Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 9, 2008
BASEBALL: Least Valuable of All
A little detour to the days of yore: Looking back in baseball history, no discussion of the least valuable players in any single season can be complete without Joe Gerhardt in 1885.
Baseball in the 1880s had a number of very good 1- or 2-year teams (such as those turned in by NL franchises in Detroit and Providence), but the decade was really dominated by three franchises: in the NL, the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) of 1880-86 and the New York Giants of 1885-89, and in the American Association the St. Louis Browns of 1885-89 (the Browns moved to the NL after the AA folded in 1891, and are now the Cardinals).
The Giants, in fact, got the nickname that stuck with them largely from the 1885 team, which featured six Hall of Famers in their primes:
*Towering, slugging 27-year-old first baseman Roger Connor (at 6'3" a huge man for the era) was probably the second-best hitter of the decade behind Dan Brouthers - Connor held the career home run record until Babe Ruth, although in those days power was mostly about doubles and triples, which he also produced in bulk - and Connor had his best season, batting .371/.435/.495 compared to a league Avg/OBP/Slg of .241/.284/.322, for an OPS+ of 198 (i.e., nearly twice as good as the league-average hitter).
*25-year-old catcher Buck Ewing, at 5'10" also on the tall side even for a mid-twentieth catcher, batted .304/.330/.471 (OPS+ 155). As Bill James has documented, Ewing's peers regarded him as the best player in 19th century baseball; his batting stats don't entirely bear that out, but in his prime he was as good a hitter relative to his leagues as all but a handful of catchers in the game's history, and that's before you get to his defense. We don't have stolen base data before 1886 or caught stealings before the mid-teens, but in 2008 the average team stole 0.57 bases per game in the NL, 0.58 in the AL; in 1886, the NL average was 1.35. So, even adjusting for the open-ended definition of stolen bases in those days, there were a lot of people running. A typical modern catcher averages less than an assist every two games, with around half of those being caught stealings; Ewing, for his career, averaged 1.6 assists per game - a role much more active, between gunning down base thieves and pouncing on bunts, than today's catchers (Ewing's career range factor, measuring number of plays made per game, was 11% better than the league, and 8.6% better at third base, where he played part-time in his later years).
*34-year-old center fielder Jim O'Rourke had a year typical of his long career, batting .300/.354/.442 (155) and scoring 119 runs in 112 games. The team's two other veteran outfielders batted .326/.346/.421 (146) and .293/.317/.362 (118).
*They also had 25-year-old shortstop John Ward, a Hall of Famer more for his pitching and his role as a union organizer and all-around poineer; Ward was the team's second-weakest hitter at .226/.255/.285 (73).
*The team had two ace starting pitchers, both 300-game winners; against a league ERA of 2.82, 25-year-old Mickey Welch had his best season, going 44-11 with a 1.66 ERA, while 28-year-old Tim Keefe went 31-12 with a 1.58 ERA. The two accounted for 89% of the Giants' decisions.
Overall, in the shortened seasons common at the time, the Giants cruised to an 85-27 record, for a .759 winning percentage, a 123-win pace in a modern schedule. (Their Pythagorean record was the same, reflecting the league's second-best offense - by a run and a quarter over #3 - and by far its best pitching/defense team.) But there was one problem:
They finished second.
You see, the White Stockings, behind among others Hall of Famers Cap Anson, King Kelly and John Clarkson - the latter going 53-16 with a 1.85 ERA, the second-highest win total of all time - went 87-25 (.777), a 126-win pace by today's schedule and good enough to take the pennant by two games. They didn't have the Giants' pitching depth and defense, or a hitter as good as Connor, but other than a .209-hitting half-time catcher they had no real holes in their lineup, and so scored a run a game more than the Giants. Despite winning the season series against the White Stockings 10-6, the Giants spent the last two thirds of the season looking up in the standings, and scored just 8 runs in three straight losses to Chicago at the end of September to ice the race.
In the middle of this you had the 30-year-old Gerhardt (himself 6 feet tall), who played every inning of every game at second, and batted a staggeringly anemic .155/.203/.195 (29), considerably worse than the team's pitchers. Gerhardt scored just 43 runs, compared to 51 for the pitchers and a team average of 85 for the other 7 lineup spots. Amazingly for the day, he had more strikeouts than runs scored. He may not have been that fast, either - in a league where everybody ran constantly, he played everyday in 1886 as well and stole just 8 bases. This is just a breathtakingly disastrous offensive showing for a guy on a great team that was having a great season and coming up short. It's hard to think of a team this good that had a guy whose OPS was less than a third of the league playing anything like every single game.
Did Gerhardt make up for it with his glove? At a remove of 123 years, based on the numbers alone, it's hard to say. Manager Jim Mutrie, who won 3 pennants and more than 60% of his career games, must have seen something in him besides the absence of warm bodies on the rosters of the day to justify that awful bat. The Giants were a tremendous defensive team, which speaks well of Gerhardt - while they led the league in strikeouts handily (4.61/game compared to a league average of 3.75), the low ERAs testify more to a great record on balls in play - their defensive efficiency rating (% of balls in play becoming outs) of .701 was almost 30 points higher than that of the #2 team and good even for a 21st century team, let alone a team with guys playing the infield barehanded or wearing gloves that to the modern eye look more like Isotoners; their .929 fielding percentage was likewise 13 points above the nearest competition, and in those days fielding percentages really made a difference, with most fielders making an error one times in ten.
Individually, Gerhardt's numbers don't really stand out. His range factors and fielding percentages had been much higher than the league from 1877-1884, but in 1885 he was at .911 fielding percentage compared to .900 for a league-average second baseman, and 5.95 range factor compared to a league average of 5.70 - good but hardly great for a guy playing every inning. On the other hand, his range factors jumped back up in 1887 when he left the Giants, so some illusion created by the team context may be involved even beyond the fact that Keefe and Welch were comparatively high-K pitchers for the day.
Anyway, the evidence suggests that Gerhardt was probably a pretty good fielder, but it's hard to see at this distance how he could possibly have been good enough to make up for that catastrophic showing with the bat, when a mere .210 hitter would likely have won the Giants the pennant.
Maybe Gehrhardt wasn't as disastrous on both sides of the ball as the famous John Gochnauer, who in 1903 batted .185/.265/.240 (54) and made 98 errors at shortstop (with fielding percentages and range factors far below the league averages of the day) for an Indians team that somehow finished 77-63, and maybe he wasn't as epically futile with the bat as Bill Bergen, who compiled a career OPS+ of 21 including three years at the end of his career as a starting catcher batting .139/.163/.156 (1), .161/.180/.177 (6) and .132/.183/.154 (-4). But in the annals of guys who turned in a total flop at the plate when even ordinary incompetence would have been the difference in a pennant race, Gerhardt's place in history is surely secure.