Believe it or not, you probably had a good career if you’re on this list
It is downright cruel for baseball to do this again. Right after an impossibly long offseason caused by COVID, we have yet another offseason that could be long. And with virtually nothing to write about in either case! What the hell? Space these things out! Won’t somebody think of the internet baseball writers please?!
So in what is sure to be the first of several articles that are testing my ability to come up with interesting premises, today I present the worst single season performances in Cardinals history. At least as determined by Fangraphs wins above replacement. In this case, wins below replacement would be a more accurate moniker.
It takes a special talent to be on this list. For one thing, you actually have to get the opportunities to be this bad. A team has to trot them out there, knowing how bad they’ve been, with the understanding that the player will improve. And then they just… don’t. Lots of players have been on pace for worse seasons than these and quite a few of them probably would have been worse, but teams stopped giving them chances.
So I’m also going to attempt to understand why exactly the player was given so many chances too. I’m going to separate the five worst hitters from the five worst pitchers. Because otherwise this would just be a list of worst hitters. If you think about it, this makes sense. One bad hitter in a lineup is easier to keep giving chances than a pitcher who gives up nearly a run per inning. And while there are pitching slumps, it’s not quite the same. You accept hitting slumps more than pitching slumps as part of the game. First the hitters
#5 Jerry Buchek, 1961 (-1.7 WAR)
Remember all that stuff I said about how in order to make this list, you need to keep getting opportunities. Well, here comes ole Jerry proving me wrong already. Jerry achieved this magnificently poor WAR with just 93 plate appearances. 93! Poor Jerry, and the only thing he really ever did wrong was get promoted waaaaaay before he was ready.
Buchek was signed at 18-years-old out of high school by the Cardinals in 1959 for the then impressive sum of $59,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $531,00 in today’s money. So he had to be a pretty well regarded prospect I’d think. He got promoted two years later, at the age of 20 (though in his age 19 season). And he played like a 19-year-old who still belongs in rookie ball.
In his 93 plate appearances, he struck out 28 times, walked zero times and had 12 total hits – two of them doubles, the rest singles. Which came out to a .133/.151/.156 line. (He got hit by a pitch twice). He was also quite bad in the field. He played 230 innings at shortstop and committed 10 errors. That’s on pace for 52 errors if he played 1,200 innings. Understandably, his defense was rated -6 by Total Zone, which is -36 per 150 games. So…. yeah that’s how you are -1.7 WAR in 31 games.
The good news is that he bounced back. He didn’t see the majors in 1962, saw 4 PAs in 1963 and just 35 in 1964, but at 23-years-old, he became a regular bench player. He had a 1.5 WAR season in 1965, then 0.2, then 0.8. He got traded to the Mets right before 1968, and then his bat took a nosedive, and he was a 32 wRC+ hitter in 207 PAs. That was his last year in the big leagues. But in the meantime, he got two World Series rings, so I feel like things worked out pretty well in the end.
#4 Lou Brock, 1978 (-1.8 WAR)
Brock will not be the last St. Louis legend to grace this list. As I said, you need to be given opportunities and being a legend will help you get opportunities when you’re not good. And Lou Brock was not good in 1978. His main weakness? Well, Lou Brock was a hitter who didn’t walk much and didn’t have much power so he was pretty reliant on BABIP. Well in 1978 he had a low BABIP and as little power as possible.
In 317 PAs, he had nine doubles and that was the extent of his power. He also had a .244 BABIP. His BABIP had never fallen below .314 up to that point in his career. And despite his reputation, Lou Brock does not rate very well defensively using the technology we have, as imperfect as it is.*
*Something I just now noticed. Lou Brock committed A LOT of errors in his career. Like I actually think he might have been a bad fielder. Was it easier to commit errors back then for outfielders? Because it’s actually kind of hard now. Like this isn’t like infield, where more range could lead you to making more errors. You have to throw it wild, or boot a ball. I’ve also seen commenters note that Brock wasn’t necessarily the fastest, he was just excellent at reading the pitcher.
More good news! Lou Brock bounced back in a big way. His 1978 performance caused him to lose his job but in 1979, he had a .345 average in spring training, got his job back and finished his career with a .304/.342/.398 line. Granted, that’s just 0.8 WAR and a 103 wRC+ and he was also a negative baserunner (barely) thanks just a 63% success rate on stolen bases, but nobody knew any of this at the time and he retired on a high note.
#3 Mike Shannon, 1970 (-2.0 WAR)
I feel fairly confident in saying Mike Shannon was a fan favorite by this point. His playing career is not what makes him a Cardinals legend, but he probably had a lot of goodwill going into this season. He was a bad player in 1969, but you can definitely see how people would have thought he was fine. He had a 90 wRC+, but was -7 on defense at 3B (1 WAR in 606 PAs). Boy did the wheels fall off in 1970 though.
And there’s a pretty good reason why. In spring training while undergoing a physical, the Cardinals team doctor discovered Mike Shannon had a kidney disease. It was glomurelonephritis. There was a worry that Shannon might only have six months to live. The cortisone shots they gave him worked, at least for a little bit. He managed to return in late April, struggled mightily and the illness returned in August. His condition improved after a few years medication and he hasn’t had a recurring problem since.
But because of it, he had one of the worst single season performances by a Cardinals player. And it’s pretty easy to see how this would affect someone. Shannon was only 30 at the time. And while he was coming off a bad season, he was two years removed from a 3.5 WAR season. So who knows. I think things worked out just fine though.
#2 Leo Durocher, 1937 (-2.3 WAR)
Alright the first player on this list who we don’t have an immediately explainable reason why they were allowed to suck for so long. Durocher is of course a legend, but he was not a legend in 1937. The Cardinals were his third of four teams he would play for as a player. He had been there since 1934, so he did win a World Series with the Cards but he wasn’t very good in that World Series.
Mostly, it just seems like Durocher was supposed to be an elite fielder, bad hitter in the same vein as Brendan Ryan or Adam Everrett. And he was judged to be a good fielder, at least early in his career. From 1929 to 1931, he was a +22 fielder. For his career, he was a +21 fielder. The other problem was that his bat was awful and frequently so poor that it didn’t really matter how good his defense was, he’d still be a bad player. In his career, he batted .247 and it was about as empty of a batting average as you’d get, with few walks and no power (.247/.299/.320).
In 1937, he just so happened to have his worst season with the glove and bat at the same time. He batted for what remained a career low .203 batting average and had just 15 total extra base hits in 520 plate appearances. He was a 34 wRC+ hitter. And a -8 fielder. And he got 520 plate appearances!
I’m not entirely sure if they had anyone better, but his middle infield counterpoint Jimmy Brown was in his rookie season and wasn’t very good, third baseman Don Gutteridge wasnt very good, and bench players Stu Martin and Frenchy Bordagaray were both replacement players. So you can kind of see how you’d keep playing Durocher with this sorry bunch. The entirety of the contributions from second base, third base and short was below replacement level in a year the Cardinals went 81-73-3. If it wasn’t for the presence of Johnny Mize, this might be the worst Cardinals infield of all time.
#1 Willie McGee, 1999 (-2.6 WAR)
I think some of you may have seen this coming, having experienced this season. But then again, maybe not. McGee’s 1999 was a perfect storm. For starters, he was a Cardinals legend. His average usually misled people into thinking he was a better hitter than he was. And his defense was probably worse than perceived at the time, though I can’t really speak to that since he played this season when I was 6.
If it wasn’t for the fact that he was 40-years-old by this time, I would write off his defense as an unfortunate fluke. And it probably still was. He was essentially around an average corner outfielder his previous few seasons with the Cardinals and even managed a +1 in centerfield in 1999. But he was -8 in RF and -4 in LF and he did not play a lot of innings to achieve those numbers, and that number is a counting stat. I suspect his defense wasn’t this bad, but it was also probably not good either.
He was destined for a below replacement season with that defense. But that’s not what gives him the top spot here. Even if the defense is wrong, it’s probably not so wrong that he wouldn’t find his way on the top five anyway, though he might escape the #1 fate. No his bat was shockingly bad. He had a .251 average so surely his bat can’t be that bad right? Welcome to the emptiest .251 average you will possibly ever see. His lack of walks produced a .293 OBP. And he had an even lower slugging percentage than that – during the height of the steroid era! A .277 slugging percentage in 1999 would be like a .240 slugging percentage now. It all resulted in a 43 wRC+.
Tony LaRussa clearly didn’t know how bad he was though because oddly enough his playing time didn’t really deviate from his previous years. McGee came to the Cardinals as a bench player in 1996 and his career was reinvigorated. He had 0.6 and 1 WAR seasons off the bench. In 1998, his bat collapsed to a 56 wRC+, but his defense propped him up to a -0.3 WAR season. Then 1999 happened. And through it all, he got 331 and 323 plate appearances in his first two seasons. His bad seasons were a drop of just 30 plate appearances, down to 286 and 290. So he was essentially playing as much as he did when he was a good bench player. Which is insane.
Nobody wants to be on this list, but I don’t think anyone on this list regrets the career they had, so you had to be doing something right to find yourself here. Some of it is just luck. There’s no reason have to expected Leo Durocher to have a Hall of Fame managing career and Mike Shannon to have a Cardinals Hall of Fame career as a broadcaster when they had these seasons. They otherwise had unremarkable playing careers (though both players won two rings as a player).
Well, I wasn’t expecting to make this two parts, but I’ll happily do so. On Thursday, I’ll look at the five worst pitching seasons. And something I didn’t mention, but I’m only doing seasons from 1903 onward. There are a few 1800s seasons I skipped in the five worst seasons. They were not technically the Cardinals then.