The worst of the ‘70s

After the week was over, I truly understand why Charlton Heston looks gray and ravaged on his descent from Sinai; past a certain point, impressiveness is corrosive to the psyche.

~David Foster Wallace

So, as it turns out, is writing about impressiveness. Having spent most of the last couple of years writing about the truly outstanding—first for the best players born each month and now for the best of each decade—I fear my description will fade into cliché and repetition. As such, it seems like the best possible “palate cleanser” is to spend a little time writing about players who were … not so great. So this week we present the contrast to my previous column and give you the worst of the 1970s.

Now, here’s a disclaimer: if we’re talking about the category of baseball playing human beings, these men are still in the 99th percentile. In fact, because we are imposing the same games played requirements as we do for the best-of teams, even among major leaguers these are not by any means “bad” players. Those truly incapable of handling the highest level of professional baseball do not reach the 500-game or 200-start plateau.

Nonetheless, this will be something of a change for me compared to trying a find something new to say about Hank Aaron or Joe Morgan. Let’s begin:

Catcher: Fred Kendall
Like his rather more talented son, Jason, Fred Kendall was a catcher. The elder Kendall played most of the decade—and indeed, most of his career—with the Padres. After a rough beginning of his career in which he managed just a .196 average the first four seasons of his career, Kendall put up a strong 1973 season, posting a 106 OPS+ and catching nearly 40 percent of would-be base stealers.

Unfortunately, that season proved to be the exception and not the rule. Kendall managed just a .584 OPS for the rest of the decade and never managed to score so much as 1.0 WAR in any single season.

First Base: Tony Muser
The last five World Series winning managers are Bruce Bochy, Tony LaRussa, Joe Girardi, Charlie Manuel and Terry Francona. (Bochy has won two, which is why we go back to Francona to get five names.) Collectively, those men played in one All-Star Game, and none ever received a single MVP vote. This is to say, there’s no requirement that one need be a great player to be a great manager. In fact, some have argued that lesser players make better managers than greater ones.

But this does not mean, unfortunately, that being a mediocre player makes for a great manager. Such is the case of Muser. Though he started the decade strong—in limited time, he posted a 107 OPS+ through ’73—Muser struggled the rest of the way, putting up sub-.300 on-base and slugging percentages from 1974 forward.

Unfortunately for Muser, he found little more success as a manager, posting a .424 winning percentage over slightly under 750 games in charge of the Royals. Muser has never again served as a major league manager, instead working in various roles for the Padres.

Second Base: Gary Sutherland
There’s not really a nice way to say this, so I’m just going say it: some of these players are worse than I expected. I had imagined that the 500 games played requirement would weed out players who were below replacement level of the decade, but apparently the willingness of teams to roll out some truly not very good players is higher than I imagined.

Such is the case of Sutherland. Only once in the decade, in 1975, was Sutherland rated as above replacement level. In 1970 the Expos—in fairness, a year removed from their birth—ran Sutherland out at second base more than 115 times despite his hitting just .206. (Of course, perhaps Sutherland kept his job because the Expos were also playing the immortal Coco Laboy regularly—he hit .196.)

Sutherland was never quite that bad again, but he did manage to “earn” nearly three wins below replacement level for the decade. That’s ugly.

image
The San Diego Padre in full retro ’70s reglia (US Presswire)

Third Base: Ken Reitz
Looking at Reitz’s offensive numbers, it seems hard to believe he managed a career of over 1300 games. A lifetime 79 OPS+ hitter, Reitz hit .359 during his first 21 games and then .261 for the rest of the decade.

Reitz’ primary offensive talent appears to be hitting into double plays; despite not being a regular until 1973, he still was in the top 15 for the decade in GIDP.

So how did Reitz end up getting enough playing time to hit into all those twin killings? His nickname, “Zamboni,” should be a big hint.

Reitz was a well-regarded defensive third baseman, winner of the 1975 Gold Glove. His career fielding percentage is sixth all time at third base, and his range factor per nine innings at third is ahead of Adrian Beltre.

Reitz’s bat (and especially his propensity for hitting into the double play) earned him a place on this team, but his glove at least is an asset.

Shortstop: Darrel Chaney
You may remember that, not surprisingly, the best-of team for this decade was dotted with members of the Big Red Machine. But here we have someone who played on three pennant-winning Reds teams, including the World Series-winning ’75 squad. Their offensively loaded nature allowed the Reds to carry Chaney’s bat, which ranged from league average to genuinely horrific, in service of his defense.

Unfortunately for Chaney, that range on his bat tended more toward the poor end. Four times in the decade, he posted an OPS+ of 47 or lower in a season in which he recorded at least 100 plate appearances. Perhaps it can come as no surprise that Chaney’s last season as a regular came in 1976 when he posted just a .654 OPS and led the National League with 30 errors.

Left Field: Alex Johnson
In 1970, Johnson won the American League batting title and finished eighth in the MVP voting. He was just 27 years old and had posted a 124 OPS+ over the prior three seasons. So how did Johnson end up as the left fielder on this team?

Well, even through the 1970 season, things were beginning to go wrong. Johnson began to feud with Angels management and teammates. (Johnson would claim that Chico Ruiz pulled a gun on him in the clubhouse and later told reporters that he wanted off the team so badly that “going to hell would be an improvement.”)

With his performance suffering—coming off three seasons batting .312 or higher, Johnson hit just .271 the rest of the decade—Johnson was out of the majors by the 1977 season, a sobering reminder for how quickly things can come unraveled.

Center Field: Rowland Office
I cannot believe I have lived this long and written this much about baseball without knowing there was once a player name Rowland Office. Rowland Office!

Much as I love the name, honesty forces me to say that he was truly lousy through the decade. By WAR calculations, the second-worst center fielder was Mickey Stanley, who earned 7.4 WAR. Meanwhile, Office came in at -3.8 for the same period. In other words, by at least one measure, Office was more than a win per season worse than any other center fielder.

Right Field: Jerry Morales
Earlier I mentioned that, Chaney notwithstanding, great players tended to be clustered around teams like the Reds and A’s in this decade. On the other hand, Morales is the third member of the 1973 Padres to appear on this list. You will not be shocked to learn the Friars went 62-100 that season.

To be fair, most of that was not Morales’ fault. Seeing time at all three outfield positions, he was one of the team’s better hitters. Regrettably for Morales, that performance represented an exception rather than the rule for his career. For the decade, his OPS was just .700, a poor performance from a man who played primarily in the outfield corners.

Starting Pitchers: Bill Singer, Clay Kirby, Jim Lonborg, Ross Grimsley, Jack Billingham
It seems hard to believe that Bill Singer would make the rotation for the worst team of the decade. After all, he won double-digit games three times, including 20 in 1973. In fact, Singer was an All-Star that season and probably one of the ten best starters in the AL.

Unfortunately, the rest of the decade was less impressive. Four times he finished with a winning percentage of .370 or worse. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also had four seasons of nearly two wins below replacement level. That’s how an All-Star ends up in this rotation.

Clay Kirby is notorious, of course, for being the man who was removed by Padres manager Preston Gomez while working on a no-hitter. The Padres franchise has still never seen one.

Kirby was a respectable starter—and sometimes even better—during his first few years, but by the end of the decade it seems possible the heavy toll on his arm (he pitched nearly 950 innings before turning 24) rendered him ineffective: his ERA+ from 1973 through ’76 was just 82, and he was out of baseball after going 1-7 with a 7.95 ERA (yes, really) for the Padres’ Triple-A franchise in 1977.

Winner of the 1967 Cy Young Award (22-9, 3.16 for the Red Sox), Lonborg still had some talent left, posting a near All-Star level performance in 1974. In fact, from this point forward, the pitchers tend towards mediocre rather than genuinely poor. This is also true of Grimsley, who won 117 games and likely would have avoided a place on this list altogether if not for a dreadful 1979 season.

I’m not going to say much about Jack Billingham—who actually twice finished in the top six in Cy Young voting and won 135 games during the 1970s—except to say that his 9.9 WAR total is respectable for the decade. Apparently, teams are far more willing to give regular playing time to an underperforming position player than a pitcher.

Relief Pitcher: Pedro Borbon
Like most of the back end of the rotation, Borbon is not so much bad as the least best choice among qualifying relievers. Borbon pitched nearly 1000 innings with an above-average ERA. Even more importantly for the Reds, for whom Borbon pitched all but half a season during the decade, was his postseason performance. Helping to carry the Reds to their playoff successes, Borbon had a 2.42 ERA in the postseason and an even better 1.26 ERA in the NLCS.

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Comments

  1. Steve Treder said...

    Very fun stuff.  I all too well remember all of these guys, in Strat-o-Matic card version as well as the real thing.

  2. Paul E said...

    Richard:
        At least Alex Johnson HAD talent – he just was adverse to using it. If I recall correctly, Jerry Morales was hitting like .340 at the All Star break in ‘76 or ‘77. It was all downhill from there.
        I thought Lonborg and Singer were better than decent…..

  3. Kimbal said...

    Alex Johnson had a form of ADD and was not comfortable in any social situation.  He tended to get lost in left field and make late breaks on balls hit his way.  With tremendous strength and above-average speed, he was far more talented than his numbers indicated.  The problem was between the ears and, today, he would probably be on meds to balance out his brain.

    Chaney lost the shortstop job to Davey Concepcion for the Reds completely in 1974 and played less than Concepcion for the previous four years, he made all those errors as the SS for Atlanta.

    Lonborg had a skiing accident after his Cy Young year and was never dominating thereafter.

    Billingham was an innings-eater but did tend to pitch well in key games and the post-season.  He led the NL in starts, innings and shutouts in 1973 and was 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 42 postseason innings.  So his inclusion is puzzling?

  4. Will said...

    Fun stuff as I grew up on 70’s baseball.  I certainly agree with Pedro Borbon on the list.  The Reds were my favorite team and Borbon seemed to have the unfortunate knack of allowing sooo many inherited runners to score, and he would then allow none of his own to score.  I dreaded seeing him come in.  Except for hits allowed, his stats always seemed solid.  But it also seemed as if they obstructed a secret only young fans seemed to know.  Granted, these are the imperfect memories of a child, but big games or small, it seemed as if no lead was safe in a close game when he was in, unless the runners on base were his.

  5. Philip said...

    Chaney? Not Fred Stanley?

    Bill Singer was on some horrible teams. No wonder he had a horrible winning percentage.

    If only the Toronto Star hadn’t put a full page color photo of Singer on their 1977 preview supplement. It’s supposedly because of that Toronto turned down the Yankees offer of Ron Guidry for him.

    Pat Gillick wanted to make the trade but was overruled by Buzzie Bavasi who felt Singer was the expansion club’s only real marketable player.

    Who’s the manager of this club?

    Haven’t check the # of games. Gomez? Dave Bristol? Jim Marshall?

  6. Jeff G said...

    Although it didn’t happen often, there WERE times when a pinch-runner would be used for Rowland Office. And fans were indeed treated to the Public Address announcement, “Now running for Office…..”

    Yep, THAT happened.

  7. D Leaberry said...

    I have to imagine that this list is incompletely researched.  My beloved Nats of the early 70s was just loaded with poor producers.  2B Tim Cullen.  OF Wayne Comer.  3B Don Wert. OF Ed Stroud.  C Paul Casanova.  C Jim French.  There was a very bad Phillies team circa 1972 that was loaded with bad players, it was a team of Steve Carlton and 24 guys who deserved to be in AAA.

  8. Paul E said...

    D Leaberry:
        Those Phillies of the early ‘70’s were young, but eventually evolved into decent players like Willie Montanez, Don Money, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, Denny Doyle, Johnny Briggs, etc…
    But, yeah, Roger Freed, Joe Lis,  and Mike Anderson struggled…for years :-(

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