Last Monday, I reached into the ideas section of my brain and decided it would be fun to look at the worst single season performances in Cardinals history, as determined by Fangraphs wins above replacement. I surprised myself into writing enough about the hitters to make this a two parter. That’s where we are today, looking at the worst single season performances by pitchers.
Like hitters, I plan to explain why they got the opportunities they did, but it won’t be as interesting of an explanation. Four of the five pitchers were in the bullpen. As seen by the 2003 Cardinals, it’s not that tough to explain why bad pitchers are allowed to pitch enough innings to do a bunch of damage. Sometimes you have no better options. And shockingly, no members of the 2003 bullpen are on this list. Less shocking is that the 2003 bullpen features the tied for 6th worst season and tied for 13th worst season. There is a third appearance by that bullpen, tied for 32nd. That’s eventual reliable arm for the Cardinals Russ Springer, Jeff Fassero, and of course Esteban Yan.
#5 Steve Peters, 1988 (-1 WAR)
The folks who watched the 1988 squad, or listened to them, can maybe shed some light on Peters. Peters was a left-handed pitcher who made his MLB debut in 1987. He had a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings of work out of the bullpen. This was obviously unsustainable, but his 3.47 FIP was still decent. Of course, I suspect he was lucky to have only allowed one home run, but there’s no way to verify that because 1987 doesn’t have HR/FB%.
He doesn’t appear to have made the postseason roster, but evidently Whitey Herzog trusted him enough in 1988 to give him a lot of rope. He seems to have two different roles, depending on the game situation. He either was treated like a classic LOOGY or he was there to eat up innings. 13 of his 44 games were to two batters or less. He also faced at least 10 batters in 10 of those games.
As a LOOGY, he did his job. He pitched 6 IP in those short appearances, struck out 6, walked two, and allowed 3 hits. Just one earned run, although that stat is really useless to a guy who faces two batters. As the long man, he was... atrocious. He was used as the bullpen punching bag whenever someone needed to eat innings in a blowout. In his 10 appearances in those games, he pitched 20.1 IP, struck out 12, walked 13, allowed seven homers, and gave up 25 earned runs.
There is no doubt Peters was not a good MLB pitcher. But having said that, it appears there were certain games where Peters obviously didn’t have it and the context demanded he needed to pitch more than one inning, and he just wasn’t getting taken out no matter how badly he was doing. He had to face 13 batters in a 21-2 blowout loss that was partially his fault, but when he entered the game, it was already 10-2. 13 batters, six hits, two walks, and three home runs allowed later, and he had 8 earned runs from one appearance. He also gave up three runs in a game they lost 14-1. He gave up four earned runs in a multi-inning appearance in a game that lasted 14 innings. This was not a guy who could pitch to more than a few batters, but he was used that way quite a bit. That’s why he’s here.
#4 Todd Burns, 1993 (-1.1 WAR)
On July 22nd, 1993, the Cardinals were five games out of the NL East with a 55-39 record. They were playing way over the heads with a pythag that said they should have been 50-44. But to be fair, the Phillies also had a considerably higher pythag record than actual record so it balances out. They were quiet at the deadline, so it appears their big move was trading for Todd Burns, who had a 1.1 WAR season the year before and had thrown 65 roughly replacement innings for the Rangers by that point.
In his first game as a Cardinal, he came into a 6-6 game in the bottom of the 9th. The Cards had already blown a 6-3 lead in the 8th. Single, double, IBB, sac fly. First appearance, loss already. He was the losing pitcher in three more games and also blew a save. In a similar story to Peters, it seems his bad numbers are the way they because he was forced to pitch in a “throw until your arm falls off.”
Except it was one game and it was taken to an extreme. On August 24th, Allen Watson could not get out of the first inning. He needed nine batters to get two outs, but after walking the leadoff hitter to load the bases and the score already 5-0, Todd Burns replaced him. Four singles and a home run later, Burns finally got out of the inning. He then pitched four innings without allowing a hit. He came out for the 6th inning and allowed three home runs and a double. He did not pitch the 7th. For taking one for the team, he pitched 5.1 IP, allowed eight earned runs with four home runs allowed. Here’s the insane part. He pitched an inning the day before and 1.2 IP two days before that. No wonder his career was over after 1993.
#3 Ryan Franklin, 2011 (-1.2 WAR)
Oh Ryan. Unfortunately, he definitely was not bad because he was left in too long during blowout games. He truly earns his way onto this list. Franklin always seemed like a guy walking on a tightrope and definitely was a guy who didn’t seem to belong anywhere near the closer’s role. But in 2010, he somehow saved 27 games with just two blown saves and was barely above replacement level.
Things went poorly immediately in 2011. On Opening Day, the Cards were winning 3-2 when he allowed a game-tying homer. The game went 11 innings and the Cards lost. He didn’t pitch again for six days, but had two strikeouts in a save in a one-run game. Apparently, Franklin was only getting one-run save opportunities, because he later blew a 4-3 lead in a game that went 12 innings that the Cardinals also lost. A day later, he came into a one-run game again and this time, he didn’t make the Cards go into extra innings, giving up two runs and picking up the loss. He allowed a home run in a 9-5 win and then came into yet another one-run lead and gave up a double and a homer.
He finally lost the closer’s job at this point. Franklin was terrible yes, but how the hell was every save opportunity one-run? That seems so incredibly unlikely. Five save chances by April 17th, literally all one-run leads. Tony kept trying to work Franklin back, but Franklin was toast in 2011. On April 27th, he came into a game in the 8th with a 6-0 lead, and when he exited, it was 6-3. Tony tried making him the long man, but turns out a guy who can’t pitch a clean inning, isn’t going to be very good when he throws multiple innings either. He was released in late June, after allowing nine earned runs in 6 IP in his four most recent appearances. Fangraphs is the kind one too! His bWAR is -1.7.
#2 Cot Deal, 1954 (-1.3 WAR)
This is a rather confusing career. Things start normally enough. He debuts with the Red Sox in 1947 as a 24-year-old. Wikipedia claims he “earned” a spot in the rotation in 1948 out of spring training, but I guess hurt his arm before he ever pitched a game. Sounds like his family wrote that. He pitched four innings in relief total. He then got traded to the Cardinals and was in the minors or hurt for the entirety of 1949. He pitched in 3 games in 1950 for the Cards, but only finished an inning, getting an 18.00 ERA for the year.
He didn’t see the majors again until 1954 and it wasn’t because of the Korean War. He had joined the military for World War II. No it appears he just stayed in the Cardinals minor league season for... all of the 1950s. Because that was a thing you could do with the reserve clause. Not that Cot made a great case he should have ever made the majors.
In 1954, he finally got an extended look at the MLB level. He pitched in 33 games, totaling 71.2 IP. He walked more than he struck out, allowed 14 homers, and had a 6.28 ERA. No clue why the Cardinals decided, when he was 31, to finally give him a long look at the majors. No time before that, no time after, as 1954 was his last year in the big leagues. Deal was apparently a two-way player in the minors. Again according to Wikipedia, he was also the backup catcher while in AAA. This did not translate to the majors, as he batted 22 times, and to his credit, hit a double and a homer. But those were his only hits.
#1 Andy Benes, 2001 (-1.5 WAR)
You don’t see a lot of true starting pitchers on this list. Both Brad Thompson and Kyle McClellan are in the top 30 worst, but both pitched half the year in the bullpen. Then you have to go all the way to 1911 for Roy Golden’s bad season. Except for the worst overall pitching performance in Cardinals history, Andy Benes. He definitely fits in more with the spirit of the Hitters list, formerly great players who kept getting trotted out because of his history and a hope for improvement that never really happens.
Benes had a 1.6 WAR year in 2000 in 166 IP. He was only 33-years-old in 2001. We only know this now, in retrospect, but Benes pretty much stopped being a good pitcher at 30. The vast majority of his 36.2 career WAR was accumulated from age 21 to age 30. He lasted just four more seasons, none above 2 WAR, and featuring this disastrous season.
Little backstory. After the 1997 season, Benes agreed to a 5 year, $30 million contract with the Cardinals. But it was agreed to after the signing deadline for players to resign with the teams (I don’t think this rule exists anymore, I didn’t even know this was ever a rule). So Benes couldn’t sign with the Cardinals until May 1 of 1998. He instead signed a 3 year contract with the Diamondbacks, and he could opt out after two years. Which he did. He signed a 3 year, $18 million deal with the Cards prior to 2000.
As said before, Benes was coming off his worst season and would be 32 so this was not a great idea. And in 2000, Benes had a season you’d expect from a guy who had 1.3 WAR in 198.1 IP who had a previous history of more success. He improved but was still a shell of his previous self, with 1.6 WAR in 166 IP. And then 2001 happened.
According to Todd Jones in a column written for the Sporting News back in 2004, Benes had a habit of grinding his teeth when he would throw a slider. I would imagine that had something to do with Benes allowing 30 homers in 107 IP. Just a mind-bogglingly high number of homers for a guy with a completely normal career HR/9 of 1.04. I mean tipping his pitches seems too easy, but also seems likely because even HR heavy pitchers don’t allow HRs at that rate. And I suspect allowing so many HRs got into his head and affected the rest of his game, because he also walked a career high.
He bounced back, sort of, in 2002. He only made 17 starts, but had a 2.78 ERA. His FIP was less good at 4.71, but hey after the 2001 season, this is definitely a bounceback. But obviously he missed most of the year to injury. On the bright side, Benes’ 2001 performance motivated the move to trade for Woody Williams, which sure paid dividends for the next three seasons.
This list features every version of a below replacement pitcher. There’s the rookie who pitches worse the more hitters are exposed to how he pitches. There’s the reliever who the manager or team doesn’t recognize has lost it for an unfortunate amount of time. There’s the closer who the manager doesn’t recognize has lost it for a truly ridiculous amount of time. The (I’m guessing) guy at the end of the bullpen, who eats innings in blowouts. And the highly paid free agent who just keeps pitching because teams don’t really believe in the concept of sunk cost.
With the exception of Cot Deal, do you guys who witnessed these seasons remember these seasons as being historically bad at the time? No need to answer for Franklin, the answer is a resounding yes and Benes probably was very obviously bad too, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve Peters barely registers. Todd Burns seems like someone you guys would remember as bad. I’m curious, in any case.