Good players tend to get all the fanfare in baseball, and for good reason. No one really cares about the guy who can’t hit home runs or the pitcher who can’t strike anyone out. But I figured that the also-rans of baseball deserve some notoriety. In an ongoing series, FunGraphs will explore the worst pitching and hitting performances in the modern baseball era. We’ll begin with the worst starting pitching performances, move on to hitting, and then look at some uniquely bad performances for specific things like strikeouts, home runs, etc.
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.
So, without further ado:
10. Charlie Morton / 2010 / Pittsburgh Pirates / 194 ERA-
Charlie Morton, the 6’5″, 235 lbs horse of a right-hander drafted by the Braves in 2002, has had an interesting career to date. He originally honed his craft as a low-strikeout, ground-ball artist who alternated good and bad seasons depending on his batted ball luck. In recent years Morton has added velocity to his fastball and focused more on the swing and miss element, ditching some of the grounders for strikeouts and becoming a better pitcher in the process.
Morton’s third full MLB season turned out to be his worst. Across 17 starts and 79 2/3 innings for Pittsburgh in 2010, Morton posted a 7.57 ERA, which was 94% worse than the league average ERA that season. Morton’s FIP (fielder independent ERA) of 5.29, 34% worse than league average, indicates that he got his fair share of bad luck. His 2.27 K/BB ratio is by far the best on this list.
Whatever way you slice it, cobbling together a 7.57 ERA in close to 80 innings is pretty bad. Needless to say Pittsburgh was not very competitive that season with a league-worst 57-105 record.
09. Hideo Nomo / 2004 / Los Angeles Dodgers / 199 ERA-
Hideo “The Tornado” Nomo, owner of quite possibly the funkiest delivery in MLB history, had an interesting career arc. He burst onto the scene with the Dodgers and posted 2.54 and 3.19 ERAs in 1995 and 1996, but then regressed significantly going forward. He bounced around different clubs, briefly resurrected his career with the Dodgers in 2002-03, and then put up a dud of a season in 2004.
Nomo’s 2004 campaign included a horrid 8.25 ERA over 18 starts and 84 innings pitched. His FIP was an almost-as-bad 6.35. His strikeout to walk rate of 1.29 was below replacement level. The only reason Nomo isn’t higher on this list is that 2004 was one of the highest scoring seasons in modern MLB history, keeping his ERA- at a horrible but not worst ever level of 199.
As for why the Dodgers let Nomo start 18 games that year? The rest of their rotation included names like Jose Lima, owner of a 5.26 career ERA, and fellow Japanese import Kaz Ishii, who managed a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.01 that season.
08. Andy Larkin / 1998 / Miami Marlins (fka Florida Marlins) / 202 ERA-
The first two entries on this list were fairly recognizable baseball names. Now enter Andy Larkin, owner of a Wikipedia page shorter than the one for the house I grew up in. Larkin pitched 105 2/3 innings in his career for a total ERA of 8.86. He walked more batters than he struck out. He sported a WHIP over 2.00. He was not good.
Larkin’s 1998 season with the Marlins was something to behold. Florida, fresh off a 1997 world series win, had high hopes for the 1998 season. Hopes were dashed fairly quickly however, and they finished the season with an abysmal 54-108 record. Larkin had a formidable hand in that ineptitude, posting an 8.21 ERA across his 11 starts. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 0.96 was the second worst on this list.
At least Larkin could share his misery on that 1998 team. Brian Meadows vomited up a 5.21 ERA in 31 starts. Rafael Medina a 6.01 ERA in 12 starts. That season NL batters looked at the Florida Marlins pitching staff like fat adolescents ogling churros at Epcot.
07. Jimmy Haynes / 1996 / Baltimore Orioles / 204 ERA-
1996 was a tough year for MLB pitchers, particularly AL pitchers. 17 players hit 40-plus home runs. 50 players had over 100 RBI. Only six starters had ERAs south of 3.00, and five of them were in the NL East. Jimmy Haynes, a 23-year old facing his first real MLB competition, was ill-prepared to deal with hitting onslaught in his 11 starts in 1996.
Haynes put up a 10.08 ERA as a starter. His 204 ERA- was, amazingly, only third highest on this list despite a double-digit ERA. If his ERA- was third highest, why is he occupying the 7th spot? Haynes’ FIP of 6.17 was actually decent for the times, and his 125 FIP- was the best score among the entire list. Make no mistake, Haynes still stunk up the joint, with his 1.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.62 HR/9. But things weren’t quite as bad as they seemed.
Haynes’ Baltimore pitching comrades that season featured established veterans like Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and David Wells. The lowest ERA among the bunch was Mussina’s 4.81, which providing perspective for how difficult pitching in the AL East was back in 1996.
06. Josh Towers / 2006 / Toronto Blue Jays / 197 ERA-
Oxnard, CA native and suspected party animal Josh Towers looked like a player on the rise after the 2005 season. Towers, 28 at the time, earned a 3.71 ERA in 33 starts and 208 2/3 innings for the Blue Jays that year, anchoring their staff after ace Roy Halladay went down with a broken leg. Expectations were high entering the 2006 season, however Towers came crashing down to earth in horrific fashion.
Towers’ 9.11 ERA through 12 starts with Toronto that season would be the worst performance by a starting pitcher until Morton’s aforementioned 2010 season with the Pirates. His pedestrian strikeout rate of 4.80 K/9 and outrageous homer rate of 2.65 HR/9 meant that most of his dismal output was justified. Towers’ FIP of 6.90 is the second worst on the entire list, and his FIP- of 150 is the fourth worst.
Amazingly, Toronto trotted Towers out for another 107 innings of 5.38 ERA ball in 2007. He bounced around AAA from 2008 to 2010, before finishing his professional career to the tune of a 7.94 ERA in the Mexican League in 2011.
Check back tomorrow for the rest of the list! It includes one pitcher who still pitches in the MLB, a retired sure-fire Hall of Famer and someone whose first name is a popular Italian pasta sauce.