We’re back for day two of two in FunGraphs’ countdown of the worst starting pitching seasons in the Modern Era. A bit of a refresher in case you missed yesterday’s post:
I am defining the Modern ERA (see what I did there?) as 1989 through current day. Why 1989? Because that was the year I was born.
For a starter to qualify for this list, they must have made at least 10 starts and accrued over 50 innings pitched as a starter in the given season. The statistics I reference will be based strictly on starts from each year, excluding any relief outings.
The statistic of choice to measure starter ineptitude is ERA-. What is ERA-? Glad you asked. It compares a pitcher’s ERA to the league average ERA that season, which is good because this adjusts for league run environment (1996 featured way more run scoring than 2016, so we need to take that into account). 100 is average, and anything above 100 is increasingly bad and below 100 is increasingly good. If a pitcher has an ERA- of 150, that means that his ERA was 50% worse than league average. So if the league average ERA in a given season is 4.00, and a pitcher has an ERA- of 150, that means their ERA is around 6.00.
10. Charlie Morton / 2010 / Pittsburgh Pirates / 194 ERA-
09. Hideo Nomo / 2004 / Los Angeles Dodgers / 199 ERA-
08. Andy Larkin / 1998 / Miami Marlins (fka Florida Marlins) / 202 ERA-
07. Jimmy Haynes / 1996 / Baltimore Orioles / 204 ERA-
06. Josh Towers / 2006 / Toronto Blue Jays / 197 ERA-
05. Dave Johnson / 1991 / Baltimore Orioles / 202 ERA-
Dave Johnson had a fairly nondescript career as an MLB starter. After all, what else would you expect from someone with a name as generic as Dave Johnson? A hometown boy through and through, Johnson was born in Baltimore, played collegiate ball at Baltimore City Community College and threw all 57 of his career starts for the Baltimore Orioles from 1989 to 1991.
Johnson put up an okay 1990 season, with a 4.10 ERA across 180 innings and 29 starts. However, for whatever reason, the wheels came off the wagon in 1991. Johnson logged 14 starts and managed a 8.13 ERA as a starter, which was more than twice as bad as the league average at the time.
Johnson’s 5.94 FIP and 146 FIP- underscore his futility that season. He would spend the 1992 season in the minors and make one final MLB appearance in 1993, posting a 12.96 ERA in 8 1/3 innings for the Detroit Tigers.
04. Alfredo Simon / 2016 / Cincinnati Reds / 207 ERA-
“Fettuccine” Alfredo Simon rounds out the fourth spot on the list. Simon is an interesting
case, because he actually made the 2014 All-Star Game and seemed like a relatively decent pitcher until he fell off a cliff in 2016. Although completely unsubstantiated, I’m guessing Simon’s increasingly corpulent, 265 lbs+ frame might have had something to do with his swift regression.
Simon posted an 8.77 ERA in 11 starts for Cincinnati last season. His FIP was 6.83. He gave up over two home runs per nine innings pitched. His five pitch mix, which would grow to six on occasion with the usage of an eephus, was a kitchen sink of crap that batters teed off on like no tomorrow.
Simon was just part of the problem on the 2016 Reds. That team was the first since 1890 (yes, the first in 126 years) to produce sub-replacement level pitching. In case you don’t fully know what that means, replacement level is what a standard minor league call-up would produce. So the Reds pitchers performed worse than a bunch of journeymen minor leaguers last year.
03. Clayton Richard / 2013 / San Diego Padres / 203 ERA-
Hey, finally another guy who is still pitching in 2017! Clayton Richard is actually a half-way decent pitcher. He posted ERAs of 3.75, 3.88 and 3.99 for the Padres from 2010 through 2012, posted a 3.33 ERA last year for the Cubs and Padres and has a 4.31 ERA for the Padres in 2017. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy with low strikeout rates and a lot of groundballs. The funny thing about those pitchers is that they tend to have one complete bust season every five years or so when the batted ball luck gods frown upon them.
Richard’s bust season was in 2013. He totaled a 7.28 ERA in 11 starts, which was more than twice as bad as the league average. What’s more, his FIP of 6.76 amounted to a 182 FIP-, which is easily the worst among the pitchers on this list. Richard managed all this by striking out a pathetic 3.91 batters per nine, which is also the worst among any pitchers on this list. Richard also suffered from some serious gopheritis, yielding over 2.3 long balls per nine innings.
Richard, who was actually a standout quarterback in his high school days and was a star recruit at the University of Michigan, has managed to make over $13 million in his baseball career. Not too shabby. But given that schleps like Mike Glennon are making more than that in one season, I wonder if he should have stuck to throwing the football?
02. Roy Halladay / 2000 / Toronto Blue Jays / 222 ERA-
Roy Halladay? Say what now? Yes, the pitcher with the 36th best ERA- minus of all-time among starters actually posted the worst ERA- minus season in the modern era (and stretching even further back to Steven Blass’ 276 ERA- in 1973). If there’s ever a test case for why you shouldn’t give up on a pitcher after one bad season, Roy Halladay is it.
Halladay earned a 11.13 ERA in his second full season in the majors in 2000. A strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.17 and a HR.9 ratio over 2.08 were the central culprits in Doc’s awful season. His 6.58 FIP and 136 FIP- show that he received some pretty bad luck, and perhaps I should have moved him back on the list as a result. However, putting up the worst league-adjusted ERA since 1973 deserves high placement on this list.
To give Halladay some credit, he had to pitch against some pretty nasty AL lineups at the time. His worst stretch of the season came from April 20th through May 5th, where he faced Anaheim, Oakland, New York, Cleveland and Boston in succession, surrendering 33 earned runs in 19 2/3 innings (15.10 ERA). Ouch. Luckily Halladay eventually figured things out, and went on to become one of the most dominant pitchers of the 2000s.
01. Todd Van Poppel / 1996 / Oakland Athletics and Detroit Tigers / 218 ERA-
Strap in kids. We’ve arrived in the abyss. Hide the women and children. Todd Van Poppel’s 15 starts in the 1996 season amount to the worst starting pitching performance the MLB has seen since Nixon was in the White House.
But before we get to the horror of his 1996 season, how about some Todd Van Poppel trivia? Van Poppel was a hotshot pitching prospect out of Texas when he was drafted 14th overall by the Athletics in 1990. The Atlanta Braves, who owned the first overall pick that draft, were apparently so enamored with Van Poppel that they were planning to take him first. Luckily for the Braves, their scouting director threatened to resign unless they selected Chipper Jones, and the rest is history.
Back to 1996. Van Poppel made 15 starts – six for Oakland, and nine for Detroit. He amassed a 10.80 ERA as a starter, giving him an ERA- of 218. That’s bad. But it gets worse. His FIP was an astronomical 8.52 with a 170 FIP-, which is second highest on this list. He gave up 2.84 home runs per nine innings, easily the worst on this list. And, perhaps most horrifying, he walked 1.5x more batters than he struck out (3.98 K/9; 6.11 BB/9).
Van Poppel miraculously lasted another eight seasons in the majors, finally hanging up the cleats after a 6.09 ERA season with the Reds in 2004. He finished things off with a career 5.58 ERA and 5.16 FIP.
If there’s one thing I learned in researching the worst starting pitching performances in the modern era, it’s that you don’t need to be trash in order to have a bad season. Roy Halladay, Charlie Morton and Clayton Richard are all good pitchers who, through come combination of ineffectiveness and bad luck, just had bad seasons. Hideo Nomo and Alfredo Simon were all-stars at one point. Even Josh Towers had a nice season in there.
Below is a summary of all the numbers presented in this series: