The Best of the Worst
If there is a mark of shame for a position player, finishing with a sub-.200 career batting average is it.
In almost every case, players in the .199 and under range - even those with strong defensive skills - aren't worth keeping around. Could there be any exceptions to such an obvious rule? Three members of this undistinguished group actually have enough value to earn consideration for a reserve role despite falling under the dreaded Mendoza Line.
Jim French spent his entire big league career (1965-71) with the expansion version of the Washington Senators. As a catcher in a pitching-dominated era, French's .196 career average in 607 career at-bats may not be as terrible as it first appears.
After hitting an impressive .297 (11 for 37) in his 1965 debut, French went 6 for 40 (.150) in two cups of big league coffee in 1966 and 1967. During all three brief trials, the 5'7" lefty swinger was patient at the plate. His nine walks in '65 contributed to a .435 OBP.
French hit .194 in 165 ABs during pitching-dominated 1968. While his batting average stayed in the same range (.184 and .211) the following two seasons, French became even more patient under the influence of Ted Williams, who managed the Senators from 1969 to 1971.
A 29 for 158 season will usually get a player released, but add 38 walks to that total, and French's .348 OBP places him 27 points above the AL average of .321. It was more of the same in 1970, when French's 38 walks outnumbered his 35 hits. Despite little power (3 doubles, 1 triple and a home run), the stumpy catcher was a modest offensive asset, as his .358 OBP was well above the American League average of .322.
French was also valuable behind the plate, as he gunned down 22 of 53 attempted basestealers for a .415 success ratio in 1968. Exactly half (31 of 62) the stolen base attempts on French were foiled in 1969, and 121 career walks exceeds his 119 total hits.
Jack Cust fans will probably take a liking to Frank Fernandez. When it comes to an odd stat line, it's hard to beat this former catcher/outfielder.
The Staten Island native debuted with his hometown Yankees in 1967, and he played 51 games in 1968 when the franchise hit a pathetic .214. That is the worst team average of the live ball era.
Hitting .170 (23 for 135) with 50 strikeouts may scream "Putrid!" at first glance, but the rest of Fernandez's numbers are impressive. Seven home runs and 30 RBI projects to 26 HR and 111 RBI in 500 ABs during the worst offensive season since 1920. Add in 35 walks for a .341 OBP - 44 points above the AL average of .297 - and Fernandez becomes the ultimate Moneyball player of the 1960s. Fourteen of his 23 hits were for extra bases.
The righty slugger had another odd-looking year in 1969. Fernandez hit a career-best .223 with a dozen homers and 29 RBI in 229 ABs. While 68 strikeouts is a high total for a part-timer, Fernandez cut the Ks to one per 3.4 ABs from one per 2.7 ABs in 1968. A whopping 65 walks pushed the OBP to .399, which would have put Fernandez in eighth place in the American League had he qualified.
Traded to the A's after the season, Fernandez hit .214 with 15 HR and 44 RBI in 1970. His walk total fell to 40 in 252 ABs, putting his .327 OBP was just above the AL average of .322.
1971 was a bizarre season. Fernandez was constantly on the move, as he saw action in 39 games with the A's, Senators and Cubs. That may have contributed to a combined .138 (11 for 80) average.
Just 4 for 39 in the AL, Fernandez posted freakish numbers for the Cubs. His 7 for 41 (.171) average included four solo homers, which accounted for all his RBI in Chicago. Fernandez's 17 walks as a Cub outnumbered his 15 Ks and pushed his National League OBP to .414.
An 0 for 3 performance with the Cubs in 1972 closed out Fernandez's big league run and dropped his career average from .2003 to .1994. In 727 official ABs, Fernandez came through with 39 HR and 116 RBI. His walks (164) outnumbered his hits (145). Patience paid off for Fernandez, as his .350 OBP was high for the era.
Kevin Roberson's .197 career average came with frequent long-ball displays. While his 61 for 310 career with the Cubs and Mets from 1993 to 1996 is forgettable, nearly a third of Roberson's hits (20) cleared the fences. Add in 10 doubles and a triple, and more than half the outfielder's hits went for extra bases.
The 6'4" Roberson took an aggressive approach, as shown by his low walk total of 27. Not surprisingly, the switch-hitter was a high strikeout sort, with 93 career Ks.
No manager wants a sub-.200 type cluttering up his roster, but French, Fernandez and Roberson could legitimately point beyond their embarrasing batting averages in making a claim for a spot on the bench. Few others in that situation could do the same.