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Baseball's All-Time Worst Hitter

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BASEBALL’S ALL-TIME WORST HITTER

In 1964 baseball wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today, which explains why only 6,772 aficionados were gathered in Fenway Park on an evening of perfect baseball weather to watch the Red Sox, newly returned from a long road trip, battle the Los Angeles Angels on Friday, September 11. Not even the lure of a pitching duel between Boston’s local-boy hero Bill Monbouquette and the Angels’ Dean Chance, who was sporting an 18-6 record on his way to the American League Cy Young Award, could attract a turnstile count anywhere close to five digits with the Hose out of contention. Monbo was just 9-13, but he was Boston’s ace. Chance, dominating in the 237 innings he’d pitched, had surrendered just 41 earned runs (a 1.56 ERA) and tossed 9 shutouts. But few fans showed up, and that’s why my grandfather and I were able to stake out box seats right behind home plate. Once inside, you could sit just about anywhere you wanted to.

The question of whether Boston could score on Chance was settled in the bottom of the first inning when, with two out and Tony Conigliaro on first, pitcher-turned outfielder Willie Smith of the Angels misplayed Dick Stuart’s line drive into a base-clearing triple. This was the only run Chance would allow, but Monbo was stingier, and he would be the one to celebrate a shutout victory when the night was over.

With one out and nobody on in the top of the eighth and the score still 1-0, Angels manager Bill Rigney removed Chance for a pinch hitter. No one in North America second-guessed this decision, because Chance, dominating pitcher that he was, was also the feeblest excuse for a hitter in the American League. His pitiable batting record for 1964 would show seven singles in 89 at bats with no RBI. Although he somehow drew three walks (none of them intentional), 53 of those at bats ended in strikeouts. The pinch hitter, Tom Satriano, was a guy who could barely hit his weight of 190, but his 1964 OQ of 72, unimpressive as it was, was staunch compared to Chance’s almost invisible OQ of 19.

Chance had already batted twice in the game. He had seen six pitches and waved weakly at all of them, his bat barely disturbing the air and never approaching the vicinity of the ball. After Chance’s sixth swing, with which he struck out to end the fifth inning, my grandfather muttered, “I could do better than that.” I knew he was right, although my grandfather, who was 70 years old, hadn’t played a game of baseball since high school.

Boston scored twice in the bottom of the inning off hapless Barry Latman and hung on to win 3-0 and send 6,772 stalwart fans marching happily onto Jersey Street to the tune of organist John Kiley's rendition of “Stout-Hearted Men.” Because I lived near Boston and Dean Chance spent his entire major league career in the American League, I saw him play many times after that (he was active through 1971). Chance was a sensational pitcher in 1964 and a very good one thereafter, but he never figured out how to swing the bat with the faintest impression of authority. In 662 career at bats he managed just 44 hits (42 singles and 2 doubles), with 17 runs, 16 RBI, 30 walks, and 420 strikeouts. I’ll do the math for you: Chance’s lifetime batting average was .066, his base-to-out ratio .123. This was embarrassing even in an era that was not noted for robust stickwork.

But what would you say if I told you about another player, a pitcher who, while not as good as Chance, had a career almost as long, and with a bat in his hands made Dean Chance look like Frank Chance? (Hall of Famer Frank Chance, in case you’ve forgotten, was a 150-OQ man back in the 19-oughts.)

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MEET RON HERBEL

In the days before baseball’s amateur draft, the Giants believed so strongly in the prospects of 20-year-old righthander Ron Herbel of Colorado State College that they ponied up a $60,000 bonus for his signature on a 1958 contract. That was big, big money in those long-ago days, and initially Herbel made the Giants look good, going 12-5 in 19 starts to help their Fresno farm team win the pennant in the Class C California League.

Although Herbel didn’t pitch particularly well at Class B Eugene in 1959, the Giants, mindful of their investment, promoted him anyway, to the AA Texas League in 1960. Herbel repaid the Giant’s faith with a 15-4 campaign for their Harlingen outlet (designated “Rio Grande Valley”), another pennant winner. There was now just one more step to the big leagues, Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League. Herbel passed this test too, leading the PCL in wins (16) and percentage (.762). Tacoma won the pennant by 10 games, and Herbel was one of the two pitchers named to the league all-star team.

Then Herbel stumbled. In what must have been a crushing disappointment, he didn’t make the big league club out of spring training. The Giants shipped him back to Tacoma and left him there while his 1961 minor league teammates Ernie Bowman, Jim Duffalo, Tom Haller, Chuck Hiller, Manny Mota, John Orsino, and Gaylord Perry earned full or partial World Series shares when San Francisco captured the 1962 National League pennant.

Herbel, who had been prone to wildness, improved his control markedly in 1962. Despite this, his 8-14 won-lost record didn’t impress, and the Giants once again stamped his ticket for Tacoma. When he pitched effectively in his third go-round in the PCL in 1963, leading the league in complete games when that statistic meant something, San Francisco finally summoned him for a cup of big-league coffee in September.

The March 1964 issue of Baseball Digest, which published scouting reports on 345 big league rookies, was pithy in its assessment of Herbel: “Control off. Stuff good. Outside chance.” But Herbel, with a toehold in the big leagues, never returned to the minors. He spent six full seasons in San Francisco before the Giants peddled his contract to San Diego. Padres manager Preston Gomez overused him, then cast him aside, and after Herbel, now a dead-armed wreck, failed to resurrect his career in Atlanta in 1971, he retired.

While Herbel never became a star, his contributions were respectable. The six San Francisco teams he pitched for won between 88 and 95 games, averaging 91 wins while finishing second five times and third once. On pitching staffs anchored by the likes of future Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal, Herbel played the role of “spot starter – long reliever.” On some days he was very good indeed. He once struck out 14 Cincinnati Reds in a complete-game victory at Crosley Field, and on another occasion he tossed a four-hit shutout in Pittsburgh.

In Ron Herbel’s big league career he started 79 games and relieved in 252 more. His record as a starter was just 25-24, but 47 of his 79 starts were prime starts, a very good .595 percentage. (A prime start is one that the starter either wins outright or departs with his team ahead or tied.)

Here’s the point of this rambling discussion: I didn’t think anyone could accumulate more than 100 major league at bats with worse results than Dean Chance had, but I was wrong. My candidate for the least effective offensive player of all time (minimum 100 at bats) is Ron Herbel. Herbel’s .029 career batting average (in 202 at bats) is less than half of Chance’s figure, and his BTOR of .080 is less than two-thirds of Chance’s. Herbel’s name rests on the very bottom line of a long, long list of players who have batted 100 or more times in the major leagues.

The intoxicating idea Herbel’s example inspires is that with a bat I could do as well, and you could do as well, as he did. We all played baseball when we were youngsters, and I think that just about every baseball fan believes deep down, in his secret heart of hearts, that if he ever got the chance to bat against a big league pitcher he might be lucky enough, as a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut and as every dog has his day, to strike the ball with the bat at least once in a sequence of three pitches, and if he can make contact there’s always a chance, however slim, that the ball might elude one of the fielders long enough for him to hoof it down to first base for a hit; hence, if he stood in there and tried his damnedest, it could maybe happen, it wouldn’t be impossible.

Just wave the bat at the ball and sure, you’d strike out 60% of the time, as Herbel and Chance did, but sometimes you’d get lucky, intercept the ball and guide it by some miracle into a safe zone, just like it happened, once in a great while, for batters inept as Herbel and Chance.

Consider this: the six pitchers who surrendered hits to Ron Herbel (John Cumberland, Larry Dierker, Rob Gardner, Dave Giusti, Billy McCool, and Don Nottebart) amassed a cumulative major league won-lost record of 336-343 and were named to four all-star teams. The eight pitchers who walked Herbel (Jack Billingham, Ernie Broglio, Al Jackson, Billy McCool, Jim O’Toole, Curt Simmons, Tracy Stallard, and Don Sutton) amassed a cumulative major league won-lost record of 966-908 and were named to ten all-star teams. One of them (Sutton) is a Hall of Famer. These guys weren’t humpties, but bona fide big leaguers. I refuse to believe that I couldn’t hit big league pitching .029 percent of the time if I could just get enough at bats. Similarly, I refuse to believe that I wouldn’t have the sense to let four wide ones go by if the man pitching to me were suddenly unable to find the plate.

Because Ron Herbel toiled exclusively in the National League and I, as a New Englander, didn’t follow the senior circuit, I never saw him play. I regret that. And although Ron Herbel and Dean Chance were contemporaries, nobody ever organized a Herbel vs Chance home run derby.

Is there another Herbel or Chance in the making, or someone who might, by spectacular ineptitude, drive their standard of offensive nonachievement further downward? We may never know. Mindful of what Herbel and Chance failed to accomplish, the panjandrums of baseball legislated, in 1972, that abomination called the designated hitter, thereby removing the bats from the shoulders of new generations of potential Ron Herbels.

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OFFENSIVE HIGHLIGHTS IN THE CAREER OF RON HERBEL

Ronald Samuel Herbel was born in Denver on January 16, 1938. He grew to a height of 6-1, weighed 195 pounds during his big league days, and batted and threw right. He died in Tacoma on January 20, 2000.

June 14, 1964. Cincinnati at San Francisco, bottom of second inning, one out, nobody on, Giants led 3-0. Herbel was walked by Jim O’Toole. The Giants won 8-2.

July 8, 1964. San Francisco at Chicago, top of second inning, two out, nobody on, Giants led 2-1. Herbel was walked by Ernie Broglio and scored on a home run by Willie Mays. The Giants won 7-2.

August 30, 1964. San Francisco at Milwaukee, top of fourth inning, one out, bases loaded, Braves led 6-5. Herbel pinch ran for Harvey Kuenn and scored on a single by Jim Ray Hart. The Giants won 13-10. This was Herbel’s only big league appearance in which he did not pitch.

May 21, 1965. San Francisco at Houston, top of second inning, one out, runner on third, Giants led 2-0. Herbel singled off Don Nottebart, batted in Hal Lanier, and scored when Willie McCovey homered off Claude Raymond. (Herbel’s first big league hit came in his 63rd plate appearance.) The Giants won 8-1.

July 28, 1965. St. Louis at San Francisco, bottom of second inning, two out, bases loaded, no score. Herbel was walked by Tracy Stallard, batted in a run, and scored on a triple by Jim Davenport. The Giants won 8-5.

May 7, 1966. San Francisco at St. Louis, top of seventh inning, none out, nobody on, Giants led 15-2. Herbel was walked by Curt Simmons. The Giants won 15-2.

June 9, 1966. San Francisco at Houston, top of fifth inning, two out, runners on first and second, Astros led 1-0. Herbel singled off Larry Dierker and batted in Jim Ray Hart with the tying run. The Giants won 3-1.

April 16, 1967. San Francisco at Cincinnati, top of third inning, none out, nobody on, no score. Herbel was walked by Billy McCool. Top of fifth inning, none out, nobody on, Giants led 1-0. Herbel doubled off McCool, then was picked off second base. The Giants lost 4-1.

April 28, 1967. San Francisco at Los Angeles, top of fifth inning, none out, nobody on, score tied 3-3. Herbel was walked by Don Sutton. The Giants won 5-4.

June 13, 1967. San Francisco at Houston, top of fifth inning, none out, nobody on, Astros led 2-1. Herbel doubled off Dave Giusti but was thrown out trying to go to third. The Giants won 6-2.

July 21, 1967. San Francisco at Chicago, top of tenth inning, two out, runner on first, score tied 4-4. Herbel singled off Rob Gardner. The Giants lost 5-4 in 12 innings.

June 28, 1969. San Francisco at Cincinnati, top of fifth inning, none out, nobody on, Giants led 6-4. Herbel was walked by Al Jackson and scored on a double by Ron Hunt. The Giants won 12-5.

July 17, 1969. Los Angeles at San Francisco, bottom of second inning, nobody out, runners on first and second, Dodgers led 4-2. Herbel reached base on a fielder’s choice and scored on a double by Ron Hunt. The Giants won 14-13.

August 6, 1970. Houston at San Diego, bottom of sixth inning, one out, nobody on, Astros led 7-5. Herbel was walked by Jack Billingham. The Padres lost 8-6.

July 19, 1971. San Francisco at Atlanta, bottom of fifth inning, none out, nobody on, Giants led 4-1. Herbel singled off John Cumberland. The Braves lost 11-8.

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RON HERBEL’S FINAL TALLY:

For 225 major league plate appearances: 4 singles, 2 doubles, 8 walks, 6 runs, 3 RBI, 11 sacrifice hits, with no triples, home runs, sacrifice flies, or hit by pitch.

Note: in 183 minor league games, Herbel batted .088 (33 for 374, with 2 doubles, 1 triple, no home runs, and 16 walks). He scored 13 runs and batted in 15, and his cumulative OQ was 20.

A tip of the hat to Ray Nemec, Jimmy Doyle, and Project Retrosheet.

November 2006

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