I originally had an idea to write a post about career "replacement" players; guys who made entire careers out of being at or around 0 WAR. I then discovered that Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus wrote a post with that same idea, in 2010. He discussed Joe McEwing and Willie Bloomquist as the historic and modern day iconic replacement level guys, and much more. When I realized that Ben had beaten me to this idea, almost two years ago, I had to go in a different direction with this piece. I decided to look at players who weren't at replacement-level for their careers, but instead had careers that resided below replacement-level, essentially the worst Major Leaguers of all-time.
For this list, I only looked at position players, because Baseball-Reference is the only site that has pitching WAR data for pre-1950's players. Also I wrote a couple of weeks ago that picking one type of WAR as a "preferred-type" may not be the best idea, so for this post the WAR's cited are all averages between the three major types (B-R, FG, and BP). Each of the players cited here in the top-10 (or bottom-10), had reasonably long major league careers, minimum of 2000 PA, and career WAR's well under 0, enjoy:
10. Tom Veryzer SS (.241/.283/.294 avg.WAR -3.83, in 3098 PA):
Veryzer was a first round draft pick by the Tigers in 1971, he played five seasons for Detroit, before being replaced by Alan Trammel. In his final season with Detroit, he posted a batting line of .197/.230/.254, good for an OPS+ of 30, wRC+ of 26, and a TAv of .187. Veryzer struck out 219 more times in his career than he had extra base hits, and the shortstop's defense did not make up for his atrocious bat. Veryzer's glove was worth -45 runs in his career, according to TZR.
9. Ed Romero IF (.247/.298/.302 avg.WAR -4.33, in 2111 PA):
Romero was a utility infielder primarily for the Brewers and Red Sox. He only hit 8 home runs and stole 9 bases, while being caught 10 times, in his 12-year major league career. Romero's 30 PA, as a 19 year-old in 1977, may have been his best season (0.3 avg. WAR), which is sad. His career OPS+ was 67.
8. Andres Thomas SS (.234/.255/.334 avg. WAR -4.50, in 2185 PA):
Thomas was the Braves' primary shortstop in the late 80's. Thomas posted a career OPS+ of 61, with his highest OPS+ coming in 1988, 76. Thomas had decent power, but his lack of patience (2.7% career walk-rate) really cost him at the plate, his career .255 OBP is the second-lowest on this list. Other organizations were smart enough to not take a chance on Thomas when Atlanta let him go after his -2.0 rWAR season, in 1990.
7. Gary Sutherland IF (.243/.291/.308 avg. WAR -5.20, in 3385 PA):
Sutherland was a utility infielder for bunch of franchises, but spent his most time with Philadlephia and Montreal. His career wRC+ of 66 and 24 home runs in 13 seasons, makes me think that major league teams kept him around for his glove, before his bat. Yet, defensive metrics rated his defense as being tremendously bad. TZR and FRAA rate his glove as being 52 and 40 runs below-average, respectively.
6. Tommy Thevenow IF (.247/.285/.294 avg. WAR* -5.30, in 4484 PA):
Thevenow was a utility infielder, primarily for the Pirates and Cardinals in the '20s and '30s. His career wRC+ and OPS+ are 49 and 51 respectively, and although he hit over .300 in 1933 he was never a valuable hitter. Thevenow's two career home runs in over 4,000 PA is scary bad.
5. Juan Castro IF (.229/.268/.329 avg. WAR -5.97, in 2849 PA):
Castro is the most recent member of this list, having played for the Phillies and Dodgers, last season. Rob Neyer wrote about Castro, this April and made some outstanding/hilarious points about his career, I'll let him take care of most of Castro's description:
Juan Castro hasn't batted, fielded, or run like a major-league baseball player.
▪ Castro's career batting line is .229/.268/.327, with a 55 career OPS+. Among players with at least 2,500 plate appearances since World War II, only infielders Rafael Belliard and Hal Lanier have been worse.
▪ Playing mostly shortstop, Castro has been worse than replacement level by one measure, and merely worse than average by another.
▪ In 1,103 games in the majors, Castro has stolen four bases ... and been caught stealing five times.
That last is probably my favorite Juan Castro True Fact. Four steals in 17 years. I feel like I should find all of them and make fun of the catchers who couldn't throw out Juan Castro, but that would be sort of mean, wouldn't it.
So, just to review ... Juan Castro has generally hit like a minor leaguer, fielded like a minor leaguer, run like a rusty fire hydrant ... and he's now playing in his 17th major-league season.
Neyer mentions Rafael Belliard and Hal Lanier, who I would like to point out just missed this list. Castro now works in Dodgers' Front Office, hopefully helping to develop players who will be more valuable than he was.
4. Tuck Stainback OF (.259/.284/.333 avg. WAR* -6.10 in 2383 PA):
Stainback is the only primary outfielder on the list, and he spent most of career with the Cubs and Yankees. Out of 13 career Major League seasons, Stainback was below replacement-level 11 times. In Stainback's debut campaign he hit over .300 but as an outfielder he had more career errors (48) than he had home runs and stolen bases... combined (44).
3. Dan Meyer 1B/LF (.253/.293/.379 avg. WAR -6.13, in 4032 PA):
Corner outfield and first base are the typically referred to as baseball's "hit-first" positions (excluding DH); thus, in almost all cases for a player to stick around in the bigs at those positions, they need to be able to hit. Meyer could not hit. His career stretched from 1974-85, and the average wRC+ for 1B and LF over that time were 108 and 107, respectively, while his career wRC+ was a much lower, 82. Among 1B and LF's with 2,000 PAs from 74-85, Meyer has the lowest OBP (.293). Meyer did not make up for his bat with his glove. TZR and FRAA "credit" his glove with costing his teams between 56 and 51.5 runs respectively; that's seriously bad at non-premium defensive positions.
2. Doug Flynn IF (.238/.266/.294 avg. WAR -9.67, in 4085 PA):
In 11 seasons, mainly with the Mets and Expos, Flynn hit seven home runs, stole 20 bases, and was caught stealing 20 times. The utility infielder put up an OPS+ and wRC+ of 58 and 51, respectively in his career. In 333 PA, Flynn was worth -2.3 avg. WAR, in 1977. His career fWAR (-6.6) and rWAR (-8.5) are awful, but FRAA measures his glove as being worth 39.3 runs below average, in his career, leading to an outrageously bad -13.9 career WARP.
1. Bill Bergen C (.170/.194/.201 avg. WAR* -14.85, in 3228 PA):
My guess is the majority of baseball fans (even really passionate baseball fans) have never heard of Bill Bergen. Probably because he played his career from 1901-11. In 2011, Joe Pawlikowski of Fangraphs wrote about Bergen, calling him the "Worst Hitter in Baseball History". Pawlikowski was dead-on about the catcher. In 11 career seasons, Bergen hit two total home runs and had a wRC+ and OPS+ of 16 and 21, respectively. Bergen struck out 354 more times in his career than he had extra base hits. His best season came with the Cincinnati Reds, in 1903. That season was the only year his batting average was above .200, his wRC+ and OPS+ were 37 and 41... in his BEST season, that's unbelievably bad.
When discussing Bergen, modern-day glove-first catchers, like Jose Molina and Jeff Mathis come to mind. Mathis' career wRC+ (48) is terrible, but he's had almost 2,000 less PAs, in his career, than Bergen and his wRC+ is still 32 points higher than Bergen's. Molina has over 1,000 less PAs, and probably will never reach the number of plate appearances that Bergen had, and put up a much more "respectable" wRC+ of 65.
It's hard for me to understand how the Brooklyn Superbas could not find another primary catcher to replace the negative WAR'ing Bergen. In 1909, Bergen's OPS+ was 1 and his wRC+ was -1, yet he played in 112 games. That season he had 54 total bases and 50 strikeouts in 372 PA. Brooklyn was bad that season, their record was 55-98, but were they really that bad that they couldn't find another catcher? Their back-up catcher in 1909, Doc Marshall, was bad in 156 PAs (56 OPS+), but still nowhere near as horrible as Bergen. Maybe the catcher was incredible at handling a pitching staff, I really don't know, but in all honesty Bergen's long career does not make any sense to me.
*--Asterisks note pre-1950's players, who Baseball Prospectus does not list WARP for.
Every kid played baseball growing up had dreams of one day playing in the bigs, only the best of the best ever get that chance at the show. For reference here's Baseball-Reference's chart from their WAR explanation page, that attempts to show just how incredible the talent-level at the Major League level, truly is:
The ten players I listed above as the "Worst Players in Baseball History" were all not only lucky enough to reach the Major Leagues, but were also lucky enough to have Major League careers; which very, very few are able to accomplish. The problem with the players in this top-10 is that they fall well-below the replacement level line above, that separates Major and Minor leaguers. But for whatever reason Major League organizations continued to let them play in the bigs.
I think part of the reason that some of these players were allowed to have actual careers is an issue with the value of an utility infielder. Almost every major league team has some sort of "utility infielder" or "utility guy" on their roster, as it's at times deemed necessary. This roster spot could quite possibly be baseball's most overrated position; although closers could give them a run for their money.
The value of their "utility" is not quantified in WAR, and I'm not even sure it should be. Bryan Grosnick, of this site, came up with his own statistic to attempt to quantify the value of positional utility. Interestingly enough, that statistic, McE (McEwing score), is named after the Joe McEwing, who Lindbergh pointed out as being a career replacement-player.
The majority of the players on this list, and those who just missed made careers out of being team's utility infielders. This fact leads me to believe that either WAR underrates the value of utility infielders, or that teams overrate their value. My guess is that teams tend to overrate the value of that type of player, especially in the case of the players that qualified for this list.
You can follow Glenn on twitter @Baseballs_Econ