Sports

Not Quite Bad Enough to Be the Worst of All Time

Chris Davis made a run at infamy, but Jim Levey still failed more spectacularly than any baseball player ever.

Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles watches the game during the second inning against the Houston Astros at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Sept. 28.
Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles watches the game during the second inning against the Houston Astros at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Sept. 28.
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

As his team approached the franchise record of 111 losses, held by the 1939 St. Louis Browns, Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis noted that “it’s one of those things you never want to be associated with.” Unfortunately for Davis, his associations with the 1930s Browns don’t end there. For much of the season, the first baseman was on pace to beat another undesirable benchmark held by a member of that team: the record for worst individual baseball season of all time.

With tens of thousands of player seasons to choose from, declaring one of them worse than all the rest may be an exercise in futility. We do, though, have one statistical measure of holistic player value that spans generations, adjusting for the particular playing environment of the time: Wins Above Replacement (WAR). By Fangraphs’ WAR calculation, the very worst season belongs to Browns shortstop Jim Levey, whose -4.0 WAR in 1933 indicates he was four wins worse on the year than a presumed “replacement level” player—someone who was readily available on the team’s roster, in the minor leagues, or via a trivial trade. Through June of this year, Chris Davis was on pace to relieve Levey of his distinction, but a summer of being merely bad instead of terrible adjusted his course toward a -3.1 WAR season. Levey’s record is safe for another year.

Though separated by 85 years, these two awful seasons aren’t dissimilar from a statistical point of view. Both have batting averages below .200: .195 for Levey, .168 for Davis. Davis’ 41 walks boosted his on-base percentage to .243, just above Levey’s .237. Levey had no power, but Davis tends to hit the ball hard on the occasion that he does make contact—he managed 16 home runs and 12 doubles. By weighted on-base average (wOBA), a stat that weighs all offensive contributions with adjustments for a given year’s tendencies, Davis edges Levey, but was worse than every other qualified hitter this year.

Their terrible play, however, is only half the story. WAR is a counting stat: A player has to be on the field to accumulate it, whether in a positive or negative direction. It’s one thing to be an incompetent baseball player—anyone can do that—but what makes Levey’s and Davis’ seasons more remarkable is that they were as bad as they were without losing their jobs.
Davis amassed 522 plate appearances in 128 games, while Levey came to bat 567 times, missing only 10 of the Browns’ 151 games. How did both of these infielders hold on to a regular spot in the lineup while being historically incompetent?

With Davis, we know the basic narrative. He broke out in 2012 at the age of 26, hitting for a decent average and becoming a serious home run threat. He went up another level the following season, hitting 53 home runs, the 27th-best single-season total in major-league history. By WAR, he was worth seven wins and only five hitters were better that year. After a down year in 2014 and a bounce-back the following season, he signed a deal worth $161 million over seven years—a cool $23 million per season. (Levey made $4,000 in 1933, the equivalent of roughly $77,000 in 2017 dollars.) That deal has paid off for Davis. For the Orioles, it’s been an unmitigated disaster. And yet, Davis’ salary and reputation were enough to get him into the lineup in 128 of the Orioles’ 162 games this season. If the Orioles had been in contention, they likely would have given the uninspiring but serviceable Trey Mancini more time at first, but with their team hurtling toward an awe-inspiring 115 losses, they let Davis play.

As for Levey, he likely got regular playing time due to his reputation as a slick fielder and fast runner. The Washington Post intoned that “this Jim Levey is the sweetest fielding shortstop in all the league.” He also got a vote of confidence from former teammate and eventual Hall of Famer Leon “Goose” Goslin, who called Levey “the fastest thing in baseball.” Goslin was apparently ready to wager $200 that Levey could outrun Yankees outfielder Ben Chapman, but the race never came to pass. Chapman, however, was able to prove his fleetness of foot on the bases: He stole 27 bases in 1933 to lead the league. Levey managed only four steals in 10 attempts. Another piece of evidence that Levey enjoyed an excellent reputation as a defender is the down-ballot MVP vote he received the previous season. His .280/.310/.382 batting line that year was unremarkable, but apparently he added enough speed and defense to convince one voter he was among the best players in the league.

His reportedly sterling fielding isn’t viewable in what numbers we have from 1933. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference indicate merely passable defense, and one stat puts him in a much less flattering light: In 1933, Levey committed 42 errors, the fifth most in the league. (This year’s highest total: 25 by Jurickson Profar.) He did get to a lot of balls—he was seventh in the league in assists—so that partly mitigates his propensity to fail on makeable plays. Still, his defense did not move the WAR needle in either direction.

While Davis will collect $17 million each of the next four years, and then receive deferred payments of more than $1 million every year until 2037, Levey had no such security. But despite the fact that Levey’s abysmal 1933 season was his last in the major leagues, he wasn’t done with professional sports. Levey played in the NFL for three seasons, primarily as a running back, while simultaneously playing minor league baseball, which he did until he was 39.

Looking back on Levey’s 1933 season, there’s no denying that it was historically awful. There is one way, however, in which his WAR total may be misleading: The “above replacement” part of “wins above replacement” assumes an ample supply of readily available stand-ins, which the 1933 Browns didn’t have. The only arrangement that put Levey on the bench had third baseman Art Scharein slide over to shortstop, with the hot corner manned by one of the team’s two main utility players, Lin Storti or Ted Gullic. The best of those hitters was Gullic, who was 35 percent worse than league average that year, followed by Storti (46 percent worse than average) and Scharein (65 percent worse than average). While all of them still hit better than Levey (77 percent worse than average), it’s not hard to see how a reputation as a top defender would have been enough to convince player-manager Rogers Hornsby to keep Levey in the lineup, given the other options.* Despite carrying all these lackluster hitters, the 1933 Browns still managed a better winning percentage (.364) than the 2018 Orioles (.290).

Wins Above Replacement is an individual stat, but failure at this level requires a group effort. Chris Davis’ rancid 2018 campaign came thanks to a horrid season, a massive contract, and a lack of exciting young players demanding playing time. The Browns had a roster full of part-time catchers and infielders who couldn’t hit. In a league dominated by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, they had no chance at contention. Thus, they continued to play “the sweetest fielding shortstop in all the league,” who, for all his ineptitude as a hitter, may have been a bright spot on a last-place team.

Correction, Oct. 9, 2018: This piece originally misspelled Rogers Hornsby’s first name.