The Ambrose Burnside of Major League Pitchers

Type “best pitchers of all time” into your preferred search engine and you will find an endless stream of articles and rankings. They will represent debates in baseball punditry. Some will emphasize statistics and social science, whereas others may cling to intangible factors like “attitude” or “charisma” or the degree to which the pitcher in question seemed to perform well in tough situations. The most wonky judges will debate endlessly about the best measure of pitcher performance. But, in the end, most top-10 rankings come out pretty much the same. That’s because the task – picking the best of the best – is an easy (and uninteresting) one.

If you type the converse – “worst pitchers of all time” – you will also get a series of rankings. Baseball fans love rankings. Lists of the worst pitchers of all time include sad (and often, unkind) stories of pitchers who never quite lived up to expectations set by early success – only to limp along for years. Here’s one list:

  1. Jason Bere
  2. Jimmy Haynes
  3. Adam Eaton
  4. Glendon Rusch
  5. Jose Lima
  6. Jason Johnson
  7. Sidney Ponson

But the task of picking the worst of the worst is tough, if not impossible. In fact, scan any list after doing a quick google search, and my guess is they have completely missed the mark. That’s because the list above, and all the others like it that I have seen have actually selected some of the most remarkable pitchers ever to play.

The best pitchers rise to the top of rankings because they have long and successful careers. They are well-known and make vast sums of money. The worst pitchers, obviously, never make it to the majors. The worst major league pitchers don’t last long. In other words, the true worst of the worst are culled from rosters before their badness can be revealed. It’s a game, teams are trying to win.

So, what have these lists actually found? To find a bad pitcher, and be fairly confident that they are a bad pitcher (e.g. they’ve pitched enough innings so that their true “type” can be revealed) someone has to put them on the field. And someone has to keep them there, start after start. They have to survive. This pitcher has to combine consistently poor performance on the field with longevity. So they are not the worst MLB pitcher, and what they have done is actually incredible. They survived despite generally subpar performance. It’s more impressive to be bad and maintain a roster slot than to be good. Of course good pitchers get to pitch.

For that reason, I don’t think it’s right to call these lists of “the worst pitchers of all time.” Instead, I will say that they have uncovered the Ambrose Burnsides of Major League Pitchers. Burnside was a Union general during the Civil War who always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Battlefield disasters at Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Petersburg all bear his distinctive mark of hesitation and ill-advised decision-making. You can read more about his many, costly failures here. Importantly, despite his failings, he was still an elite commander who did not resign until near the end of the war. Moreover, I have no doubt he was an honorable man who did his best – which was likely better than what the modal citizen could have done. Hence, the “Burnside” lists. It would be unkind and inaccurate to call them something else. I celebrate them. Just don’t put them on my team.

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