The ’89 Indians turned out pretty well, for a team that was expressly built for failure. They turned out a lot better than the ’03 Tigers, a team that was presumably designed to win games, but only managed to do so 43 times (oddly enough, right at replacement level — meaning Detroit could have stripped payroll to $10M, rounded up a bunch of scrubs, and given themselves a good chance at a better year). Even the ’03 Tigers, though, were a terrifying baseball juggernaut compared to the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, whose season reads like a screenplay for Major League 4, only without any semblance of a happy ending. The Spiders’ owners shipped all their best players to their other team in St. Louis, replaced them with a bunch of dudes named Crazy Schmit and Highball Wilson and Harry Colliflower, publicly stated their intention to run the club as “a sideshow,” and scheduled 112 games on the road after the rest of the league decided they’d rather put hot coals in their jockstraps than come to Cleveland. Somehow they still managed to win more than a tenth of their games, a testament to the randomness of baseball.
But my hunch is that even the Spiders only scratched the surface of horribleness. How bad of a team could you theoretically field? What if you made up a 25-man roster out of the statistically worst players in history whose clubs were stupid and/or desperate enough to actually run them out there for most of a season? Unfortunately, my quest for absolute awfulness was thwarted by the fact that Fangraphs pitcher WAR only runs back to 1974, meaning I couldn’t call on Crazy Schmit. But rest assured, this team is pretty awful nonetheless.
C 1892 Jack Boyle (-2.1 WAR)
“Honest Jack” signed a contract with the Giants in 1892 that was the biggest in MLB history thus far. He then proceeded to slug .239 and pass 71 balls in 79 games behind the plate. On the plus side, he was no doubt a real clubhouse favorite for his legendary candor.
1B 1887 Jim Toy (-3.0 WAR)
Jim Toy’s career was mercifully cut short by a foul tip to the groin, but not before leading the Cleveland Blues to 39 wins with his lead glove and .251 wOBA.
2B 1894 Jiggs Parrott (-3.1 WAR)
In addition to being in contention for Best MLB Name and Highest Ratio of Wikipedia Bio Length to Value, Parrott owns the distinction of being the first ever major league player from the state of Oregon. He was a weak but not horrible fielder, and his batting line (.248/.274/.333) might not look so hideous, until you consider that this was 1894 and pretty much everyone with a pulse hit .300.
3B 1924 Milt Stock (-2.6 WAR)
Unlike a lot of the guys on this team, Milt Stock was not a bad baseball player. He just couldn’t do anything right in 1924, when he bumbled his way to a .266 wOBA and a .931 fielding percentage. The worst part of it? His Brooklyn Robins came within a game and a half of winning the pennant anyway. You do the math. (This was the beginning of the end for old Milt. During spring training in ’26 he had the misfortune to run into Lou Gehrig. No, I mean literally run into him. His body never recovered and he retired at 32.)
SS 1890 Ben Conroy (-3.2 WAR)
Ben Conroy was 19 years old during his one and only major league season. A prototypical light-hitting, horrible-fielding middle infielder, he hit .171 and managed 45 errors in only 74 games at short. Oh, but he swiped 17 bases! Oh — but the average for shortstops in 1890 was 32. Right.
LF 1886 Jim Lillie (-3.3 WAR)
As far as I can tell, “Grasshopper” Lillie boasts the honor of having hurt his team (the Kansas City Cowboys) more than any other player in major league history. Playing the easiest position on the field, Jim put up an 1886 that was nothing short of spectacular, featuring all of 9 extra-base hits (all doubles) in 114 games, a picturesque line of .175/.197/.197, and 30 errors to boot (get it?). The good news? He appeared once as a pitcher and actually put up a quality start. I yearn to know more about Grasshopper Jim, but Wikipedia, perhaps charitably, passes over him with a respectful silence.
CF 1888 Harry Lyons (-2.3 WAR)
“He helped the Browns win the 1888 American Association pennant,” says Wikipedia. I’m not sure I would tell the story quite the same way, given that Lyons had an on-base percentage of .230. But with “Honest Jack” Boyle in his clubhouse that year, maybe he found other ways of helping.
RF 1997 Jose Guillen (-2.8 WAR)
I was starting to worry that this team would have no one to represent the modern era, but I forgot about Jose Guillen, who, in addition to being a well-documented fan-hater, is really, really not good at catching baseballs. Despite a half-decent year at the plate in ’97, Jose made his real rookie splash by posting a historically bad fielding runs total of -29. He’s been a sabermetric anti-darling ever since. Never a good sign when the best coverage you can hope for has headlines like “Guillen to Seattle Not Completely Insane.”
Bench: 1897 Bill Wilson (C, -1.7 WAR), 1884 Tom Evers (IF, -3.1 WAR), 1933 Jim Levey (IF, -3.1 WAR), 1993 Ruben Sierra (OF, -2.2 WAR), 1973 Lou Piniella (OF, -2.3 WAR)
SP 1982 Matt Keough (-1.8 WAR)
The ’82 A’s managed to find 200+ innings for Matt Keough, despite his 5.88 FIP. Keough started out with Oakland as an infielder, and was for some inexplicable reason converted to a pitcher. He once started 28 games in a row without a win.
SP 2011 Bronson Arroyo (-1.3 WAR)
Typical Arroyo: he went into the 2011 season finale having already given up a staggering 44 gopherballs, with the major league record in sight. Then he pitched a six-hit shutout. Bronson does things his own way, and of course that includes cooking and playing guitar.
SP 2004 Ismael Valdez (-1.0 WAR)
Just before the ’04 season, “El Rocket” changed his name from Valdes to Valdez, maybe hoping that “z” would give him an extra edge. I don’t think it worked.
SP 2008 Brandon Backe (-0.9 WAR)
This one comes with an asterisk, because Backe actually put up a full 1 WAR at the plate in ’08, hitting .277 with a pair of home runs. Also, he’s been called “the Robert Horry of baseball” thanks to his clutch postseason performances. Not sure Rachel Phelps would approve.
SP 2009 Braden Looper (-0.8 WAR)
It’s really not very easy to cost your team more than, say, half a win on the mound. Braden Looper managed to do it twice.
Bullpen: 1979 Jim Todd (-1.8 WAR), 1991 Gene Nelson (-1.6 WAR)., 1982 John Pacella (-1.5 WAR), 1983 Jim Slaton (-1.5 WAR), 1975 Oscar Zamora (-1.3 WAR), 1984 Dave Beard (-1.3 WAR), 1989 Steve Bedrosian (-1.3 WAR)
So how bad would this team be? The math is a little tricky (and I’m more than a little lazy). Let’s start out with a replacement-level 43 wins. The starting lineup torpedoes 22.4 of those. The bench adds up to another -12, but of course those were racked up over the course of full-ish seasons; let’s credit them, generously, with -4. The pitching staff accounts for -16.1 WAR (and let’s not go counting innings, shall we?). So:
43 – 22.4 – 4 – 16.1 = 0.5
Yes, that’s right. 0.5. Meaning that for just one glorious day, when everything came together just right — Looper’s splitter, Guillen’s bat, Milt Stock’s feet, Jack Boyle’s legendary candor — this team of catastrophic failures would actually have a 50% chance of winning a game. Hush! Don’t question my logic. I’ve got Hollywood on the other line.