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The Bad News Phillies

February 1, 2023
                       I just re-watched the original Bad News Bears.  What a wonderful film.  


As I am sure you recall, the team was pretty awful until they added the league's most dominant pitcher (Amanda Whurlitzer) and the league's most outstanding hitter (Kelly Leak).  


I started to wonder if there was a major league equivalent to the Bears.  In other words, was there a team that won the pennant with the best pitcher, the best hitter, and a mediocre supporting cast.  


The team that came immediately to mind was the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers with Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser, MVP Kirk Gibson, and not much else.  


Do any other teams come to your mind?

Asked by: Riorunner



Well, let’s see. . .four standards there:

1)     Two superstars,

2)     One and only one of whom is a pitcher,

3)     Wins the championship,

4)     With very little support from any other player on the team. 

Gibson and Hershiser had 56 Win Shares between them, and I answered that with Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt in 1980, who had a total of 66.  I thus set 56 Win Shares by two players as the minimum standard to be included in this group.

My organized data to research this runs through 2019.    From 1900 through 2019 there were 705 teams which had two players who totaled at least 56 Win Shares.   Of those 705, however, exactly 500 did not have a pitcher in the top two, and thus are not qualified for the study.  That leaves us with 205 candidate teams.

24 of those teams had two superstar pitchers.  That leaves us with 181 candidate teams.

            Another condition of the question was that the team won the pennant.  71 of the teams either won their pennant, or at least reached the post season by some nefarious subterfuge such as the wild card.   This is a small enough list that we can work our way through it to find what we are looking for.  We have to remember that, since the 1990s at least, the "pennant" is an archaic concept.  One no longer needs to step on that rock in order to reach the World Championship.    There are a few teams in history which had two players with 56 or more Win Shares, but which finished last. 

            Now we need to look at whether the two superstars had a supporting cast, or whether it was just the two superstars—the league’s best pitcher and the league’s best position player—pulling them along.   The team that I mentioned in my initial response, the 1912 Red Sox, had an incredible 95 Win Shares from just Tris Speaker (51) and Joe Wood (44), which is the most ever for the combination of a team’s #1 pitcher and #1 position player.   But that team also had five other players with 20 more Win Shares, so they obviously don’t fit the description we are looking for.  The vast majority of these 71 teams obviously don’t fit the description; the vast majority of them had either several other stars, or else had a third player having a near-superstar level season.   The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks would be on the list below except that, in addition to a steroid monster hitting 57 homers and the best pitcher in baseball in Randy Johnson, they also had the second-best pitcher in baseball in Curt Schilling.   A lot of teams like that; there is an obvious reason that you can’t say that two players carried them all season. 


            I have 13 teams about whom it might at least be argued, at least be suggested, that they fit the criteria laid out by Riorunner.  This is a synopsis of those 13 teams:

(1)  The 1916 Brooklyn Dodgers.  Won the National League with a record of 94-60, led by Zack Wheat and Big Jeff Pfeffer, who had 32 Win Shares each.  The next three players on the team earned a total of 60 Win Shares, 21-20-19; I will use the totals 64 and 60 to describe the relationship between the top two players and the rest of the team. 

There are a couple of reasons why they don’t exactly match what we are looking for.  Two other players with 20 or more Win Shares is two more than we are really looking for.  Jake Daubert, a Hall of Famer, had 21 Win Shares and was second in the league in hitting, at .316. 

Rio’s question specified the best pitcher and the best hitter in the league.  Zack Wheat, a Hall of Famer, WAS the best position player in the league, but Jeff Pfeffer, although he had a fine season, was actually not the best pitcher in the league.   Pfeffer was 25-11 with a 1.98 ERA, and also hit .279—but Pete Alexander was 33-12 with a 1.55 ERA, led the league in strikeouts, innings pitched and ERA. 

Jeff Pfeffer, like Pete Palmer, was actually named "Edward".   He got the nickname Jeff from the Mutt and Jeff comic strip, which was the first daily comic strip, and was wildly popular.  Mutt and Jeff was about real tall guy who was matched with a real short guy.  Jeff, being 6-foot-3—very tall for that era—picked up the monicker "Jeff" because of his height.


(2-3-4-5).  After 1916 there are no teams that deserve a mention in this category until the National League in the 1930s, when all of a sudden there are four of them in six years.  The 1933 New York Giants, 1934 Cardinals, 1936 Giants and 1938 Chicago Cubs all won the National League and all more-or-less fit the description. 

The 1933 Giants had Carl Hubbell (33 Win Shares) and Mel Ott (31), a total of 64, while the next three players on the team had a total of 61.  Carl Hubbell was the best pitcher in the league and the MVP, but Mel Ott was not actually the best position player in the league; he was the third-best behind Wally Berger and Arky Vaughan.  The #2 starting pitcher, Hal Schumacher, was 19-12 with a 2.16 ERA, 23 Win Shares, and Bill Terry had 21.  It is a little more secondary support than we are looking for.

The 1934 Cardinals had 69 Win Shares from their best pitcher and best position player, Dizzy Dean and Ripper Collins.  But while Dean again was the best pitcher in the league and the MVP, Collins—while very, very good—was not actually the best player in the league, ranking behind Wally Berger, Arky Vaughan and Mel Ott.  Also, the secondary support of Joe Medwick, Paul Dean and Frankie Frisch is really more than we are looking for in this area.  (69 and 65.  69 Win Shares from Dean and Collins, 65 from Medwick, Paul Dean and Frankie Frisch.)

Ripper Collins—actually named James Anthony Collins—was called "Ripper", which was a widely used nickname in that era for a party animal. 


The 1936 Giants (73 and 67) are a little bit closer to what we are looking for.  Carl Hubbell was again the best pitcher in the league and the MVP, with 37 Win shares, while Mel Ott, with 36, tied for the most among position players.   But the 2-3-4 players, while not "name" players like Medwick and Frisch, did have 67 Win Shares from Rowdy Richard Bartell (24), the Gause Ghost (23), and Gus Mancuso (20).   Jo Jo Moore was known as the Gause Ghost because he was from Gause, Texas, and had very pale skin.  He also had 205 hits and 110 runs scored in 1936.


The 1938 Cubs (61 and 61) had Stan Hack (33 Win Shares) and Big Bill Lee (28);  Lee was in fact the best pitcher in the league, and Hack was one of the best position players.   But Hack was not actually the BEST player in the league; there wer still Mel Ott (36) and Arky Vaughan (34) and, as always, the secondary support (Clay Bryant, Billy Herman and Carl Reynolds) is a little bit stronger than what we are searching for. 

So there are four candidates in the National League in the 1930s, but none of them is EXACTLY what we are looking for.   We move on to the Detroit Tigers in 1945. 

(6) Detroit in 1945 (68 and 57).  The Tigers, in a familiar pattern, had the league’s best pitcher/MVP, in Hal Newhouser (38 Win Shares) and the league’s SECOND-BEST regular, in Roy Cullenbine, who had 93 RBI and a .398 on base percentage.  It was a league with very little offense, the average team scoring less than 600 runs.  

But there is a big asterisk here, because Hank Greenberg rejoined the team in mid-season and hit at a Greenbergian pace over the second half the campaign, driving in 60 runs in 78 games.  Still, I would say that the Tigers of 1945 are the best candidates we have seen so far for this nomination. 

(7) New York Giants in 1954 (68 and 63).  The Giants had the league’s best player and MVP, with Willie Mays having his breakout season after a couple of years in the Army, and they had probably the league’s best pitcher, with Johnny Antonelli going 21-7 with a league-leading 2.29 ERA.  Robin Roberts, pitching 80 more innings than Antonelli, is credited with three more Win Shares.  I’m fairly sure that, had there been a Cy Young Award in 1954, Johnny Antonelli would have won it. 

Again, the issue of the secondary support makes it questionable whether they would exactly fit the criteria.   Shortstop Alvin Dark had 22 Win Shares, Third Baseman Hank Thompson had 21.  Don Mueller hit .342, led the league in hits with 212, and lost the batting championship (to Mays) on the last day of the season.  It’s a little too much support to say that Mays and Antonelli done it all by themselves.


(8) The Atlanta Braves, 1969.   Hank Aaron had 38 Win Shares and Phil Niekro 28, and the Braves won the NL East division.   The Braves score at 66 and 55, identical to the 1980 Phillies, and probably the best score ever for this category. However, Aaron was technically not the best player in the league (Willie McCovey), and Niekro was certainly not the best pitcher in the league (Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson), and they didn’t actually win the pennant, just a division.         Also, Rico Carty was widely credited with carrying this team to their first-place finish all by himself, strange as that might seem.  Carty, fighting one of his endless injuries, had only 304 at bats, but hit over .400 with power for two and a half months during the season, winding up at .342.


(9) 1973 Baltimore Orioles, 56 and 53.   Jim Palmer and Bobby Grich had 28 Win Shares apiece.  No one else on the team had more than 18.  The Orioles won 97 games, and that is certainly a very unusual thing, for a team to win 97 games with only two players having more than 18 Win Shares.   Palmer did win the Cy Young Award, going 22-9 with a league-leading 2.40 ERA. 

However, no less than three other teams in the league had two players earning more combined Win Shares than Palmer and Grich.  The Kansas City Royals had John Mayberry and Amos Otis (31 and 29).  The Minnesota Twins had Bert Blyleven and Rod Carew, pitcher and hitter, with 29 and 28, and the World Champion Oakland A’s had Reggie Jackson with 32 and the late Sal Bando with 31.  The Orioles five-man outfield was fantastic although no one player was; Al Bumbry hit .337, Rich Coggins hit .319, and Don Baylor, Merv Rettenmund and Paul Blair were all good.  It was much like one of Casey Stengel’s outfields of the 1950s, with Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling sharing playing time with guys like Irv Noren and Bob Cerv, and you might not notice that the outfield was great because they were all productive.  But I should say that if we were ranking the teams here on the scale of two guys winning the pennant for you, the 1973 Orioles would rank somewhere in the top five. 


(10)  1980 Philadelphia Phillies, 66 and 55.  This is the answer.  This is the number one team in this category, beyond any question.  Mike Schmidt was THE best player in the National League, and Steve Carlton was THE best pitcher in baseball, with no asterisks and no question marks on either player, and they won not only the division but the league and the World Series, and there just isn’t anybody else on that team who would rise above the level of "notable".  

This is strangely gratifying to me, to see this as a clear fact, because I saw it so clearly at the time but without doing any organized research about the subject.  I attended a couple of games of that series, the first World Series I had ever attended, and one of my very strong reactions was exactly this—that the Phillies team, apart from the two superstars, was just a run-of-the-mill fourth-place team.   You take those two guys away, and they’re nothing.  I am inappropriately proud of myself for having seen so clearly, in real time, what I am only now able to document.


(11)  The 1983 Phillies, 58 and 55.    The second verse of the song from 1980.   John Denny was the Cy Young Award Winner; Mike Schmidt led the league in Win Shares (35) but was third in the MVP voting.  The rest of the team was, again, not really very impressive.   But I feel like I should point out that Steve Carlton, who was pushing 40, still struck out 275 batters. 


(12)  The 1988 Dodgers (56 and 62).  Kirk Gibson was the MVP and Orel Hershiser the Cy Young Award Winner.   The supporting cast is not at all impressive, so, again, I would say this was a top-five team in this respect. 


(13)  The 2003 San Francisco Giants (61 and 55).   A team not much remembered because they crapped out in the playoffs, losing to Florida, but otherwise EXACTLY what we are looking for.  The team won 100 games, with Barry Bonds winning the MVP Award and Jason Schmidt being the top starting pitcher in the league, although the Cy Young Award went to a reliever.  Schmidt (17-5, 2.30 ERA) finished second in the Cy Young voting. 

The rest of the team is just nothing.   Jose Cruz Jr. was the third best player on the team, by WAR or Win Shares.  He hit .250 with 20 homers, 68 RBI.   How Dusty managed to win 100 games with this team is a bit of a mystery, although that Bonds fella was kind of unique. 


By the way, have you noticed that this is almost entirely a National League list?   The 1945 Tigers and the 1973 Orioles are the only American League teams we have talked about.   But the 1980 Phillies are the clear answer to the question that was posed.  Thanks for reading. 



COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

I remember one of the early Abstracts where you said the 1980 Phillies were what you’d get if you took the Blue Jays and added Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, and Hoyt Wilhelm.
2:45 PM Feb 6th
Marc, it wasn't about not know geography. It was about the almighty dollar.

The Cubs and Cardinals wanted to remain in the same division to maintain their long rivalry.

Cincinnati initially wanted to be with them, then discovered that the Dodgers and Giants were two of their three best draws.

The Braves noted that the NFL's Falcons were also in a division with Los Angeles and San Francisco and that those rivals would draw well.

And the Mets? They had actually wanted to be in a division with the Dodgers and Giants, too! At least the NL nixed that idea.
6:29 PM Feb 5th
My immediate guess was the 85 Royals, with Brett & Saberhagen.

But Liebrandt and Quiz were pretty good too.

2:32 PM Feb 4th
Marc Schneider,

That is because no one in pro sports owned a globe at that time. While Atlanta and Cincinnati were in the West despite being further east than both Chicago and St. Louis, in the NFL Baltimore and Atlanta were both in the Western Conference, despite the fact that only two teams of the other 15 were further east than Baltimore.
11:01 PM Feb 3rd
Philadelphia got three big breaks that helped them earn that World Series berth.

1) Dick Williams mismanaged the Expos to a second place finish in the NL East.

2) The Phillies played Houston in the NLCS and not Los Angeles.

3) Astros pitcher J.R. Richard's career had came to an end after suffering a stroke in July
1:49 AM Feb 3rd
Marc Schneider
Small point but the Braves won the NL WEST in 1969, not the East. Odd geographical grouping.
10:45 AM Feb 2nd
Yeah that 1933 Gints team beat the 99 win Senators in 5 games, all pitcher's duels (or close to it). Nats were favored. A bit of revenge for Memphis Bill for 1924 I guess.
10:17 AM Feb 2nd
Bill, Felipe Alou managed the 2003 Giants, not Dusty Baker. Dusty was managing the Cubs in that fabled Year of Bartman.
9:29 AM Feb 2nd
I grew up a big Phillies fan, suffering through the playoff frustrations in 1976-1978 and kind of cynical about things by 1980. I didn't think the Phils had much of a chance against the Royals. Marty Bystrom was their second-best starter, Boone and Luzinski had terrible seasons, and Schmidt went something like 2-800 in the NLCS against the Astros.

I played a lot of Stratomatic back in those days; being a Phils fan, I wanted to use them but it was just about impossible to put together a team that could compete with the main roster. I had to use the extended set with Moreland, Bystrom and Luis Aguayo to build a representative lineup, and Larry Christenson's 73-inning fluke card was the number two starter.

But it never occurred to me that they would be the answer to this question, even when I read it in Hey Bill. I think you should be proud of nailing a question like this from memory; in the instant-lookup age we live in, memories don't get the same cache they used to.
5:08 AM Feb 2nd
"I am inappropriately proud of myself..."

Great line, and something that I am sure we have all experienced many times during the course of sufficiently long lifetime.
10:37 PM Feb 1st
What I remember most about the 1980 Phillies was Pete Rose. He somehow managed to play all 162 games at age 39 with an OPS+ of only 94. I wanted to throw a brick at the TV every time he spiked the ball after catching the final out at first.

Other than Schmidt(1.004), Lonnie Smith was the only other Phillie with an OPS over 800 and Skates had only 331 plate appearances in 100 games played.
9:25 PM Feb 1st
I'd like to nominate the 1984 Cubs for an honorable mention. I know they fail the definition in several important ways (Matthews and Durham both had more than 20 Win Shares, and Sutcliffe actually didn't.)

But Sandberg was easily the best player in the league and Sutcliffe was the best pitcher (and Cy Young winner) in his partial season in the NL (Gooden was arguably better by the numbers, but only because of a full season.)

Without those two they're probably in last place.​
7:24 PM Feb 1st
Love it! Thanks for a fun article!
7:15 PM Feb 1st
The funny thing is Phillies fans (including the youthful me) thought they had an all-star lineup in 1980, since in the not-so-distant past a number of them had been worthy of that designation.

— Pete Rose, who had 17 Win Shares in 1980, had 27 the year before.
— Greg Luzinski was down to 13 in 1980 after a season with 27 in 1978 and another with 30 in 1977.
— Larry Bowa was down to 9 after being at 22 in 1978.
— Garry Maddox was down to 14 in 1980 after being at 21 in 1978.

6:28 PM Feb 1st
What I remember about the 1980 Phillies was that Pete Rose (94+ OPS as the everyday first baseman) and Tug McGraw (relief ace, 1.46 ERA in 92 innings) got disproportionate credit for the team's success, I suspect to some large extent because of their big personalities. It was like the last hurrah of the pre-Sabrmetric, clubhouse-guys-matter era.
6:04 PM Feb 1st
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