The Worst Hitter in Baseball History

So often in our baseball debates we’re searching for the best something: The best hitter of the 80s, the best pitcher of the pre-WWII era, etc. Yet rare is the occasion where we search out the worst player in a particular category or era. Sometimes that player jumps out at us and makes us notice; it’s the only reason that anyone knows Neifi Perez‘s name. But unless it is blatantly obvious the worst player often goes ignored. Until I ran a random Play Index search last week, I had never heard the name Bill Bergen, the man you see to your right. Now that I’ve found him, though, I’m confident that he is the worst hitter in baseball history.

When citing an example of sporting dominance, I often turn to Wayne Gretzky. He is the only player in NHL history to score 200-plus points in a season, and he did it four times. Bergen provides a similar example, except we can replace the word dominance with ineptitude. He is the only player since 1901 who accumulated 250 or more PA with an OPS+ of 10 or less — and he did it in three consecutive seasons.

Rk Player HR OPS+ PA Year Age Tm Lg G BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Bill Bergen 1 1 372 1909 31 BRO NL 112 .139 .163 .156 .319
2 Bill Bergen 0 -4 250 1911 33 BRO NL 84 .132 .183 .154 .337
3 Bill Bergen 0 6 273 1910 32 BRO NL 89 .161 .180 .177 .357
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/18/2011.

Bergen’s Wikipedia page provides a fitting account of Bill’s shortcomings at the plate.

Bergen had 3,228 at-bats in his career, and in that time he compiled a batting average of .170, the all-time record low for players who compiled more than 2,500 plate appearances. Three pitchers with more than 2,500 plate appearances managed higher career batting averages than Bergen: Pud Galvin with .201, Bobby Mathews with .203, and Cy Youngwith .210. Among position players, the next lowest career batting average is Billy Sullivan with .213. Bergen’s career on-base percentage was .194—he is the only player with at least 500 at-bats with an OBP under .200. He had only two home runs. In 1909, Bergen hit .139, the lowest average ever for a player who qualified for the batting title. That season, he set another record for futility by going 46 at-bats in a row without a base hit, the longest streak ever by a position player (pitcher Bob Buhl went 88 at-bats without a hit).[3] From 1904 to 1911, Dodger pitchers as a group outhit Bergen, .169 to .162.

If you go to our career leader boards and sort by poorest wOBA, you’ll see that 23 players in baseball history have a worse career wOBA than Bergen. How, then, can he be the worst hitter? Click on any one of those 23 names. And then click on another. And another. Notice a trend? They’re all pitchers. In fact, on that page of the 35 worst wOBAs in baseball history, only one other player, Stump Weidman, is a non-pitcher.

The WAR leader board tells a similar story. At -15 WAR, Bergen is the worst position player in history, as the two players ahead of him are, yes, pitchers. (Greg Maddux?!?) And, again, most of the surrounding players on this first page of WAR trailers are pitchers. Taking it a step further, if we sort by batting component, we see that Bergen ranks second worst, by 10 runs, to Tommy Corcoran. But that’s just a matter of time. In his 18-year career, Corcoran came to the plate 9,368 times and produced nine seasons with a .300 or better wOBA. In Bergen’s 11-year career he came to bat only 3,228 times, and had only four seasons with a wOBA over .200.

Of course, no player hits that poorly and sticks around for that long without having a redeeming quality. Bergen was widely considered the premier defensive catcher of his time. He owns the record for most runners caught stealing in a single game, six. He also sits on many baseball historians’ lists of best defensive catchers. Still, even if we disproportionately weigh his mythical defensive abilities, it hardly compensates for his historically putrid skills with the bat.

Bill Bergen has his place in history, though it might not be a favorable one. Yet he’s not the most famous, or infamous, baseball-playing member of his family. As William of The Captain’s Blog eloquently chronicles, Bill’s brother Marty, himself a catcher in the late 19th century, took an axe to his wife and children before slicing his own neck.

It’s tough to come up with a fitting conclusion to a story involving the worst hitter in baseball history. Instead, I’ll leave you with a graph I couldn’t resist creating.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

50 Responses to “The Worst Hitter in Baseball History”

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  1. another know it all says:

    Worst player with a minimum 5000 career PA:

    Neifi Perez -1.5 WAR…. some interesting names just above him

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    • Roger says:

      And yet Neifi is a veritable slugger compared to the excruciating awfulness that is Juan Castro (career wOBA .260, -4.4 WAR). Only 2800 something PA, but honestly, how exactly does this guy have a 16 year major league career? Who keeps thinking he deserves another shot at the majors?

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      • d240z71 says:

        The Dodgers kept bringing Bill Bergen back because of his defense. 100 years later, they keep bringing Juan Castro back because of his….defense.

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  2. That WAR graphs is mean.

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  3. Dandy Salderson says:

    Bill Bergen is Latin for Jeff Francoeur.

    +29 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Edwincnelson says:

    This is what’s great about baseball. This guy is nothing more than a statistical anomaly, but he sounds like a fascinating guy nonetheless. I would read a book about him if someone wrote it. Seriously, a guy who threw out 144 batters in 112 games (although not nearly as many innings because he only had 536 chances) but batted a .319 OPS would be a really interesting read.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      Sounds like an article, not a book…

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      • joser says:

        Oh anything can be dragged out for 240 pages…

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      • Grandpa Simpson says:

        One trick is to tell them stories that don’t go anywhere. Like the time I took the fairy to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for my shoe so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them. Give me five bees for a quarter you’d say. Now where were we, oh ya. The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. They didn’t have white onions because if the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones…

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  5. Dan in Philly says:

    Great stuff. I’ve often wanted a series on the worst players on the best teams. Sure, the 1927 Yankees had Ruth and Gehrig and all, but what about Benny Bengough? He racked up 85 PAs and hit .247 with only 6 extra base hits and 4 walks. And yet, he was part of the best team in the history of baseball. What about his story? Doesn’t it deserve to be told?

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  6. pressure says:

    So Jeff Mathis really does have some competition?

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  7. Rey Ordonez says:

    What about me? I had a .600 OPS in the middle of the steroid era.

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    • André says:

      Steroid era doesn’t mean everyone used steroids. Theoretically, if he didn’t use steroids, it would have made his job a lot harder. Even if he did use steroids, maybe his over-developed muscles made it difficult to swing the bat.

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  8. nolan says:

    Dude looks just like Bill Callahan.

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  9. hunterfan says:

    I don’t understand the inclusion of a WAR graph since

    1. We barely even know how to quantify catcher defense now
    2. Catcher defense is not included in some dude’s WAR from 100 years ago

    leading therefore to

    3. WAR excludes the one thing he WAS good at

    He certainly wasn’t a great player but he’s probably more worthwhile than his WAR paints him.

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  10. hunterfan says:

    The article about Bill’s brother Marty was great. Thanks for the link.

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  11. Saw this coming…but Joe, no Greg Maddux article? :)

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  12. Laidan Egoudaire says:

    I still wonder what would’ve happened if Michael Jordan had made it to the bigs.
    Even if he had a putrid offence, we could have seen him dunk a fly ball over the fence.

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  13. joser says:

    I’m not sure about calling his defensive abilities “mythical.” “Anecdotal,” maybe.

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  14. monkeyball says:

    Boy, and Kelly Leak had such promise as a youngster …

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    • Jon says:

      If only he could have stayed away from the booze, women, and cigarettes, maybe he could have made something of himself. I saw him once when he was 17… He was washed up, out of shape, a shell of what he used to be, just barely hanging on in the low minors. But he could still hit.

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  15. Jim says:

    “As William of The Captain’s Blog eloquently chronicles, Bill’s brother Marty, himself a catcher in the late 19th century, took an axe to his wife and children before slicing his own neck. ”

    apprently Bill tried to do the same thing but he missed.

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  16. Jesus, lifetime OPS+ of 21 with 3,000 plate appearances, how is that even possible? Makes Ray Oyler look like George Sisler.

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  17. UncleCharlieVT says:

    Is there a number of years that must go by before we can joke about a man murdering his wife, three year-old son, and six year old daughter with an ax? I’m a history teacher so I wonder about these things.

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    • Joe D. says:

      The way I see it, they’d certainly now be dead already anyway, so we’re officially all clear.

      Any bastards who joked about it in, say, 1955, should be ashamed of themselves.

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  18. shthar says:

    Must have had some arm.

    Did they ever try him as a pitcher?

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  19. Powder Blues says:

    “See also

    * Dead-ball era
    * Batting average
    * On-base percentage
    * Mendoza Line”

    Oh wiki, you amuse me.

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  20. baconbitz says:

    I thought this was gonna be about Brandon Wood when I saw the title.

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  21. Steve S. says:

    Maybe Martin Bergen went crazy and killed his wife and children was from watching his brother hit. :wink:

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  22. Steve S. says:

    The reason Martin Bergen went crazy and killed his wife and children was from watching his brother hit. :wink:

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  23. Mark says:

    Random extra note: his middle name was “Aloysius”. If I’m not mistaken there are more than a few dead-ball guys who shared it. When did they stop using this great name? Did parents cease naming their kids that way after Bergen’s hitting “exploits” became legendary?

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  24. MikeD says:

    Wow, he capped his career off with a -4 OPS+ his last season. How many players have had minus OPS+’s for a season with that many ABs? One year, 1907, he only scored two runs.

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    • Jahiegel says:

      He is, AFAICT, the only player with a negative OPS+ across at least 250 PAs (at least in the Play Index era).

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  25. MikeD says:

    Must be interesting to be a descendant of the Bergen’s. Most anyone would proudly mention that two of their family members played in the Major Leagues. Perhaps less so in the Bergen family.

    Friends would be gathered around the bar asking for stories: “Well, both were cathcer. There was my great grandfather Bill. He’s regarded as the worst-hitter ever in MLB history. And my great granduncle, Marty, well, he hacked to death his entire family with an axe, before comitting suicide with the same axe. Yeah, granduncle Marty was a real cutup (no pun intended.) He was so crazy, that in one game he was having delusions, and he thought the pitcher was throwing knives at him, so where ever the ball was thrown he was running the other direction. That was quite a game, I hear.”

    “Hey, guys, I’m thinking of trying out for catcher on the company softball team this year. Where do I show up?”

    Not being fair to Bill Bergen, who did play in the Majors for 11 years and obviously had to be a great defender. The fact he was such a horrible hitter would make for an interesting story, but trying to fit Marty Bergen into the family history would be tough!

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  26. DJG says:

    Although he was by no means a historically bad hitter, my favorite baseball-card back as a kid belonged to Duane Kuiper. Exactly 1 HR in 3754 PA. That’s a great stat line.

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  27. Andrew says:

    I noticed something while looking at the all-time WAR chart. Greg Maddux is listed as producing -221.9 batting runs in his entire career, whereas a replacement player would have produced 60.4 batting runs in the same span. However, Maddux’s batting RAR is listed as -161.5. Shouldn’t that number be -282.3? Am I missing something here?

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    • Eric R says:

      Isn’t batting runs ‘above average’? If so, you’d expoect replacement to be negative.

      So, -221.9 – (-60.4) = -161.5

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      • Dann M. says:

        And considering that a full 10% of Maddux’s career plate appearances were successful sacrifice hits, and 12.5% of his PA were attempts, it’s to be expected that his RAR and related stats would be terrible. Afford a pitcher 20+ years in the NL ample opportunities to be great at the one thing pitchers are supposed to be great at, and the numbers will show about 200 wasted plate appearances. It’s impressive, though, that Maddux only grounded into 15 double plays and once went over 5 years between them.

        I’m amazed that anyone other than all-time great pitchers (NL since 1970) appear at the bottom of the career offensive WAR rankings. Who else could deserve to last long enough to be so bad? Other than the fine subject of this piece, I mean. It’s amazing how much damage those sacrifice bunts can do. Heck, he even had an OPS over .400 in his time in Atlanta, had 2 years over .500, and went a 3-year stretch surpassing 100 PA (that was broken up by the strike, and he easily would have passed 100 in both 1994 and 1995 as well).

        I know Maddux needs no defending. I just find his context to be incredibly interesting.

        Especially compared to Ted Lilly, who has compiled -4.3 WAR as a batter in only 305 (!!!) plate appearances. IF he’d spent his whole career in the NL, he’d likely be close to -7.5 in 300 games played. That’s what we call an historic pace, gentlemen!

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