Searching for the Worst Pitcher of All Time
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
As much as the next fan, I enjoy baseball for the inherently unanswerable questions it poses. Was Babe Ruth really the greatest player of all time, or was it Josh Gibson, a catcher who, from what we can tell, hit like Ted Williams? Are the Cubs cursed because of a goat? Is Derek Bell uglier than Don Mossi? No one can say, one way or the other, and that’s what makes baseball great.
Recent news has put me in mind of perhaps the greatest of all such questions: Who is the worst pitcher of all time? It’s a fascinating question precisely because there’s no way to define the terms on which it’s asked. In any real sense, the worst pitcher ever was doubtless some minor league bum who got called up to the majors, pitched a few horrible games, and was quickly sent packing to Duluth. We’ll never be able to identify him.
So a qualification is introduced: Which terrible pitcher was just good enough to kick around baseball long enough to do immense damage to his teams, while still getting chance after chance to issue walks and dodge screaming line drives? What we’re after is not mere acute awfulness, but rather sustained, consistent sub-mediocrity. That can be difficult to identify, though, as you immediately run into a paradox best expressed by the old saw that it takes a really good pitcher to lose 20 games. The all-time leaders in things like losses, runs allowed, and so on are among the best pitchers of all time, the likes of Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and Phil Niekro. Any bum can have a few bad seasons; it takes a real man to serve up 400 home runs.
All of this leads us to the Mets, and the magisterial accomplishments of Jose Lima, whom they sadly designated for assignment last week after he’d yielded 15 runs in 14 1/3 innings worth of emergency starts. The man known as “Lima Time” has a serious argument for being the worst pitcher ever. He holds the single-season record for the highest ERA in both the National and American Leagues, a truly staggering accomplishment, and earns extra credit for his in tangibles. Anyone can rack up a 6.99 ERA, after all; only Lima could do so with the bombast of a Cy Young winner, doing the electric slide after a rare strikeout and asking management if it would be alright for his salsa band to play after a game sometime.
The statistician Lee Sinins calculated after Lima’s second start for the Mets that he had moved into second place on the all-time Runs Saved Above Average chart, having given up 131 runs more than an average pitcher would have in the same innings. (Sinins has since taken down his Web site and announced he wouldn’t be doing any more statistical analysis; perhaps Lima broke him.) This is all the more impressive considering that Lima has had some fine seasons, and even won 20 games once. Just 29 more runs below average – not more than a couple of weeks’ worth of starts for Lima Time – and he’ll catch up to Herm Wehmeier, who pitched 1,803 innings of inept baseball in the 1950s and died while testifying in an embezzlement trial at the age of 46.
Like Lima, Wehmeier lingered in baseball for many years past the point at which he’d shown he had nothing to offer.(In Wehmeier’s case it may have been the 11-8 record he posted as a 21-year-old that kept people seeing something that wasn’t there. Given that this record was accompanied by a 5.86 ERA in a league where the average was 3.92, it was a pretty slender thread on which to hang any hopes. It’s hard to tell what’s more admirable – the persistence of the player in the face of abject failure, or his ability to fool managers into thinking they might get something out of him.
While the Mets may have dashed our hopes, though, the Arizona Diamondbacks have undashed them. The true connoisseur of crumminess must turn to the west, where Kevin Jarvis will grab the torch from Lima and hold it while throwing 72-mph fastballs and craning his neck to watch balls leave the park.
Jarvis, at last notice, was at -130 RSAA, which is a lot for a pitcher you’ve never heard of. He’s had one of the more interesting careers in baseball over the last decade. From 1994-96, his ERAs were 7.13, 5.70, and 5.98. In 1997, he posted ERAs above 10.00 for two different teams. The folowing year, he turned the trick for a third team. Inexplicably, after a 2001 season in which he posted a park adjusted ERA 16% worse than average, the San Diego Padres signed him to a three-year, $8.5 million deal. In 2002, he pitched 35 innings, and in 2003 the Padres became the fourth team for which Jarvis would run up an ERA north of 10.00. In 2004, San Diego traded him to Seattle in an exchange of albatross contracts, and later that season he ended up in Colorado, where he pitched only two innings. He did give up a run for every out he recorded, though, hinting at the glories that could have been.
Last year, Jarvis pitched for the Cardinals, of all teams, and they became the fifth team for which he ran up a double-digit ERA. Now he has signed for the first-place Diamondbacks. I would never root for injury to any player, but I’ll say that I am rooting for something to convince Snakes management to pull someone out of the rotation and hand Jarvis the ball. I can’t say that he, or Lima, or Wehmeier is the worst of all time, even in a qualified fashion. But I can say that he deserves every opportunity to settle the question once and for all.