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Handicapping the race to the bottom, part II

Predicting the worst performers of 2016, this time for the pitchers.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I wrote about the enjoyment I found in predicting terrible players. To accumulate a lot of negative value, a player really has to thread a needle carefully, by being very bad while still convincing a team to give him playing time. I settled on Prince Fielder, who has been bad, and I think will continue to be bad, but good enough in the recent past that the Rangers might hope he can snap out of it. In the last week, he's actually been above-replacement by both fWAR and WARP, which should give you some sense for my own abilities in this area.

That isn't stopping me, though! This week I'm repeating the process with pitchers. As a refresher, this is emphatically not me looking for the worst player. The worst player is me, or you, or someone else who hasn't touched a baseball at all. I'm looking for the player that will end the season having accumulated the most negative value, or put more elegantly, hurt their team the most. These players are still very very good at baseball, among the top 500 or so in the world. They just happen to be in the later 400s, and because of their bad luck in that regard, they will be made fun of for the next few hundred words.

In order for a player to both be bad enough and play enough to compete for this spot, they need to give their team a reason to keep running them out, and not do so much damage to the team that they can't take it anymore. The former might be a hope that they'll redeem some past success, as with Fielder, or it might be a mistaken belief that they aren't really that bad. For hitters, this might be based on ignorance of defensive metrics; for pitchers, it might be the result of a decent ERA hiding a terrible FIP or DRA. It also helps when the team is either really good or really bad, and thus isn't sweating over every single win.

With those criteria in mind, here are the leading candidates in the AL and NL, with my pick as well as some other potential challengers.

AL Pitcher: James Shields

This is not a pick I'm confident in. As has been amply documented, Shields has been straight terrible, especially in the last few weeks, and he's sitting on a 6.22 ERA across 81 innings. DRA agrees that he's been awful, putting him at a 120 DRA- and the third-worst WARP in the AL, but by FIP, Shields has been merely bad, with a 128 FIP- that's nearly exactly replacement level, translating to precisely 0.0 fWAR.

When two stats attempting to measure the same thing diverge by this much, a reasonable response is to average the two, and with that approach, Shields doesn't look quite bad enough to be a strong contender. The projections also think he'll improve, and if not look entirely like his former self, be more than good enough to put himself out of the running for this dubious honor, with PECOTA projecting him for 0.6 WARP over the rest of the season, Steamer 0.7, and ZiPS 1.0. I generally agree with those, I think.

But I also think that, if Shields is bad, he'll still make lots of starts and pitch lots of innings as the White Sox hope he pulls out of it. First, they just traded for him, so even if it's not truly the best thing for the franchise, I have to imagine the front office will want to avoid admitting defeat for as long as humanly possible. Secondly, Shields's decline came on so quickly that it really does seem plausible that he could pull out of it. Like Fielder, I think he'll be given lots of chances to correct his course. Unlike Fielder, I also think he'll recover somewhat, so this is mostly a strategic choice. Other pitchers might project to be worse than Shields, but I think he's the only pitcher I can reasonably foresee combining being terrible with pitching a lot.

Runners-up:

  • Clay Buchholz—he looks pretty much broken, with a 140 FIP-/121 DRA-, but with a history of effectiveness, he might offer the Red Sox a reason to keep giving him opportunities. Yet while they don't have that many alternatives, especially with the recent struggles of Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens, the Red Sox are fighting in a close AL East race, and they've shown their willingness to bump Buchholz to the bullpen, so I don't see him accumulating the needed playing time.
  • Chris Young—a very strong choice, and not one I'd blame you for making. Young's been walking the edge of a knife for a while, relying heavily on fly balls getting caught as opposed to strikeouts and walks, and he appears to have fallen off said knife edge. Like with Buchholz, however, the Royals have shown their willingness to pull Young from the rotation, and frankly, I'm stunned they've stuck with him as much as they have. Since Kansas City possesses a few fringey starter alternatives in Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Dillon Gee, I'm hard-pressed to see any way for Young to get the innings he needs to be competitive without being too good to be, well, competitive.
  • Ubaldo Jimenez—by DRA, he's been downright awful, but by FIP, he's been above-replacement. Like Shields, he has stretches of dominance in his past, and the Orioles don't have much in the way of alternatives, but I'm just not confident he's as bad as DRA makes him look. Another defensible choice, probably.

NL Pitcher: Alfredo Simon

Matt Marton, USA TODAY Sports

Unlike in the AL, the NL presented what seemed to me an easy decision. Simon has been godawful, worth -1.0 fWAR (worst in the NL) and -1.5 WARP (second-worst in the NL), and he plays for the lowly Cincinnati Reds, who have more important things to worry about than winning games.

It also seems like there's basically no chance that Simon will turn into a productive player again, which might be bad on some teams, since they need a reason to justify putting out a player who has looked so bad. On the Reds, however, no such justification is needed, since honestly, who cares? The projections think he's pretty much cooked, with ZiPS estimating 0.2 rest-of-season WAR, Steamer -0.2, and PECOTA splitting the difference at a clean 0.0. If he continues to get innings, he stands a good chance of continuing to tank his WAR totals, and very little chance of redeeming them; if he doesn't, he's already close enough to the bottom that he might take the title anyway.

The Reds aren't entirely without alternatives; it turns out that, when you give up on winning, a lot of pitchers look like plausible fifth starters. Even so, it's easy to imagine Simon continuing to get starts, just by dint of being the veteran bad starter. He's doing exactly what the Reds signed him to do as well; maybe they hoped he'd break out, allowing them to flip him to a contender for something in return, but they weren't planning on it. They signed Simon because you have to staff all nine positions each day, and it's bad show to forfeit 20% of your games. I don't think he's going anywhere, and that makes me hopeful for his end-of-season totals.

Runners-up:

  • Brett Oberholtzer—the Phillies reliever has, like every player in this article, been terrible, and he's been terrible on a team that, like the Reds, doesn't care that much when their players are terrible. He's still getting innings, despite his 6.23 FIP/6.34 DRA, but the projections think he'll recover somewhat, and even if he doesn't, as a reliever, he faces an uphill fight to accumulate the needed playing time. I wanted to choose a reliever, I really did.
  • Jon Niese—mostly, I think Niese just hasn't been bad enough. Being on a team with Ray Searage functions a lot like having been really good before, in that it gives management hope that the pitcher will magically reverse his skid at some point, so Niese isn't a bad candidate on the playing time front. But while he's been a real disappointment, with -0.9 WARP and -0.5 fWAR, it feels like not only would have to keep that up, he'd need to escalate to a whole other level of disappointment to challenge for the bottom spot, and I'm just not willing to bet on that happening.
  • Shelby Miller—Miller, like many of the pitchers in this article, checks a lot of the necessary boxes. Reason to keep running him out? Check, as he was excellent as recently as last year and is still quite young and cheap. Really bad thus far? Also check, with -0.5 fWAR and -0.8 WARP. But like Niese, I think Miller stands a decent chance of recovering and probably won't keep this pace up. It's plausible, too, that the Diamondbacks would send him to the minors if he continues to struggle, so this isn't an option that really excites me.
Thank you for making it to the end of a massive, pointless article about bad players and the bad teams they play for. I hope that each and every one of them transforms back into superstars, and that even if they don't, they find fulfillment, either in baseball or something else, and never, ever read this article.

. . .

Henry Druschel is a below-replacement Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.