Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The worst hitters in MLB history.

Not too long ago I wrote a brief article about Tony Suck, a 19th century player who ... well ... sucked. As bad as Tony was, there were other comparably bad players in that primitive baseball era.

John Humphries, an exact contemporary of Tony Suck, had 364 major league at bats, managed only three extra base hits, and had a lifetime OPS of .339. Humphries is said to be the first Cornell student ever to play in the major leagues, but I think we can assume he didn't take any baseball electives in Phys. Ed. because nobody told him that left-handers were not supposed to play catcher. Among non-pitchers with 200 or more plate appearances, he holds the all-time records for the lowest career OPS and the lowest slugging average. The Canadian-born Humphries hung around upstate New York and southern Ontario baseball for many years. He played minor league stints in Syracuse, Rochester and Toronto, where his minor league OPS of .372 barely exceeded his anemic major league mark. He never hit a home run at any level.

Realizing that he had no ability as a player, he figured that he might be able to use his college education in management. He is listed as a manager as well as a player on all three of his minor league teams. His trail then goes cold for nearly two decades until he emerged once again as manager of the Syracuse Stars on opening day in 1902. This managerial stint, like his previous one in Syracuse, seems to have ended in failure, because in both cases the team finished the season with a different manager.

Humphries' .339 OPS was given a stern challenge by several others:

.341 for Bobby "Gentlemanly Bob" Clack, a Brit who played in the 1870s in the NL and its predecessor, the National Association, and later became an umpire. He managed only two extra-base hits in 313 major league at bats. The book "Stand and Deliver: A History of Pinch-Hitting" says that Clack was probably the first pinch-hitter in the history of the National League on May 13, 1876. It's difficult to imagine a hitter poor enough to make Clack an improvement, but that was not the reason for the substitution. The first-string catcher hurt his hand in the first inning. He remained in the field at another position, but could not hold the bat for his plate appearance. Cue up Gentlemanly Bob.

.345 for Redleg Snyder, who holds the all-time major league record for the lowest career on-base percentage (.166) among non-pitchers with 200 at bats or more. In fact, if we disqualify his performance in the Union Association and stick to his National League record, his OPS of .331 would edge out Humphries for the futility record. Mr. Snyder's special talent was his willingness to swing at any pitch. With the first National League version of the Cincinnati Reds in 1876, the very first year of the league's existence, the ol' Redleg drew exactly one walk in 206 plate appearances. His real name was Emanuel Sebastian Schneider and there is no known photograph of him.

.349 for George Baker. When I look closely at his record, I'm inclined to think he was the worst of the lot, because his lifetime OPS was padded by more than 300 plate appearances in the feeble Union Association. His National League batting average was .126, and that's also his slugging average because he never managed an extra-base hit. His lifetime OPS in the NL was .306. After his playing career he worked in various capacities for an old-time newspaper named the St. Louis Republic. I'm not sure what he did there, but from the fact that he lived another 30 years after he left baseball, I assume that he never had a dangerous job requiring a major league level of hand-eye co-ordination.

While pondering this issue, I wondered, "Who is the worst hitter since the major leagues started playing by the modern rules in 1893?"

There are two candidates who had relatively long careers:

(1) Bill Bergen, who played in the first deadball era, managed to amass more than 3000 at bats with no real hitting ability. He batted .170 over eleven years and hit only two home runs, neither of them over the fence. Among non-pitchers with 2500 or more at bats, the next lowest career batting average is far higher - Billy Sullivan at .213. Bergen is the only player with at least 500 at-bats who tallied an OBP under .200 and holds the single-season record for the lowest batting average among players with the minimum number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title (.139 in 1909). During that season he ran up an 0-for-46 streak, a record for non-pitchers that lasted more than 100 years.

(2) Ray Oyler, seen below, played in the second deadball era, and has the lowest career batting average since WW2 among non-pitchers with at least 1000 at bats. He played six years, mostly with the Tigers, and even got into four World Series games in 1968.

Those two gentlemen were poor hitters, to be sure, but not poor players. People do not play regularly in the majors for six years (or eleven in Bergen's case) if they have no value. Bergen was considered a top-notch defensive catcher in an era when base-stealing was an extremely important part of the game, and he is still considered a great catcher by modern sabermetricians. Oyler was a slick-fielding shortstop who got into those World Series games as a late-inning defensive replacement, and delivered a successful sacrifice in his only WS plate appearance.

There are two other post-WW2 players who played in four or more major league seasons whose hitting was even weaker than Oyler's:

(Candidate 1) Dick Smith

Smith was a utility infielder for the Pirates for five years in the early 50s. His lifetime batting average was .134 with no homers, and his big year was .174. He went below .100 once and came close (.106) a second time. He is the only non-pitcher in MLB history with 200 or more plate appearances to bat below .140 for his career.

You are probably wondering how a hitter that bad could hang in there for five years, even as a utility infielder. There are two reasons. The first is that Smith was a lifetime .271 hitter in Triple A, so the Buccos figured he couldn't really be as bad as he seemed in the bigs. The other reason is that the Pirates of that era consisted of entire teams made up of back-up players (except Ralph Kiner). When Smith hit his resounding .106 in 1952, one of his fellow utility infielders was Johnny Berardino, who hit .143. Their team won 42 games and lost 112.

There was one thing that the 1952 Pirates were good at, although it had nothing to do with baseball. They were a great farm team for the television networks. The aforementioned Johnny Berardino became "John," dropped the second "r" in his last name and went on to be a soap opera star for 33 years on General Hospital. The team's catcher, Joe Garagiola, went on to become a game show host and a regular on the Today show.

(Candidate 2) Brian Doyle

Dick Smith has one serious rival for the title of "worst hitter since WW2": Brian Doyle, brother of Denny Doyle, a competent player who batted more than 3000 times in the 70s. Brian was a utility infielder for four years (1978-1981) with the Yankees and As. Although his batting and slugging averages were better than Dick Smith's, Brian Doyle absolutely refused to take a walk, so his .201 OBP was far below Smith's mighty .255.
  • That gives Doyle a .392 lifetime OPS, lower than Smith's .421.
  • Doyle's lifetime OPS+ is 11, lower than Smith's 15.
Doyle's .392 lifetime OPS is the lowest since WW2 among non-pitchers with 200 or more plate appearances.

So, bottom line ...

Those are all great candidates, but if I had to choose one guy to be in the batter's box when I had placed a bet on the other team, who would it be?

Forgetting about the 19th century guys who were really playing a different game before 1893 (different pitching distance), and an even more unrecognizable one before 1884 (underhand only), my money is on Bergen. The other guys, possibly excepting Oyler, are all victimized by the problem of inadequate sample size that plagues statisticians and kept lifetime .300 hitter Bob "Hurricane" Hazle from entering the Hall of Fame without buying a ticket. Dick Smith hit .271 and Brian Doyle hit .259 in AAA careers that each spanned several seasons and more than 1000 at bats. Ray Oyler hit 19 homers with an .802 OPS one year at Syracuse. If they had been in the majors under slightly different circumstances, or had had a year with enough plate appearances to qualify for the percentage stats, they might have produced mediocre numbers rather than dreadful ones.

Bergen, on the other hand, was in the majors as a regular for eleven seasons, and never produced. He batted below .200 in ten of those seasons; his slugging average never exceeded .266; and his OPS never exceeded .518. He also played several seasons in the minors, and did no better. His best batting average in a season of A ball was .195; in B ball .216 - and he only got that high because it was based on 37 at bats. His highest slugging average in the minors was .256, which is actually worse than his major league high. He never hit a minor league homer, inside or outside the park. The man simply never hit at any level. Hell, he was probably the last kid picked in the schoolyard. And yet he played in professional baseball for 17 years, which is a true testimony to his skills behind the plate.



We've been sidestepping the question with qualifiers like "non-pitcher" and "since WW2." Let's drop that for the moment and deal in absolutes. Who was the worst damned hitter in the history of major league baseball?

It's probably Ron Herbel.

Ron was a spot starter turned full-time reliever in the 1963-71 era, mostly with the Giants. Over the course of his major league career he had six hits in 206 at bats, for an .029 batting average. His OPS was .104, giving him an OPS+ of minus 70. Among all major leaguers with 200 or more at bats, that is the lowest OPS. If we raise the bar to 800 at bats, the winner would be former Milwaukee Braves starter Bob Buhl, who batted .089 with an OPS of .220, and once ran up an 0-for-87 streak.

On the other hand, Buhl was a solid third starter for the Braves behind Spahn and Burdette for nearly a decade, winning ten or more games in ten different seasons. In the Braves' World Championship year of 1957, he led the National League in W-L percentage and almost led in ERA as well. Buhl was 11 games above .500 that year, making him the league's best in that category as well. So he wasn't getting paid to hit.

Lucky for him.


  1. This is amazing. I wish I had read this when I was younger, and feeling so down about my own pathetic performance at the plate!

    (Also, I notice Bill Bergen had a brother, Marty, who played four years in the majors, with a lifetime BA of .265.)

    1. Marty's story would be a good one for another day, but didn't fit in here. Tragedy. Extreme paranoia. Mental illness. Suicide at 28, after killing his wife and children with an axe. Nothing there I could milk for a few chuckles.

    2. Yeah... I see your point. I did notice that he had died young, ending his baseball career, but didn't know any of those other tragic details. It'd be tough to get some laughs out of those.

      Anyway, your articles are great. Very interesting and excellently written.