Sisler would go on to become a dominant force in the late teens and early ‘20s, and had just finished (arguably) his greatest season in 1922 (he hit .420) and won the MVP, when he was stricken with a case of acute sinusitis. While this doesn’t sound serious, he developed an infection that spread to his optic nerve, and he began seeing double. After sitting out all of 1923, he came back but was never the offensive force he was before. In his first 8 seasons, his OPS+ was 154 and was 46.2 wins above replacement. In his last 7, it was 97 and he had just 4.2 WAR.
Clendenon refused to report to his new team and announced his retirement, and the two clubs engaged in a vicious fight over who would get Staub in 1969. The Astros actually filed suit in Federal Court to receive damages from the Expos and Major League Baseball, after Commissioner Bowie Kuhn upheld the deal, but ordered the Expos to send additional players or money to Houston to replace Clendenon. The Commissioner forced Astros owner Roy Hofheinz to apologize, after he told reporters that “in six weeks, Kuhn has done more to destroy baseball than its enemies in 100 years.” Staub also threatened to retire rather than go back to Houston, saying “If I am not in a Montreal uniform when all this is finally settled, the chances of my continuing in baseball are slim. I can exist without baseball. I love the game and I know it might kill me to quit, but there’s nothing that says I have to keep taking all this. Eventually, Clendenon “changed his mind” once he was no longer part of the deal, and the Montreal would deal him to the Mets for prospects. The Expos would send Jack Billingham, a reliever, and $100,000 to Houston to complete the deal.
In Montreal, in Parq Jarry, and away from the Astrodome, Staub blossomed, hitting .302/.426/.526 with 29 homers. As an expansion team, of course, the Expos were terrible, and lost 110 games.
38) Rick Reuschel (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1985, 5.9 WAR)
37) Al Leiter (Toronto Blue Jays, 1995, 5.3 WAR)
On the surface, Al Leiter’s 1995 doesn’t look like much. An 11-11 record. A 3.64 ERA. Leading the league in walks (108) and wild pitches (14). But Leiter balanced that by striking out 7.5 batters per 9 innings, and by keeping the ball in the ballpark (.7 HR/9). It also helped that, with his 2/1 FB/GB ratio, he had Devon White shagging flies in CF. The Jays were showing their age since winning their last World Series in 1993, and Leiter got out of town before the rebuilding started in earnest. He signed with the Marlins that offseason, and developed into one of the better lefty starters in the game for a couple years.
36) Bob Friend (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1955, 5.7 WAR)
In 1955, the Pirates were rounding out a terrible five year stretch, coinciding with Friend’s first five years, in which they averaged 101 losses a year. Friend, however, had reached his peak, taking almost a full walk off of his BB/9, and getting somewhat hit-lucky, Friend’s ERA dipped to 2.83, which led the National League. While he had been a swingman, Friend was inserted into the rotation full time in 1956, and would lead the NL in games started for the next three years, and IP for the next two. In 1958, despite an ERA+ of just 105, Friend parlayed above average run support into 22 wins.
35) Mitchell Page (Oakland A’s, 1977, 6.0 WAR)
Felix finished with 13 wins, a 2.27 ERA, 232 Ks, and 249.2 innings. He was unquestionably the most valuable pitcher in the American League.
33) Rick Rhoden (Pittsburgh Pirates, 1986, 6.1 WAR)
Just getting to the Major Leagues could have been enough for Rhoden, who overcame significant leg problems that forced him to walk with a cane until he was 12. Just six years later, he was a 1st round pick for the Dodgers in the amateur draft. Rhoden, like Rick Reuschel, established himself as a promising young starter in the 1970s, but developed injury problems (bone spurs in his shoulder) that almost derailed his career. Still, it was not clear that Rhoden was any more than a competent pitcher until he was 30. Starting in ’83, however, Rhoden became one of the better pitches in the National League, and put together two terrific seasons in ’84 and ’86 for the hapless Bucs. In 1986, Rhoden had his best year, winning 15 games and posting an ERA of 2.84 in 253.2 innings. The Pirates took advantage of his great season, and spun him to the Yankees for, among others, Doug Drabek.
32) Ray Herbert (Kansas City Athletics, 1960, 5.8 WAR)
31) Johnny Mize (New York Giants, 1946, 5.8 WAR)
Mize’s 359 homers don’t seem Hall of Fame worthy until you realize that The Big Cat took three full seasons (prime seasons, from age 30-32) off for World War II. When he returned, he seemed to be trying to make up for all the hits he missed while in the service. Swinging better than ever before, Mize hit .339/.438/.579, with 22 homers, through August 4. He was hit by a pitch in the Mayor’s Trophy Game, an exhibition organized by the Yankees and Giants to benefit sandlot ball in NYC, and broke his hand.* After missing a month, Mize came back and immediately broke his toe and was done for the year. It’s ok, with the second worse pitching staff in the league, the Giants weren’t doing anything in ’46 anyway. Despite missing almost two months, Mize finished with a 185 OPS+ and 5.8 WAR. One wonders what he would have done without the injuries.
30) Guy Morton (Cleveland Indians, 1915, 5.8)
29) Harlond Clift (St. Louis Browns, 1937, 5.9 WAR)
Harlond Clift was the first of the prototypical slugging 3B, (Jim Baker, in The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract called him “the primeval Mike Schmidt”) the first 3B ever to hit 30 HR. Clift was almost as good in ’38, when he hit 34 homers, but he played for a far worse team in ’37 (the Browns lost 108 games). He hit .306/.413/.546 with 29 homers, 36 2B, and 103 R, and 118 RBI. More from Baker: “It was Harlond Clift’s business to play third base for the St. Louis Browns for the better part of the thirties and early forties. This was not a glamour position in Clift’s profession; it was roughly equivalent, let us say, to teaching astronomy at the Colorado School of Mining…. Not only was he a Brown, but he was a Brown when the ebb and flow of fortune had reduced them to an all-time low.”
28) Sam McDowell (Cleveland Indians, 1969, 6.3 WAR)
Sam McDowell walked a very tight line between wild and effectively wild. He led the American League in walks as many times (five) as he led it in strikeouts. He was considered the fastest pitcher in the baseball for much of the ‘60s, and, when he was on, was a dominant presence on the mound for the otherwise hapless Indians. McDowell was on in ’69, but was far from at his best. Still, with 18 wins (against 14 losses) and a 2.94 ERA, and 279 Ks in 285 IP, Sudden Sam was still plenty dominant. Sadly, McDowell only had one more great season left in him, as he slowly drank his way out of the majors at the age of 32. He found new life, however, as a drug and alcohol counselor, and has spent a lot of his post-baseball career working with teens.
27) Dolph Camilli (Philadelphia Phillies, 1937, 6 WAR)
26) Bob Johnson (Philadelphia A’s, 1939, 6 WAR)
“Indian” Bob Johnson is one of the best players no one has heard of. He got a relatively late start, debuting as a 27 year old, after several years starring in the Pacific Coast League. And Johnson had the misfortune of debuting just as Connie Mack began dismantling his second dynasty. Indeed, Johnson was essentially replacing Al Simmons, who had been shipped off to the White Sox. And the A’s would remain pitiful (with the exception of Johnson’s rookie year) until he himself was finally traded/sold to the Senators. 1939 was Johnson’s best season, even though his power was down somewhat. But his average jumped to .338 and his OBP to .440, which kept his SLG right in line with previous seasons. He scored 115 runs and drove in 114, and even stole 15 bases (a career high). Johnson was so unappreciated that, despite a .296/.394/.506 career mark and 288 homers, he doesn’t even get a mention in Rob Neyer’s Big Book for Baseball Lineups.
25) Tom Seaver (New York Mets, 1967, 6.4 WAR)
The Mets were an absolute joke until Tom Seaver showed up. It’s not much of an exaggeration to suggest that Tom Terrific simply willed the Mets into respectability. 1967 was Seaver’s rookie year, and he won 16 games and posted a 2.76 ERA (122 OPS+) in 251 innings, with 18 CG in 35 starts. Seaver’s breakup with the Mets was a famous debacle (that The Common Man chronicled here). But the Mets did not have a winning percentage below .400 again until after Seaver left. For whatever his problems with Mets management, Seaver did nothing but help the Mets for 11 years.
24) Dave Stieb (Toronto Blue Jays, 1981, 4.2 WAR)
23) Roy Thomas (Philadelphia Phillies, 1903, 5.4 WAR)
22) Graig Nettles (Cleveland Indians, 1971, 6.5 WAR)
This one hurts. The Twins had Graig and his brother Jim in their systems, and had been jerking Graig around between positions and with little defined role. In 1970, the team planned to use Harmon Killebrew at 3B (apparently because they just had to get Rich Reese and his .261/.332/.371 into the lineup) and didn’t have any place for Nettles. They also believed they needed a 3rd starter behind Jim Perry and Jim Kaat. So they dealt Nettles, Dean Chance, Ted Uhlander, and Bob Miller to the Indians for Luis Tiant and Stan Williams. Williams proved to be an excellent reliever for a year, but Tiant’s Twins career lasted just 17 starts before he broke his scapula (shoulder). Nettles would go on to be one of the best (and most overlooked) 3B in baseball history, though he toiled in the shadows of Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and George Brett for much of his career.
In 1971, Nettles had a good year at the plate, hitting .261/.350/.435 (114 OPS+) with 28 HR and his usual stellar defense. In November of 1972, the Yankees traded four players to get Nettles. The four prospects provided almost no value to the Indians, but Nettles gave the Yanks 11 terrific years, and was the most valuable player on both the 1977 and 1978 Yankee squads, according to WAR.
21) Topsy Hartsel (Chicago Orphans, 1901, 5.7 WAR)
20) Jimmy Ring (Philadephia Phillies, 1923, 6.4 WAR)
19) Cy Young (Boston Americans, 1907, 6.3 WAR)
18) Mario Soto (Cincinnati Reds, 1982, 7 WAR)
Soto developed shoulder problems in ’85 and ’86, and they eventually forced him out of baseball. Given that he led the NL in complete games in both ’83 and ’84, it’s tempting to say he was abused.
17) Chuck Knoblauch (Minnesota Twins, 1995, 6.5 WAR)
But in 1995, Knobby may have actually been a better long-term bet than Craig Biggio, if you can believe it. Biggio was 29 already, and had been at 2B for only 4 seasons. He hit .302/.406/.483 (141 OPS+) for the Astros, and seemed to have a disturbing habit of getting hit by a pitch that was bound to hurt him in the long term. Knoblauch was just 26, hit .333/.424/.487 (136 OPS+) and was a better fielder than Bigs. Indeed, through 1997, Knoblauch had earned 29 WAR in six seasons, while Biggio had earned 33.9 in nine. Then, of course, their paths diverged. Biggio had his best season in 1997, and two more strong follow-up campaigns. Then alternated decent years with terrible ones, so that he was never really replaced at the keystone until he volunteered. Knoblauch, on the other hand, saw his value begin to decline as he allegedly adjusted his approach to hit more homers, his defensive range decreased, and (famously) lost the ability to throw the ball to first base. Forced off of 2B by his throwing problems, Knoblauch’s production at the plate plummeted even further, and he was done at 33. Biggio lasted until he was 41.
16) Chuck Klein (Philadelphia Phillies, 1933, 6.9 WAR)
In ’33, Klein won both the traditional and the sabermetric Triple Crowns, hitting .368/.422/.602 (a 176 OPS+) with 28 homers and 120 RBI. He also led the league in hits (223), doubles (44) and total bases (365). The Phillies lost 92 games out of habit anyway. That offseason, they dealt Klein to the Cubs for three players and $65,000.
15) Curt Davis (Philadelphia Phillies, 1934, 6.8 WAR)
Curt Davis was already a star before he got to the Big Leagues, winning 90 games in five years in the Pacific Coast League. Playing in San Francisco with the DiMaggios, Augie Galan, Frankie Crosetti, and Lefty Gomez, Davis probably had better squads out West than he did when he joined Philadelphia.
As a 30 year old rookie in ’34, he led the NL with 51 games. He started 31 and threw 274 innings. From a John J. Ward profile in Baseball Magazine, as quoted in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, “He has an easy motion, an air of serious-minded confidence. His control is excellent and so is his mental poise….The fastball is a natural sinker. At times it will drop four or five inches…. Grover Alexander had such a fast ball and it was one of the key notes of his extraordinary career.” Indeed, Davis got the comparison to Pete Alexander a great deal. Despite his late start, he lasted 13 years in the Bigs, winning 158 games, but because of his relatively low raw totals is mostly forgotten today.
14) Randy Johnson (Arizona Diamondbacks, 2004, 7.4 WAR)
One of the best half dozen of Johnson’s career full of career-seasons for a team that lost 111 games. He was credited with 16 of their 51 victories and struck out 290 in 245.2 innings.
There are not enough superlatives to describe Johnson in 2004 or Johnson in general, but it’s probably a fair question to ask if he was the single most intimidating pitcher in Major League history. At 6’10”, with a three-quarters whip-like delivery, a 98 MPH fastball, and a death stare on the mound, facing him must have been an utterly unique experience for hitters. Other candidates probably include Bob Gibson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Carl Mays, Ewel Blackwell, Sam McDowell, and JR Richard. Others?
13) Ned Garver (St. Louis Browns, 1950, 7.1 WAR)
12) Noodles Hahn (Cincinnati Reds, 1901, 6.5 WAR)
11) Nap Rucker (Brooklyn Dodgers, 1912, 7.4 WAR)
Rucker is one of exceedingly few left-handed knuckleballers in Big League history, adding the pitch to his repertoire later in his career. According to Neyer and James, “By 1914, at the very latest, Rucker was throwing a knuckleball not unlike that thrown 90 years later by Tim Wakefield and Steve Sparks, with his index and middle fingertips gripping the ball.” It became a legendary pitch, inspiring W.R. Hoefer in Baseball Magazine to compose:
"He used to pitch a ball with lots of smoke; and the stock of curves he carried was no joke. In the days of yesteryear he could burn the atmosphere as he made the slugging biffers swear and choke. But the sizzling speed has left his ancient wing and he throws a floating ball that doesn't sing. Yet he fools the swatters still with his hesitation pill, smiling grimly as the clouters fail to bing. All the stuff he has is just a dinky curve with a clever head and lots of sand and nerve, but the way batters fall for his foolish looking ball shows he's still a winning Hurling Hill Reserve. Nap lobs his fork-hand floaters o'er the plate and the batter sees 'em forty minutes late.”
10) Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners, 2004, 8.4 WAR)
A truly unique player in his time (which, thankfully, is also our time), Ichiro possesses the ability to singlehandedly make a game or a team watchable just by playing. Despite leading off and playing a corner position, he is central to the game and to his team’s chances to win. He has seems to have the ability to do the impossible, beating out hits back to the mound, standing perfectly still at the plate, hitting the ball while moving toward 1B, throwing balls that go so fast that they seem to defy gravity. Every time Ichiro’s not on-screen, the other players and broadcasters should be asking, “Where’s Ichiro?”
What a shame that Ichiro’s best season was wasted on such a terrible club. He set the Major League record for hits, besting George Sisler by five. He was one of just three regulars to post an OPS above the league average (130) with a .372/.414/.455 line, leading the AL in plate appearances (he played in 161 games), hits (of course), and batting average. He also led the league in intentional walks (as a leadoff hitter!), and won a Gold Glove. In fact, BR.com calculates that, while Suzuki was worth 26 runs just with his bat, his glove added another 27 runs above replacement.
9) Ron Santo (Chicago Cubs, 1966, 8.3 WAR)
The Cubs of Santo’s era get a bad rap as one of the reason’s he’s been ignored by Hall of Fame voters. But this was actually the last bad team he played for. The Cubs lost 103 games because their pitching was abysmal, but they jumped to 87 wins the next year and wouldn’t dip again until 1973. TCM would need to check, but if and when Santo does get the call the ’66 Cubs might be the only 100 loss team ever to have four Hall of Famers (Santo, Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, and Fergie Jenkins).
8) Phil Niekro (Atlanta Braves, 1977, 8.5 WAR)
Behold, the value of quantity over quality. From 1977-1979, Kuncksie threw 1006.2 innings, starting at least 42 games each year (and completing at least 20 of them). Each year, he led the NL in starts, IP, hits allowed, and losses. He led the league twice in earned runs, twice in walks. It was a remarkable three year stretch in which nobody on the planet pitched like Phil Niekro (not even his brother Joe).
This was, undoubtedly, the worst of the three seasons. Niekro finished below .500, lost 20 games, had a 4.03 ERA (though at The Launching Pad that was County Stadium that was a 111 ERA+), but did lead the NL with 262 Ks. Niekro was also a terrific fielder (four career gold gloves), who supposedly had a terrific pickoff move, though not much is evident in the baserunning data. Runners stole off him at a slightly above average rate, and he had 87 pickoffs in 24 seasons.
7) Dave Roberts (San Diego Padres, 1971, 8.5 WAR)
In December, the Padres cashed in and dealt him to the Astros for three prospects who never really contributed much. Practicing the Law of Conservation of Dave Robertses, however, San Diego made another Dave Roberts (this one a 3B) the first overall pick of the amateur draft in June. Roberts II went straight to the majors, and (predictably) performed horribly (.244/.275/.321) in 100 games. He got better in ’73 (3.0 WAR), but actually had a negative WAR for his Padres career (-.5). Dave Roberts I would bounce around until 1981 as a journeyman, winning 103 games and losing 125 with a 97 ERA+.
Dave Roberts III, or course, was a valuable leadoff man who was traded to the Padres after helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series. In 41 seasons, the San Diego Padres have had a Dave Roberts on their roster for 11 of them.
6) Ernie Banks (Chicago Cubs, 1960 Cubs, 8.2 WAR)
You know, of course that Ernie Banks holds the record for the most games played without ever making an appearance in the postseason. And he probably always will, given how often players change teams in this era and how many more teams make the postseason. But just think for a minute about how incompetent Cubs management had to be to squander Ernie Banks’ terrific career. In 1960, for instance, when Banks was hitting .271/.350/.554 with 41 homers, 117 RBI, and a WAR of 8.2, the other primary SS in the NL combined to hit .269/.323/.351, and had an average WAR of 1.55. So Banks was almost 6 wins better than the average SS, let alone a replacement level one. That is an amazing competitive advantage, but the Cubs were able unwilling or unable to build around. While Banks was busy destroying NL pitching, only Richie Ashburn joined him in contributing more than 1.5 WAR from the starting lineup. The pitching wasn’t much better, contributing just 2.2 WAR as a staff. Banks may not be the best player on this list, and he may not have had the best season in a losing year, and he may not have had the worst teams of any player on this list. But he was the most amazingly wasted over the course of his career.
5) Jimmie Foxx (Philadelphia A’s, 1935, 8 WAR)
Foxx was the last one out the door in Philadelphia, as Connie Mack sold off his second dynasty. In December 12, 1933, Mack dealt Max Bishop, Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, Mickey Cocrane, and George Earnshaw to various American League competitors for a handful of terrible players and $245,000. The next offseson, Mack sold off Dib Williams and Joe Cascarella, and traded Ed Coleman.
Despite Double-X putting up a typical season (.346/.461/.636, 36 homers, 115 RBI, 118 R, 182 OPS+), the team finished last in the American League in runs scored and lost 91 games. And in a flurry of winter activity in December and January of 1935, Mack completed the dismantling by selling Foxx, Footsie Malcomb, Doc Cramer, and Eric McNair to the Red Sox for four useless players and $225,000. At that point, it was a mercy killing as much as a business decision.
4) Lonnie Smith (Atlanta Braves, 1989, 8.7 WAR)
It was the very definition of a career year, and was even more surprising given that it happened when he was already 33 years old. And it was especially ironic, given that Lonnie Smith spent almost all of his career on excellent teams, reaching the World Series five times with four clubs. That his best season should come for one of the worst teams he played for is hilarious and sad. Think of the Kirk Gibson-esque reputation he would have earned if he’d had this season in ’85 for the Royals or ’91 for the Braves, rather than hacking away for a club that lost 97 games, and featured only two other players (Jeff Blauser and Oddibe McDowell) who had more than 20 PAs and an OPS+ over 100.
3) Christy Mathewson (New York Giants, 1901, 7.5 WAR)
Christy Mathewson and Dummy Taylor were pretty much the only men left standing, and both had been little-used rookies the season before. Together, they would throw 56% of the Giants innings in 1901. Mathewson won 20 games with a 2.41 ERA, and completed 36 of his 38 starts, and struck out almost six batters per game. The next season, Freedman hired John McGraw to take over before selling the club to John T. Brush. McGraw and Brush would build the Giants around Mathewson into one of the three great powerhouses of the first 15 years of the 20th century, and Mathewson would become one of the greatest pitchers in Major League history.
2) Rogers Hornsby (Boston Braves, 1928, 8.5 WAR)
The Miami News was more blunt:
“A land that takes its baseball heroes seriously would like to know now ‘what’s the matter with Hornsby’ that he passes like a hot potato from one hand to another. To all appearances, it is ‘incompatibility of temperament.’ Hornsby does not fit into the teams with which he plays. He is sand in the bearings of the baseball machine. Since morale is half the battle in baseball—orany team-play sport—the defect is fatal. Hornsby’s operations outside, the race-track performances which have brought himi such unpleasant notoriety, have damaged him with the hero-worshipping public. His temperament inside the game is apparently limiting the usefulness of one of the best ballplayers of all time. The lesson of Hornsby to the baseball fans of the country 0-0and to everybody else—is written in the skies. Cooperation, harmony with one’s associates, is the price of success, not in baseball only, but in business and everything.”Despite hitting .387/.498/.632 (200 OPS+) with 107 BB and 21 homers, the Braves dropped from 98 losses to 103, and Hornsby was not welcomed back by the Braves either. Instead, they shipped him to the Cubs for five players and $200,000. The Braves improved 10 wins and the Cubs went to the World Series. Everybody wins.
1) Steve Carlton (Philadelphia Phillies, 1972, 12.2 WAR)
The question shouldn’t be “how good was Carlton?” because the answer is “better than you would believe. The real question should be “how bad were the Phillies?” Philly pitchers had a 12.9 WAR in 1972, 12.2 of which came from Carlton. But amazingly, the hitters were below replacement level, coming at -0.4 WAR. Carlton was worth more than 12 wins above replacement on his own. The other 37 players on that roster combined to be worth 0.3 WAR. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the very definition of a great player, and a terrible team.