St. Louis Cardinals 30-game losers, Bugs Raymond, and what wins and losses really measure

Slim Sallee—106-107—another pitcher victimized by bad teams. - Library of Congress

The St. Louis Cardinals' single-season losers, besides making up a pretty good bootlegging gang, tell us a lot about what goes—and went—into wins and losses.

Editor's note: Because it's the season for buying baseball books for acquaintances, and because I don't get enough chances to write about Bob Caruthers, I'll be writing some short features over the next few weeks inspired by (or, occasionally, excerpted from) The Ultimate Cardinals Record Book, a book I wrote that was published last March to stirring reviews from my parents' friends.

If you (or the object of your gift-giving) like St. Louis Cardinals history and tables filled with numbers, you could do worse for $9.84, the price if you buy it here on Amazon. You can read a chapter online at my website, which probably still doesn't render right unless you're using Chrome or Safari (sorry.) End plug.

It's like they say: You actually have to be pretty good and also more than 100 years old to lose 30 games in a season. It helps, too, if your name evokes old-time baseball player and old-time hooch peddler about equally.

The St. Louis Cardinals' biggest single-season losers were, as often as not, pretty good pitchers. And their ugly route to immortality says a lot about how flawed pitcher wins have always been as a statistic—even when they were flawed for different reasons.

First, though, the chart, which I promise is not filled with names from a random-bootlegging-gangster generator. (11th place: Two-Gun Fitzpatrick.)

Most losses in a single season

Rank Player Losses Year
1. Red Donahue 35 1897
2. Ted Breitenstein 30 1895
3. Bill Hart 29 1896
Jack Taylor 1898
5. Pink Hawley 27 1894
Bill Hart 1897
Willie Sudhoff 1898
8. Ted Breitenstein 26 1896
9. Stoney McGlynn 25 1907
Bugs Raymond 1908

The clearest fact in this chart, of course, is that the Cardinals, between their move to the National League and the appearance of Rogers Hornsby in 1915, were terrible—routinely outdrawn by the Browns and, until their fortunes reversed in 1926, often outplayed.

Today the most easily apparent way a team lets its pitchers down is with its bats, but the Losing Pitcher Boys of the nineties and aughts were victimized in a way that makes their records even more comical. The 2012 Cardinals allowed 603 earned runs and 45 unearned runs; the 1908 Cardinals, behind Bugs Raymond, allowed 401 earned runs and 223 unearned runs.

Tiny gloves, bad infields, tons of balls in play. And for these Cardinals, everybody's Ryan Theriot. Patsy O'Rourke, who got the bulk of the playing time at shortstop that year, hit .195 and fielded .860, for a FPB of 1.055.

Red Murray, their best hitter, made 28 errors in the outfield.

Timeline adjustments for baseball players are weird and difficult, and this is one of the reasons why. The very best baseball players of this time period deserve to be remembered as stars; the very worst baseball players of this time are artifacts of a league that was, depending on who you'd have them scout, variously unwilling and unable to find and develop large seams of almost-competent talent.

You think you know replacement level? Bugs Raymond—who later actually was killed amid alcohol-related violence in Chicago, unfortunately—knows replacement level. His ERA was 2.03, his RA was 3.22, and he struck out just four ground-ball-happy batters per nine innings despite knowing full well that Patsy O'Rourke was standing behind him, kicking at shards of glass and pounding a tiny fist into a comically small glove.

For me, the reason win-loss records remain compelling is the same reason they shouldn't ever be used to measure a pitcher's effectiveness: They tell a story that doesn't stop at the bounds of what a pitcher can do. Bugs Raymond's 15-25 season says very little about Bugs Raymond's value, but it says a lot about the Cardinals team he played for, and what it did to him.

Red Donahue was pretty terrible in 1897, though. Can't blame Klondike Douglass for that one.

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