Tuesday, October 25, 2011
It's kind of easy to forget, considering how well they've played through the playoffs, about that whole amazing run that got the Cardinals to where they are right now, two home wins away from winning the World Series. For most of the year, the Cards were just about an average team (and in a pretty bad division), and ended with just 90 wins even after that great final stretch. Should they go on to win the Series, they'll be just the fourth team since the 162-game schedule was put in place in 1961, and the seventh ever (not counting seasons shortened by war or a strike), to have won the championship with as few as ninety wins.
Below is my own completely unscientific and highly subjective ranking of the eight "worst" teams ever to win it all. (I have no idea why it's eight: I guess that's just how many teams there were that I felt like writing about. Or, perhaps, because it's Nick Punto's uniform number. Either way.) Keep in mind that this isn't really intended as a slight, and any championship season is a great championship season: it happens that my favorite single-year team of my lifetime is on this list. Another thing is that, as you might imagine, relatively recent teams dominate the list: it's just a lot easier for a bad team to make it to, and therefore win, the Series if you don't actually need to be the best team in your whole league to qualify.
#8: Oakland Athletics, 1974 (90-72)
This was the last year of the great A's dynasty, of course, their third straight series victory, but this was definitely the weak link of the three. It was an odd year in the AL, as no team won more than 91 and seven of the twelve teams were within five wins either way of .500 (I don't know how rare that is, but it seems unusual). After beating the 91-win Orioles in the ALCS, the A's managed to make quick work (five games) of the 102-win Dodgers.
The Athletics were a very good team, actually, with superstar-level years from Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, and Catfish Hunter. Scoring more than two hundred more runs than they allowed, they had an "expected" record (using Bill James' Pythagorean formula) of 97-65, befitting a champion. But they didn't win many games, for whatever reason, so they sneak onto the last spot on the list.
Kansas City Royals, 1985 (91-71)
A lot of great memories for Royals fans, of course, and a great player having one of his greatest seasons...but not a great team. The Royals barely made it out of the weak West Division (often in those days referred to as the "A.L. Worst"), finishing a game ahead of the similarly uninspiring California Angels. They would've finished third in the East, and with the rock-solid Blue Jays winning 99 and the Yankees right behind them at 97, the Royals' season might basically have been over by early September.
George Brett, of course, was amazing. But of everyone else on the team who got even a single plate appearance, only two finished with an OPS+ of even 100: everyday first baseman Steve Balboni (111) and DH Hal McRae (118), both pretty mediocre vis-a-vis the norm at their positions. They did have pitching, of course, led by excellent seasons by Bret Saberhagen and Charlie Leibrandt, and solid defense, but nonetheless, their meager +48 run differential yielded a Pythagorean record of just 86-76. All that, of course, and they (arguably) needed one of the worst umpiring mistakes in history to sneak past the juggernaut Cardinals in seven games.
#6: Florida Marlins, 2003 (91-71)
The Marlins finished out of the race for their own division by ten games. They were nine games worse than the Giants, who they took care of in the NLDS. (They were three games better than the Cubs, surprisingly, who they shocked in seven games in the infamous 2003 NLCS). The Marlins had four above-average hitters, but none with better than a 131 OPS+, and the pitching, for most of the year, was uninspiring. Then of course Josh Beckett (who was limited to 142 regular-season innings) went nuts and basically made them a different team. They were a very good team anyway -- as all of these were, really -- but they're the seventh-"worst" WS winner.
Los Angeles Dodgers, 1959 (88-68)
Finished the regular schedule tied with Milwaukee at 86-68 (a 90-win pace had they played 162), then swept a best-of-three playoff against the Braves to take the pennant. Their Pythagorean record was just 82-74. Duke Snider was great, but missed thirty games; Gil Hodges and Wally Moon were pretty good, and most of the rest of the offense was abysmal. Don Drysdale turned in a solid 270 innings, and Roger Craig and Larry Sherry did sparkling work as swingmen, but all in all, even the pitching was uncharacteristically suspect. Then they played the 94-60 Go-Go White Sox in the Series, and beat them in six games, only one or two of them really closely contested. It's almost like, with two teams newly moved from New York to California and a couple years before the first expansion, it was just kind of a blah, down year in baseball as a whole.
#4: New York Yankees, 2000 (87-74)
On the merits of their season as a whole, the Yankees could be ranked further down this list, #3 or even #2. But this was the team that lost its last seven games, 15 of its last 17 and 17 of its last 20. On September 13, the Yankees were 84-59, on pace for a very respectable 95 wins, and led the division by nine games. I don't want to say it's "safe" to assume that they actually coasted for those last three weeks -- they generally played all their starters, for most of it -- but it's not a bad assumption to make that they were less than fully invested.
Still, those games happened, and the team's Pythagorean record was 85-76. The offense was carried by Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and second-half pickup David Justice, with no one else pulling his own weight, and the pitching, aside from Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera (who were both somewhat less than Clemens and Rivera that year themselves), was generally a disappointment. Amidst one of the best runs any franchise has ever had, this season was, relatively speaking, kind of a clunker. And they still won it all, so there you go.
#3: 1945 Detroit Tigers (88-65)
That record adjusts to 93 wins in a 162-game schedule, so in winning percentage terms, the '45 Tigers were better than all the modern teams on this list. But they're also easily the "worst" team to win any of the first fifty World Series. Every Series winner for the last 12 before 1945 won at least 98 games, and every winner of the next 12 won at least 95.
Wartime baseball was just weird. The Tigers just scraped past the Senators, who were led by names like Joe Kuhel and Roger Wolff. The Tigers themselves got half a season out of Hank Greenberg and a wartime-special dominant year (25-9, 1.81 in 313 innings) out of Hal Newhauser, but the rest are not exactly household names: Roy Cullenbine, Rudy York, Eddie Mayo, Al Benton. And even in the context of the thinned-out league they played in, these guys weren't great. They had a Pythagorean record of 84-69.
They beat those poor Cubbies (who'd gone 98-56 on the backs of legends like Phil Cavarretta, Stan Hack and Hank Wyse) in what looks like it would've been a pretty uninspiring seven-gamer.
2006 St. Louis Cardinals (83-78)
You probably remember these guys. The Cardinals would have finished in third place in either the East or West, but won the Central by one game over the similarly hapless Astros, just two wins over the .500 mark despite an unbalanced schedule that allowed them to play a huge chunk of their games against other bad Central Division teams. The Cards probably weren't as bad as they looked -- they'd won 205 games combined the previous two years with a pretty similar squad, and Jim Edmonds had been hurt and ineffective for much of the regular season -- but in a perfectly fair, randomness-free world, they don't have any business at all beating any one of the Padres (3-1 in the NLDS), Mets (4-3 in the NLCS), or the Tigers (4-1 in that World Series where all the Detroit pitchers forgot how to use their gloves and throw to bases).
I have no memory of that NLCS against the Mets, which is sad to me. Yadier Molina (who then was a terrible hitter) faced Aaron Heilman in a 1-1 tie in the top of the ninth inning of Game Seven, which itself has to be among the most unlikely series of things ever to happen on a baseball field, and ended up hitting an ultimately game-winning, two-run homer. Crazy. Also, it's interesting to note that the Herzog-era Cardinals had great teams that lost to two teams on this list (#7 above and #1 below), while the La Russa-era Cardinals are a couple wins away from, arguably, adding a second not-as-great winner to the list.
#1: 1987 Minnesota Twins (85-77)
Yep, there it is. My first and best baseball memory, and the worst team ever to win a World Series.
And I don't think it's all that close. The '87 Twins remain the only team ever to win a World Series while scoring fewer runs than they allowed during the regular season (their Pythagorean record was 79-83). Even their actual record would have put them in fifth place had they played in the AL East rather than the "Worst," and they were a whopping thirteen games behind the East-leading Tigers. Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven were solid, but those efforts were more or less balanced out by stinkers from Dan Gladden, Tim Laudner, Steve Lombardozzi, and Joe Niekro, and far too much reliance on super-(awful)-sub Al Newman.
The Twins were nowhere near the team the Tigers and Cardinals were that season, but they beat them both, and that is glorious. A great postseason performance, an incredibly fun team to watch...and the worst MLB World Champion of all time.