The flukes that flopped

This past year’s National League brought with it a host of teams who haven’t been playing meaningful September games on a regular basis (Phillies, Diamondbacks, Cubs) and two teams who haven’t had hope for a long time (Brewers, Rockies). This got me wondering as to what the flukiest teams were in terms of contending—that is, those that contended for a single season and just as quickly went away. The playoff teams that do it (this year’s Rockies, 1993 Phillies) tend to get remembered at least some; the teams that just miss and recede into history tend to be largely forgotten.

In defining contention, I focused on teams that played meaningful games in September and/or those teams that didn’t only because of another dominant team. The basic criteria are the following:

1) Any team with at least a .550 winning percentage or at most 10 games behind the best team in the league;
2) For the pre-division era, any second place team;
3) For the two division era, any team that 7.5 games or fewer behind the weaker division champion (if in that division);
4) For the three division era, any team that finished 5 or fewer games behind a division leader or 2.5 or fewer games behind the wild card.

There aren’t a whole lot of isolated contenders in the list, and rarely do teams keep together a contender for a few years without it at least getting to the playoffs once (for every team that contends for at least 2 years in a row and doesn’t get to the playoffs, about 6 do).

Fluke teams, then, are those that can’t put together consecutive years of eventful Septembers. We normally wouldn’t consider teams that contend every other year (like the current Dodgers) to be true flukes, though; we’d probably want to see at least three years on either side of the year in question before we’d call it a fluke. With that definition, here are the biggest flukes since 1901 (total is how many years surround the fluke year with bad teams):

Year   Team     Last    Next    Total    Make Playoffs?
1959   Indians  1956    1994    38       No
1922   Browns   1908    1944    36       No
1933   Braves   1916    1947    31       No
1945   Cubs     1938    1969    31       Yes
1967   Red Sox  1951    1972    21       Yes
1908   Browns   1902    1922    20       No
1992   Brewers  1988    2007    19       No
1904   Reds     1901    1919    18       No
1916   Dodgers  1902    1920    18       Yes
1993   Phillies 1983    2001    18       Yes
1994   Royals   1989    ????    18       No

The only team to go at least 8 seasons under the fluke qualifications and win the World Series was the 1997 Marlins.

As generally seen in the chart above, the playoff teams on the list are far more recognizable. There are 13 teams who have gone 15 seasons with one fluke year of contention and missed the playoffs in that one year. My aim is to break down each team and analyze some of what went wrong for them. (Unidentified numbers in parentheses by the players’ names are adjusted OPS and adjusted ERA for positions players and pitchers, respectively, and all references to OPS and ERA are to the adjusted versions.)

1904 Reds

Manager: Joe Kelley
Record: 88-65, 3rd, 18 back (-5 off Pythagorean record)
Last Contended in: Hadn’t in the 20th century. They had a decent team in the late 1890s though.
Next Contended in: 1919, when they went all the way thanks to a White Sox team that took winning for granted in all the wrong ways.
Makeup: With the second-most runs in the league and a competitive pitching staff, the Reds had a lot go right for them, aside from Mike Donlin’s suspension and eventual sending off to the Giants. Cy Seymour (134) had a great year with the stick and was ably supported by manager Kelley at first base (121), outfielders Cozy Dolan (115) and Fred Odwell (112), and rookie second sacker Miller Huggins (110). Harry Steinfeldt (88) likely would have contributed more to the team had it not been for his leg injury. The pitching staff was literally just a five-man rotation with no other pitchers even on the team, but it was a good one, with ERAs all between 112 and 142. Jack Harper’s 23-8 record makes him look better than the others, but longtime ace Noodles Hahn and his successor Bob Ewing were quite good, as were near-rookie Win Kellum and rookie Tom Walker. None of this was enough to stop the 106-win Giants from cruising to the pennant, but the pitching was young and the hitters were good.
What Happened: The offense was just as good in 1905, but Harper’s collapse and Hahn’s sore arm hamstrung the pitching. Kellum was a Cardinal in 1905; both he and Walker would play their last major league games that year. Although the Reds eventually found some pitchers, their veteran hitters got old and fell apart, and it took awhile before the team could replace them adequately.

1908 Browns

Manager: Jimmy McAleer
Record: 83-69, 4th, 6.5 (-1)
Last Contended in: 1902, when they had just moved to St. Louis and raided the Cardinals for players.
Next Contended in: 1922, below.
Makeup: Nobody in the AL was very good at this point in time, and 1908 was a bizarre year. The Browns didn’t have a great lineup – left fielder George Stone (131), Bobby Wallace (111) and a surprising Hobe Ferris (108) were the only bats resembling punch – but their pitchers were ridiculously similar and good. Much like the Reds, their starting pitching was bunched; their top 5 posted ERAs between 113 and 126. The front four were longtime AL veterans (and double-letter champions): Rube Waddell (126), Harry Howell (126), Jack Powell (113) and Bill Dinneen (114); aside from the Indians, no AL team boasted a rotation so deep.
What Happened: Their three good hitters all tanked in 1909: Stone got injured, Wallace aged, and Hobe Ferris started hitting like Hobe Ferris again (it’s hard to lead a team in RBI while having a slugging percentage under .300, but he managed it). The pitching staff was already old, and by 1910 only Powell was still pitching regularly. The promising pitchers on the 1908 staff—Barney Pelty, Bill Graham and 19-year-old Bill Bailey—didn’t pan out with bigger roles, combining for an 8-36 record in 1910. The Browns benefited from the demise of the St. Louis Terriers, getting a bunch of Federal Leaguers, but they chafed under manager Fielder Jones and couldn’t get anything together until…

1922 Browns

Manager: Lee Fohl
Record: 93-61, 2nd, 1 (-5)
Last Contended in: 1908, above.
Next Contended in: 1944, which was a worse team by far but got to the Series.
Makeup: Man, this team could hit. In part because of Babe Ruth’s and Bob Meusel’s suspensions for preseason barnstorming, there were only 5 players with over 100 RBI in the league that year; the Brownies had four of them, including Ken Williams’s 155, which led the league by 29. George Sisler (172 off 246 hits and a .420 average) is the biggest name here, but Ken Williams (165 and the only 30-30 season for a long time), Jack Tobin (121) and Baby Doll Jacobson (116) made for a killer outfield. Even the catchers could hit: Hank Severeid (101) played almost all the games, but his backup Pat Collins slugged .543, with 8 homeruns in 127 at-bats. Urban Shocker was a great ace (138 over 348 innings), Elam Vangilder (120) made a fine #2, and 21-year-old reliever Hub Pruett (176 in 8 starts and 31 relief appearances) was very useful.
What Happened: George Sisler’s blurred vision caused him to miss all of 1923; by the time he came back, he was average, and so were Tobin and the pitchers. Their collapse coincided with the ascendancy of the Cardinals, and St. Louis fans chose the better team, leaving the Browns paupers by the end of the 20s and unable to compete.

1926 White Sox

Manager: Eddie Collins in his last season as an MLB manager
Record: 81-72, 5th, 9.5 (-2)
Last Contended in: 1920, which wasn’t a great memory.
Next Contended in: 1937, when they got some pretty good pitching to support Luke Appling.
Makeup: A team of fine hitters in a pitcher-friendly stadium. Even with a leg injury, 39-year-old player-manager Collins (139) was sensational (62 walks against 8 strikeouts in 106 games!), ably supported by Bibb Falk in his prime (136), Johnny Mostil (133), Bill Barrett (115) and Earl Sheely (115). The park made the pitchers look good, but they were merely decent; a young Ted Lyons (128) was supported by an old Red Faber (107) and several youngsters including Tommy Thomas (107) and Ted Blankenship (102).
What Happened: Collins went to the Athletics, Sheely aged overnight, Mostil attempted suicide in spring training and was out for pretty much the whole year, and Barrett slowly went south, which negated the development of Lyons and Thomas into top starters. The Sox struggled to find an offense for years.

1933 Braves

Manager: Bill McKechnie
Record: 83-71, 4th, 9 (+3)
Last Contended in: 1916, with residue from the Miracle Braves.
Next Contended in: 1947, with Spahn, Sain, and friends.
Makeup: This looks exactly like any other good McKechnie team—no hitting to speak of, but excellent pitching and defense. Well, what hitters were on the team were good ones—Wally Berger (172) was all-world as usual and Randy Moore (130) provided solid backup in a very good pitchers’ park. Outside them, however, only first baseman Buck Jordan (110) was even above 95; half the lineup was below 80, though they offered great defense – think of a lineup half-full of Brandon Inge and you get the idea. In a pitchers’ park, this was enough to support the dual aces of lefty Ed Brandt (118) and righty Ben Cantwell (117). The rest of the staff wasn’t much to write home about, but they were okay.
What Happened: McKechnie teams tended to live or die with their pitching, and Ben Cantwell’s pitching died in 1934 (5-11 and almost two runs worse in ERA). Even with a livelier ball in 1934, Moore’s production got worse, taking a 2-hitter team down to one. When the pitching went south all as one in 1935, it wound up in 115 losses. McKechnie would win with his formula in Cincinnati by the end of the decade, but the Braves-turned-Bees just stagnated.

1956 Redlegs

Manager: Birdie Tebbetts
Record: 93-61, 3rd, 2 (+5)
Last Contended in: 1944, the end of the good McKechnie teams.
Next Contended in: 1961, which was a surprise as well.
Makeup: The Redlegs were the 1995 Rockies ahead of time. The Reds tied the NL home run record with 221; even though Crosley Field wasn’t big, that was still impressive (Ebbets Field was friendlier to hitters, and the pennant-winning Dodgers hit a “mere” 179 that year). Frank Robinson (143), Ted Kluszewski (133) and Gus Bell (121) treated pitchers like playthings. Lefty-hitting catchers Ed Bailey and Smoky Burgess combined for 40 home runs and 78 walks. When the lineup is deep enough that guys with .500 slugging percentages occupy slots 2-6, you’ve got some nice chances of winning anything – ballgames, home run derbies, strongest man competitions, best biceps (at least with Kluszewski on the team anyway). It was all necessary, too, as the pitching was the textbook example of average – the starters were all between 96 and 105 for adjusted ERA, led by surprise 19-game winner Brooks Lawrence (he had a 6.56 ERA with the Cardinals the previous year), and rescued by a solid bullpen centering around Hersh Freeman (115 with 14 wins in 108 relief innings) and Tom Acker (166 in 84 innings).
What Happened: The hitting kept up, but the pitching stopped being even average. When they found some good young pitchers (Joey Jay and Jim O’Toole), they made it to the World Series even as their offense was in decline.

1959 Indians

Manager: Joe Gordon
Record: 89-65, 2nd, 5 (+2)
Last Contended in: 1956, the end of the Al Lopez era.
Next Contended in: 1994, after several jokes and Albert/Joey Belle tantrums.
Makeup: This is an odd team; it pulled off the next-to-impossible feat of leading the league in runs despite being last in walks. It’s also one of the only teams before the current era to have been a contender without a Hall of Famer. In the first year the Yankees didn’t contend since 1925 (!), the Indians hacked their way to offensive greatness. Half the lineup was over 110: Tito Francona (171); Minnie Minoso (135); Rocky Colavito (133; he and Harmon Killebrew’s 42 home runs were the only totals above 33 that year in the AL); and shortstop Woodie Held (114). The pitching staff was somewhat messy; only two pitchers with 100 innings were above average, Jim Perry (140 but only 153 innings) and Cal McLish (102). The bullpen was somewhat patchwork but generally effective, which helped, but this was a team built off its batting average and home runs.
What Happened: The infamous Colavito for Harvey Kuenn trade didn’t help at all, and Francona couldn’t hit .363 every year. Minoso was traded back to the White Sox, with an okay package of players in return, but the Indians went into a holding pattern, with winning percentages between .484 and .494 for five straight years. When the bottom fell out of the talent, it took decades to recover.

1961 Tigers

Manager: Bob Scheffing
Record: 101-61, 2nd, 8 (+5)
Last Contended in: 1950, with a team that Red Rolfe mismanaged into oblivion.
Next Contended in: 1966, with most of the cast that would win ’68.
Makeup: This team was built around six studs who were studly enough to carry the team. Norm Cash (201) and Rocky Colavito (157) nearly matched Maris and Mantle for potency (116 home runs is an amazing total, but the Yank pair managed fewer than 200 other hits, while the C&C Hit Factory provided 86 homers and 286 non-homers). Al Kaline (139) was an excellent third wheel – something the Yankees didn’t quite have. Outside catcher Dick Brown (105), the other half of the lineup was below average, though Jake Wood and Bill Bruton set the table well enough to score plenty of times. (Wood’s season has long been a favorite of mine; he had double-digit doubles, triples and home runs and stole 30 bases, but had a .258 average and led the league in K’s. He was a rookie leadoff hitter middle infielder on a contending team, but he got only one ROY vote and wasn’t even the top rookie second baseman in the AL to the voters; Chuck Schilling got more votes, as did Floyd Robinson and Don Schwall of the 1.55 WHIP.) On the pitching side, Don Mossi (139), Jim Bunning (129) and Frank Lary (127) formed a hydra of aces that was a combined 55-27. The bullpen didn’t need to pitch as much as the Yankees’ pen, but while Luis Arroyo and his 119 innings of relief grabbed the headlines for New York as a screwballer sensation out of nowhere, Terry Fox made a pretty good story himself. An apparent throw-in from the Braves (they had sent an aging Bruton, Brown, and Fox along with Chuck Cottier to the Tigers that winter for an okay Frank Bolling and a useless Neil Chrisley), Fox would give up runs in only 7 of his 39 appearances, throwing 57 innings with a 1.42 ERA (291 adjusted).
What Happened: Frank Lary’s sore arm—he’d win only 11 more games after ’61—and Mossi’s falloff dragged down 1962, but the Tigers continued to be a good team. Even when they weren’t contending, they were always just a pitcher or two from getting a pennant, and the near-simultaneous development of Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich solved that problem. Of the teams on this list, the Tigers were the least fluky, as they didn’t tank in between 1961 and 1966; they were just simply “good.”

1967 Angels

Manager: Bill Rigney
Record: 84-77, 5th, 7.5 (+6)
Last Contended in: 1962, their second year of existence.
Next Contended in: 1978; at 31, Nolan Ryan was their oldest starting pitcher.
Makeup: Forgotten in the four-team race of 1967 is that the Angels weren’t that far behind. Overachievers, certainly, but to be only seven-and-a-half off this collection of talent wasn’t bad at all. The offense was generally productive; Jim Fregosi (125) and former bonus baby Rick Reichardt (118) were joined by the main pieces from Dean Chance’s trade to the Twins, Don Mincher (157) and Jimmie Hall (117). The pitching held up without Chance; rookie Rickey Clark (120) and Jim McGlothlin in his first full season (105) led the staff, with league-average support from Jack Hamilton, more known for his Tony Conigliaro beaning that year, Clyde Wright and George Brunet. The bullpen provided more of the same, though Minnie Rojas (123) was a fine closer, winning 12 games and saving 27 others.
What Happened: Pythagoras wanted to give them a losing record in 1967 and got his revenge in 1968. The Chance trade fell apart as Mincher’s and Hall’s offense vanished, as did Hall; he was traded for Vic Davalillo in midseason 1968. Mincher’s stock had fallen far enough to be left unprotected in the expansion draft; he would be one of the only bright spots for the Seattle Pilots. Rickey Clark had an illness the next year and went only 1-11. Minnie Rojas’s sore arm didn’t help matters. More good young pitching was coming (Andy Messersmith, Rudy May, and later Frank Tanana and Ryan), but they got no run support for nigh on a decade.

1974 Rangers

Manager: Billy Martin
Record: 84-76, 2nd, 5 (+5)
Last Contended in: Never had—these were the former Senators.
Next Contended in: 1977, the year of four managers.
Makeup: This was a team pretty similar to the Angels in terms of overall talent level, but with a little bit more star power. Jeff Burroughs (162) and Mike Hargrove (140) were ably supported by shortstop Toby Harrah (114) and Cesar Tovar (114); those four could turn any ballgame Ferguson Jenkins (126) gave them into a win (he was 25-12 on the year). The task was a bit more difficult when somebody else started, as every other starter was below average (how Jim Bibby got a 19-19 record out of a 75 ERA is beyond me), needing every bit of Steve Foucault’s 144 relief innings to win. (Would you feel confident if Jackie Brown, Steve Hargan and David Clyde were the rest of your rotation?)
What Happened: Burroughs stopped being a stud and nobody took up the slack. They weren’t a bad team before their late ‘70s contention phase—especially compared to their seasons before 1974—but they weren’t great.

1992 Brewers

Manager: A rookie Phil Garner.
Record: 92-70, 2nd, 4 (-4)
Last Contended in: 1988. Rob Deer hit .252 and Dan Plesac was a young closer.
Next Contended in: 2007. Jose Valentin, a 22-year-old rookie in ’92, seems ancient. Plesac’s still a lefty and “only” 45 – he could probably pull a comeback if he wanted.
Makeup: Led by not-as-good-as-Kenny-Lofton ROY Pat Listach, the Brewers played a version of Whitey Ball, racking up 256 stolen bases, a figure matched only by the ’76 A’s, ’77 Pirates, and two Whitey Herzog teams since 1914. Everyone got in on the action – 35-year-old Paul Molitor stole 31, B.J. Surhoff stole 14, Greg Vaughn stole 15, and John Jaha stole 10 without being caught. All these steals had to compensate for a mediocre offense; Molitor (139) was fine, and there were no sinkholes in the lineup (80 was the worst), but nobody else stood out. (Hint to team builders: if Darryl Hamilton is your second best hitter by OPS, do try to upgrade somewhere.) Unlike Herzog’s typical Cardinals team, however, the Brewers had deep and excellent pitching. Bill Wegman (121), Jaime Navarro (116) and Chris Bosio (107) were joined by midseason sensation Cal Eldred (216) for a formidable front four. They handed games over to a ridiculously good bullpen. Doug Henry (96) was no sensation at closer, but the rest of the pen was superb: righty short reliever Darren Holmes (152), superLOOGY Jesse Orosco (120), Plesac (131), Mike Fetters (207), and rookie Jim Austin (209).
What Happened: What didn’t happen? Molitor, second baseman Scott Fletcher, Bosio and Plesac hit free agency; Yount showed his age and retired after the 1993 season; Listach and Wegman hit the DL and were never the same, and Cal Eldred became a mere innings muncher until his arm fell off. The Brewers, largely homegrown up to this point, ceased producing young talent en masse and were left to wander in the impecunious wilderness.

1994 Royals

Manager: Hal McRae
Record: 64-51, 3rd, 4 (+3)
Last Contended in: 1989, the infamous year that John Wathan employed four regular pinch-runners…well, it’s infamous to me anyway. John Schuerholz was still GM.
Next Contended in: If I knew that, I’d make a killing in Vegas.
Makeup: Pitching. The offensive explosion of ’94 masks it a bit, but this team was nothing but pitchers. There was a modicum of offense: ROY Bob Hamelin (146) was the stud of an otherwise limp cast (Wally Joyner, Felix Jose and Mike Macfarlane were all right, but a team can rarely survive having Jose Lind’s 66 and Vince Coleman’s 59 in the same lineup). Fortunately the pitching was quite good; David Cone made a big comeback with a 170 (an actual ERA of less than 3 in ’94 was spectacular), Kevin Appier was another ace at 130, a young Tom Gordon was at 115, and Mark Gubicza got away from his arm woes long enough to post a 111. The bullpen was average to above-average, not that the starters really needed it.
What Happened: Cone signed with the Blue Jays and Hamelin hit .168 the next year. Jose was re-signed off the free agent market but only played 9 games and hit .133 before getting released. Macfarlane signed with Boston for a year. Their weakness on offense exploited, the Royals could not patch all the holes fast enough (they had the third-best pitching in the AL in 1996 and still finished last because their team adjusted OPS was 85) and went into the Robinson/Baird Sinkhole when the pitching left.

1997 Pirates

Manager: Gene Lamont
Record: 79-83, 2nd, 5 (+1)
Last Contended in: 1992, the end of the Bonds era and the beginning of the end for the Leyland era.
Next Contended in: Prognosticating Kansas City and Pittsburgh’s timetables for contention is enough to make anybody’s brain hurt. I’m just a writer…
Makeup: With a nearly nonexistent payroll and no more Jim Leyland, the Pirates only improved 6 games from the previous year…and still almost managed to take the division in one of the many years the NL Central wasn’t worth a thing. The offense wasn’t good by any means—Kevin Young, Al Martin, Joe Randa and Jason Kendall were the four regulars above average; Young led with 120—but the role players provided a surprising amount of pop to the offense. Dale Sveum had a below average OPS, but he provided 12 homers in part-time play from third and shortstop (where he at least provided more than rookie Kevin Polcovich). Mark Smith and Turner Ward combined as a sort of fourth outfielder platoon; although the outfield was held down by Martin, Jermaine Allensworth, and a 21-year-old Jose Guillen fresh out of A-ball, Smith and Ward found enough time for a .317 average (.547 slugging) in 360 at-bats with 29 doubles, 16 home runs and 68 RBI. The previous year had been a mess in terms of finding starting pitchers of any caliber; this year, Gene Lamont got 157 starts out of his front five, and they were pretty decent too, at least by Pirates standards. Francisco Cordova (119) was the best, and the rest were in between 94 and 105, which at least stopped fifth-starter bleeding. The bullpen’s talent ran five deep; Jason Christiansen, Clint Sodowsky, Marc Wilkins, Ricardo Rincon, and rookie closer Rich Loiselle all were above 118. As an historical note, Tony Womack had the first of his many Tony Womack-like seasons (.278 average, 43 walks, 60 steals).
What Happened: Something like the Royals in 1995. The pitching was much improved the next year (112 adjusted ERA as a team), but the hitting was putrid. Only five players had adjusted OPS figures over 100—and that includes everybody, including Tim Laker’s 24 at-bats. The Bucs have had only one even average offense since ’97. There was a fine nucleus of pitching talent that had succeeded in ’97 – Cordova, Jason Schmidt, Jon Lieber, even Esteban Loiaza—but most of it found future success elsewhere.

It seems most of these teams were a tad lopsided, so that when something went wrong—typically young players not panning out—their weaknesses were exposed and they became either mediocre or terrible. What strikes me as odd is how many of the managers of these teams aren’t well known or were vilified for the jobs they did and didn’t get great opportunities later when, looking back, their teams were the best of their franchise for decades.

Really, though, most of these teams suffered a bunch of trouble all at once just as they were starting to get going—reading all that happened to the 1927 White Sox or the 1993 Brewers is quite a list—and they weren’t strong enough or deep enough organizations to bounce back. Sometimes, in the face of a billion things wrong, there’s just not enough time to retool on the fly, and the cycle gets increasingly vicious and repetitive.

If the Brewers, Royals and Pirates had actually gone to the playoffs with their teams (I know the Royals couldn’t, but finishing first wouldn’t have hurt), would the free agent market have felt differently about them? Would it have been the start of an upswing for each of those franchises, riding the waves of good feelings into more success on the field? We’ll never quite know, but hopefully the teams who came out of oblivion in the last few years to find significant success—the Tigers of ’06 and several teams of the NL in ‘07—won’t have to wait quite as long for their next meaningful games in September.

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