The Worst Seasons by a Hall of Fame Position Player (by age)

baseball-hall-of-fameA lot of time is spent, rightfully so, on the greatness of Hall of Fame players. When you look at the greatest individual seasons ever produced almost all of them are by players who eventually made the Hall of Fame and Barry Bonds. I wondered though how many Hall of Famers had at one point during their career a season so bad they finished with a WAR of zero or below. More specifically how often that happened by age groups. Going into this I expected there would be a handful of such seasons before a player turned 23 and a bunch after a player turned 37 but not many in the middle. Here’s what I found.

The first chart represents the future Hall of Fame position players who produced a season with negative or no value (using Baseball-Reference‘s WAR) through their age 23 season. I set the minimum number of plate appearances at 300.

 

Rk

Player

Year

Age

PA

WAR

OPS+

1

Ed Delahanty

1888

20

303

0

72

2

Ron Santo

1962

22

679

-0.1

74

3

Chick Hafey

1925

22

375

-0.2

87

4

Ed Delahanty

1891

23

584

-0.2

85

5

Willie Stargell

1963

23

328

-0.3

104

6

Carl Yastrzemski

1961

21

643

-0.3

91

7

Roberto Clemente

1955

20

501

-0.3

77

8

Brooks Robinson

1958

21

507

-0.4

69

9

Nellie Fox

1950

22

504

-0.4

58

10

Pie Traynor

1922

23

616

-0.4

78

11

Rickey Henderson

1979

20

398

-0.9

88

There were eleven such seasons for this age group. The worst came from Rickey Henderson who as a twenty-year-old rookie in 1979 struggled defensively and finished the season with a WAR of -0.9 in 89 games played. Henderson’s career WAR of 110.8 ended up besting everyone’s in this group.

Ron Santo was good in 1961 (3.0 WAR/122 OPS+) and one of the best players in the league in 1963 (6.7 WAR/128 OPS+) but in in 1962 complications from his diabetes caused him to lose weight and struggle all year. He played in all 162 games that season but couldn’t find his way at the plate hitting just .227/.302/.358.

Willie Stargell’s poor defense routinely cut into his overall value but his bat usually made up for it. However, in 1963 Stargell’s first full season, he was barely above league average at the plate and thus produced one of his worst overall seasons. He rebounded nicely posting an OPS+ of at least 120 for the next seventeen consecutive years. He only had one other season with a negative WAR, he was 41 years old and played in only 38 games that year.

Ed Delahanty appears twice in this age group. He was a late a bloomer. Although he made his MLB debut at the age of 20, he didn’t become a star until he was 24. He spent the next decade as one of baseball’s best hitters leading the league in OPS five times and finishing his career with a slash line of .346/.411/.505.

The next chart represents the future Hall of Fame position players who produced a season with negative or no value from their age 24-29 seasons. This age range typically represents a player’s peak so I wasn’t expecting a lot of seasons to fall within this range of futility.  There are four.

 

Rk

Player

Year

Age

PA

WAR

OPS+

1

Willie McCovey

1964

26

434

-0.1

108

2

Lloyd Waner

1933

27

526

-0.2

80

3

Ross Youngs

1925

28

584

-0.2

89

4

Luke Appling

1931

24

331

-0.6

66

Luke Appling had the worst season among the four. As a 24 year old he played in 96 games and hit .232/.303/.313 which translates to an abysmal OPS+ of 66. Two years later he became one of the best shortstops in baseball and remained one until the end of his twenty-year career.

McCovey’s poor defense hurt his value throughout his career but like Stargell his bat normally made up for his defensive deficiencies. Except in 1964, at the age of 26, in the prime of his career McCovey had one of his worst seasons. He hit just .220/.336/.412 which translates to an adjusted OPS of 108. He dealt with a foot injury all year that was later alleviated with special shoes.

Youngs was forced to abruptly retire the following season due to a kidney disorder, he died a year later. Waner hung around until he was 39 but his final six seasons were marred by injury and he was replacement level or below from age 33 on.

The next chart represents the future Hall of Fame position players who produced a season with negative or no value from their age 30-33 seasons.

 

Rk

Player

Year

Age

PA

WAR

OPS+

1

Nellie Fox

1961

33

696

-0.1

69

2

George Sisler

1926

33

662

-0.2

85

3

Chuck Klein

1938

33

500

-0.6

81

4

Tommy McCarthy

1896

32

423

-0.7

71

5

Richie Ashburn

1959

32

660

-0.9

80

6

Travis Jackson

1936

32

497

-1.2

50

This age group had six seasons that qualified.

At the age of 32 Travis Jackson could no longer hit (.230/.260/.297) and his defense, which provided significant value for the majority of his career was no longer elite. He played in the minors for a few more seasons but never played in the majors again after his dismal 1936 season.

Coming off one of his best seasons in 1958 Ashburn produced a clunker in 1959. His slash line went from .350/.440/.441 to .266/.360/.307.  The Phillies thought their thirty-two year old star was done and traded him to the Cubs that offseason. Ashburn rebounded hitting .291/.415/.393 his first year in Chicago.

Tommy McCarthy has the lowest career WAR (16.1) of any player in the Hall of Fame. His poor season in 1896 was his last.

The next chart represents the future Hall of Fame position players who produced a season with negative or no value from their age 34-37 seasons.

 

Rk

Player

Year

Age

PA

WAR

OPS+

1

Johnny Bench

1982

34

439

0

98

2

Jim Bottomley

1936

36

596

-0.1

101

3

Dave Bancroft

1927

36

427

-0.1

75

4

Joe Kelley

1906

34

540

-0.1

91

5

Roberto Alomar

2003

35

598

-0.2

80

6

George Sisler

1930

37

468

-0.2

81

7

John Ward

1894

34

605

-0.2

50

8

Richie Ashburn

1961

34

368

-0.4

84

9

Rick Ferrell

1942

36

312

-0.4

57

10

King Kelly

1892

34

320

-0.4

52

11

Willie McCovey

1972

34

304

-0.5

102

12

Luis Aparicio

1971

37

541

-0.5

62

13

Jim Bottomley

1935

35

423

-0.7

68

14

Heinie Manush

1936

34

334

-0.9

68

15

Max Carey

1926

36

483

-1.4

58

16

Ron Santo

1974

34

418

-1.6

69

17

Reggie Jackson

1983

37

458

-1.8

74

18

Willie Keeler

1907

35

467

-1.8

61

The end was near for most of the players in this group. The number of players represented also jumped to eighteen.

Willie Keeler hit .424 in 1897 but in 1907 he could no longer play. He hit just .234/.265/.255. He hung around for a few more years but was a shell of his former self.

Reggie Jackson had the worst year of his career in 1983 hitting .194/.290/.340. He struggled again in 1984 but did have two decent years at the plate in 85 and 86 before retiring after his subpar 1987 season.

1974 was Santo’s last as player. He was traded to the White Sox the previous winter after vetoing a deal that would have sent him Anaheim. Santo was mostly used as DH, he hit just .221/.293/.299.

Max Carey was near the end of his career in 1926 when he posted career lows in batting average (.231), on-base percentage (.294), and slugging (.300). He would rebound nicely the following year however raising his slash line to .266/.345/.363 and reclaiming some of his former speed stealing thirty two bases. He retired two years later.

The next chart represents the future Hall of Famers who produced a season with negative or no value from age 38 and up. Not surprising this group has the most seasons represented with 27.

 

Rk

Player

Year

Age

PA

WAR

OPS+

1

Max Carey

1928

38

352

0

75

2

Eddie Murray

1994

38

467

-0.1

87

3

Harmon Killebrew

1975

39

369

-0.1

93

4

Wade Boggs

1999

41

334

-0.2

94

5

Andre Dawson

1993

38

498

-0.2

92

6

Reggie Jackson

1984

38

584

-0.2

95

7

Carl Yastrzemski

1983

43

437

-0.2

106

8

Harmon Killebrew

1974

38

382

-0.2

90

9

Ted Williams

1959

40

331

-0.2

114

10

Nap Lajoie

1916

41

455

-0.2

80

11

Barry Larkin

2002

38

567

-0.3

74

12

Eddie Murray

1996

40

637

-0.3

87

13

George Brett

1993

40

612

-0.3

94

14

Reggie Jackson

1987

41

374

-0.3

89

15

Rabbit Maranville

1932

40

635

-0.3

59

16

Dave Bancroft

1929

38

403

-0.3

66

17

Cal Ripken

2001

40

516

-0.6

70

18

Kiki Cuyler

1937

38

449

-0.6

82

19

Edd Roush

1931

38

400

-0.6

79

20

Willie McCovey

1978

40

390

-0.7

97

21

Ernie Banks

1969

38

629

-0.7

92

22

Lou Brock

1977

38

521

-0.9

81

23

Rabbit Maranville

1933

41

533

-1

60

24

Andre Dawson

1994

39

306

-1.1

83

25

Carlton Fisk

1986

38

491

-1.7

60

26

Lou Brock

1978

39

317

-1.9

46

27

Craig Biggio

2007

41

555

-2.1

71

Craig Biggio’s final season in 2007 is the worst ever produced (by WAR) by a future Hall of Famer. Biggio could no longer hit or play the field but he hung around chasing milestones most notably 3,000 hits. He got there, and reaching that milestone unquestionable helped him get into the Hall of Fame but he was already deserving without it.  The interesting thing with Biggio is that his final two years hurt his overall value in WAR and WAA but those years chasing records got him in. He would still be on the ballot if he never reached 3,000 hits. He would be viewed as an under appreciated sabermetric darling being overlooked by an aging voting group who overvalue the wrong the numbers. Biggio got in for the wrong reasons, but he still got in, which is ultimately what matters.

Lou Brock’s penultimate season was also historically bad. He hit just .221/.263/.252 which converts to an adjusted OPS 46. 100 is league average. Brock would return for one final season to get his 3,000th hit and 900th stolen base, he improved his slash line to .304/.342/.398 and his overall value from -1.9 to 0.7.

*Brock’s dreadful 1978 season actually rates worse than Biggio’s final season on both FanGraphs (-1.8/-0.8) and Baseball Prospectus (-1.9/-0.8).

If Carlton Fisk’s career had followed the same trajectory of most of the other players in this group he would have just hung around for another year or two never again reclaiming any semblance of his former self. But that’s not what happened to him. From 1987-1991 (age 39-43) Fisk added 15.7 WAR to his career total. He was the best catcher in baseball during that time and one of the top fifty overall players in the league. Fisk actually has the 4th most WAR added after turning 39. There’s hope for old guys! Maybe even for Chase Utley whose painful 2015 season is what triggered this piece.

Utley is only 36 and was apparently playing hurt all year but before he went on the DL he was hitting .179/.257/.275 which converts to an OPS+ of 49. In just 65 games he was worth -1.3 WAR. That’s hard to do. Utley has a lengthy injury history which doesn’t help his cause going forward, but there’s some hope, albeit small, he can reclaim a portion of his former value.

Player Year Age PA WAR OPS+
Craig Biggio 2007 41 555 -2.1 71
Lou Brock 1978 39 317 -1.9 46
Reggie Jackson 1983 37 458 -1.8 74
Willie Keeler 1907 35 467 -1.8 61
Carlton Fisk 1986 38 491 -1.7 60
Ron Santo 1974 34 418 -1.6 69
Max Carey 1926 36 483 -1.4 58
Travis Jackson 1936 32 497 -1.2 50
Andre Dawson 1994 39 306 -1.1 83
Rabbit Maranville 1933 41 533 -1.0 60

 

If Pete Rose were in the Hall of Fame his seasons in 80 (-0.4), 82, (-1.1), and 83 (-2.1) would all qualify. His season in 1983 would tie him with Biggio but both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus calculate Rose’s year as worse (-1.9/-0.8) on both.

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Follow me on Twitter @RossCarey

 

 

Comments

  1. Constantine Kostarakis says:

    Great work as always. Original and well thought out. Keep it up.

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