On Friday night, Seattle Mariners catcher José Godoy made history when he became the 20,000th player in Major League Baseball history. The former St. Louis Cardinals farmhand drew a walk in his second plate appearance, in a game which was not particularly notable beyond the history being made. It does seem weird to give Godoy credit, as each of the 19,999 men who came before him contributed as much to the number as Godoy did, but regardless, he did get the privilege of joining an esteemed fraternity, one which includes the likes of Babe Ruth and Bill Bergen.
Babe Ruth, already one of the better pitchers in Major League Baseball prior to his conversion to the outfield, re-invented the offensive side of the sport. He was considered the sport’s greatest superstar in the pre-analytics era of baseball, and sabermetrics have done nothing but confirm his greatness further. In addition to his legendary 714 home runs, despite beginning his career during an era where league leaders struggled to reach double-digits in full seasons, Ruth had elite plate discipline and, despite his reputation as an overweight glutton, was a perfectly capable fielder and base runner early in his career.
Bill Bergen is less famous. A catcher in the early 20th century for both the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Superbas/Dodgers, Bergen enjoyed a very positive reputation for his defensive abilities, and his fielding metrics, rudimentary as they are, hold up reasonably well. Bergen, however, was the worst hitting position player in Major League history by a wide margin. In 3,228 career plate appearances, Bergen had a batting average of .170. He almost never walked, hence an on-base percentage of .194. He hit for almost no power (his two career home runs, low even in his era, were inside-the-park ones), hence a career slugging percentage of .201. His career wRC+ stands at 22; his career-best single-season wRC+ was 43–only two of the 3,138 qualified MLB seasons since 2000 resulted in lower marks. At -6.9 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement and a staggering -16.2 FanGraphs WAR, Bill Bergen is the single worst player in Major League Baseball history by those metrics.
But do I think Bill Bergen is the worst player in MLB history? Probably not. He probably isn’t even the worst hitting position player in MLB history, though I will concede he probably is among those with 3,000-plus plate appearances. It does take some skill to be able to convince those who run MLB teams–relatively unsophisticated as they were in Bergen’s era, they still had a motivation to win–that you are good enough to play. This isn’t quite like how most of the losingest pitchers in MLB history are Hall of Famers because the stat primarily indicates longevity–there is no spin where Bergen’s WAR reflects positively on his play. But let’s put it this way–there is no way I could last in MLB long enough to reach a number as low as he did. I couldn’t possibly fake it that long.
Having a negative career WAR is not especially rare, but usually it occurs because a guy comes up to the Majors, goes 2 for 18, and doesn’t make the Majors again. In order to reach even a single full negative win, you would likely need to creep up on triple-digit plate appearances or pitch in a couple dozen games. The St. Louis Cardinals, successful of a franchise as they are, still have hundreds of negative WAR players, but seven stand out on the list to me. All are position players, though not by design. Five are the only players in franchise history worth two or more negative FanGraphs wins; the other two are among three players tied for sixth on the list of infamy, but they are also two 21st century players that I remember. My goal is not to dunk on these players, all of whom made the Majors and should be considered a success on that level, but rather to better understand what made professional baseball experts believe what our statistics firmly reject, and whether they or we are the wrong ones.
Héctor Cruz: Héctor Cruz is the single worst player in St. Louis Cardinals history by fWAR, and as far as these things go, not by a small margin. Cruz was worth -2.5 fWAR in his Cardinals career. But that doesn’t make him the worst player on this list. In fact, he might have been the best–by wRC+, the era-adjusting metric of offensive production, he ranks highest. A 75 wRC+, while not great, does not inherently make a player incapable of playing in the Majors–in the 21st century, guys like Adam Everett, Rey Sánchez, and Omar Vizquel had lesser marks but above-average seasons on the whole. But these three were strong defensive shortstops. Cruz was a massive defensive liability, first at third base and then in corner outfield spots. And he wasn’t just a part-time player. From 1973 through 1977, Cruz accumulated 1,032 plate appearances as a Cardinal.
Although Cruz was not perceived as a great player in his time, he did finish in third place in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 1976 after leading the league in home runs by a rookie with 13. But the rest of his offensive profile was lacking–he rarely walked, hence a .286 on-base percentage that year, and with one stolen base, he wasn’t exactly a threat once he got on base either. And defensively, he was such a mess at third base that the Cardinals re-acquired Ken Reitz, whom they had sent to the San Francisco Giants the season before, and moved Cruz to right field. His offense did improve somewhat in what proved to be his final season as a Cardinal, but an 87 wRC+ for a guy miscast in right field was a liability. So why did Cruz get such a long leash in St. Louis? Award votes probably didn’t hurt. And it also probably helped that he was the younger brother of José Cruz, briefly a teammate with Héctor in St. Louis and on his way to becoming one of the better players in Houston Astros history once Héctor arrived at Busch Stadium for good.
Morgan Murphy: Unlike Cruz, who is still alive and whom many Cardinals fans can still remember playing themselves, Murphy is lost to time. With 407 plate appearances, he wasn’t exactly a long-tenured player for the 1896-1897 St. Louis Browns. And unlike Cruz, who played for some mediocre but fully professional teams in a mostly modern baseball era, Murphy makes a bit more sense. The 1896 Browns were a truly awful team, going 40-110, and Murphy was the backup catcher to Ed McFarland. Was he good? Not really, but a .257 batting average for a terrible team in 1896 would have actually put him above-average. He didn’t draw walks, hence a .290 OBP, but he was also the backup catcher, and even in 2021, I can understand why patching up the backup catcher position isn’t a high priority for a bad team. And in 1897, Murphy was far, far worse–in 222 plate appearances, for a 29-102 team, he had a wRC+ of, and I cannot stress enough that this is not a typo, 2. His on-base percentage couldn’t reach the Mendoza Line. So the Browns got rid of him. And it all makes sense–the Browns acquired a guy with a mediocre but not quite appaling track record and then cut him loose once he got truly bad. The Ty Wigginton precedent suggests the modern Cardinals might have cut him loose sooner, but maybe not that much sooner.
Jack Ryan: Ryan lived and died before he would have to suffer through jokes about the Tom Clancy books, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he lived quite the baseball life. He was one of only 29 players in history to play Major League Baseball in four different decades, and he was almost certainly the least accomplished by modern standards. Of Ryan’s ten seasons with at least five plate appearances, he had zero which he finished at replacement level. As a catcher for the 1901-1903 Cardinals, Ryan registered competent if unspectacular defensive numbers, but was a black hole at the plate. Each season, he hit for a low enough average but with even less power, and over 850 Cardinals plate appearances, his wRC+ stood at 42. But as with Morgan Murphy, there is a lot of unknown with a turn-of-the-century catcher. Maybe in that era, finding a catcher capable of doing the job at all was a challenge and teams would just take whoever they could find at the position. Maybe there was something Murphy and Ryan did that we can’t see in the numbers, not in a “you didn’t play the game, stop looking at spreadsheets nerds” kind of way but in a very literal, we’d see it if we had video kind of way. Or maybe the pre-Rogers Hornsby Cardinals were simply a disaster of an organization.
Tony Cruz: A third catcher but, unlike Murphy and Ryan, a guy many of you remember. Tony Cruz entered the lives of most Cardinals fans in 2011 as a semi-utility call-up from the minors, but from 2012-2015, he had a defined role–Yadier Molina’s backup. It was a relatively leisurely role–the one time Molina suffered an extended injury during this span, the Cardinals almost immediately acquired A.J. Pierzynski and semi-platooned him with Cruz. But he did still amass 633 plate appearances in a Cardinals uniform, and in contrast to Molina, who was developing into one of the better hitters in baseball, Cruz hit like a backup catcher–a 56 wRC+ with a .262 OBP and just five home runs (though that doesn’t count his two-run go-ahead home run off Madison Bumgarner in Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS, to be fair). But where Cruz really suffered in the eyes of statistics was defensively–he was so-so at stopping runners, would compete with Molina by passed balls despite a fraction of the playing time, and most significantly, measured out as a horrendous pitch framer.
St. Louis Cardinals state media fell just short of proclaiming that Cruz shot a 34 the first time he ever golfed, frequently touting that Cruz was good enough to start for a lot of teams despite a complete lack of statistical evidence to substantiate this. That said, once the Cardinals decided to move on from Cruz, they did manage to trade him for an actual player in Jose “Not That One” Martinez during the same week that they non-tendered Peter Bourjos, while each player’s respective statistics would have suggested the two results should have flipped. And Cruz seemed like an affable fellow whose walk-up song got in on the ground floor of Wolf of Wall Street meme-ification, and God bless him. But I think now, as I thought then, that keeping Cruz was simply the path of least resistance. It wasn’t like Cruz was blocking a substantially better player in the system, and it was going to be tough to acquire a great backup catcher when the starter refuses to sit. I don’t agree with how long he played, but on some level, I get it.
Chappy Charles: Another old-timer (though slightly less old) but this time, not a catcher! In 1908 and 1909, Charles was the team’s primary second baseman, with occasional time spent at shortstop and third base. And offensively, he was…I’d stop short of “good”, but probably not as bad as you would assume a middle infielder from the Dead Ball Era on this list to be. His .270 OBP blows away the last three players listed. But where he really fell short was in the field. In 1908, Charles committed 49 errors. In 1909, in 99 games with the Cardinals, he committed 44. Errors, of course, are an unfashionable statistic in the modern era, so I wondered if perhaps he had range that archaic stats couldn’t pick up. So I perused his Wikipedia page in hopes to discover some context. I found the following: “Raymond “Chappy” Charles (March 25, 1881 – August 4, 1959) was an infielder in Major League Baseball. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.” And this was the full extent of my research of Chappy Charles, who I can best conclude survived in MLB because the Cardinals were awful and did not care.
Roger Cedeño: Did you know that Roger Cedeño is not related to César Cedeño? I feel like a dummy for always assuming they were related, but they aren’t even from the same continent–César is Dominican and Roger is Venezuelan. So since my initial theory on why Roger had such a long career in Major League Baseball has been tossed into the garbage, I guess it’s time for a new guess–steals. Roger Cedeño stole a lot of bases in an era where guys didn’t steal a lot in general, including 66 in 1999 and 55 in 2001. He was an efficient base thief, as well, but Cedeño was not very good in other aspects of the game–he topped out at seven home runs at the height of a high power era and he was never a good fielder, despite his speed. And by the time he reached St. Louis, Cedeño’s speed was fading and although he was still decidedly okay at getting on base–he had a .327 OBP in 2004–that was about all he had. And despite only 61 plate appearances in 2005, Cedeño was a true disaster, with a wRC+ of -4 and a fWAR of -1.0 prior to a June 24 release which ended his MLB career at 30. But having lived through the Roger Cedeño experience, I do think his fWAR total is misleading. He was justifiable throughout much of 2004, when prior to the acquisition of Larry Walker, there was a revolving door in left field, and once Walker was immersed and Cedeño dropped off, the Cardinals cut bait.
Nick Stavinoha: No player embodied the four-year stretch between the Cardinals’ tenth and eleventh World Series titles quite like Nick Stavinoha. He arrived in 2008 at age 26 but sporting a goatee of a man two decades his senior, and while the outfielder would hit very well while playing for the Memphis Redbirds, his semi-regular call-ups to St. Louis were far less fruitful. In his 278 MLB plate appearances, despite demonstrating some power in the minors, Stavinoha hit just four home runs. He struck out 19.4% of the time back when that was considered pretty high, and he walked in an abysmal 2.9% of plate appearances. As a corner outfielder whose defense could be most charitably described as functional, Stavinoha had an on-base percentage of .256.
I truly do not remember what the point of Nick Stavinoha was. He did have that one cool home run off Trevor Hoffman, but that was in 2010, his least-bad season and the final of his MLB run, so it’s not like he was off the Memphis Shuttle. My best guess was that his minor league track record was too irresistible. And it wasn’t as though the Cardinals were trying to make room for Stavinoha–he just kind of would hang around and step in when asked. I found him incredibly frustrating to watch, but I can’t say in the end that I fault him nor the team for trying to make something work when the situation arose.