Best of the second best (part 1)by Chris Jaffe
July 20, 2009
It's the sort of question that fans of baseball history love to chit-chat about: What was the best team of them all to lose the World Series? Everyone believes that upsets exist and that some teams don't live up to their postseason potential. However, which squad in baseball history can claim that most unwanted of distinctions: most deserving of a world title without actually claiming one?
Those who regularly read my column here at THT over the last two years (Hi, mom!) probably know how I'll answer this one. Rather than just leave it to speculation and pontification, let's look at it a bit more systematically.
And by "more systematically" I mean let someone else do the digging. Over at the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog, sitemaster SG has put together a computer program that can run 1,000 season simulations using Diamond Mind baseball info. Just give him 28 baseball teams to fill up a league, and he can answer these questions. As an added bonus (and a crucial fact for this study), he is very willing to use his program to answer my questions. I thank him most heartily for that.
Ground rules and criteria
The key issue for me is trying to determine what 28 teams to send. This is an especially tricky issue with in answering this particular question. There have only been 104 World Series, so over one-fourth of the teams will end up in it. Since several of those losers were rather unimpressive or just generic, my options become a bit limited.
One other factor impinges on my choices for the 28: an awful lot of teams that lost a World Series lost more than one. The Tigers lost three in a row from 1907-09. Sure they're one of the teams I'd like to throw into the mix, but only one of them. Even a perennial postseason powerhouse like the Yankees lost consecutive World Series in 1921-22 and again in 1963-64.
Mentioning those Yankees losers brings up a central concern in picking 28 teams. Namely, many teams that lose the World Series one year win it in a nearby season with the same basic core roster. Naturally, the better losers are the ones most likely to do this.
That's a problem for me. I'm interesting in seeing what was the best squad denied a World Series ring, not the best squad delayed one. A team like the 1922 Yankees isn't necessarily my main priority.
Instead, top priority will be given to genuinely impressive team that failed to claim October glory in both the season in question and surrounding years. These guys are the reasons I wanted SG to do his thing with the season simulator program.
However, there ain't 28 such squads. Not even close, frankly. In order to fill out the bracket, I also threw in some of the most impressive teams that lost the Series in that particular season but won it in surrounding seasons. I could fill out the bracket with 28 franchises that never won the Series anywhere around the given season, but to do that without using repeat squads like the 1907 and 1908 would cause me to really scrape the bottom of the barrel. I don't really care about those teams. The 1922 Yanks themselves won't make my list, but some teams like that will.
Finally, I added one final completely random wrinkle. The last time I asked SG to run sims for me, it was to determine which team was the best to miss the World Series entirely. I decided to throw in the top two finishers from that sim series into this mix.
That completely goes against the nature of the question, as this article is looking at best losers of the World Series, not most impressive of the denied. However: 1) as noted above, there really aren't 28 that perfectly fit my criteria for this question, and 2) I am curious to see how those two match up with the others.
Putting this pair in won't stop me from answering my question. If one of them does best (which is possible), I can then look beyond them to see who the best second-placer was. Besides, the teams that did best in the October-missers will help provide some perspective for the others.
Enough of the jibber-jabber: now for the teams. First I'll present the nine teams that best fit my criteria, then the 17 other World Series losers that fill out the ballot, and finally the two ringers who didn't even play in the World Series.
Nine teams denied all October glory
1909 Tigers: 98-54. They played in three straight Octobers and lost all of them. This was the best team of the bunch, as the 1907-08 squads won 90 and 92 games respectively. They also did the best in the World Series, forcing the 110-win Pirates into a seventh game before falling.
1912 Giants: 103-48. As great a manager as John McGraw was, he had trouble in the postseason. The Giants lost three straight Series from 1911-13, and none between 1905 and 1921. With apologies to Hooks Wiltse, aside from Christy Mathewsom, little overlap exists this team and the 1905 world champs.
1933 Senators: 99-53. They won the World Series in 1924, but experienced almost complete roster turnover by 1933. This the franchise wouldn't win another World Series for another half-century-plus. The 1933 boys posted the best winning percentage in franchise history.
1935 Cubs: 100-54. There has to be a Cubs team here, right? They lost the last seven World Series they took part in (and 13 of their last 14 postseason series overall - thank God for the 2003 NLDS!). Anyhow, the Cubs were a bit of a powerhouse at this time (quit laughing - it's true), claiming four pennants from 1929-38. This was the best team in that stretch, and only Cub team since 1910 to win 100 games.
1941 Dodgers: 100-54. While the Cubs lost their last seven World Series, the Dodgers dropped their first seven. Most of those teams overlap the 1955 Brooklyn team that finally won it all, but all of these guys were long gone by that time.
1946 Red Sox: 104-50. The 1940s Red Sox are a great what-if. They had an excellent core of players coming into their own: Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio. Then, America entered WWII at the worst possible time for the franchise. This was their only pennant, but they had a great team. They won more games than any of these nine teams that never won in October.
1962 Giants: 103-62. They still had Willie Mays from the 1954 world champs, but much of the supporting cast was different. Since moving to the Bay Area, the Giants have made eight postseasons without winning it all. They lost six of their first seven postseason series in San Francisco (with the sole success coming in 1989 against the Cubs, naturally).
1965 Twins: 102-60. In their book on great baseball teams, Paths to Glory, Mark Armour and Dan Leavitt include a chapter on the 1960s Twins as the dog that didn't bark. In the 1960s they scored more runs than any other team, but claimed only one pennant, and lost that World Series in seven games to Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers.
1995 Indians: 100-44. Looking back, it's hard to believe that the 1990s Indians never won it all. I know their pitching was usually a bit shaky but they had a lineup for the ages: Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Eddie Murray, and Omar Vizquel all have their supporters claiming they belong in Cooperstown. How many lineups can say that about two-thirds of their starters? Cleveland has the best winning percentage of any of these main nine teams.
16 teams that didn't win that particular year
The above are the vital teams. Now for the ancillary ones.
1906 Cubs: 116-36. They won it all in 1907 and 1908. Then again, they also won 116 games, so if we're going to put in teams that won in surrounding years, these guys belong. The 1906 World Series took place in a stretch where the Cubs went 102-20 in the 1906-07 regular seasons.
1914 A's: 99-53: They won the 1910, 1911, and 1913 Series over John McGraw's Giants, but lost to the 1914 Miracle Braves. From 1910-20, this was one of only two World Series the NL won; and the other Senior Circuit victory was marred by bribery.
1919 White Sox: 88-52. The Black Sox, implicated in the 1919 World Series fixing. I'm just curious to see how they'll do in this environment, without Arnold Rothstein to bribe SG's computer. The Sox won the 1917 World Series.
1931 A's: 107-45: They defeated the NL champions in the 1929 and 1931 World Series, but came up short this year, despite having their best regular season. In fact, by both wins and winning percentage, this was the best team in the history of the franchise.
1939 Reds 97-57. They won it all the next year. They were one of the last teams I threw into the mix.
1953 Dodgers: 105-49. The 1955 squad won it all, but this might have been their best overall team. They scored 955 runs, the most by any NL team between 1930 (when the entire league batted over .300) and 1996 (when the Rockies scored a Coors-inflated 966 runs). The other NL teams in 1953 averaged barely 700 runs scored.
1954 Indians: 111-53. Though it had been six years since they won the Series, a surprising amount of overlap exists between the 1948 and 1954 Indians. However, then set an AL record (since surpassed) for most wins in a regular season.
1963 Yankees: 104-57. Hey, look: a Yankees team that lost in October. Imagine that. Actually, the 1942 Yankee World Series losers had an even better winning percentage, but some big AL stars were already lost to the war (Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg) so the 1963 squad impresses me a tad more.
1969 Orioles: 109-53. I've heard people argue that they were the greatest team of all-time. Others have won 109 or more games, but how often do they actually underachieve their projected winning percentage? Based on runs scored and allowed, this bunch should've won 110. It's little wonder that they won it all the next year.
1970 Reds: 102-60. This was the primordial Big Red Machine. They didn't have Joe Morgan or George Foster in the lineup yet, but they still featured Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Davey Concepcion, and Johnny Bench.
1974 Dodgers: 102-60. This was the first year LA fielded the infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey. They were still around in 1981 when the team won their first world title under Tommy Lasorda. They stayed together longer than any other infield in baseball history.
1979 Orioles: 102-57. They had some overlap with the 1983 world champs. (They also slightly overlap the 1969 entry, but that's basically just Jim Palmer. Mark Belanger was another hold over, but he had barely 240 PA in 1979). Random fact: the 1979 Orioles were the last team to record less than 160 decisions in a non-strike season.
1985 Cardinals: 101-61. The 1982 batch of Runnin' Redbirds won the World Series, but they won "only" 90 games in the regular season. Among the team's other achievements, in 1985, rookie Vince Coleman stole 110 bases.
1988 A's: 104-58. They destroyed the AL in 1988 and 1990, only to get destroyed in each of those postseasons by seemingly lackluster NL pennant winners. (Calling the 1990 Reds lackluster might be a bit too harsh, but then again it probably isn't harsh enough to describe the injury-depleted 1988 Dodgers. It all evens out). Yet it was in 1989, when the A's had a routine pennant run that they captured the title.
1999 Braves: 103-59. The 1998 Braves fall through the cracks. The won 106 games but missed all these sims I asked SG to do. When I asked SG to sim the 28 best teams that missed the World Series, I left them out because they were too similar to the 1990s Atlanta squads that played on the biggest stage. They miss this one because they didn't play in the Series. However, given that I threw in a pair of ringers, I wish I'd included them somewhere. It's too late now, though. Still, this 1999 squad was tremendous as well.
2003 Yankees: 101-61. Random fact: with 684 walks taken and 375 walks surrendered, they had the best walk differential of any team in baseball history at +309. They next best is way back at +256, the 1971 Orioles.
2004 Cardinals: 105-57. They were one of the best teams to ever be swept in the World Series. Two years later they became one of the worst teams to ever win it. The game is funny that way.
Not only are these the two top finishers from the SG sim of the best teams to miss the World Series, but they also possess a second advantage: neither franchise went to October in any surrounding seasons.
1922 Browns 93-61. You never heard of them, but they were a great team. Going by run differential, they should've gone 98-56 - which is equivalent to going 103-59 in a 162-game schedule. Their hitters led the league in run scoring and their staff featured the league's best cumulative ERA. Neat combo.
2001 Mariners: 116-46. They won the last sim, and have a good chance to win this one.
Concluding thoughts (for now)
The dirty little secret in filling out this bunch is that since there's never a clear dividing line between who should be in and who shouldn't, the edges will be arbitrary and anyone who looks over the list will likely come up with a slightly different group of 28. That's fine. Heck, if I came up with the list 10 times I'd have 10 slightly different variations. Why the 1939 Reds but no 1916 Dodgers? I had my reasons (those Dodgers weren't that impressive and it was a weak time for the NL) but if I had to do it over again I probably would've included them.
More importantly, the teams that are most deserving of inclusion are here. I wanted great teams that won a pennant but never the World Series, and they're here. Deciding 1942 Yanks vs. the 1963 version is of secondary importance.
Well, that's the 28 teams. Who will win? Take your guesses and tune in next time to find out.
References and Resources
Thanks to SG of the Replacement Level Weblog for his willingness to do this for me.
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.
<< Return to Article