The worst of the best (part II)by Chris Jaffe
February 07, 2011
Hi there, and welcome back. Last week, as you may recall, we asked one of the classic questions of baseball debate: what's the worst team ever to win the World Series? In Part I, we presented the teams and explained how we'll answer it. In this column, we get to the good stuff—the answer!
First, to back up a second, this enterprise depends on the help and aid of SG from the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog. He has a computer program set up to run 1,000 simulated seasons for whatever 28 teams across baseball history he puts into it, and he's willing to plug in the 28 teams I asked him for.
What 28 teams to choose? I looked at a combination of actual record and Pythagorean record to pick the 28 title winners. Or, to be more accurate, I gave him two groups of 14 title winners. After all, the rise of divisional play has, by its very nature, opened up more avenues to teams with less regular season success to win it all. So the 28 teams are divided into two divisions: 14 pre-1969 teams (1969 being the first year of the League Championship Series), and 14 since 1969.
OK—fine, great, wonderful. Can we hurry past the recap already? You've been waiting a week, so here it is—the fun part: results.
Pre-divisional play teams
Let's start with the 14 squads that predate 1969. All these teams had the best record in their league in their flag-winning season. Yet, that does not all mean they were created equal.
Of the 65 teams that won it all back when the World Series was the entire postseason, who were the worst teams of them all? They are listed from worst winning percentage in SG's sims to the best, with average simulated wins to the nearest tenth of a win. Also included are their average runs scored and allowed in the sim, and their real life W-L and actual Pythag record. Here they are:
Team W L RS RA Real Pythag 1933 NYG 72.4 89.6 572 640 91-61 90-62 1964 STL 72.7 89.3 554 615 93-69 88-74 1945 DET 74.9 87.1 563 602 88-65 84-69 1959 LAD 75.4 86.6 562 606 88-68 82-74 1916 BOX 78.9 83.1 565 561 91-63 87-67 1960 PIT 79.7 82.3 538 542 95-59 92-62 1914 BOB 80.0 82.0 586 579 94-59 89-64 1958 NYY 83.1 78.9 550 528 92-62 96-58 1906 CWS 85.8 76.2 535 480 93-58 90-61 1934 STL 86.0 76.0 562 514 95-58 90-63 1918 BOX 87.1 74.9 601 530 75-51 76-50 1924 WAS 89.4 72.6 562 475 92-62 92-62 1919 CIN 90.5 71.5 589 490 96-44 92-48 1926 STL 91.8 70.2 654 548 89-65 90-64
So, the worst world champion from the pre-LCS days was the 1933 Giants. That's a bit of a surprise. My money was on the 1959 Dodgers. The Giants are a forgotten champion that no one talks about, but it's worth noting it was the first of five consecutive 90-win seasons for the club, a span during which they won three pennants (but only this one World Series). It was also their first full year after John McGraw retired.
The poor placement for the 1933 Giants is especially interesting to me because a few years ago I did another sim courtesy of SG looking at teams that lost the World Series. I was especially interested in nine clubs that lost the World Series they played in and didn't win in any surrounding seasons.
One of those nine was the 1933 Senators, who lost to the Giants in that World Series in five games. Those Senators finished eighth of the nine teams I was most interested in for that sim. According to the computer, 1933 really wasn't much of a Series.
The Giants didn't have much of an offense in 1933. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't too good—which makes it inferior for a world champion. They finished fourth in runs scored that year, and only three of their starting position players had an OPS+ over 100. (That said, in a sign of how times have changed, New York's 82 homers were the most in the NL).
Yet that's not what cost them in this sim: their pitching did them in. That's weird because in real life New York won with pitching. Carl Hubbell had the season of his life, posting a minuscule 1.66 ERA in over 300 innings. Hubbell's longtime rotation companion, Hal Schumacher, also had the best season of his career, with a 2.16 ERA and a league-low 6.92 hits per nine innings.
A possible explanation: New York's pitching was great, but entirely dependent on six arms to carry them. Those guys did 80 percent of the pitching on the year, but the rest of the staff was pretty bad. My hunch is that the computer simulations gave too much playing time to New York's dregs. It's worth noting that the 1933 Giants had the largest standard deviation for runs scored of any team in this sim exercise.
That said, regardless of differences in run scoring, there was little change in their results. Among the 28 teams in the sim, the Giants had one of the four best records only four times. All the other pre-1969 teams made the top four at least seven times. The 1933 Giants came in 24th or worse 521 times in 1,000 sims. They were in the bottom quartile almost two-thirds of the time. Maybe the computer just didn't like their main arms that much.
The 1964 Cards were, like the 1933 Giants, the first pennant winner for a core that claimed three pennants in five years. St. Louis had a winning percentage that was fairly unimpressive for a world champion. In fact, their 93-69 real-life mark was the second-worst of an NL pennant winner from 1903-1972. St. Louis' Pythag record was five games worse than their real record, too.
The Cards claimed the pennant when the Phillies infamously flopped in the home stretch of the 1964 pennant race, and the Redbirds beat the Yankees in seven games in October. In the sims, only the 1933 Giants allowed more runs than the 1964 Cards. That's one problem with a computer simulation: you won't get Bob Gibson's seemingly superhuman level of achievement in October baseball.
The next-worst teams are two expected to appear on the bottom: the 1945 Tigers and 1959 Dodgers. The Tigers had the least talent of any champion—hey, it was WWII, after all, and players didn't all get back right away when the war ended. The Dodgers were a weird team in transition: the Boys of Summer hitters had gotten old and the Don Drysdale-Sandy Koufax 1-2 punch hadn't come of age.
Remember how the 1964 Cards had the worst winning percentage from an NL pennant winner from 1903-72? The 1959 Dodgers were the worst.
At the other end, it's nice to see the 1919 Reds do so well. They're the one team that didn't deserve to be in here based solely on their record. They're in because their opponent threw the Worlds Series, forever tainting Cincinnati's claim to greatness. Nothing will ever erase that stain, but the Reds had enough talent to legitimately win one.
The 1926 Cards coming in first is a surprise. They are one of only six world champions to win fewer than 90 games (not including teams from shortened seasons). One factor: they had a very good offense—both in real life, and especially here, where they averaged over a half-run more per game than most other teams.
Actually, what's striking is how down the overall offensive numbers are. The 1926 Cards have easily the best offense above, but they still scored barely four runs per game. Even adjusting for lower scoring when teams with good pitching meet up, that's still low. Maybe the 1926 Cards just had matchups work to their advantage: they were an offense-first club while most competitors were pitching-first. Perhaps. That's just a guess.
If you add it up, the teams above finished 1,148-1,120 - meaning the recent champions performend worse overall. Let's see how they did.
It makes sense these guys would do worse in a simulation—after all, you no longer have to have the league's best regular-season record to win a world title. Here they are, formatted just like the last bunch:
Team W L RS RA Real Pythag 1987 MIN 70.6 91.4 518 612 85-77 79-83 2006 STL 75.1 86.9 549 606 83-78 82-79 1985 KCR 76.6 85.4 493 528 91-71 86-76 1988 LAD 77.2 84.8 506 555 94-67 91-70 1982 STL 79.3 82.7 564 580 92-70 90-72 2010 SFG 79.9 82.1 529 553 92-70 94-68 1980 PHI 80.4 81.6 564 581 91-71 91-71 1974 OAK 80.8 81.2 523 524 90-72 97-65 1990 CIN 81.6 80.4 563 577 91-71 92-70 1997 FLO 81.8 80.2 557 560 92-70 85-76 1996 NYY 83.7 78.3 537 535 92-70 88-74 2000 NYY 84.0 78.0 540 542 87-74 85-76 2008 PHI 84.6 77.4 576 556 92-70 93-69 2003 FLO 84.8 77.2 571 563 91-71 87-75
The 1987 Twins. Worst here and worst overall. Yeah. I can argue against the 1933 Giants or 1964 Cards, but not the 1987 Twins. Folks, this was a team that allowed more runs than it scored in the regular season. That's bad. Going by runs scored and allowed, the 1987 Twins weren't as good as the 1978 Twins, who finished 73-89 on the year.
Getting away from runs scored and allowed, their 85-77 record is second-worst for any champion ever. They had the fifth-best record in the AL that year, but the four better teams were all in the other division.
There's an X-factor in real life that doesn't carry into the simulations: home-field advantage. The Twins weren't a good team, but the noisy Metrodome gave them the best home record in the league (offsetting their miserable 29-52 road record). True to form, in the postseason, they went 6-0 at home and 2-4 on the road. The 1987 Fall Classic was the first World Series in which the home team won every game.
The 1987 Twins doing worst overall isn't surprising. What is surprising is the next-worst team in the divisional era doing better than the worst pre-divisional champs: 1933 Giants, 1964 Cardinals, and 1945 Tigers.
That said, the right team came next-to-last in the divisional era. The 2006 Cards are famous as the team that barely finished .500 but managed to skate through three rounds of the postseason to claim the world title.
They were actually a better team than their record. They had a terrific start to the season, jumping out to a 42-26 record before some players suffered through injuries and others became ineffective. They worked their way through their problems in time for the postseason and received improved performances from the back of their rotation. That said, a lot of teams would be better if not for injuries.
Really, the St. Louis Cardinals dominate the bottom of these lists. One of their teams comes in next-to-last in both groups. Also, the 1987 Twins beat the Cardinals in the Worlds Series, as did the third-worst post-1969 champion: the 1985 Royals.
Like 1987, the 1985 Series went seven games. This time, the Royals had to rally back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win it all. Famously, the Cards were one inning away from the championship when Don Denkinger blew a call at first base, the Cards folded and the Royals won it all from there.
KC's problem was hitting. They're the worst offensive club ever to win it all, finishing next-to-last in the 14-team AL in runs scoring. Only three batters on the entire Royals team had an OPS+ over 100. Yeah, they're pitching could bail them out, but that's a lot to ask of any staff. While their staff was really good, it wasn't really great. It was "only" second in the league in ERA. You'd expect only an all-time great staff could lead such a bad offense to the tile.
The Royals did have a great postseason. Not only did they win both rounds of the playoffs, but they came back from three-games-to-one deficits in both. Give them credit for that—but really, all these times I'm describing were when they were at their best in the postseason. That goes without saying, or they wouldn't be here.
The biggest surprise among the recent teams is how well the 2000 Yankees do. They had one of the worst records of any champion, but finish third best among the recent teams. Huh? I think there's a quirk in the sims that explains this.
A player performed excellently for the Yankees in a part-time role: Glenallen Hill hit an out-of-his-mind .333/.378/.735 (not a typo: a .735 slugging average). From my experience with the sims, sometime it doesn't regress a player's performance to the mean when he gets more at-bats. Similarly, David Justice had a 145 OPS+ in a bench role for the Yanks, and that's well over his normal production. This probably explains why those Yanks do so well.
Of course, this means the exercise is flawed and shouldn't be taken as the last word. That was never the case, though. There will never be a final word to a question like this, which is why it is such a fun question to ask.
This simulation series does do a few things, though. While it's not perfect, it does put some teams' performances in perspective. Those 1987 Twins really are the worst, for example. The 1933 Giants may not be as bad as this lets on, but they are one of the worst title winners from their generation. And the 1919 Reds can hold their heads up high.
Oh yeah, one other nice thing about these sims: they're fun. And that's never a bad thing.
References and Resources
I determined what teams to put in by looking at Baseball-Reference.com.
The sims, of course, were done by SG from the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.