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Building The Worst Rotation In Chicago Cubs History

An exercise in historic frustration.

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The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians are now inextricably entwined in baseball history after the 2016 World Series, won by the Cubs a few weeks ago.

It was, then, with great interest that I read this article on our SB Nation Indians site, Let’s Go Tribe. In it, Merritt Rohlfing went and found the five worst seasons by a starting pitcher in Tribe history, defined this way:

To put this rotation of misery together, I decided to find Tribe pitchers who threw more than 175 innings in their respective season with an ERA+ under 90 and a fielding independent pitching over 4.50. The rationale is, they started and pitched quite a bit but still didn’t do their bullpen any favors by not going deep in games. Also, they were way below average compared to the other pitchers of that season (the ERA+) and didn’t do a good job of taking care of the things pitchers have control over. That is where the FIP, which measures pitchers based on homers, strikeouts and walks, comes in. I feel like these combined attributes can demonstrate a terrible starting pitcher.

Well. The Cubs are now riding high, with one of the best teams in franchise history likely on a run of several consecutive postseason years. Given that, let’s take a look back and see who put together the worst starting seasons in Cubs history, based on the criteria established in the Let’s Go Tribe post.

You will be surprised, I think, to learn that none of these years was posted by Edwin Jackson. (Jackson’s FIP in 2013 was 3.79, too low to qualify for this list, and he didn’t have enough innings to qualify in 2014.) Further, there are a couple of pitchers on the list who had decent-to-good careers. But we are focused here on single seasons only.

To further compare these men to those in the Let’s Go Tribe post, that article states there have been 315 seasons in Indians history (1901-present) where a pitcher has made at least 25 starts in a season. In the comparable run of Cubs history, there are 340 such pitcher seasons, a roughly comparable number. Only six such seasons meet the criteria set forth in the Let’s Go Tribe article, so we have a five-man rotation and one guy we’d stick in the bullpen in case the first five aren’t bad enough.

These pitcher seasons are ranked by ERA+, from best to worst.

Sheriff Blake, 1925: 10-18, 231⅓ IP, 31 GS, 4.86 ERA, 4.81 FIP, 90 ERA+

Blake was given the second-most innings on this 68-86 Cubs team. Hall of Famer Pete Alexander, who would be traded to the Cardinals the following year, had the most. Blake actually put together a halfway-decent career, posting 12.2 bWAR, and pitched for the Cubs in the 1929 World Series (though not very well, a 13.50 ERA in two appearances).

Tiny Osborne, 1923: 8-15, 179⅔ IP, 25 GS, 4.56 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 88 ERA+

Osborne, clearly called “Tiny” because he stood six-foot-four, wasn’t very good, although the 1923 Cubs finished 83-71. His trouble was walks; he consistently ranked in the top echelons of his league in walks allowed. The Cubs sold him to Brooklyn the following year.

Johnny Schmitz, 1950: 10-16, 193 IP, 27 GS, 4.99 ERA, 4.83 FIP, 84 ERA+

Schmitz seems the epitome of Cubs teams in the 1940s and 1950s, the “wilderness” era in which they never finished over .500 for 19 straight seasons. He pitched well enough to make the All-Star team in 1946 and 1948 (and got MVP votes both years, in that pre-Cy Young Award era, with bWAR of 5.4 and 5.2), but by 1950 he was just bad. The Cubs managed to foist him on the Dodgers in a trade the following year. Unfortunately, that was also the deal that sent Andy Pafko to the Dodgers and brought back almost nothing in return, while Pafko played in a World Series with the Dodgers and two with the Braves. Schmitz, meanwhile, bounced around to five more teams before retiring after 1956.

Jamie Moyer, 1987: 12-15, 33 GS, 201 IP, 5.10 ERA, 4.74 FIP, 83 ERA+

Moyer had a much better year in 1988 (3.4 bWAR), but all that did was get him included in the trade that brought Mitch Williams to the Cubs. Four years later he came to spring training with the Cubs, after having been released by the Cardinals. The Cubs didn’t have a place for him in the 1992 rotation, but offered him a job coaching in the system. He told management he thought he could still pitch. 20 years later, he retired with 269 career wins and a World Series ring (2008 Phillies).

Frank Castillo, 1996: 7-16, 33 GS, 182⅓ IP, 5.28 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 82 ERA+

Castillo had posted a very good year in 1995 and nearly threw a no-hitter that year against the Cardinals (broken up with two out in the ninth). In ‘96, though, he was just bad, and after a similar bad start the following year he was traded to the Rockies for no one you’ve ever heard of. He played for four other teams before hanging it up after the 2005 season. Sadly, he died by drowning while swimming in a lake in Arizona in 2013, at age 44.

Steve Trachsel, 1999: 8-18, 34 GS, 205⅔ IP, 5.56 ERA, 4.69 FIP, 81 ERA+

This, I think, was the year when Trachsel got his reputation as a slow-working pitcher. Of his 34 starts, 12 went more than three hours, this in an era when games in general were shorter than they are now. This season looks bad, and it was even worse than the numbers indicate after May. Trachsel finished May with a 4.81 ERA, bad enough, but in his 24 starts after June 1 he posted a 5.92 ERA with 25 (!) home runs allowed in 24 starts.

Trachsel left the Cubs via free agency after 1999 and wasn’t missed by many, or any. He returned briefly for four starts at the end of the 2007 season and wasn’t any good in those, either.

As we celebrate the Cubs as World Series champions, let’s not forget where we came from... and be glad we’re not going back in that direction.