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October 26, 2011
The Lineup Card
13 Bad Players Who Are (or Were) Still Fun to Watch and Root For
1) Livan Hernandez
One of these things is not like the others. Two, of course, are knuckleballers—the last of their kind in the league. Two are lefties, who enjoy certain natural advantages that help them get by at slower speeds. And one is Livan Hernandez.
Hernandez’s heater travels three miles per hour slower than the next-slowest non-knuckleballing righty’s. The next right-hander on the list, whose fastball checks in at a comparatively blazing 86.7 MPH, is Shaun Marcum, who also gets by on guile and changeups so slow they make his fastball look fast. (After that is Bronson Arroyo, who—besides being the stuff of a PITCHf/x analyst’s nightmares and wet dreams—lulls batters into complacency with his flowing locks and acoustic guitar.) The difference in average fastball velocity between Hernandez (the second-slowest thrower) and Marcum (the sixth-slowest) is roughly equivalent to the difference between Marcum and Jo-Jo Reyes, the 99th-slowest. Going by the radar gun, Hernandez has no business being on a major-league mound.
Hernandez (like Derek Lowe, whose fastball is only slightly less deserving of scare quotes than Arroyo’s) succeeds—okay, “survives” might be more accurate—by being one of the best nibblers in baseball. As Mike Fast found, Hernandez tends to live on the edges of the zone, convincing umpires to give him borderline calls by refusing to throw anything over the middle of the plate. Despite that ability, Hernandez’s strikeout and walk rates have occasionally threatened to converge—in 2007, he struck out 9.9 percent of batters he faced while walking 8.7 percent—but even as his fastball has eroded (according to BIS data, he averaged 88 MPH as recently as 2003), he’s remained just good enough to get work.
Hernandez has stayed attractive to teams largely because he can be counted on to eat innings. Livan led the majors in Pitcher Abuse Points in each season from 2004-2006. Many of the pitchers who appeared right below him on those lists—Jason Schmidt, Victor Zambrano, and Mark Prior, among others—have long since succumbed to crippling injuries, but Hernandez keeps plodding along without skipping a start. Over 3000 innings into his major-league career and several years into his 30s (at the very least—like his half-brother’s, Livan’s listed age may very well be the product of creative record-keeping), Hernandez has never hit the DL. (Lowe, Buehrle, Arroyo, and Tom Glavine have similarly spotless medical histories, which suggests that soft-tossing could be the secret to major-league longevity, if only it weren’t so incredibly difficult to do well.)
Hernandez has a career 174-176 record and a 96 ERA+. He’s been treading water for 16 seasons, and he still hasn’t drowned. It’s not exactly fun to watch him play. In fact, at times, it can be downright excruciating—we’re talking about a guy who once walked eight batters and threw 142 pitches in a World Series game that he won. But in spite of that—or maybe because of that—he is a fun player to root for. —Ben Lindbergh
2) Homer Bush
3) Adam Dunn
4) Kory Wayment
5) Albert Pujols
Let’s look at those “stats” again. In 11 seasons, Pujols has 445 regular season bombs but yet only has 84 stolen bases and 15 triples. Great player? Please. David Eckstein had 123 stolen bases and 20 triples in only ten seasons. Was he great? Greatness on the diamond is defined by grit and by hustle and by stolen bases and by triples. Pujols simply falls short of the mark in the modern age of baseball, and as a result many probably won’t remember him.
What it really comes down to is that Albert Pujols lacks #want. How many times have you watched him hit a 430ft. home run when you know it could have traveled 475ft? All the time. Why does Pujols only hit three home runs in a World Series game (on the road) when he clearly could have blasted four? Why is Pujols only the greatest hitter in the last 25 years and not the last 125 years? Lack of #want. Why doesn’t Pujols spell his name “Puyol,” after Spanish soccer great, Carles Puyol? Why doesn’t Pujols walk-up to the plate to selections from Ween’s “The Pod?” Again, he lacks #want. Can you taste the waste?
But I still love to watch Pujols hit, even if I know that he isn’t a very good baseball player. I enjoy every 430 ft. bomb that sails into the seats, even if I know his lack of #want prevents the ball from traveling 475 ft., and I love it when he steps to the plate with the game on the line even when I know he probably won’t hit a triple or show grit with a groundout. We have to accept the fact that most of our heroes are human, and in the case of Albert Pujols, a very average human who isn’t a very good baseball player. I don’t care. I’m still a fan and he’s still worth the price of admission, even if he probably won’t steal second base. —Jason Parks
6) Alfredo Griffin
After a few cups of coffee in Cleveland, Griffin was traded to the Blue Jays, for whom he started 153 games in 1979 and shared AL Rookie of the Year honors with Minnesota's John Castino. Griffin went on to play nearly 2,000 big-league games despite his complete inability to hit (.249/.285/.319, .227 TAv), play defense (led AL shortstops in errors every year from 1979 to 1982, -11.3 career FRAA), or steal bases (at one point in his career, he was 67-for-140 [47.9 percent] before finishing at 192-for-326 [58.9 percent]).
He also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, playing in three World Series (1988, 1992, 1993) and winning them all. He played on the AL All-Star team in 1984 despite a career-worst season (.241/.248/.298, -1.6 WARP) because his friend, Blue Jays second baseman Damaso Garcia, brought him to San Francisco as a guest. When Alan Trammell hurt his arm and was scratched, Griffin suited up instead because, well, he was there.
What made Griffin fun, though, was that periodically he would do something spectacular on the bases. One example appears in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract: “I personally saw him score from second on a ground ball to second, scoring the lead run in the top of the ninth.”
I'm not doubting James, but I couldn't find that game. However, Griffin did score on such a play with his team down, 14-5, in the bottom of the ninth on June 30, 1988. A few months later, on September 17, he stole third with one out in the top of the ninth of a 3-3 tie with soon-to-be NL MVP Kirk Gibson at the plate. Gibson then singled Griffin home for the eventual game-winning run, which still didn't make Griffin's risk a sensible one, even if it was fun. And if that sort of recklessness isn't enough to make up for the occasional four-walk season, I don't know what is. —Geoff Young
7) Wily Mo Pena
It is not his fault that he was signed to a major-league deal and rushed to the big leagues without the proper development most hitters receive. He has always had incredible power and could hit a ball out of any ballpark—whenever he manages to make contact with a pitch. In between the impressive home runs he has hit throughout his career have been plenty of strikeouts on pitches anywhere between his eyes and the toes on his feet as he played out the real-life version of Pedro Cerrano from Major League. Fastballs, Pena hit very far. Curveballs, change-ups, sliders, splitters—anything with a wrinkle in it—not so much. When he hits those fastballs, like this one, or this one, they are a sight to behold as long as you can ignore the empty at-bats that have filled in the gaps between those home runs in each of his call-ups to the major leagues, since his days as a somewhat-regular major league baseball player ended a few seasons ago. —Jason Collette
8) Dave Kingman
What wasn't entirely clear at the time was that Kingman was otherwise a lousy ballplayer. Not only did he strike out plenty—his thirteen 100-K seasons are tied for fourth all-time—but his all-or-nothing approach didn't translate to many other types of hits (just 240 career doubles), and he didn't walk much (7.2 percent of his plate appearances). As a result, his career line (.236/.302/.478) gave him the lowest OBP for anybody with at least 300 homers. Four times Kingman hit at least 30 homers and finished with an OBP below .300; no other player has done it more than twice, and the six times he hit at least 20 with an OBP that low are also a record. His defense was nothing to write home about, either. Once, when his wild throw bounced into the Wrigley dugout, through an open door, and into a bathroom toilet, the immortal Mike Royko wrote, "If he's ever voted into the Hall of Fame, they should put the toilet bowl in there as well."
The mutual dislike between Kingman and the media made sure that didn't happen. The slugger compounded his hacktastic ways with an abrasive immaturity that won him no friends among teammates or the media. Notoriously, he once sent a live rat in a pink box to a female sportswriter covering the A's. "You can say a number of things about Kingman's personality, though admittedly none of them is any good," wrote Kevin Nelson. Kingman finished his career with a productive-enough .280 True Average, but his accomplishments made him in no way worthy of Cooperstown. Until the scourge of steroids came along, his 442 home runs—the Kingman Line—stood as the high for any player not in the Hall. Still, when he connected, he was something to see. —Jay Jaffe
9) Joe Shlabotnik
Shlabotnik wasn't much better in his personal life. Invited to attend a sports banquet one New Year's Eve with the likes of Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jack Nicklaus, Peggy Fleming, and Bobby Orr, Shlabotnik failed to attend after marking the wrong date on his calendar for the wrong city and the wrong event. Later, when invited to speak at Charlie Brown's testimonial dinner for a small fee of fifty cents, Shlabotnik got lost on the way.
Still, we can all remember the day that Shlabotnik hit a bloop single in the ninth inning of a game his team was winning 15-3 and smile in remembering how excited he was about it that he misspelled his name in an autograph. More importantly, we regular shlubs know that when we have a bad day, there's someone out there in baseball who understands. —Larry Granillo
10) A.J. Burnett
On the subject of the New York media, the microanalysis of every Burnett action on the field and on his way off of it is a referendum on everything. Every time he yells into his glove coming out from a start, it means he hates Joe Girardi. If he argues to stay in the game, he hates Girardi. If he steps off of the mound with his left foot, he thinks Girardi’s a communist. His performance on the field has not even been close to average the last two seasons and is absolutely fair game for criticism. But if you enjoy seeing the New York tabloid media look bad or seeing Girardi’s work defending his players to said media after an abysmal performance pay off, then join me in the “Irrationally Hoping for AJ Burnett’s Success” club. We have pie. —Sam Tydings
11) Brian Bannister
12) Wayne Tolleson
The next year, Tolleson hit .221/.306/.241, and it was pretty clear that he was not the long-term solution. Nonetheless, I have an enduring memory of him from that season. A Monday night game in June, Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium, Yankees leading the AL East by half a game. Rick Rhoden got knocked out on home runs by Fred McGriff and George Bell in the top of the fifth, and the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the frame trailing 8-0 with the great Dave Stieb pitching against them. It looked like first place had been lost for sure, but with two outs in the inning, the rains came—huge torrents of water washing over the Bronx—and it was not yet an official game. If the Yankees could prolong the inning long enough, their problems might disappear when the umpires called out the tarps.
Tolleson was their last hope. He had to reach base, and failing that, just keep things going long enough for the men in blue to intervene. Unfortunately, he was overmatched against Stieb and was quickly down to his last strike. That’s when Tolleson choked up and really went to work, fouling off pitch after pitch. At this long remove, I can’t tell you exactly how many he knocked into the stands, but it was a great many, all in a blinding torrential rain. After each swing, he would look plaintively back at the ump, but it seemed clear that just as Tolleson had gone up determined to prevent the game from becoming official, the arbiter was equally determined not to call it until it was. In the end, the umpire won out, Tolleson finally hitting one fair on the 15th or 20th or 50th pitch of the at-bat (I can embellish a little, right?) and popping out on the infield. Alas, all the effort was for naught, as the game (and loss) would resume after a delay.
One other, more personal memory of Tolleson. In 1990, his last year with the Yankees, the infielder was on the roster all year but almost never played, getting into 73 games and batting just 83 times (he was like the New York version of Tom Lawless). My baseball friends and I always wondered why he was kept around when the team clearly didn’t have a role for him. Late that season, one of those friends and I went to Yankee Stadium. We arrived early and were hanging around the railing during batting practice when Tolleson walked by. “Hey, Wayne!” my friend shouted. “What are you doing here?”
Wayne didn’t even look up. “I don’t know!” he shouted back and went down the tunnel to the clubhouse. —Steven Goldman
13) Brandon Inge
What happened next was the stuff of legend… well, almost legend. Brandon Inge, displaced twice by future Hall of Famers, was not only back at the hot corner, but he was an All-Star third baseman in 2009—his first year back at the corner. This was a career first half for the man with a glove of gold. At the break, his 21 home runs led the team, and his super-human glove work at the corner dazzled fans. Unfortunately, this was apparently also his swan song season. At the end of the year, he would undergo surgery on both knees, zapping him of his power at the plate. From that halfway point through the 2011 season, Inge would only hit a total of 22 home runs.
In fact, at one point in 2011 Inge fell so far that the Tigers sent the 34-year-old veteran to Triple-A Toledo to “find himself.” When Inge got healthy on AAA pitching and returned to the Tigers for the stretch run, he was cheered by Tigers fans across baseball, not for his offensive spark, but rather for his glove and charisma. Over 11 seasons, Brandon Inge became the Detroit Tigers; he was there through the worst of times and enjoyed the best of times in 2006 and 2011. His reward for this unbridled loyalty was a home. Guys with .235 career averages aren’t supposed to be your favorite anything and certainly aren’t supposed to be everyday big leaguers for over a decade or ever appear in an All-Star Game. Brandon Inge is the exception to the rule; he is every Tigers fan’s favorite worst player to watch. —Adam Tower