Real or not? Chris Davis could have worst season of all time
It was a relatively slow day of baseball on Thursday, so indulge me as I go down the rabbit hole with Chris Davis. Hopefully we’ll all come out alive.
Davis is having a terrible season. I didn’t realize exactly how mind-boggling awful until Wednesday morning when I noted that, despite playing in nearly all the Baltimore Orioles‘ games, he had scored just nine runs. I mentioned this on Twitter and one response I can print here came from robj1028, who wrote back, “I feel awkward liking a tweet that I don’t really like the fact presented but there’s no other reaction on Twitter.”
Meanwhile, our old friend Diane Firstman pointed this out: Davis had entered his at-bats with 109 runners on base … and driven in 11 of them. Things haven’t turned around over the past two days. He went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts on Wednesday and 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Blue Jays. He’s still at nine runs scored in 55 games and is hitting .152/.232/.232. His OPS is barely better than Mike Trout‘s on-base percentage.
I wasn’t the only one thinking of Davis. On Wednesday night, ESPN Insider contributor Dan Szymborski fired off a series of Davis-related tweets, including this one:
It’s pretty frightening to be on an “on-pace-for” the worst season of all-time by a large margin when you’re nearing mid-June. Chris Davis’s on-pace-for in fWAR would rank him 81892 out of 81892 player-seasons since 1901. By NEARLY A FULL WIN.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) June 7, 2018
You’re reading that correctly: With minus-1.7 FanGraphs WAR and minus-1.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, Davis is on pace for the worst season of all time. More on that in a moment. I want to start with that runs scored total.
Davis has nine runs scored. Four of those were home runs. On his other 26 hits and 19 walks and two hit by pitches and one reached on error, he has scored just five runs. Mookie Betts and Jeimer Candelario have both scored five runs in one game this season.
His five runs so fascinated me I even looked them up:
— April 14: Doubled off somebody named Marcus Walden of the Red Sox and scored on two groundouts.
By the way, both of these runs came in the ninth inning of games the Orioles were losing 10-2 entering the frame. I can’t even continue.
Anyway, the “record” for fewest runs in a season by a qualified player is Leo Cardenas of the 1972 Angels with 25. Davis is on pace for 24 in 146 games. Cardenas’ achievement is pretty remarkable because he didn’t just limp past 500 plate appearances — he batted 602 times. He hit .223/.272/.282 with six home runs. That was a legendarily bad offensive team as the Angels averaged just 2.93 runs per game. No wonder the AL instituted the DH in 1973.
The only other two qualifiers with fewer than 30 runs scored are Fred Raymer of the 1905 Boston Beaneaters with 26 runs (he hit .211/.232/.247) and Mario Guerrero of the 1978 A’s with 27 runs. Guerrero actually hit an almost respectable .275/.302/.345 in 546 PAs. Get this: He started 41 games in the third spot in the lineup and hit .333 … and still scored just nine runs in those games.
So, to Dan’s tweet about worst seasons ever. Here are FanGraphs’ five worst position-player seasons (since 1900):
1. Jim Levey, 1933 Browns: -4.0 WAR
2. Jerry Royster, 1977 Braves: -3.8 WAR
3. Tommy Thevenow, 1930 Phillies: -3.6 WAR
4. Jim Levey, 1931 Browns: -3.3 WAR
5. George Wright, 1985 Rangers: -3.2 WAR
And the Baseball-Reference list:
1. Jerry Royster, 1977 Braves: -4.0 WAR
2. Jim Levey, 1933 Browns: -3.9 WAR
3. George Wright, 1985 Rangers: -3.7 WAR
4. Jose Guillen, 1997 Pirates: -3.3 WAR
5. Jim Levey, 1931 Browns: -3.1 WAR
5. Lou Piniella, 1973 Royals: -3.1 WAR
I would guess Davis has a shot, if only because of the most important criteria (besides sucking): playing time. Davis is signed for four more seasons after this one, at a hefty price of $23 million per season. With such a heavy investment in Davis, and this season already lost, the Orioles may have little choice but to plow forward and hope Davis can figure things out.
And if he doesn’t? As one reader responded to me, “I can’t wait to tell my grandkids the Orioles couldn’t sign Manny Machado because they instead signed Chris Davis.”
OK, I said this was going to be a rabbit hole, so those lists beg the question: Who was Jim Levey? And how did he manage to have two of the worst seasons ever?
He actually has a pretty interesting little story. Born in Pittsburgh in 1906, he dropped out of school at an early age and at 16 was working in a steel mill, later quitting and joining the Marines. While stationed in Quantico, Virginia, he played baseball, football and basketball, and according to “The Big Book of Jewish Baseball,” while on recruiting duty in Boston, he met a scout for the New York Giants who told him to go to New York for a tryout with John McGraw’s team. Levey showed up without his glove or spikes and was told to beat it.
The book says he signed a few days later with the St. Louis Browns, so he must have been somewhere. After two seasons in the minors, he was installed as the starting shortstop in St. Louis in 1931. What did the Browns see in him? Well, you have to understand how bad the Browns were. They’d gone 64-90 in 1930 and drew — not a misprint — 152,088 fans. They had a little talent, less cash and few options.
Levey must have been a terrific athlete. In fact, there’s an anecdote in another book about Jewish athletes that says he was going to race Ben Chapman — who led the league in steals in 1931 — that August. Apparently, players around the league had placed their bets. The Browns called off the race.
Anyway, Levey may have been fast — he played three years in the NFL as a running back after his major league career ended — but had trouble with everything else. In 1931, he hit .209/.264/.285 and made 58 errors. In 1933, he hit .195/.237/.240. The amazing thing about that season is he was moved into the leadoff spot for two weeks in late August and September. The Browns finished last and drew 88,113 fans all season.
The other weird thing: Levey actually hit .280 in 1932 and finished 19th in the MVP voting. The “Big Book of Jewish Baseball” quotes McGraw saying that year, “I’d trade my right arm, left leg and seven ballplayers for that young fellow.”
Levey played for a long time in the minors after 1933 while moonlighting in the NFL and apparently played basketball as well in those pre-NBA days. As for the Bronws? The franchise would eventually move to … Baltimore.
Davis isn’t the only former star who has had this happen to him. Adam Dunn just missed the top five with a minus-2.9 season in 2011 when he hit .159 for the White Sox. Willie McGee was the 1985 NL MVP, but had a minus-2.8 season in 1999 at age 40. Ted Simmons, George Scott and George Bell all had minus-2.5 seasons or worse.
What has happened? Davis is striking out a lot, but he always has struck out a lot. His fly ball rate is just 24.6 percent — it was 46.9 percent in 2013, when he hit 53 home runs. When he has hit a fly ball, it has left the park just 8 percent of the time — just half of the 16.5 percent rate he averaged from 2013 to 2017.
So the Orioles are left with a power hitter without enough power who is hitting a lot of ground balls. The team is bad, Machado probably will get traded and the future may be ugly.
Maybe Orioles fans should stay in the hole.