Rob Neyer did a piece on the top 10 individual seasons in baseball history, and it got me to thinking (uh-oh), What are the bottom 10? A quick search revealed the name of Bill Bergen, a catcher from the early 20th century who once posted an OPS+ of 1 while qualifying for the batting title. He hit .139/.163/.156 in 1909 and managed three extra-base hits in 372 plate appearances that year.
But Bergen has been discussed here before, so I thought I’d try something a little different. I narrowed my search to see who’d given the worst pitching performances over an entire season in the past 50 years.
My method, if I may be so bold as to call it that, was to look for pitchers who had qualified for the ERA title in any season from 1957 to 2007 and sort them by ERA+. The bit about qualifying for the ERA title is important because I didn’t want poseurs like Steve Blass ’73, Andy Larkin ’98 or Jesse Jefferson ’76 showing up in the results. Really, if you’re going to stink up the joint, you need to be able to close the deal.
I looked for pitchers whose ERA+ was 70 or lower and found 18 of them. I then divided the OPS+ allowed by each pitcher by their ERA+, for a completely nonsensical index; next, I multiplied that product by innings pitched (with an adjustment for strike years, 162 divided by the number of games actually played) to create an even more nonsensical index, by which I ordered the pitchers. The methodology may not be terribly sophisticated, but I’m confident that it’s at least as good as the pitching performances it attempts to measure.
Wait, did I just diss myself?
Anyway, the important thing to remember is that the managers of these pitchers allowed them to work enough innings to qualify for their league’s ERA title. With that in mind, and before we get to the bottom 10, I’d like to give shout-outs to guys who just missed the cut:
#11: Frank Baumann, 1961 White Sox; 70 ERA+, 131 OPS+
#12: Steve Arlin, 1973 Padres; 68, 131
#13: Bob Knepper, 1989 Astros/Giants (the only pitcher who failed to make it through the season with one team); 66, 137
#14: Javier Vazquez, 1998 Expos; 69, 131
#15: Warren Spahn, 1964 Braves; 67, 125
#16: Joel Pineiro, 2006 Mariners; 70, 127
#17: Pete Broberg, 1972 Rangers; 70, 110
#18: Terry Mulholland, 1995 Giants; 70, 130
Finally, a quick note on motivation. Yeah, we’re poking a little fun here, but the fact is that anyone who pitches in the big leagues is, by definition, a great pitcher (ask any of the billions of people who haven’t done it). I’ve seen some of these guys pitch and have at least a vague awareness of others. But before researching this piece, I’d never heard of Phil Ortega or Jack Lamabe. For as much as I enjoyed Neyer’s list, I doubt that folks will forget any of the names on it while baseball continues to exist. The same cannot be said of guys like Ortega and Lamabe.
Enough with the explanations, let’s get to the good stuff…
#10: Rick Wise, 1968 Phillies
This was the year Bob Gibson sported a 1.12 ERA (interestingly, or not, the aforementioned Blass finished fifth in the league with a 2.12 ERA). The entire NL had an ERA of 2.99.
Among the 45 NL players who qualified for the batting title that year, 13 posted an OPS+ higher than what Wise allowed. Wise started the season reasonably strong and was 3-1 with a 3.28 ERA through May 7. From that point forward, he went 6-14 with a 4.85 ERA, but the killer came at the very end. From Aug. 13 on, Wise went 1-7 with a 6.31 ERA.
Wise, then a 22-year-old right-hander in his second full season, would go on to bigger and better things, finishing his career with a 188-181 record over 18 seasons. Wise is perhaps best known as the man traded straight up for Steve Carlton in 1972, but he also once threw a no-hitter while knocking two home runs. Wise actually hit six homers that year (1971) and had 15 in his career.
#9: Dick Ruthven, 1981 Phillies
Ruthven made the NL All-Star team this year. I’m not kidding. He was 8-3 with a 4.05 ERA in the season’s first half. Then everyone went on strike and Ruthven had 64 days of rest before his next start. He went 4-4 with a 6.75 ERA the rest of the way. Ruthven made 22 starts in 1981 and allowed seven or more runs in five of them.
For his career, Ruthven went 123-127 over 14 years with the Phillies, Braves and Cubs. His best season came in 1980, when he won 17 games for Philadelphia during the regular season and another in the NLCS. He also started Game 3 of the World Series against the Royals in Kansas City. Ruthven worked nine innings but the Phillies lost, 4-3, in 10.
#8: Mark Davis, 1984 Giants
Davis is one of two Cy Young Award winners on our list. Before he became a dominant closer (well, for two seasons anyway), Davis struggled mightily as a starter, first for the Phillies and then for the Giants. In 1984, at age 23, he started out 3-12 with a 5.55 ERA before being yanked from the rotation in early August. He pitched much better out of the bullpen (3.60 ERA), where he later would enjoy his greatest success.
After winning the Cy Young with the Padres in 1989, Davis signed a huge contract with the Royals and was a complete flop. He bounced around a while longer, as left-handers will do, before retiring in 1997 with a career mark of 51-84 and 96 saves. In 2003 Davis saw his name on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first and only time. Not that there was ever any doubt, but I have fond memories of explaining in excruciating detail why he didn’t belong there.
#7: Phil Ortega, 1965 Senators
Ortega pitched for the Dodgers, Senators and Angels from 1960 to 1969, compiling a 46-62 record during that stretch. Among his top 10 most similar players according to Baseball-Reference is the aforementioned Broberg.
Prior to the 1965 season, Ortega was part of a trade that saw him, Frank Howard, Ken McMullen, Pete Richert and Dick Nen (Robb‘s father) head from Washington to Los Angeles for Claude Osteen, John Kennedy and cash. Despite Ortega’s lack of contribution to the general cause, this worked out pretty well for the Senators.
Ortega also managed to toss two shutouts in 1965, once at Dodger Stadium on June 2 against the Angels (when they could legitimately claim the city of Los Angeles as part of their name) and again on July 19 at Detroit. Don Zimmer, who was in his final season as a player, caught both games. Zimmer caught seven of Ortega’s games that season, during which the pitcher held opponents to a .203/.331/.294 batting line. Too bad Popeye couldn’t get back behind the dish for him a little more often.
#6: Jose Lima, 2005 Royals
If you want an idea of how the game changes from era to era, consider that in 1968, two players (Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski) posted a raw OPS higher than what Lima allowed in 2005. Away from Kauffman Stadium that year, Lima went 1-11 with an 8.18 ERA. Opposing batters hit .343/.397/.641 against him in those starts, which is sort of like — well, guys just don’t hit like that. Maybe Hank Aaron ’59, if you want to go back that far, or Chuck Klein ’32.
Lima, who didn’t pitch in 2007, has an 89-102 record over 13 seasons. His best year came in 1999, when he went 21-10 for the Astros.
#5: Eric Milton, 2005 Reds
Once upon a time, Milton was a hot young prospect in the Yankees organization who became part of the package that sent Chuck Knoblauch from Minnesota to the Bronx. In his 1998 Minor League Scouting Notebook John Sickels rated Milton as the 23rd best prospect in baseball and compared him favorably to Andy Pettitte. Milton teased for a few years, then got hurt, then lost effectiveness.
Always susceptible to the home run ball, Milton gave up 40 of them in 2005 (half of which came in his first 11 starts). That’s not quite Ken Dixon territory, but it’s not good. Milton allowed six runs or more in 11 of his 34 starts.
Milton owns an 87-84 record over 10 seasons and counting. The highlight of his career came on Sep. 11, 1999, when he no-hit the Angels at the Metrodome.
#4: Jack Lamabe, 1964 Red Sox
As I said, I’d not heard of Lamabe before running the numbers, so this was a treat. A right-hander out of the University of Vermont (home to very few big-league ballplayers, most recently Kirk McCaskill), Lamabe pitched for the Pirates, Red Sox, Astros, White Sox, Mets, Cardinals and Cubs from 1962 to 1968.
After working effectively out of the bullpen for his first two seasons, the 27-year-old Lamabe was promoted to a starting role in 1964. It didn’t really work. Right-handers hit him well (.300/.347/.445) and lefties destroyed him (.343/.393/.588). The high point of Lamabe’s season came in his first start of the year, when he spun a complete-game five-hitter against the White Sox, allowing only one unearned run.
Lamabe finished his playing career with a 33-41 record and 15 saves. The highlight came on May 30, 1966, when he blanked his former team on one hit. (Lamabe tossed another shutout in his next start.)
#3: Jim Deshaies, 1994 Twins
Remember when someone launched a campaign to get Deshaies a Hall of Fame vote? And it worked!
Deshaies spent 12 seasons in the big leagues, pitching for the Yankees, Astros, Padres, Twins, Giants and Phillies. His best came in 1989, when he went 15-10 with a 2.91 ERA for the Astros. Five short years later, Deshaies imploded in Minnesota and soon thereafter was out of baseball.
The highlight of Deshaies’ 1994 season came on June 24, when he allowed one run over eight innings against the Royals. From that point, Deshaies made 11 more big-league starts, going 2-6 with a 10.99 ERA before retiring.
#2: Vida Blue, 1979 Giants
I originally didn’t factor innings pitched into my monstrosity of a formula. Just using ERA+ and OPS+, Blue checks in at #16. Still, 237 innings is a lot of work and he deserves credit for that.
Blue actually won his first four starts of the 1979 season, including an April 19 game at San Diego in which he allowed 10 (!) runs over eight innings. He and Russ Ortiz (May 21, 2000) are the only pitchers since 1957 to give up that many runs in a game and “earn” a victory.
Blue is sort of the precursor to Dwight Gooden. Although he finished with a career record of 209-161, Blue didn’t contribute much after age 28. During his heyday, he looked like a future Hall of Famer, as did Gooden a generation later.
#1: Matt Keough, 1982 A’s
This was a couple years after Keough went through the Billy Martin Meat Grinder in 1980. Keough went 16-13 with a 2.92 ERA that season, completing 20 of his 32 starts.
Keough, son of former big-leaguer Marty Keough, never quite recovered from the experience and in 1982 he hit bottom. Keough walked more batters (101) than he struck out (75), and he gave up six runs or more in 8 of his 34 starts. And yet, for all that, he managed to toss two shutouts, one against the Royals in Kansas City on June 30 and another at home against the Tigers on Aug. 24.
After spending most of his career with the A’s, Keough bounced around with the Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs and Astros before hanging up the proverbial spikes in 1986. During the nine years he pitched in the big leagues, Keough compiled a record of 58-84.
There. Wasn’t that fun?
References & Resources
As always, Baseball-Reference is indispensable in collecting this sort of information.