One of my favorite things to do is to spend a lazy day looking up stats. More often than not my resource of choice is Baseball Reference. The Play Index feature makes it so easy to search through the history they have on their site. I hope that one day they’ll view baseball like I do and incorporate minor, foreign, Negro, and independent league stats into the overall search. Maybe that day will come, but in the meantime, I like to spend copious amounts of my free time looking up Major League Baseball stats through the Play Index.
Sometimes I get ideas to write about wacky aspects of baseball through this searching. Even better is when I realize that some sort of obvious stat is sitting right in front of me waiting to be explored and written about. One such search recently smacked me in the face with the obviousness of writing about what I found. Now, while I am by no means the handiest when it comes to this, in all my limited sleuthing I didn’t come across an article written on this topic. And, to be honest, even if there were one I want to write about it regardless.
Baseball is a game of extremes, the most obvious being the difference between great and worst. As a fan, a researcher, and a writer I find I concern myself most often with the greatness of the game. I’ll slide into caring about mediocrity from time to time. But, when I think about baseball it’s the greatness of the game that appeals to me the most. Who hit the most home runs in a given season, who had the best career WHIP, just how dominant were certain players in specific seasons, etc. This is all great and worthwhile stuff to take up my time, or anyone else’s. It doesn’t tell the whole tale of baseball.
The other end of the spectrum is the extreme of worst. I don’t write about worst all that much, and I think it’s because too often it comes across like bashing. The worst does still happen, and it deserves to be written about and discussed just as much as the great stuff does. Thus, I set out to search out some of the worsts in baseball and to see how bad they truly were. What better starting point than WAR, or if you want to be specific Baseball Reference’s version which is named bWAR.
My criteria ended up being very simple. A minimum of 3,000 plate appearances, because that should encompass at the very least 5+ seasons of big league playing time. My search range was the entirety of Baseball Reference’s database, from 1871 to 2018. The reason behind this played out in the results, as there were a healthy number of awful numbers to be found in both the modern era and the deadball, segregated (which is not a good name for the era as the game was segregated in the deadball era as well), and integrated eras. My WAR qualifier was any hitter with a WAR of less than 0.1 accumulated throughout their career.
The worst hitter in the history of big league baseball went by the name of Bill Bergen. The right-handed hitting and throwing catcher played 11 seasons of major league ball. All were in the National League, from 1901-1911. He spent his first three seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and his final seven seasons with the Brooklyn Superbas. The six-foot tall backstop only had one season with a batting average above .200. He sported a career slash line of .170/.194/.201. His career OPS+ was a dismal 21. Bergen could not hit worth a lick, and that’s why in his 11 years in the majors he amassed a WAR of -13.5. That’s over six points worse than the next closest on the list. Not only was Bergen’s bat not something to be feared, but there’s also a level of separation between him and the rest of the pack that is frankly, disheartening.
Why then, did Bergen stick around for so many years? The complicated answer involves the fact that he played in a time of segregation when the talent pool of the league was considerably lesser overall. The simple answer: the man was a great defensive catcher. He embodied the idea of the defense-first backstop, so much so that the way he was written about is the same way that defense-first catchers are talked about to this very day. He had a cannon for an arm, he could smother anything, and with his ability behind the plate, he could reshape entire games.
With the above being the case, it begs the question, is Bergen really the worst player on this list? The short and sweet answer is, no, not by a longshot. He was, in every possible way, one of the most inept bats the major leagues ever produced. But, his defensive prowess changes things somewhat and so for as bad I know Bergen’s bat to be, I can at least rationalize him playing. Bergen is what teams with great starting catchers are looking for in a backup catcher. I know the lack of offense really wouldn’t fly in today’s game, but Bergen as a backup throughout baseball’s history makes perfect sense.
There are some other interesting names on the list. Todd Benzinger, who I recall from the 1990 World Series winning Cincinnati Reds is the first player from the 1990s to appear at #13 with a -2.7. The first truly surprising name on the list is John Mabry at #16 with a -2.3. I had always thought of Mabry as a good journeyman type player, and well, I was very, very wrong. In the end, I guess it’s not surprising that a player who was every bit the journeyman would end up on this list. The first player from the 2010’s plops down at #18 in the form of Seattle Mariners albatross Yuniesky Betancourt. He managed a WAR of -2.0 throughout his forgettable career. There’s even a Hall of Famer on the list as all-time pitching great Cy Young just misses the top twenty worst at #21 with a WAR of -2.0. I’d say that is somewhat evened out by his career pitching WAR of 168.0. My favorite entry on the list belongs to none other than Mike Matheny. He ranks as the 41st worst hitter of all time with a WAR of -0.4. Strong dWAR be damned, I will gladly take Matheny being recognized as stinking up the joint with his bat.
I’ll willingly admit that my attempts to somehow counterpoint Bill Bergen’s career WAR of -13.5 were half-hearted. Great though you may be as a defensive catcher, there’s really no amount of great defense that can make a -13.5 WAR acceptable. I doubt Bergen ever had any idea how infamous his lack of offensive production would become. The one constant my ancillary research about Bergen uncovered is that he loved to play baseball. He may have posted the worst offensive WAR of all time, but he got to do what he loved, and he was paid to play the sport of baseball professionally. That’s more than most of us can say, and maybe when all is said and done being infamous like Bill Bergen isn’t that bad.
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