The 2018 Major League Baseball season marked the 115th in the live-ball era. In that time, there have been some absolutely phenomenal seasons. But who had the best year? That debate will go on forever. Is it Ted Williams hitting over .400, or Barry Bonds demolishing 73 poor baseballs? What about when Bonds had an on-base percentage over .600? All these years are remembered and special. But there are even more insane years that no one knows about. These years aren’t enshrined in the Hall, nor are they memorable or honored by their teams. Why? Because these are the worst seasons in baseball history. Welcome to the first induction ceremony to the Diamond Digest Hall of Shame.
Picking the ten players was dealer’s choice. However, there were some requirements for who was eligible. All players were chosen in the modern era. For the five hitters that were selected, they had to have had at least 200 plate appearances in the season to qualify. For the five pitchers that were chosen, they had to have hurled at least 100 innings in the season to qualify.
Chris Davis, 2018 Orioles
Let’s start with one we all know. Just a few years ago, Chris Davis was one of the best first basemen in the game. He was arguably the biggest power threat there was, and he also played Gold Glove-caliber defense. This influenced Peter Angelo to sign the then 30-year-old to a seven-year, $161-million extension. That’s what makes his 2018 season that much worse: the fact he was being paid one $20-million to put together one of the worst seasons ever seen. Starting with the more traditional stats, Davis, in a whopping 522 plate appearances, had the worst average in baseball at .168 to go with a .243 on-base. Over the past few years, Davis has been a “home run or bust” guy at the plate, and last year was no different. Except, he only went deep 16 times. That’s not exactly the recipe for success. So, instead of rounding the bases, what did he do? He walked back to the dugout after strike three. A lot. 36.8% of the time to be exact, which led the league. Finally, let’s look at one of the most trusted stats around WAR. Davis finished the 2018 season with an fWAR of -3.1. He was 3.1 runs worse than a replacement level player. Davis isn’t a random guy who came up from the minors and was awful, this is a former all-star who is still in his early 30s. That -3.1 fWAR ranks as the seventh worst in the modern era. The three ranked ahead of him, all took place in the early 1930s. That’s…not great.
Brandon Wood, 2010 Angels
Shoutout to fellow DD writer Peter Khayat for recommending this one. Now, the majority of the names on this list are going to be from the early 20th century. Guys no one alive has ever heard of. But, if you were a big Angel fan back in 2010, you may remember your cringe the 243 times Brandon Wood stepped to the plate. If it seemed like he made out almost every time he came to the plate, it’s because he did. Wood walked back to the dugout 82.6% of the time he went to the plate. To put that in perspective, only one man who qualified for these rankings had a worse on-base percentage. One. Over 19,000 players have appeared in an MLB game, yet just one had an OBP less than .174, and we are going to get to him soon. So, did Wood at least have some power? At the very least, he must have been able to go deep every once in a while. Nope. In 2010, Wood only hit it out four times and drove in just 14 runs. Combining his lack of power with his inability to reach base, what do you get? The ninth worst OPS in the history of baseball. Wood is just one of just 11 players to ever have an OPS under .400, and the eight ahead of him all played from 1904-12. After that season, shockingly, Wood did not get any votes for Silver Slugger.
Jim Levey, 1933 Browns
I love getting to the early 20th century. Back when the best player in the world was a drunk and baseball was just a way to earn extra money for the players’ plumbing businesses. Jim Levey, a member of the St. Louis Browns who played in at least 139 games from 1931-33, had a remarkable final season. Now, before we get into his ’33 season, just a little background into Levey. Despite playing in just 440 games, Levey finished his career with an fWAR of -8.2. His ’33 season was bad, but it’s important to note that Levey was almost as awful in ’31, where he hit to a .209/.264/.285 clip, with an fWAR of -3.3, which is the fourth worst among players eligible. Onto ’33. None of Levey’s traditional stats standout like the other guys on this list. His .195 average and .237 on-base is nothing that hasn’t been seen, although, most guys with those numbers have a slugging percentage that is a bit more than three points higher than their on-base, that’s beside the point. So, what makes his season so bad? It all comes back to fWAR. Levey was -4.0 wins below replacement level in his 1933 season. That is the lowest total in the history of the game. In today’s game, WAR is viewed by some as the single most important stat out there. So, if true, Jim Levey adopted militarism and took the throne by WAR (history joke).
Frank O’Rourke, 1912 Braves
Yes! We made it to the fantastic seasons that came out of the early 1910s. Before we start, try to put yourself in O’Rourke’s shoes. It’s 1912. Arizona has just been ratified as the 48th U.S. state, Fenway Park has just opened out in Boston, and the weekend of Opening Day, the Titanic sunk. Good? Okay. Frank O’Rourke is a compelling case. He ended up enjoying a long MLB career, although it came after taking a four-year break (I am not sure if he served in the military, because if so, it was definitely not a break) from 1913-16. But, before O’Rourke left the majors, he put together what may be the worst season of all time. I’m a big numbers guy, so, here are a few:
.122 – O’Rourke’s batting average in 1912, the single worst average in the modern era
.177 – O’Rourke’s on-base percentage in 1912, the fourth-worst OBP in the modern era
.325 – O’Rourke’s on-base plus slugging in 1912, the second-worst OPS in the modern era
Aren’t numbers fun? How about one more: 0 – the amount of O’Rourke’s home runs in 1912, not surprisingly, tied for the least in the history of baseball.
Bill Bergen, 1909 Superbas
I’m not going to get too into Bergen, as his whole career is special, but this 1909 season is just undeniably awful. You are probably wondering who ranks ahead of the others in all these stats. Well, it was Bill Bergen in 1909. 1909 was the ninth year of Bergen’s 11-year career, in which he played for the Reds and in Brooklyn. Remember Brandon Wood’s awful on-base? Who could possibly have been worse? You guessed it: Bill Bergen, 1909. Who was the one player with an OPS worse than Frank O’Rourke’s in 1912? That’s right: Bill Bergen, 1909. Bill Bergen’s 1909 year was a special kind of bad. He would have his own room in the Hall of Shame, but he hit a home run in 1909 which is pretty impressive.
Homer Bailey, 2018 Reds
Recency bias may be relevant here, as most of us have distinct memories of the awful 2018 put together by then-Red Homer Bailey. Bailey ran into a bit of bad luck to start the year. Bailey only allowed one run in two of his first three starts, but one combined run from the Cincinnati offense handed him a loss and a no-decision. From then on, Bailey was just bad. After taking the loss in his first five decisions, Bailey finally earned a win in a May game against the Dodgers. That game, Bailey allowed 12 baserunners in five innings, but only allowed three to score, and the Reds won 5-3. Following that game, Homer Bailey never tasted victory again. Not only did he take the loss in his final nine decisions, but his team lost every other game he started beside that Dodger game. Think about that for a second. Homer Bailey started 20 games in 2018, and his team won one of them. Even in a time when we are noticing that wins don’t matter, this is something impressive. He ended with a final record of 1-14, and an ERA of 6.09. What puts Bailey on the list, however, is, like Davis, his salary. Homer Bailey led his team to one win while being paid $23-million. I could have led them to zero wins, and I’ll only ask for one million. Homer Bailey’s contract will probably go down as the worst ever given to a pitcher, and he capped off his time in Cincinnati with a Hall-worthy performance.
Joe Blanton, 2013 Angels
Brandon Wood probably brought back some pretty awful memories if you’re an Angel fan, and I apologize. So, if that was a tough read, you probably are going to want to skip this section. Joe Blanton put together a solid MLB career when it was all said and done, but his 2013 season in Anaheim was not so reliable. Blanton starter 20 games (appeared in 28) in the year, and pitched to a…not great record of 2-14. While 2013 was before the bullpen revolution where you can take starters out in the fifth, teams still had some trust in their bullpen, and a 2-14 record for a guy like Blanton is tough to do. With that record, Blanton also allowed 12.2 H/9 and pitched to an ERA over six. Blanton’s 2013 struggles are attributed to the fact that he allowed 29 home runs in just 132.2 innings of work. This all resulted in a ridiculous 1.61 WHIP, not so good for the righty. This year was so bad in fact that Blanton decided to retire after it, before coming back for the 2015 season. In that 2015 year though, he turned it all around, pitching to an impressive 2.84 ERA out of the bullpen for the Royals and Pirates.
Ryan Rowland-Smith, 2010 Mariners
I know what you’re thinking. “Those years were bad, but they weren’t as historic as the hitters.” Patience young Skywalker, it’s coming. Ryan Rowland-Smith had a strong start. He had a sub-three ERA in each of his first three seasons, one of which included him as a starter. Then, the atrocity that was 2010 came. Just look back to 2010 really quickly. In 2010, Justin Bieber dropped “Baby.” In 2010, “Glee” began. In 2010, Brian Wilson took the world by storm, and everyone was fearing the beard. If anyone had it worse than American pop culture though, it was Rowland-Smith in Seattle. Rowland-Smith would appear in 27 games, and he put together some remarkable numbers. Not good remarkable though (obviously, why else would he be on the list?). Rowland-Smith pitched to a 1-10 record (not great), 1.69 WHIP (not greater), and a 6.75 ERA (not greatest). If all that wasn’t bad enough Rowland-Smith would finish the year with a FIP of 6.55, the ninth highest among qualified players (told you I’d get to history), and an fWAR of -1.5, the third lowest for a pitcher in the modern era. It’s all okay for Rowland-Smith though, as he has a silver medal from the 2004 Olympics to go home to, and I…do not.
Andy Benes, 2001 Cardinals
This is a special season. Benes ended his career with a sub-four ERA, over 150 wins, and 2000 strikeouts. But his 2001 season, his second to last, is the most memorable. With the Cardinals, a 33-year-old Benes put together one of the worst years ever seen. His 7-7 record doesn’t look so bad but put it together with a few numbers, and it really pops. Here they are:
&7.38 – Benes’s earned run average in 2001, the eighth-worst ERA among eligible players
7.10 – Benes’s fielding independent pitching in 2001, the single worst FIP among eligible players
-1.5 – Benes’s wins above replacement in 2001, the sixth worst by a pitcher in history
Benes landed on his feet, however, retiring after pitching one more season in St. Louis in which he went 5-4 with a 2.78 ERA, a career low ERA. Just goes to show, you cannot predict baseball.
When I was researching for this article, I had to eliminate a lot of players, but I just could not decide between these three teammates. What the three of them did is really amazing. Sweetland pitched to a 7.71 ERA, the highest ERA ever, Elliot had a 7.67 ERA, the second highest, and Willoughby had a 7.59, the third highest. Imagine that. Three pitchers, on the same team, have the three worst ERAs in the modern era. What else do I have? How about their H/9. Elliots 14.65 H/9 is the highest among qualified players. Who’s next? Sweetland, with a 14.60. How about third place? You guessed it, Willoughby, with 14.18. Those are the only three times in the modern era that a pitcher who threw over 100 innings had a H/9 over 14. Before we go to the last stat, a quick shoutout to Hap Collard, another member of that Phillies rotation, who finished that season with a 13.28 H/9, the eight highest among qualified players. Not exactly the ’71 Orioles. Finally, how about the WHIP. Mr. Hal Elliot has the honor of being first on this list, with a WHIP of 2.12, the highest among eligible pitchers, in front of Willoughby’s 2.02, which ranks third, and Sweetland’s 1.98 (sub-two!!!) which ranks all the way down at seven. That year, the entire Phillies pitching staff combined to have a 6.71 ERA, 13.07 H/9, and a 1.85 WHIP, all the single highest in baseball history.
You decide! What was the worst season of all?