings.

Given this big alteration, I cannot say that Stivetts’ pitching in 1891 was comparable to 1899 conditions, and I have to set aside that season. In its place, I use his 1894 campaign with the Boston Beaneaters. He had a much more reasonable 39 starts that year, and put together 4.9 WAR pitching along with 1.1 WAR for batting and position play in the outfield and at first base.

That’s still a good season, and there’s even better. Willie Sudhoff notched a 6.6 WAR in 1903, also with the St. Louis Browns, though this was the American League’s version. Throw in some creditable seasons from Jim Hughey and Still Bill Hill, plus a very good 1902 stub from Highball Wilson (two WAR in less than 100 innings), and the peak Spiders pitchers climb to 23.8 WAR.

Milking excellence out of the position players is hobbled by a quirk at shortstop. Harry Lochhead handled … well, occupied the position in ’99 for a -1.5 WAR. His best season ever, stretching the definition, was a combined -0.4 WAR with two teams in the 1901 AL. He played 10 games total. So we need some other peak season for shortstop, except that there aren’t any. Sport McAllister played there in less than a third of the 1903 Tigers’ games in his peak season. The highest number after that is seven.

This is the Philadelphia third-base problem all over again, only worse, and it requires a similar solution. I can patch some useful PAs at shortstop from other players, but for the bulk of it, I require the grave expedient of using Lochhead’s actual 1899 season. That makes shortstop for the Spiders the only position on all these peak teams to still end up with a negative WAR.

There’s some help from other positions. Lave Cross was a fine third baseman in his time, with a 5.3 WAR in 1894. Tommy Tucker was that much better at first for the 1889 Orioles, posting a 5.9. The numbers start to sink from there, however, and the total from position players comes to a modest 26.3, the worst of this dirty half-dozen by a wide stretch.

That gives the peak 1899 Spiders a total WAR of 50.1, again the caboose on this train. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the original article was so ghastly, this represents a gain of over 70 WAR, the second-best figure among the six. The bad news (it’s the Spiders: there’s always more bad news) is that they’re still digging out of much the deepest hole.

                Record  Real WAR  Peak WAR  Diff.  Peak Record
1899 Spiders    20-134   -20.4      50.1    70.5    90.5-63.5

I couldn’t decide whether to round up or down, to reflect the real-life hopelessness or the fantasy redemption. Even in fantasy, the outlook isn’t all sunshine: whichever way the 154th game fell, it would have given Cleveland just the fourth-best record in the 1899 National League. If I go beyond static scoring and deduct from other teams the wins that the Spiders would now get instead, I can hoist them up to second place, but the 101-47 Brooklyn Superbas are too far out of reach.

As for the comparison with the New York Mets that triggered this whole thing, it all depends how you want to make the comparison. Going by the peaks of their draft class, the Mets at 76-84 fall far behind the rehabilitated Spiders. Matching them both up by full-roster peak values, the Mets finish well ahead. So like Mets manager Casey Stengel, I made up my mind, but I made it up both ways. You can pick whichever answer works better for you.

An unequivocal answer is that, even in this small group of six awful teams, the Spiders did manage to beat one out. The best-case 1916 White Elephants end up two or three games behind the best-case Spiders. This is a rare time when the Clevelanders of 1899 will not come out as the worst team ever. I hope their ghosts are enjoying the moment.

The moral of the story

When we say a baseball player is bad, there is always an unspoken qualification. The player is bad compared to his environment, compared to the other players at his current level, compared to expectations. Measure any major league player against the universe of all baseball players, from the casual through to the professional, and he shines through as extraordinary, even if he’s batting a buck ninety-four.

The same shorthand applies when we talk about teams. Most baseball teams on Earth would sell off family members to be as skilled as the 1952 Pirates or the 2003 Tigers—if baseball actually mattered that much to them. That doesn’t affect our rhetoric. The teams are terrible, as their terrible records against the absolute best teams in the world demonstrate.

Implied, or sometimes explicit, in how we talk about those teams is a judgment of the players on them. Teams don’t get to be terrible unless the players on them are performing terribly. Doesn’t that, ipso facto, make them terrible players? And speaking of them in context of one terrible team tends to freeze them in that role. You tend to think, absent obvious knowledge to the contrary, that this defines them. They were terrible that year; they are eternally terrible.

Looking through the prism I have provided you in this article, we get a much different view. Even on horrific teams, there are plenty of players who have excellence within them, even excellence judged by the most stringent of standards. They defy the easy labels. They make us rethink, if just for a moment, the scales on which we measure individual and collective performance.

And if they didn’t have a good season that particular year, that’s inevitable eventually. Even Mike Trout will have a bad year sometime, presumably in the early 2030s. It won’t be the sum total of his career. As we look back on the cellar-dwellers of history, we can remember that one season’s record is not the sum total of all those players’ careers, either.

So next time you wince as the Houston Astros or the Miami Marlins take the field, take a second to think about how good some of those players are going to be someday. (In the case of Jose Fernandez, you may omit “someday.”) That’s the shared faith of so many fans, and there’s a little truth to back it up.

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Comments

  1. Paul G. said...

    This is fun!

    I think Chief Zimmer was released by the Spiders, not traded.  Yeah, the Spiders unloaded a catcher batting .342 for nothing.  Apt.  He was 38-years-old but .342 is .342!  My guess is he was unloaded to make room for Schrecongost, who had just been “traded” from St. Louis along with a nobody pitcher in exchange for Cleveland’s two best players in the latest chapter of the syndicate scheme.  Bad times.

  2. MO said...

    Fun article.

    Similarly, I often wonder what team had the most career talent appearing on the roster in a given year. With the expanded rosters nowadays, it will probably be weighted towards recent teams, but still fun to think about. If you add up the total career WAR of every player on a team’s season roster (no matter whether they had 1 PA or 500 PA that year), I wonder who had the most. Late 1920s Yankees are likely high up on the list. The 1995 Cleveland Indians might do well. They had Vizquel, Thome, Belle, Lofton, Manny, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, and Brian Giles on the roster. (Thome, Lofton, Winfield, Manny and Eddie Murray are all top 100 WAR of all time among position players). Pitching is a little weak with I believe Orel Hershiser as the only top 100 WAR, though Dennis Martinez was just out of the top 100.

    The 1995 Cleveland Indians could score pretty well on both

  3. mando3b said...

    Interesting article. But I, for one, am sick and tired of everyone dumping on the Spiders. They should not qualify for all these “Worst Record of All Time” articles—the front office was not even trying to win. This is like including the Washington Generals (the perennial patsies of the Harlem Globetrotters) in discussions of the worst basketball teams of all time. By all rights the Cleveland Spiders should have been the eighth team in the “Original Eight” of the National League, not St. L.: they were one of the powerhouses in the 1890s, the soon-to-be Cardinals were losers. Hell, the Cardinals even owe their name to the Fightin’ Arachnids: the Robisons even sent their dark red uniforms to Missouri, and some lady was heard exclaiming, “What a lovely shade of cardinal!” as the St. L nine emerged from the dugout one day. And the rest, as they say, is history. It’s probably too late to rehabilitate the Fightin’ Arachnids, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try . . .

  4. mando3b said...

    Interesting article. But I, for one, am sick and tired of everyone dumping on the Spiders. They should not qualify for all these “Worst Record of All Time” articles—the front office was not even trying to win. This is like including the Washington Generals (the perennial patsies of the Harlem Globetrotters) in discussions of the worst basketball teams of all time. By all rights the Cleveland Spiders should have been the eighth team in the “Original Eight” of the National League, not St. L.: they were one of the powerhouses in the 1890s, the soon-to-be Cardinals were losers. Hell, the Cardinals even owe their name to the Fightin’ Arachnids: the Robisons even sent their dark red uniforms to Missouri, and some lady was heard exclaiming, “What a lovely shade of cardinal!” as the St. L nine emerged from the dugout one day. And the rest, as they say, is history. It’s probably too late to rehabilitate the Spiders, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try . . .

  5. Shane Tourtellotte said...

    mando3b:  The Spiders certainly deserved better, but the best we can really do to rehabilitate them is to acknowledge the circumstances under which they labored and floundered.  It’s not like we can revive the franchise and give it another chance … or could we?  Take the Indians, give them a new/old nickname to honor their predecessors, and restore them to the National League, where the Spiders originally played.  It would let them play far more often against their natural Ohio rivals, the Reds.  To keep the leagues balanced, we’d send the St. Louis Cardinals to the AL Central, which would strengthen their rivalry with the cross-Missouri KC Royals.  Hey, this could work!

    Well, maybe not, but tell me how that’s any more ridiculous than the team-shuffling Bud Selig did with Milwaukee and Houston.

  6. Cliff Blau said...

    There was no running up by pitchers in 1891 and the pitching distance, that is the distance from the pitcher’s rear foot, which was on the back line of the box, was 55 feet six inches (from the center of the plate.)

  7. Paul G. said...

    The pitching rules in the 19th century is something that has been less than clear to me, but I do remember the distance being moved from 50 feet to 60’ 6”.  Research!  Of course.

    19cbaseball has a good explanation of the rules here:

    http://www.19cbaseball.com/field-8.html

    The relevant passage:

    “In 1887, the pitching distance and rules were changed again. Both the NL and AA agreed to use the same set of playing rules. The pitcher’s box was to be 5½ feet long (home to second) by 4 feet wide. Before delivering the ball, pitchers were required to have one foot on the back line of the pitcher’s box at all times, face the batter, hold the ball so the umpire could see it and were allowed only one step in their delivery. The pitching distance was now 55½ feet from the rear line of the pitcher’s box to the center of home base. The front line was still 50 feet to the center of home base. Each corner of the Pitcher’s Box was still required to have a six inch square iron plate or stone marker.”

    These rules would remain in effect until 1893.  It appears the run-up was disallowed when this rule took effect.

    So if you consider the end line of the box to be the equivalent of the rubber, it is 55 1/2 feet.

    Regardless, pitching in 1891 was significantly different than 1899.  See how offense ballooned after the rule was introduced.  Though by 1899 the runs scored per game were roughly similar to 1891, though other factors had brought offense down after its meteoric rise.  As for Stivetts himself, it has been suggested that he struggled to adapt, though looking at his ERA+ he didn’t appear to be that badly effected.  Moving from the remains of the AA to the big league probably had more to do with muting his numbers.

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