The worst of the best (part I)by Chris Jaffe
January 31, 2011
Some questions are just natural ones, the sort of thing one ponders on occasion and often likes to debate with fellow sports fans at the local watering hole or online. What's the worst team of all time? Who was the best team to miss the World Series? The best to lose in the Fall Classic?
These questions are just fun, and in the past I've tackled them. Now it's time for a new question: instead of looking at teams that miss or lost the World Series, let's look at the champion and ask this classic question: what's the worst team to ever win it all? Who is baseball's worst best team, the most groan-worthy championship squad?
I'll answer this the same way I answered the others: with the help of SG, the man behind the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog. He has set up a computer program that runs 1,000 season simulations with whatever 28 teams he plugs into it. Once again, he's willing to do another sim request—I just have to supply 28 teams. That's over one-fourth of all the World Series champions, which is to say that some of these teams need to be here and others merely help fill out the bracket.
Key point: I'm dividing the 28 into two 14-team divisions—pre- and post-divisional play. Before divisional playoffs began in 1969, the only way a team could get to the Series was by having the league's best overall record. That hasn't necessarily been the case since then, especially not since the expansion of the playoffs in 1995—thus, the champions with the worst records largely come from recent times.
Dividing it into two divisions helps separate the bunch into the two main eras of pennant winning. It also turns the exercise into two questions: who is the worst champion before divisional play, and who is the worst after it began.
To determine which teams get in, I look at both actual win-loss records and Pythagorean records based on runs scored and allowed. I'll just figure the average of a team's real and Pythag wins to determine the 14 worst pre-playoff champions and 14 worst playoff-era winners. That said, averaging actual and pythag records is just a guideline. If there's a good reason to go against it, go against it.
A criticism some might have is that this approach ignores the difference in quality between leagues and, especially, over the decades. True, but I'm more interested in seeing how good the teams were in context of their time. For me, the question is: were the Dodgers better in 1959 than the Cardinals were in 2006, not how would the 1959 Dodgers have done in 2006?
One last little note before we get to the teams: putting 28 teams through 1,000 sims has the illusion of being the definitive answer. There's no such thing—that's what makes the question so fun. This is just another way to approach that old, fun question.
So what are the teams?
The pre-1969 division
In chronological order, here are the teams.
Baseball's first great October surprise was the Sox beating the 116-win Cubs. The "Hitless Wonder" White Sox weren't a bad team—hey, these are all pretty damn talented squads—but most others back then had more impressive records.
Famous as the team stuck in last place on Independence Day that somehow rallied to win it all. They won in part because all the teams were bunched up closer than normal. But, then again, their 94 wins are tied for second-most by any of these 28 teams. They really came on strong in the second half.
Before the Curse of the Bambino, the Sox were an extremely successful October team, winning all of their first four World Series.
In my previous SG sim questions, I tried to eliminate overlapping teams. Here, there didn't seem to be much point. Look, when you have to throw in over a quarter of the champions to find the worst, you're going to put in some teams that don't really belong, so don't worry about overlapping squads.
Here it is, the one team that doesn't belong based on its record. 1919 was a shortened season due to World War I (never mind that the war ended the year before, it still caused the season to be shortened), and prorated out to 154 games, the Reds would have gone 106-48 with 101 Pythag wins.
But I had to include them. They got the tainted title as the opposing Chicago Black Sox threw the Series. If nothing else, putting the Reds in gives a sense of perspective: how do they compare to other derided champions. I suspect they'll do fine.
Oh, if you're curious, the team left out was the 1925 Pirates. And really, who cares about the 1925 Pirates? I'd rather see the 1919 Reds.
The only Senators team to win it all shows up. Up to that point in time, only one world champion from a full season won fewer regular season games—the 1916 Red Sox.
Walter Johnson: maybe the best pitcher ever, but he only won one title.
This was the first of six world champions from a full season that won fewer than 90 games. (The 1918-19 teams played in shortened seasons.) In an upset, half were from pre-divisional play. That's because of the 154 game-schedule.
The Giants won it all in their first full season after John McGraw's retirement, but they might be the worst Giants team to win it all.
They qualified as one of the 14 worst pre-divisional teams based on their record, but if they had narrowly missed I would've been tempted to put them in anyway. This team—the famous Gashouse Gang—has a prominence in baseball's collective memory far out of proportion to its success. Hey, it was a great team, but it wasn't as good as the 1935 Tigers, and who remembers them?
We remember them for two reasons. First, that nickname—the Gashouse Gang. It's a good 'un. Second, because of Dizzy Dean. This was his only world championship, and he later became a prominent baseball broadcaster who'd tell stories of the team.
This is arguably the worst team ever to win it. They set a record (since broken, of course) for fewest wins for a world champion from a full season, and their Pythag record was even worse. Oh yeah, plus they did it during World War II. Detroit was better in the Series, as by then they had Hank Greenberg back, but this was still one of the most underwhelming of all champions.
This is Stengel's worst world champion. They are the flipside of the 1945 Tigers: they were considerably worse heading into October than they had been most of the year. I covered this team at length in one of my earlier columns for THT, and while New York blew the AL away for four months, their pitching gave out—and didn't recover until 1960. Somehow, in the midst of this extended lull, the 1958 team put it together to defeat the defending world champion Braves in seven games.
They're the odds-on favorite to finish as the worst winner in this division. They have the worst winning percentage of any team here. (Not only is 88 wins tied for last, but they ended the season 86-68 and won two playoff games against the Milwaukee Braves, who also ended the season 86-68). Plus, their Pythag record has only been worsened by two post-1969 team, which is a heck of an achievement.
Famous as the team that won the World Series despite being outscored by a two-to-one margin.
The Cardinals have five—count 'em, five—teams among these 28. There's no overlap, either—one from each decade. Sometimes their World Series losing teams looked more impressive than the ones who won it all. The 1968 Cards may have been a better bunch than this squad.
The divisional era
Now, for the recent teams. Some of these teams are almost infamous for the disparity between their regular-season and postseason success.
Like the Gashouse Gang, the A's (barely) earned their way in with their record, but I might have put them in even if they hadn't. The Mustache Gang was a weird team; they never dominated, they just got by. They never won 100 games in a season, and every postseason series in 1972-73 went the distance. They were actually outscored in the 1972 and 1973 World Series.
Heck, heading into the bottom of the sixth of Game Four of the 1974 Series—the 32nd of their 33 postseason games in their three-peat, the A's were outscored overall, 86 runs allowed to 85 runs scored. Yet they won all three titles anyway. Amazing.
The world champions from the 1970s were pretty impressive on the whole. Aside from the Mustache Gang, they all won at least 97 games in a season. The 1980 Phillies—first world champions in franchise history—heralded a new era in which the October victors weren't quite as impressive in the regular season.
It's part of a St. Louis tradition, winning with one of their second-tier teams. The 1985 and 1987 pennant-winning Cardinals were both better than the 1982 squad, but both lost the World Series in seven games. The 1926 Cards had a better season than their 1928 brethren. The 2006 Cards weren't nearly as successful as the 2004 team—until October. Just weird.
They finished 13th in scoring in a 14-team league. Since the LCS became a best-of-seven, the KC Royals are the only team to win both the LCS and World Series in seven games. Of the 14 divisional teams here, they're the only one to go the distance in every round of the postseason.
The best bet to come in last. The 2006 Cards had a worse regular-season record, but the Twins were actually outscored during the year. Yeesh.
This is one of the first teams that came to mind when I think of World Series upsets, but they actually have one of the better records. They have the most wins of any post-1919 teams and only the 1919 Reds won more than 94 among the 28 squads.
The 1988 Dodgers didn't look that good in the Series because star slugger Kirk Gibson was only available for one at-bat (but what an at-bat it was!), fellow heavy hitter Mike Marshall missed some of the Series, as well, and the opposing Oakland A's looked overwhelming.
Now Arizona's manager, Gibson will always be remembered for his LA World Series homer.
They're famous, like the 1988 Dodgers, for upsetting the Bash Brothers Oakland A's in the World Series. They're also one of the few teams in baseball history to spend the entire season in first place. They began the year 33-12 and coasted from there.
What might have been: in the ALDS, the Yankees faced the AL West-champion Rangers, who won "only" 90 games but had 92 Pythag victories. Texas won the first game, lost the second in 12 innings on a walk-off error, and lost the third game when the Yankees pushed the tying and winning runs across the plate in the ninth. The Yanks won it all in four.
In retrospect, it seems preordained that the 1996 Yankees would win it all, but hindsight is always 20/20. The Rangers faced the Yankees three times in the ALDS during Joe Torre's glory run. The first game of this series would be their only victory. In the 1998 and 1999 DCS, Texas scored a combined two runs in six games.
When trying to win a title, it helps having this man in the bullpen.
For the second straight year, the world champion was a 92-70 team with 88 Pythag wins.
Based purely on their actual and Pythag records, this is the worst Yankee world champion of them all.
In the 2003 postseason, opponents outscored the Marlins 79-77. Lot of good it did them.
Not only did they lose 78 games, but their Pythag record was actually a little worse! This team was better than their record due to injury problems, but it is still the worst record by any champion.
LaRussa lost in the Series to the 1988 Dodgers and 1990 Reds, but won with the 2006 Cardinals.
This is one of the teams filling out the bracket. They had the best postseason of any post-1969 team. None of the opposing teams defeated them twice in any postseason series.
It turns out the most recent champion helps fill out the bracket. They had a better actual record and Pythag record than the AL pennant-winning Texas Rangers.
San Francisco claimed its first world title because of its arms.
Well, those are the 28. How will they do? Tune in next week to find out.
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.
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