The Bad and The Ugly

The Washington Nationals finished the 2008 season with the worst record in the majors. They're likely to repeat that in 2009, but this year's club could go down as one of the worst in the history of the game.

There's very little good in this discussion, mostly just bad and ugly. How bad are the 2009 Nationals? Think, the rulers of Troy when that horse appeared at their front door. (They should have feared gifts bearing Greeks, as well as Greeks bearing gifts.) Think, Joe Pisarcik trying to run out the clock in the Meadowlands in November 1978. Think, the weatherman who predicted that Noah didn't need to build that boat. Think, the fire marshals of London in 1666. Think, the leaders of the Persian army at Marathon . Think, whoever put the Indians on the cover of the 1987 Baseball Preview issue of Sports Illustrated. Think, the designers of the Edsel. In other words, pretty bad.

A team that wins less than 30 percent of its games (which is about where the Washington Nationals are at the moment) is all that, and more. It only happened 19 times in the 20th Century, and once thus far in the 21st… those amazing 2003 Tigers, who went 43-119 for a winning percentage of .265. While there may be some sentiment for that sorry Bunch of Bengals as being the Worst Team of All Time, or that the execrable 1962 Mets (40-120, .250) may deserve that title, it's obvious they weren't. That distinction, hands down, belongs to the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who finished 20-134, a .130 winning percentage that is only challenged by the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys (23-113, .169), the 1883 Philadelphia Phillies (17-81, .173) and the 1889 Louisville Colonels (27-111, .196). Since the Robison Brothers tanked the '99 season by Lake Erie by moving all their good players to the St. Louis team they also owned, no team has come within 100 percentage points of the Spiders. The game was a little different in the 19th Century. So, leaving aside these four awful 19th Century teams, what can we learn from the really bad teams of the 20th Century (and the 2003 Tigers), and what might they have in common with this year's Nationals?

A few years back, say in 1991, George Robinson and Charles Salzberg wrote a book called, "On a Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place." The quote is from Fresco Thompson, referring specifically to some of the Phillies teams he played for in the late '20s. And the book is about baseball's worse teams by decade. In other words, the worst team of the first decade of the 20th Century, the second decade, the 1920s, the 1930s, etc. And, just because they were so awful, Robinson and Salzberg threw in the 1899 Spiders for bad measure. It's written with a good deal of humor, which you probably have to have when dealing with teams like this. In their Introduction, Robinson and Salzberg give a pretty good summary of what a really bad team usually looks like…

A huge number of players

Lots of rookies

Lots of elderly veterans

Really bad pitching

While noting that fielding and hitting are usually pretty bad – they have to be to win barely more than a quarter of games played – Robinson and Salzberg conclude that the key to an awful team is, surprise, pitching. In fact, the 10 teams that Robinson and Salzberg profiled (ending with the infamous 1988 Orioles, who started 0-21) all finished last in their league in ERA.

However, the composition of a really bad team, while mostly more suited for the compost heap, isn't really all that simple. Some of those rookies go on to become fine players. Some of those vets were once fine players, and some were just having bad years. And, remarkably enough, even the worst teams usually have at least one good hitter who has a pretty good year.

During the course of the period between 1904 and 2003 - a neat 100 seasons, exactly - just six teams managed to win less than 27 percent of their games. They were, in order of expertise (or lack thereof)…

1916 Philadelphia Athletics  

   36-117  

 .235

1935 Boston Braves  

   38-115

 .248 

1962 New York Mets  

   40-120

 .250

1904 Washington Senators  

   38-113  

 .252

1919 Philadelphia Athletics  

   36-104  

 .257

2003 Detroit Tigers  

   43-119

 .265  

In case you're interested, the next "best" team was the 1952 Pirates, who went 42-112, .273. It's also worth knowing that the worst of the Expansion Era teams, outside the Tigers, were the 1969 Expos and Padres that finished 52-110, .321. Nowadays, it's really hard to lose more than 70 percent of your games. Outside of the 2003 Tigers, the last team to do it for an entire season was the '62 Mets.

Let's test Robinson and Salzberg's hypotheses on these six teams.

The 1916 and 1919 A's were a product of Connie Mack selling off his first dynasty, and trying to rebuild on the cheap, bringing in carloads of sandlot, high school and college players. The 1916 team was last in just about everything of importance – runs scored, hits, on base average, OPS, runs allowed, walks allowed, and ERA. Mack ran 48 players through the revolving door (or maybe the tower at Shibe Park ) that year, including a remarkable 20 pitchers – this in an era when a team would seldom use more than 10 pitchers in a year. And yet, one pitcher was remarkable among the Jack Nabors and Minot "Cap" Crowells. Twenty-three year old Bullet Joe Bush went 15-24 with a 2.57 ERA (Adjusted ERA 111) as an early (and forgettable) part of a fine career that saw him win 195 games in 17 seasons. As for the rest of the team, Mack sent three teenagers (Charlie Grimm, Lew Malone and Val Picinich), two 40 year-olds (both of whom had been stars at a younger age – Nap Lajoie and Harry Davis) and an incredible 19 players between the ages of 20 and 22 (the team's average age was 26) out to do battle with the American League. And some of them did have pretty good seasons… Stuffy McInnis, Wally Schang and Amos Strunk were all very good players, and played pretty well in 1916. But nothing could overcome a Kiddie Corps mound staff with only two pitchers over the age of 24 (and one of them, Nabors, went 1-20.)

The 1919 team wasn't much better. They were eighth in even more categories than the '16 team; runs scored, hits, walks, batting average, on-base average, slugging percentage, runs allowed, hits allowed, walks allowed, ERA. This time Mack used 49 players, including 23 pitchers, and this time the average team age was just over 25. And yet, you'd think a team with George Burns, Tilly Walker, Braggo Roth, poor Amos Strunk again, Joe Dugan and Jimmie Dykes would win more than 26 percent of its games. Nope. Dykes and Dugan were too young, and Roth only stuck around for half a year. Burns and Walker had good seasons, but that wasn't enough as 13 pitchers under the age of 25 took the mound. Socks Seibold. Dan Boone and Mule Watson. Bob Hasty. Everyone from Walter Anderson to Jimmy Zinn.

The 1935 Boston Braves were a case that helped prove a couple of Robinson and Salzberg's theories, but didn't fit the mold in a couple of other ways. What they did have was an outstanding hitting performance from Wally Berger and the ultimate in aging superstars, Babe Ruth. Berger had a 147 OPS+ and led the league in home runs and RBI – no mean feat for a team that was dead last in runs (and in hits, walks, total bases, batting, on-base, slugging, OPS, etc., etc.) And the Babe wasn't even the only future Hall of Famer on the team. Joining the 40 year old Ruth was 43 year old Rabbit Maranville and 49 year old Bill McKechnie (he was the manager). Ruth ended up second on the team in home runs, with six, retiring after playing just 28 games (his OPS+ of 118 was also second on the team). Maranville hit .148/.186/.179. McKechnie was smart, he stayed off the field, except to change pitchers, which he did fairly often, since they were seventh in complete games and had a 4.93 ERA. This was actually a pretty old team – the pitching staff averaged 33.3 years and the team as a whole 29.3. They also only used 30 players all year, and a single teenager, Elbie Fletcher.

Then came the Mets. You all know about them. Casey ran 43 players (including 17 pitchers) out onto the Polar Grounds (as he referred to their home field) that year, and some of them had very recognizable names… Richie Ashburn, Gil Hodges, Frank Thomas, Jim Hickman, Gene Woodling, Gus Bell, Don Zimmer, Ed Kranepool, Roger Craig, Clem Labine. The problem was, except for Thomas, they were all either at the end of the line, or just starting out. For instance, Kranepool was 17, Woodling 39 and Hodges 38. And, maybe the biggest problem was the rest of the team… Marv Throneberry (no further comment needed), Choo Choo Coleman (ditto), Rod Kanehl, Ed Bouchee (who exposed himself as being mediocre), Sammy Drake (what, no Solly Drake?), Harry Chiti, etc., etc. Still, they actually did hit a little better than a 40-120 team. Thomas and Ashburn both had fine years and, in limited action, Woodling and Hodges held up their ends as well. But, nothing could salvage that pitching staff… last in ERA (5.04… in the Sixties), hits allowed, runs allowed, earned runs allowed, home runs allowed, and strikeouts. Two (out of the three) Bob Millers, Jay Hook, Craig Anderson, Roadblock Jones, Ray Daviault.

The 1904 Senators are largely forgotten except for being part of the "First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American League" tradition, a little ditty that might have gotten started that year. If there ever was a team that had everything go wrong, this was it, starting the year before when by far their best player took a long walk off a short bridge. That would have been a drunken Ed Delahanty, who fell off the train bridge above Niagara Falls after he was tossed off said train for drunkenness. Big Ed was hitting .333 at the time and had a 145 OPS+. Suffice it to say that none of the regulars on the 1904 team hit that well. The ugly fact is that, unlike most of these really bad teams, the 1904 Senators didn't have anyone who had much of year, at least not entirely with Washington . First baseman Jake Stahl (119 OPS+) was their best player throughout the year, and the only other guys who hit much were Frank Huelsman (113… he was a terrible-fielding outfielder) who also played with three other American League teams that year, Kip Selbach (132) who was shipped to Boston after 48 games and back-up catcher Lew Drill (140) who played half the season with Detroit. On a career basis among their 19 batters, only Stahl, Selbach and 39 year old Patsy Donovan were much good. Maybe that's why they were eighth in runs, hits, walks, batting average, on base, slugging and total bases.

The '04 Senators primarily used just seven pitchers (nine total all year, and they led the league in runs allowed), only one of whom was ever any good. That was Al "The Curveless Wonder" Orth, who was indeed pretty good (he won 204 games in the majors), but both before (with the Phillies) and after (with the Highlanders) he toiled in DC. He won in double figures six straight years for the Phillies and then went 11-6, 18-16 and 27-17 (leading the AL in wins) for the Highlanders. His record in '04? He was 3-4 for the Senators, after which he was traded to New York , where he went 11-6. The rest of the staff consisted of such worthies as Happy Jack Townsend (5-26), rookie Beany Jacobson (6-23) and ace Case Patten (14-23). None of them had an ERA+ higher than 86. All in all, it's a wonder they won 38 games.

That leaves the Tigers who prove, if nothing else, how much the game has changed. The Athletics didn't win the AL pennant until 1929, 10 years after the awful 1919 team. The Braves went until 1948, 13 years later and six weeks after Babe Ruth died, to win the NL crown. The '62 Mets took seven years, and that was a miracle beyond belief (the '69 Mets were, without a doubt by far the worst team in history to win 100 games), and the Senators went 20 years (to 1924) before winning their first AL pennant. And the Tigers were in the World Series in 2006. Ah, the wonders of free agency.

However, 2003 wasn't so wonderful. They couldn't hit or pitch. The Tiger hitters finished 14th (and last) in the AL in runs, hits, doubles, batting average, on base percentage, slugging, total bases and OPS, and the pitchers (there were 20 of them, average age – 25) were 13th in runs allowed. As was the case with their sub-.270 brethren, the 2003 Tigers had promising young players who weren't ready (Carlos Pena, Brandon Inge, Cody Ross, Jeremy Bonderman) and older players who were over the hill – Dean Palmer and Bobby Higginson. And, they did have one player who had a genuinely good year at the plate – Dimitri Young, who posted a .297/.372/.537 line for a 130 OPS+.

Maybe it's unfair to compare the 2009 Nationals with this awful crew. After all, they have a better record after 95 games than either the 1962 Mets or the 2003 Tigers.

2009 Nationals             28-67

2003 Tigers                  26-69

1962 Mets                   24-71

So they're playing .295 ball. Furthermore, the season still has almost 70 games to go, and a lot can happen in 70 games. The problem for the Nationals may be that most of what happens from here on out is likely to be bad, especially if they trade off some of their offensive assets. With the trade deadline fast approaching, Adam Dunn, Nick Johnson, Josh Willingham and Cristian Guzman have been mentioned in every trade rumor that doesn't include Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee. And with good reason, since the first three are all having notable years at the plate. Dunn is having another excellent season (fifth in home runs, sixth in RBIs, eighth in OPS), Willingham's OPS+ is even higher than Dunn's, Johnson (when healthy) is still Nick the Stick with a .412 on base percentage, and even Guzman is a better hitter (though he's way overrated) than most of his fellow shortstops. Only 24 year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the cornerstone of the franchise, seems safe from leaving the Nation's Capitol in the next week.

So yes, at this point in time, like many other really bad teams, the Nationals have some hitters. They are second in walks, second in on-base percentage, fourth in hits and fifth in OPS in the National League. However, that doesn't quite add up to a top offense, since the rest of the team can't hit. As a result, they're only ninth in runs scored. Still, that's a lot better than say the 2003 Tigers.

The problem here is when the other team gets to bat. The Nationals are last in runs allowed, at 526 (5.54 per game), and Manny Acta and Jim Riggleman have already run out to the mound a remarkable 25 pitchers, most of them unremarkable. Although they've used 10 starters, they've pretty much stuck with six regulars, or maybe irregulars. Only ace John Lannan (7-7, 3.38) has much to write home to mother about. The rest of the regular starters -- like Lannan, they're all 25 or younger – probably belong in the minors. And that's the best part of the staff. The Nationals have used 17 relievers to date, most of whom are eminently forgettable. Joel Hanrahan and Garret Mock both have ERAs of 7.71. Jesus Colome and Saul Rivera are over eight, and Logan Kensing is way up in double figures (an ERA so bad that it will go unmentioned herein.) The only relievers with any trade value would be closer Mac the Ninth MacDougal (who the Nationals dredged up after the White Sox released him after five games and an ERA over 12, and he's walked 15 and struck out only eight in 20 innings) and poor Joe Beimel, who is 0-5 and wishes he was back with the Dodgers. Of course, on teams as ugly as this, most everyone wishes they were somewhere, anywhere, else.



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