The Worst Player Ever-The Case for Johnnie LeMaster

There has been some recent discussion about who was the worst Major League Baseball Player of all time. The worst Major League player ever, no matter who it was, was obviously a great player by mortal standards. Moreover, plenty of bad players came up to the big leagues for a few games but were not good enough to stick. The question might be redefined as who was the worst player ever who had a real career. Moreover, my focus is on non-pitchers.

Identifying the worst player ever requires more than just quantitative analysis. While the worst player ever must have unambiguously bad statistics, poor numbers alone are not enough. There is a certain je ne sais quoi to being the worst player ever. This player must uniquely capture the spirit of being bad through specific actions on the field or an appropriate career narrative. Association with bad or disappointing team and somehow being memorable help as well.

Based on quantitative as well as less concrete indicators, former Giant shortstopJohnnie LeMaster, who played from 1975-1987 is my candidate for worst non-pitcher to have a real major league career. LeMaster’s numbers, .222/.277/.289 are sufficiently bad to ensure his candidacy on the short list. He is also one of only 23 players in the history of the game to have more than 3,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ of less than 65. This is good enough for 14th lowest OPS of any player with more than 3,000 plate appearances. LeMaster goes “up” to the 10th lowest if the cutoff is 3,500 plate appearances. Moreover, only four players in the history of the game came to bat 3,500 or more times than LeMaster and created fewer runs than LeMaster’s 263, but all three of those players, Gene Michael, Hal Lanier, Billy Sullivan and Charlie O’Leary played during times when pitching dominated did more than during LeMaster’s career.

LeMaster was a shortstop so his dreadful offensive numbers should be taken in some context. However, that context was not really one of being a sharp fielding shortstop. LeMaster’s range factor per nine innings, 4.95, was almost identical to the league average, 4.96, over the course of his career. Similarly, LeMaster’s career fielding percentage of .961 was .004 lower than the league fielding percentage for shortstops during his career. These numbers do not capture how bad LeMaster was defensively. The history of the Giants between 1975-1984 can be summarized almost entirely by the image of a ground ball going through LeMaster’s legs. He was particularly adept at late inning errors which cost the Giants a win. The Giants management sought to portray LeMaster as a good fielder presumably because he was so obviously a bad hitter. However, few fans fell for this ruse.

Midway through his career, in 1983, the Giants moved LeMaster into the leadoff spot. This may have been based on the fact that he had managed a .274 OBP between 1980-1982. LeMaster responded with what was probably the best season of his career stealing 39 bases in 58 tries while upping his OBP to .317 with an OPS+ of 76. That this was the best season in LeMaster’s career, in which he was a more or less a full time player for seven seasons, is a good indication of just how bad LeMaster was.

The case for Johnnie LeMaster does not, however, rest on numbers alone. He personified the worst period in the history of the Giants. The 16 years between 1971-1987 in which the Giants did not appear in the post-season was the longest period of this kind in franchise history. LeMaster’s career fell right in the middle of these years. LeMaster joined the team three years after Willie Mays left; and was traded away shortly before the arrival of Will Clark who soon helped an end to the franchise doldrums of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

LeMaster was finally traded by the Giants, for whom he had played parts of 11 seasons in 1985. He was sent to the Indians, but did not last long there before being sent to the Pirates. That year, LeMaster split his time between three teams, all of whom finished in last place. It was a fitting end to a career and a special record that certainly is an impressive credential for any serious candidate for worst player ever-except it was not the end to his career. He made comeback of sorts in 1987, playing 20 games, hitting .083, and making one final error for the Oakland A’s.

LeMaster’s claim to be the worst player was sealed by one game in 1979. Giants fans loved to hate LeMaster, booing him frequently and giving him the moniker “Johnnie Disaster.” LeMaster appeared for his pregame warm-ups in a home game at Candlestick Park with the name on the back of his uniform replaced by word “Boo,” demonstrating to fans that he had a sense of humor and was understood that he was not the second coming of Honus Wagner.

LeMaster was a unique combination of mediocre fielding, atrocious hitting, a strong link to bad teams and bad periods in team history and, best of all, a sense of humor and awareness. Of course, being the worst non-pitcher to ever have a big league career is an extraordinary accomplishment, accordingly LeMaster is remembered fondly by most Giants fans, but few players ever played the game so badly for so long.