The Common Man will cop to being more than a little obsessed with how badly the Twins are playing right now. It’s like a car accident that TCM just can’t look away from. The central trouble, as TCM mentioned earlier this week, is the team’s abysmal pitching, specifically the entire staff’s inability to strike anyone out.
But looking at the Twins’ horrendous start, TCM was compelled to wonder whether it could possibly get worse. How bad can a pitching staff be? To answer that, The Common Man went back and looked at every club who allowed at least 20% more run than the league average since 1903 to understand teh upper limits of pitching badness. If you want to see the complete list of teams in spreadsheet form, click here. Meanwhile, here are the ten worst pitching staffs of all time, based on the numbers TCM looked at:
10) 1907-1908 New York Highlanders
Main pitchers: Bill Hogg (319 IP, 3.05 ERA, 87 ERA+), Joe Lake (269 IP, 3.17 ERA, 78 ERA+), Jack Chesbro (495 IP, 2.77 ERA, 94 ERA+)
This is where The Common Man points out that context matters. Yes, the ’07 Highlanders finished with a 3.03 ERA, but the American League’s ERA was 2.54. They were bad in 1907, finishing 7th in the American League in ERA, hits, runs, earned runs, and strikeouts. But in 1908, they got old fast and managed to get even worse. Hall of Famer Jack Chesbro, Al Orth and Bill Hogg were really the only carry overs from the previous staff. Chesbro regressed terribly in what ended up being his final full season. Ditto for Orth, who had led the AL in wins, innings, and complete games as reently as 1906. Hogg never pitched in the Majors again. And the new guys the Highlanders brought in all flopped, especially minor league phenom Joe Lake, who lost 21 games and gave up 157 runs in 269 innings. The ’08 Highlanders allowed 36% more runs than the league average and posted an ERA+ of 78. They finished 8th in an 8 team league in ERA, Runs, Earned Runs, homers, walks, and complete games, and were 7th in hits allowed.
Note: The Highlanders pitchers have a legitimate beef with shortstop Neal Ball. Ball played 131 games in 1908, and managed to make 81 errors, 18 more than any other player in the AL, and a fielding percentage of .897. Then again, Neal might have had a legitimate beef with first baseman Hal Chase, who is notorious for not exactly giving his best effort out on the field when he could make some money on the side.
9) 1962-1963 New York Mets
Main culprits: Roger Craig (469 IP, 4.14 ERA, 92 ERA+), Al Jackson (458 IP, 4.18 ERA, 91 ERA+), Jay Hook (366 IP, 5.11 ERA, 76 ERA+)
The expansion Mets pretty much run away with the title of the worst team of the modern era, losing 120 games in their first season, and 111 to follow it up. These were bad baseball teams who had to make do with the castoffs of other clubs. That’s not to say they were all bad, but they had only two guys who managed to throw more than 100 innings across those two seasons and finished with an above average ERA+ (Carl Willey and Larry Bearnarth). It was a team effort to be this bad, is what The Common Man is saying. The Mets allowed 32% more runs than the average MLB team in ’62, and had a team ERA+ of 82; they finished 10th in ERA, Runs, Earned Runs, Hits, Homers, and Strikeouts, and 7th in walks in a 10 team league. That marginally improved in 1963 (although they still finished last in every major pitching category except walks, where they finished 9th), mostly because the club brought in Willey to replace Bob Miller (1-12, 4.89 in ’62), but the club wouldn’t top a 90 OPS+ until 1967, when Tom Seaver debuted.
Note: Not that the Mets defense helped any. They finished 9th in Defensive Efficiency, just a single point ahead of their fellow expansion team Houston Colt .45s, and had the worst fielding percentage in the NL.
8) 1944 Brooklyn Dodgers
Main Culprits: Hal Gregg (198 IP, 5.46 ERA, 65 ERA+), Cal McLish (84 IP, 7.82 ERA, 45 ERA+), Les Webber (140 IP, 4.94 ERA, 72 ERA+)
1944 was a weird year in Brooklyn. The Dodgers were coming off 5 straight winning campaigns (including two 100-win seasons), and were about to start another 13-year run of above .500 baseball. But in ’44, everything went to hell. Arky Vaughan sat out. Billy Herman and Dolph Camilli went to war. So did staff ace Kirby Higbe. Whit Wyatt turned out to have nothing left. And youth did not serve them. Eighteen-year old Cal McLish was clearly not ready for the Majors, posting a 7.82 ERA, and walking twice as many batters (48) as he struck out (24) in 84 innings. Another 18-year old, Ralph Branca, had a 7.05 ERA in 45 innings. Likewise, 22-year old Hal Gregg was terrible, leading the NL in earned runs allowed, walks, HBPs and wild pitches in 198 innings. But by 1945, the Dodgers matured. Gregg won 18 games and was an All Star. Branca had a 124 ERA+ in 15 starts. Twenty-two year old Vic Lombardi debuted and was great. And the rebuilt bullpen was much stronger. In all, it was a one-year hiccup that saw the team ERA+ dip to 76 and the club allow 29% more runs than the MLB average.
Note: McLish eventually harnessed his stuff, but not for another 14 years, when he was 32 and pitching for Cleveland in 1958. He got MVP votes and was named an All Star.
7) 1956-1957 Washington Senators
Main Culprits: Pedro Ramos (383 IP, 4.98 ERA, 80 ERA+), Camilo Pascual (364 IP, 5.01 ERA, 80 ERA+), Russ Kemmerer (172 IP, 4.96 ERA, 78 ERA+)
The 1956 Senators featured Chuck Stobbs and Bud Byerly as the only truly decent pitchers on the staff. Every other pitcher on the staff had an ERA above 4.00. The team allowed 34% runs over the league average and finished with a 78 ERA+. Then, in 1957, Stobbs (5.36 ERA in 31 starts) decided he was done pitching too, leaving Byerly as the only pitcher on the staff with more than 15 IP and an ERA+ over 100. Fortunately, young Cubans Ramos and Pascual stepped up and picked up some of the slack. Despite being worse from top to bottom, the ’57 club performed better as a unit, posting an 80 ERA+. Both teams finished 8th in Hits, Runs, Earned Runs, and ERA, but the ’57 club was slightly better at preventing walks and striking batters out.
Note: Starting in 1958, Ramos would lead the American League in losses for four straight years. Phil Niekro is the only other player to do that in baseball history. Ramos’s .422 career winning percentage is 5th worst in baseball history among guys with 2000 innings or more.
6) 2005-2006 Kansas City Royals
Main culprits: Runelvys Hernandez (269 IP, 5.91 ERA, 77 ERA+), Zack Greinke (189 IP,5.75 ERA, 77 ERA+), Jose Lima (169 IP, 6.99 ERA, 63 ERA+), Mark Redman (167 IP, 5.71 ERA, 82 ERA+)
These Royals lost 206 games in two years, and most of that is on their historically awful pitching staffs, which saw almost total turnover between seasons. In 2005, he Royals featured a 21 year old, clearly not ready for prime time, Greinke (5.80 ERA in 33 starts) Jose Lima (who managed to parlay his surprising 2004 into 32 starts in which put up a 6.99 ERA), JP Howell (6.19 ERA in 15 starts), DJ Carrasco (4.79 in 20), and Runelvys Hernandez (5.52 in 29). Plus Juan Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) put up a 7.55 ERA in 54 innings, Jimmy Gobble had a 5.70 mark in 54 frames, and Shawn Camp managed a 6.43 ERA in 49. In the rotation, only Hernandez carried over to 2006 (and he was even worse, a 6.48 ERA in 21 starts). Mark Redman (5.71), Scott Elarton (5.34), Luke Hudson (5.12) were abysmal. Of the 17 pitchers who started a game for the Royals in 2006, only one (Adam Bernero, who started twice) had an ERA below 5.00. The 2006 club finished dead last in the AL in every single pitching category except homers, where they finished 13th out of 14 clubs.
Note: Which team was worse? It’s a tough call. The ’05 club probably had more top of the line terribleness, with Greinke and Lima, but the ’06 staff was probably worse from top to bottom.
5) 1996 Detroit Tigers
Main Culprits: Greg Gohr (91.2 IP, 7.17 ERA, 71 ERA+), Brian Williams (121 IP, 6.77 ERA, 76 OPS+), Greg Keagle (88 IP, 7.39 ERA, 69 ERA+)
Team ERA: 6.38. 1103 runs allowed, 139 more runs any any other team in the Majors in one of baseball’s biggest offensive seasons. Ooof. The Tigers actually had some decent pitchers in Felipe Lira and Omar Olivares, but the team was killed by injuries. Only Lira, Olivares, and Williams topped 100 innings, and almost all of the guys Detroit brought in were horrible. The rest of the staff had a 6.80 ERA altogether. Seven pitchers with more than 30 IP and an ERA above 7.00.
Note: TCM has told this story before, but he was in attendance for the second game of the 1996 season when Cecil Fielder stole the first base of his career against the Twins.
4) 1926-1930 Philadelphia Phillies
Main Culprits: Claude Willoughby (80 ERA+, 793 IP), Les Sweetland (77 ERA+, 610 IP), Alex Ferguson (76 ERA+, 374 IP)
No franchise has made fans suffer through egregiously terrible pitching like the Phillies of the late 1920s made fans suffer through egregiously terrible pitching. Starting in 1926, the team’s ERA+s were 85, 73, 79, 85, and 82. The raw numbers are even worse, of course, because of how easy it was to hit in the Baker Bowl. By 1930 the Phillies were allowing 7.69 runs per game, 39% worse than the Major League average. Willoughby was there for it all, capping off a terrible run with a 7.59 ERA in 153 innings, and walked 2.26 batters for every one he strick out. To cap off the humiliation, the Phillies brought a 43 year old Pete Alexander back in 1930, and he allowed 24 runs in 22 innings before finally hanging it up. The Common Man loves baseball, but not even he would want to go to a game in Philly back then.
Note: Claude Willoughby must have wondered what he’d done wrong in a previous life. His Major League career began in 1925, and his entire Phillies career spanned from 1925-1930. He lasted half a season with the Pirates before his Major League career was over. Poor bastard.
3) 1938-1940 Philadelphia A’s
Main Culprits: Buck Ross (515 IP, 5.26 ERA, 88 ERA+), Nels Potter (508 IP, 5.72 ERA, 81 ERA+), George Caster (595 IP, 5.14 ERA, 91 ERA+)
This may have been the bleakest period in Connie Mack’s late career, when the A’s were perpetual doorstops. The worst of the three staffs is undoubtedly the ‘39 squad, which allowed over 1000 runs (6.68 per game) and didn’t have a single player with an ERA+ over 100 except for Les McCrabb, who only pitched 36 innings. Nels Potter, who had failed out of the bullpen in 1938, was allowed to throw almost 200 innings, and posted an ERA of 6.60. Buck Ross, never a strong starter before, cratered in 28 starts, walking almost 5 batters per 9 innings, which led to a 6.00 ERA. Two other pitchers, Cotton Pippen and Bob Joyce, got more than 100 IP with ERAs above 5.99. The good news is that the club only finished last in HR and Ks allowed. Indeed, the worst staff in baseball that year belonged to the next team on the list.
Note: Poor Johnny Babich. Babich had failed with the Dodgers in the mid-’30s and had been hopping around the minors for half a decade when Mack selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Yankees. Babich was an immediate sensation, winning 14 games with a 3.73 ERA in 229 innings, and garnered MVP votes. The next year, he got hurt, was sent back to the minors, and never made it back.
2) 1935-1940 St. Louis Browns
Main Culprits: Jack Knott (602 IP, 5.56 ERA, 90 ERA+) Russ Van Atta (463 IP, 5.95 ERA, 84 ERA+), Jim Walkup (442 IP, 6.80 ERA, 72 ERA+), Lefty Mills (426 IP, 6.10 ERA, 80 ERA+)
From 1935-1939, the Browns allowed the most runs in the American League. They finally slipped up in 1940, and allowed the second most. They allowed over 1000 runs in ‘35, ‘37, and ‘39, with a team ERA of 6.24, 6.00, and 6.01 respectively. The worst pitcher was undoubtedly the appropriately named Walkup. In 1935, he gave a base on balls to 104 batters in 181 innings (12.1% of the batters he faced), and allowed 226 hits, while only striking out 44. His ERA was 6.25. After spending almost all of 1936 in the minors, he came back in ‘37, when he walked 83 guys in 150 IP. ERA? 7.36, thanks as well to 218 hits allowed. Finally, his coup de grace came in 1938, when he managed to walk 53 batters in 94 innings and posted an ERA of 6.80, while going 1-12. In his Browns career, Walkup sported a 6.74 ERA (73 ERA+), 260 walks and 614 hits in 462 innings. His WHIP was 1.890.
Note: Although, you could reasonably make a case for Lefty Mills, who the Browns allowed to throw 427 innings between 1937-1940, and who walked 291 batters. Fortunately for Mills, he threw hard, and was thus able to limit the damage caused by his massive wildness (at least in comparison to Walkup). Mills finished his career with a 6.06 ERA, but was almost league-average in 1938, when he had a 5.31 ERA (94 ERA+). Can you imagine how many pitches he would have had to throw in his 15 complete games? Mills ranks 4th all time in most BB/9 among pitchers with more than 400 IP.
1) 1915-1916 Philadelphia A’s
Main Culprits: Elmer Myers (324 IP, 3.56 ERA, 81 ERA+), Weldon Wyckoff (297 IP, 3.66 ERA, 79 ERA+), Tom Sheehan (290 IP, 3.85 ERA, 75 ERA+), Jack Nabors (267 IP, 3.88 ERA, 74 ERA+), Rube Bressler (193 IP, 5.31 ERA, 55 ERA+)
This one is all on Connie Mack, who chased away his aging aces like Eddie Plank and Chief Bender, with whom he’d won four of the last five AL Pennants, with his penny-pinching. With Plank and Bender in the Federal League, Mack sold Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, Eddie Murphy, and Bob Shawkey, and Home Run Baker elected to sit the season out in a salary dispute. So Mack went young and cheap. The results were predictably disastrous. In a league that allowed 3.79 runs per game, the A’s allowed 5.77 (52% higher than the league average). Their team ERA+ was 68. That’s as a team. A lot of that badness in 1915 is due to Bresser, who had a terrific rookie campaign in 1914 as a 19 year old (10-4, 1.77 ERA), but who fell apart the next year. He started 20 games and walked 118 in 178 innings. His ERA was 5.20. Bresser tried to make it back as a pitcher, but seemed to keep getting hurt. By 1921, the Reds gave up entirely and made him an outfielder, and he’d hit .301/.378/.413 for his career.
Note: In the middle of this nightmare season, Mack sold Bob Shockey to the New York Highlanders. The next season, Shawkey won 24 games and had a 2.21 ERA in 277 innings. Oops.
So where would the Twins fit in? Yes, it’s still relatively early, and TCM expects Minnesota pitchers to improve, simply because they can’t possibly be worse. But a few things are clear. They don’t strike anybody out (just 13% of total batters, which would be the worst mark in baseball since 2003 if the season ended today) and they allow far too many homers (4.2% of batters). And they don’t really have the means to acquire and use better pitchers at this point. So it’s not inconceivable that this could be the Twins’ level for the rest of the season.
Minnesota have allowed 5.68 runs/game in a league that allows 4.20 runs on average (which, by the way, is worse than the Red Sox 5.75 mark). The Twins team ERA+ is 72 (Boston is 81). If this keeps up, that would be second worst total in baseball history, behind only the A’s on this list. And if we’re going to consider the pre-WWII years as outside the modern era, as The Common Man thinks we need to, we could be looking at the worst team in modern history. Well, at least they’ll be remembered for something.