Baseball is a very odd sport, and one of the ways this oddness manifests itself is through really bizarre player seasons. This bizarreness takes many forms, from the bizarrely great to the bizarrely terrible, and everything in between. Dwight Gooden‘s 1985 and Adam Dunn‘s 2011 immediately come to mind as great and terrible seasons, respectively. Anything Barry Bonds ever did is fascinating, since fans finally got some insight into what it would look like if one man solved the game of baseball by himself. Somehow, Darin Erstad made a serious run at George Sisler‘s hit record in 2000 before Ichiro came stateside and broke it in 2004. For the horror movie fans out there, Jim Levey‘s 1933 and Bill Bergen’s 1909 provide two stories of baseball players who were simply never meant to be baseball players.
As far as pure strangeness goes, though, it might be impossible to beat the miracle that is Dante Bichette‘s 1999 season. You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.
Brief note: All WAR figures are taken from baseball-reference.com.
Dante Bichette’s offense was perfectly okay in 1999, at least by the ridiculous standards of steroid-era Coors Field. He popped thirty-four home runs and thirty-eight doubles, plus two triples. His plate discipline was fine- he drew fifty-four walks and ran an OBP of .354. His overall slash line of .298/.354/.541 (and OPS of .895) would be All-Star worthy at any time and place other than Coors Field in 1999. However, since Coors Field in 1999 was the time and place where he put up those numbers, Dante Bichette’s .895 OPS was only good for a 102 OPS+ – imperceptibly better than league-average. To put these numbers into context, Mets shortstop Amed Rosario hit for a 102 OPS+ in 2019. His OPS was .755. For more context, Matt Olson of the Oakland A’s OPS’d .896 in 2019. His OPS+ was 137.
In baseball, being perfectly average is a very valuable thing. An average player will put up around two WAR per season, which is always nice to have. The Orioles and Tigers are probably wishing they had a few extra 2 WAR players on their rosters right now. Even if they can only contribute league-average offense, a player can still be super-valuable with their defense. Andrelton Simmons‘s 102 OPS+ in 2017 was identical to Dante Bichette’s in 1999, but Simmons was still worth an MVP-esque 7.8 WAR that season thanks to his superhuman defense. Even with his forgettable (by Coors’s mile-high standards) offensive output, Dante Bichette had a chance to be a decent-or-better ballplayer in 1999.
He did not take that chance. In 1999, Dante Bichette was worth -2.3 WAR.
Dante Bichette was 35 years old in 1999. He played 144 games in left field, and he spent two games as a DH during a three-game set against the A’s at the Coliseum in Oakland. In retrospect, sticking Bichette in left field should have set off some alarm bells right from the outset. He was primarily a right fielder until the Rockies picked up Hall of Fame right fielder Larry Walker in 1995. Bichette was never a good fielder, and the outfield at Coors is gigantic. If this community post from Fangraphs is to be believed, Coors’s outfield is second only to Kauffman Stadium in terms of square footage. The left-center-field wall is a tremendously deep 390 feet from home plate. Having a creaky 35-year-old patrol all that grass sounds like a recipe for a historically terrible season.
Since Statcast wasn’t available until 2015, there isn’t really any super-reliable way to judge Dante Bichette’s 1999 defense. Pre-Statcast defensive metrics are notoriously finicky, but there are some semi-reliable numbers that can help illustrate just how unbearably awful Bichette’s glove was in 1999.
Total Zone (or TZ for those who are into the whole brevity thing) is the precursor to modern defensive metrics like UZR and DRS. It uses math and other things to come up with a number that represents a fielder’s range. That number provides an idea of how many runs a fielder has saved via good defense or given up via bad defense. A Total Zone of 0 is precisely average, while a Total Zone of 5 is rated as above-average. -5 is below-average, -10 is poor, and -15 is “awful.” Dante Bichette’s Total Zone in 1999 was -34, or a little worse than 2 x Awful. That’s math.
According to Baseball-Reference, Bichette had a defensive WAR of -3.9 in 1999. The very worst single-player season of baseball’s modern era (by bWAR) was Jim Levey’s -4.0 WAR masterpiece for the St. Louis Browns in 1933. Bichette’s 1.0 offensive WAR might not have been much, but it saved him from setting some truly unfortunate records.
How about fielding percentage? Fielding percentage isn’t a great indicator of fielding ability since a fielder has to be able to reach a ball in play before they can make an error on it. Justin Turner might be able to catch 100% of the balls he could reach if he played center field, but he probably wouldn’t reach very many. Bichette’s fielding percentage in 1999 was a cool .951, which is bad. For some 2019 context, Seattle utilityman Tim Beckham notched a .951 fielding percentage last season. However, thanks to lesser playing time and better Total Zone ratings, Beckham’s 2019 dWAR checks in at a comparatively spectacular -1.0.
The Colorado Rockies went 72-90 in 1999. If Dante Bichette had been an average performer in left, Colorado might have won a dizzying 76 games and vaulted all the way to fourth place in the NL West.
Bichette was an above-average hitter all the way through the end of his career. He decided to call it quits after a season and a half with Boston, where he was a decent DH. In 2001, 37-year-old Dante Bichette played 427 innings in the outfield and managed to rack up -0.9 dWAR in that (very short) time.
Google searches for “dante bichette fielding,” “dante bichette defense” and “dante bichette errors” turn up no video results. Presumably some wily MLB intern burned all visual evidence that Dante Bichette ever took the field in 1999.
Colorado played six games at American League parks in 1999. Besides Dante Bichette, the designated hitters for those games were Lenny Harris, Jeff Reed and Kirt Manwaring. Harris was a super-utility guy who managed to stick in the big leagues for seventeen years, which is pretty incredible given his subpar offense. His defense wasn’t great either, but his career dWAR of -2.6 was still better than Bichette’s -3.9 in 1999. Meanwhile, Reed and Manwaring were catchers playing out their careers with Colorado. Both of them put up positive dWARs during their careers- 4.4 dWAR for Reed, 9.2 for Manwaring. This is an impossibly small sample size of four games, but Colorado might have been able to improve their record by like one win if they DH’d Bichette and sat Harris, Reed and Manwaring. Or found other spots for them. It’s a wonder that they couldn’t find another spot for Bichette.