Not long ago I was thinking about Ryan Zimmerman, the Washington National first baseman who seems to have re-found himself this season. At the time I was looking into him, Zimmerman had posted 2.5 WAR to that point after totaling 0.0 from 2014-2016. And I thought that if he reverted to his form of the previous three seasons, which was entirely possible, he’d still just have a mediocre season. So that led me to BBREF to try to determine what players had the most mediocre seasons in history.
Let me explain. I called a season “mediocre” if it landed between 1.5 and 2.9 WAR. To be fair, seasons toward the end of that range are sort of good. And seasons toward the beginning aren’t really worthy of starting jobs. Still, I had to have a range, and that’s the one I chose. I made no adjustments for schedule length, and I didn’t count pitcher hitting, so I don’t claim that this is an all-telling list. But it sure is interesting, at least I think so. The following ten players are the game’s most mediocre, each with at least ten individual seasons of WAR from 1.5-2.9.
Jim O’Rourke, 13 seasons
Aside from one game, O’Rourke’s Hall of Fame and HoME career ran from 1872-1893. His best five seasons are outside this range, and he actually has 13 adjusted seasons above this level. Be careful of analysis of those short-season players without depth of analysis.
Harold Baines, 12 seasons
When we’re thinking mediocre, this is more of the direction that makes sense. But Baines is a six-time All Star, and he had his number retired by the White Sox, you might be thinking. If he had only 134 more hits, he’d be in the Hall of Fame, you protest. Baines was a majority DH who couldn’t field when he tried, couldn’t run the bases, and hit into double plays more than he should have. Oh, and he wasn’t a great hitter, never reaching 30 homers or a .550 SLG, and only once posting a .400 OBP. He had only two seasons above our WAR range, and he had another two at 1.4 and 1.2. Baines is tied for 55th in WAR among RFs, and he ranks 65th at the position for me because he really had no peak.
Cap Anson, 12 seasons
Anson was a truly great player whose career overlapped with much of O’Rourke’s, playing from 1871-1897. He has 13 unadjusted seasons above this level, 22 with my adjustments. If you consider Stan Musial a first baseman as I do, Anson is either second or third at the position in a battle with Lou Gehrig. He certainly isn’t mediocre.
Gary Gaetti, 11 seasons
Gaetti’s career almost completely overlapped with the White Sox “star” above. The two-time All Star stayed in the league as long as he did in large part because of an excellent glove at third base. And he had some power in his bat, three times hitting 30+ homers. He has four seasons above this range, five if we include my adjustments. He’s 35th in career WAR at his position, and I rank him 48th at the hot corner. With very long and very low guys like Gaetti and Baines, my ranking is lower than their career WAR ranking because they don’t have high peaks.
Tommy John, 11 seasons
Our most “mediocre” pitcher is Tommy John. Are you catching a pattern? Guys who play a ton of seasons are the top guys on this list. That’s because they keep themselves useful, even if they’re not stars. With or without my adjustments, John has eight seasons above this range. But none of those seasons are really great ones, only three at the All Star level, and none at 6+ WAR. By the way, before the surgery my numbers say that he had four seasons above this range and six inside of it. By the way again, for those who care about such things, John had a .684 winning percentage from 1972-1980. For the rest of his career it was .480. Don’t pay attention to winning percentage of individual pitchers, please.
Zack Wheat, 10 seasons
In both the Hall and HoME and playing at a time when the schedule is a reasonable facsimile of what it is today, Wheat is the most surprising name on this list to me. And he’s here because of arbitrary endpoints. He has six seasons above this range, but if the range ended at 2.6 rather than 2.9, he’d 14 seasons above it and only two in it. Wheat put up 2.7-2.9 unadjusted WAR eight times. So how is this seemingly mediocre player in the Hall and HoME? The answer is fairly simple. On the margins he gained a tiny bit every year. His 154-game schedule got a tiny bump. The fact that his defense was a little better than bWAR claims helped too. And the strength of his arm helped a lot. While he had ten seasons in the range by straight WAR and only six above, with adjustments, most of those 2.7-2.9 seasons moved upwards. I give him a dozen seasons above and only four in the required range. I have him at 16 adjusted seasons of 2.0 WAR or higher. The only left fielders who can say the same are Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson, Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Clarke, and Jim O’Rourke.
Paul Hines, 10 seasons
Where have you heard this before? Hines played from 1872-1891. Like O’Rourke and Anson, he doesn’t truly belong on this list. He is a short season guy with only five campaigns above this level. And like Wheat, he has a bunch, six, from 2.7-2.9. With my adjustments, he has 14 seasons above this range and only one in it. Among center fielders, he’s just 37th in career WAR, but 9th on my list.
Nolan Ryan, 10 seasons
To me, Ryan is one of the most interesting pitchers ever. The longevity, the strikeouts, the greatness at an advanced age. Seriously, the guy led the league in K/9 every year from age 40 through age 44. He won 71 games and struck out over 1400 batters after his age-39 season. And if there’s an argument that someone will absolutely win 300 games again, it’s Ryan. CC Sabathia has 230 wins right now in his age-36 season. Ryan still had 105 wins after that point. No, I’m not saying CC is anything like Ryan. All I’m saying is the “never again” stuff is silly. All it takes is one crazy outlier. Anyway, back to our program. Ryan doesn’t really belong on this list. He has a dozen seasons above this level. Among pitchers, only Ryan, John, and Don Sutton had positive value in their 22nd best season. Ryan’s 22nd best I convert to 1.5 WAR, the best ever for a hurler.
Jesse Haines, 10 seasons
Haines is in the Hall of Fame, though he absolutely should not be. Like a lot of undeserving Hall of Famers, he played with Frankie Frisch, and Frisch, for a time, had tremendous influence on the Veterans Committee. Haines actually might be the pitching equivalent of a Baines or a Gaetti half a century earlier. A below average hitter, by straight pitching WAR, Haines only has three seasons above our level. And he only has four above 2.2 WAR. He does have a lot of mediocrity though. Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay, Hal Newhouser, and plenty of other pitchers in the HoME cannot claim the 14 seasons of 1+ WAR that Haines can. Of course, he only has five at 2+. To be clear, Haines wasn’t very good. He is the worst starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame.
Sad Sam Jones, 10 seasons
Overlapping with Haines for about a decade was Sam Jones, a pitcher who never teamed with Frisch and who never sniffed the Hall, though he was better than Haines. Still, he clearly belongs on a list such as this. He has four seasons above this level, interestingly enough for four different teams. Longevity was his thing. He posted 16 years with 1+ pitching WAR. That’s something Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson, and many others failed to do.
Francisco Rodriguez, 8 seasons
On one hand I’m somewhat surprised no relief pitcher made this list. On the other, not many have ten seasons at 1.5+ WAR. For K-Rod, he’s reached 1.5 only twice since 2010. He’s 35, and he may well be done. I don’t expect any movement.
Nick Markakis, 8 seasons
In some ways, he’s Harold Baines for the new millennium. But he’s less of a hitter than Baines and not as bad at anything else. He seemed like he might be something about a decade ago. Now he’s just a guy who holds on. While I wouldn’t put it past him to post two more seasons to make this list, betting on Nick Markakis has seldom been a wise move.
It might be a more interesting list on some levels if these players were all truly mediocre. We have a few guys on the list because they played shorter seasons. We have a couple who are here because they were so good that they played forever. Then we have guys like Baines, Gaetti, Haines, Jones, and Markakis who truly fit here. But just as very good for a long time equals an excellent career because so few players can be very good for a long time, mediocre for a long time is quite a nice career. For example, Harold Baines is tied for 547th in career WAR. While that might not sound so impressive, it’s well inside the top 3% in history.
Maybe I need a new definition of “mediocre.”