So in my effort to find out the worst baseball team to win the World Series — just to see where the Giants might fit in — I ran into a few interesting bits. One is this: Did you know that the Oakland A’s, every championship year of the early 1970s, way underperformed their baseball pythag? I know that some people don’t buy into the whole baseball pythag team — this is a formula Bill James came up with to estimate what a team’s record should be based on how many runs they scored and how many runs they allowed.
It’s probably more fun than science. Still, it’s an interesting thing, and, in general, World Series champs tend to outperform their expected record. Seventy of the 106 teams that have won the World Series outperformed their pythag and another seven broke even. Another 12 just barely underperformed — by one game. So that’s 89 of 106.
But those 1972-74 A’s who won three World Championships all underperformed by more than one game. The 1974 A’s were particular culprits. They finished third in the league in runs scored, led the league in ERA, and won only 90 games — seven less than expectation. The 1972 A’s (93 wins against expectation of 97) and 1973 A’s (94 wins against an expectation of 96) also fell short of their pythag. I’m not saying this means something — it surely doesn’t. But it’s an interesting quirk. Those A’s were always known as mavericks and outcasts and all that, and they were mostly underdogs in the playoffs those years. In 1972, they beat a pretty heavily favored Cincinnati Reds team in a seven-game World Series. In 1973, they beat a very good Baltimore team in five games, then scraped by the Ya Gotta Believe Mets in seven games (the A’s WERE favored in that one). In 1974, they beat Baltimore again and beat the Dodgers and both those teams had better records. The word on those A’s is that they were only good when they needed to be good. The run differential probably doesn’t add anything … but it’s one of the cool quirks that make baseball blog posts on this site longer than they should be.
In any case, I did a very and dirty formula — based on wins and losses, runs scored and runs allowed — to determine just where the 2010 Giants might rank among the World Series winners since 1946. It’s not a great formula, but it did give a pretty good Top 5:
1. 1998 Yankees
2. 1939 Yankees
3. 1975 Reds
4. 1927 Yankees
5. 1970 Orioles
I am, of course, partial to the ’75 Reds but that seems pretty legitimate to me, or anyway it seems enough to make the list at least somewhat viable. The 1970 Orioles tend to be overlooked, I think, because that was the year in between when Orioles were upset by the 1969 Mets and upset again by the 1971 Pirates. Earl Weaver’s Orioles won 100-plus games five times from 1969 to 1980, and they had a winning record every season, and they only won the one World Series. It seems that Weaver — not Billy Beane — was the original “My $*#&$ doesn’t work in the playoffs” guy.
That should not detract from JUST HOW GOOD that 1970s Orioles team was. They won 108 games, they led the league in runs and runs against, they had two Hall of Famers in the lineup (Brooks and Frank Robinson), another in the rotation (Jim Palmer) the league MVP (Boog Powell), one of the greatest defensive teams ever (with Paul Blair in center and Mark Belanger at short) and two more pitchers who were multiple 20-game winners (Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally). Not bad.
Picking best and worst World Series winners is tricky because it’s very difficult to say how much better baseball is now than it was in years past. There are many people who would say it’s NO better, which strikes me as somewhat absurd. But how much better? How much worse? Can you really rank the 1953 Yankees straight up against the 1986 Mets against the 2007 Red Sox? If so, how about the 1927 Yankees? How about the 1909 Pirates? How much should you discount baseball before video/ study? Before the popularizing of the slider? Before Jackie Robinson? Before the improvement of gloves? Before modern training techniques?
The worst World Series winner — based purely on baseball talent — probably played during World War II for all the obvious reasons. It was probably the 1945 Detroit Tigers. Their hitting star was Roy Cullenbine, a 31-year-old outfielder who had been traded four times and released once and whose best skill was his rather remarkable ability to draw walks. He led the league with 113 walks that year (striking out just 36 times), and two years later he walked 137 times despite hitting just .224. He was like a walking savant — his .408 career on-base percentage is 38th all-time in baseball history.
Their pitching star, of course, was Hal Newhouser, a Hall of Famer who dominated the war years and 1946 as well. And other than those two, the team was made up mostly of old guys — 39-year-old Doc Cramer, 35-year-old Eddie Mayo and Skeeter Webb, 34-year-old Hank Greenberg and Al Benton. And so on. The Tigers were a good team in 1946 built around Newhouser, Greenberg’s last great year, the emergence of the young George Kell. But they would not win another pennant for more than two decades.
Since the weakest World Series teams would mostly be war-teams, I have decided instead just to list the weakest since World War II. And here we go:
10. 2010 San Francisco Giants.
— Did you expect them to be a bit higher (or lower) on the list? The thing about the Giants is not that they are weak. They are not. But they ARE one of the most lopsided teams to win the World Series.
Look: Of the 106 teams to win the World Series, 20 of them led the league in BOTH runs scored and ERA. These well-rounded teams include some of the greats — the ’86 Mets, the ’27 Yankees, the ’70 Orioles, the ’84 Tigers and so on.
Another 25 of the World Series winners led the league in runs scored but not in ERA. These are teams that lean offense. Of these, the most lopsided is probably the 1913 Athletics who bludgeoned teams with a lineup featuring Home Run Baker and Eddie Collins but finished sixth in the league in ERA.
And 20 teams won a World Series by leading the league in ERA but not leading the league in runs scored. These are teams that lean pitching. The 2010 Giants are one of those — they finished ninth in the league in runs, but they led the league in ERA. That’s EXACTLY what the 2005 White Sox did. That’s EXACTLY what the 1995 Braves did too. And the 1965 Dodgers were eighth in runs while leading the league in ERA.
I think this gets at the heart of what people mean when they say: “Pitching wins championships.” I don’t think that’s quite right. I think there are more great offensive teams that have won the World Series than great pitching teams. It’s just that most of the great offensive teams also had at least good pitching. The 1992 Toronto Blue Jays heavily leaned offense — they finished ninth in ERA. But that’s pretty unusual.
On the other hand, several of the best pitching teams to win the World Series — and the 2010 Giants fit right in — had subpar offenses (at least until the playoffs). So I don’t know that it’s right to say that pitching wins championships. But I do think it’s fair to say that you have a better chance to win a championship with great pitching a terrible hitting than the other way around.
9. 1982 Cardinals.
— Here’s a team that didn’t hit particularly well OR pitch particularly well. They hit 67 home runs the whole season — that’s the whole team. Always thought it was kind of poetic that the 1982 Cardinals won by hitting fewer home runs as a team than Mark McGwire hit in 1998 (when the Cardinals finished third). In those years, pitcher wins told a bit more because starters completed a lot of games, and no Cardinals starter won more than 15 games.
So how did the ’82 Cardinals do it? Well, they got on base (they led the league in on-base percentage). They ran the bases with abandon (led the league in triples and stolen bases). Manager Whitey Herzog drained his bullpen, especially Bruce Sutter who threw more than 100 innings and was third in the Cy Young balloting. And to be blunt, they took advantage of a weak season in the National League. They only won 92 games, but that was the most in the league. They beat an absurdly weak Braves team 3-0 in the Championship Series. And they won the last two games of the World Series against Milwaukee by a combined scored of 19-4. Not every year is created equal.
That said, that was a special Cardinals team because I’d say no other team in baseball history quite won it the way they won it.
8. 1959 Dodgers
— Bill James has written about this before; it’s absolutely ludicrous that the late ’50s Braves did not get more out of their talent. There was a lineup with two all-time greats — Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews — right in their primes, and they had other stars like Joe Adcock and Del Crandall and Johnny Logan. On the pitching side, they had Warren Spahn of course, and Lew Burdette was very good, and Bob Buhl was very good. And so on. That was a legitimately great team, or anyway should have been.
So how did the ’59 Dodgers — this, remember, is before the emergence of Sandy Koufax — beat them? Offensively, the Dodgers were a shell of the Boys of Summer — Hodges was 35, Snider 32, Furillo 37, Jackie Robinson was retired. But they led the league in walks, steals and were second in on-base percentage. The pitching staff was like a prequel to the great 1960s staffs — you could begin to see it emerging. Drysdale led the team with 17 wins, Koufax struck out 173 in 153 innings. It was enough to win 88 games, which was enough to get them to the World Series. And once there, they beat a similarly overachieving Go Go White Sox team to win the championship.
7. 1964 Cardinals
— People remember 1964 mostly for the Phillies collapse. So they tend to forget just how flawed that Cardinals team was that won the World Series. That was a very good offensive team with the sudden, and rather shocking, emergence of Lou Brock (who hit .348 and stole 33 bases in the last 100 or so games), and the steady excellence of Bill White and league MVP Ken Boyer.
The pitching wasn’t much. Bob Gibson at 28 was only then beginning to come into his own. Curt Simmons at 35 had his last productive season. Ray Sadecki at 23 won 20 games and flashed promise of greatness that would instead lead to a long and wildly inconsistent career. In any case, the 1964 Cardinals were not a great team. They were only 48-48 in late July. But they played great down the stretch and the beat the Yankees in seven uneven games, the last of the seven won by Gibson who refused to come out even though he gave up two home runs in the ninth.
6. 1996 Yankees
— Five things people forget about the first of the Joe Torre Yankees to win a World Series:
Thing 1: The Yankees only won 92 games. And they only won that many because they were terrific in one-run games, going 25-16.
Thing 2: Those Yankees were pretty brutal offensively. The league had become an offensive show, and the Yankees finished ninth in runs scored. The Yankees main cleanup hitter that year was the 738-year-old Cecil Fielder, who had been traded for the 696-year-old Ruben Sierra (who had been the Yankees cleanup hitter previously).
Thing 3: Those Yankees were pretty brutal on the pitching side too. They had a 4.65 team ERA. Their best starter, David Cone, had a serious injury and only started 11 games.
Thing 4: The Orioles took out the 99-win Cleveland Indians — probably the best team in the league. Then, of course, the Yankees beat the Orioles, helped at least in part by a young man named Jeffrey Maier.
Thing 5: The Yankees fell behind Atlanta 2-0 in the World Series. And the Braves somehow, some way, blew a 6-0 lead in Game 4 of the Series. In Game 5, the Yankees survived Torre’s bizarre decision to allow Andy Pettitte to hit for himself in the ninth inning. It all just went right.
5. 2003 Marlins
— Florida finished eighth in the league in runs scored, seventh in the league in runs allowed, the Marlins only won 91 games, and they only made the playoffs because of a 15-6 finish. They beat the Giants in large part because of a brutal error by Jose Cruz. They beat the Cubs thanks to a complete and utter Chicago collapse that everyone wanted to blame on some poor Cubs fan who tried to catch a foul ball. They beat New York in the World Series because a 23-year-old kid named Josh Beckett went all Bob Gibson on the Yankees in the clincher.
4. 1985 Royals
— Many view the ’85 Royals as the worst team to win the World Series in 50 years, but it’s a similar illusion to the 2010 Giants. The Royals had a lot of really good pitching.
Offensively, though, yeah, it was a nightmare. Call them George Brett and the Eight Outs. I’ve often thought that Brett should have been MVP in 1985, not necessarily because he put up the best year (Rickey Henderson’s year was awesome; Don Mattingly was certainly great) but because it would have been a nice gesture after making him play on that lineup all year. I think it would be hard, as you look through baseball history, to find a player have THAT GOOD an offensive season on a lineup THAT BAD. Maybe Ralph Kiner in ’51. But I don’t think so.
The Royals second-best offensive player that year was probably 39-year-old Hal McRae. Their third-best offensive player was Steve Balboni — that would be Steve Balboni. Their fourth-best was, well, take your pick, any of them. Those were the only three to manage even league average OPS+. Willie Wilson and Lonnie Smith stole some bases. Frank White hit some homers. But the Royals finished dead last in the league in on-base percentage. That’s the worst lineup ever to win a World Series even WITH George Brett having a remarkable season.
But oh that pitching — Saberhagen, Jackson, Liebrandt, Gubicza, Quiz — it was really good. Which reminds me — people keep asking if Tim Lincecum is ALREADY a Hall of Famer. After all, he has won two Cy Young Awards, he has led the league in strikeouts three times, and he doesn’t turn 27 until next June.
Well he is not a Hall of Famer yet. He’s not close to one. That’s no knock, he’s one of the great young pitchers in baseball history, I think. But the Hall of Fame is a career-thing, you have to be very good for a very long time to make it work. Consider another pitcher who had won two Cy Young Awards BEFORE he turned 26. When he turned 26, he was coming off a season when he led the league in wins, ERA, complete games and, though nobody knew it then, Wins Above Replacement. He already had led a team to a World Series championship, he had otherworldly command and he looked to be about as sound a pitcher as any in memory.
How much would you have bet on Bret Saberhagen going to the Hall of Fame then?
3. 2000 Yankees
— That was the Yankees third straight World Series championship, of course. The first team, in 1998, won 114 games and is in the discussion for greatest team ever. So how can a team two years later, built around the same core of players, be considered in the discussion for worst World Series winner since World War II?
Well, the 2000 Yankees only won 87 games. It’s funny now, when you consider how brutal the American League East is, that only 10 years ago it was probably the weakest division in the American League. The Yankees had the fifth-best record in the league. They would not even have finished second in either of the other divisions. They had trouble scoring runs (6th in the league) and trouble preventing runs (4.76 ERA). Derek Jeter* had a typically good year in 2000, Bernie Williams had a typically good year, Jorge Posada had a typically good year but that was really about it among the every day players. Pitching was spotty. The Yankees were simply not especially good in 2000.
*Here’s something funny about the Derek Jeter career — the biggest knock on Jeter, I think, has not really been a knock on the player but on the aura that has built around around him. And yet, in a weird way, there’s a case to be made that Jeter was pretty solidly UNDERRATED throughout much of his career, at least in the MVP balloting. Everyone knows about him finishing second in the MVP voting to Justin Morneau in 2006, though Jeter really seemed to have a noticeably better season.
But as I was looking back on his career, I have to ask: What the heck happened in 1999? There’s a strong argument to be made that Jeter was the best everyday player in the league in 1999. He hit .349, had a .438 on-base percentage, was second in the league in runs scored, led the league in runs created and times on base, all while playing shortstop (perhaps not that well by the numbers, but well enough to build a reputation as a good defender). His 9.3 offensive WAR led the American League, and his 8.0 overall WAR tied with Manny Ramirez for the league lead (that was the year Manny drove in 165). If there was some rush to celebrate Derek Jeter, he should have won that MVP unanimously.
And you know what happened instead? Jeter finished SIXTH in the MVP voting, behind the clearly inferior Pudge Rodriguez.
As the person who invented the word “Jeterate” — I do believe there is a contingent of people who glorify Derek Jeter beyond all reason. But I also think, in the larger picture, the Jeter thing is quite a bit like the “New York bias” that people always talk about but can’t actually find in the Hall of Fame or in the awards voting. The way some sing Jeter’s praises will create the impression that he has been wildly overblown. And in some ways he has. And yet, I don’t think it will reflect all that well on the generation’s sportswriters that he never won an MVP.
Back to the Yankees. They were not especially good during the regular season. And come playoff time, well, they traveled cross country to Oakland after getting destroyed 11-1 and scored six runs in the first inning of Game 5 to win that one. You know Billy Beane says his $%#%# doesn’t work in the playoffs — well, starting Gil Heredia in the clincher probably isn’t going to work no matter how good you are at identifying market inefficiencies.
The Yankees then pounded the Mariners into submission — that was the series that Roger Clemens threw his rather remarkable one-hit, 15-strikeout game. And the Yankees, looking very much like their dominant selves, beat the Mets four games to one in the series when Roger Clemens mistook a bat for a ball.
2. 2006 Cardinals
This spot for St. Louis is a bit misleading because those mid-decade Cardinals were pretty great. They won 105 games in 2004 and 100 in 2005. And the 2006 team was essentially the same team. The Cardinals were playing typically good ball in late July when suddenly, almost inexplicably, they lost eight games in a row. They were kind of beat up, but it went beyond that — they seemed sort of tired. I think that kind of thing can happen to a team that keeps getting close but can’t quite win the championship. There’s a “well, what’s the point?” kind of vibe that’s hard to suppress.
They played uninspired ball the rest of the season. Fortunately for them, everyone else in the division played even MORE uninspired ball, and on Sept. 19 the Cardinals had a seven game. lead. But they promptly went into another spiral, losing eight of nine, and four of those losses were to the suddenly hot Houston Astros, and the Cards lead was only a half game. They squeaked into the playoffs with an 83-78 record, the worst for any eventual World Series winner.
But in the playoffs they looked again like the very good team they had been the previous two seasons. A team with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen (though he was hurting), Chris Carpenter, a young Adam Wainwright — that’s a good baseball team. Jeff Suppan pitched his heart out, David Eckstein scrapped his heart out in the World Series, and the Cardinals won the World Series.
1. 1987 Minnesota Twins
If you were trying to build a World Series champ, you would likely do the opposite of what the 1987 Twins did. They built a mediocre offense but an even worse pitching staff. Their bullpen was mostly awful, and the hitters couldn’t get on base. They were on pace to be a 104-loss team on the road — 29-52 for the season, if you can believe that — and a Metrodome official admitted that he adjusted the ventilation system to help the Twins hit better at home.
Did it work? Well, the Twins did average more runs at home. But surprisingly the big difference was in pitching, where the Twins gave up a run and a half less per game in the Dome. Frank Viola was almost unbeatable in the Dome (11-3, 2.69 ERA) and reliever Juan Bernguer, who is like the Forest Gump of baseball in that he’s pretty much everywhere (’84 Tigers? Yep. ’87 Twins? Yep. ’91 Braves? Yep) was 5-0 with a 2.31 ERA at home.
Yes, something about about the Dome brought out the magic in those Twins. I mean — not a lot of magic. The Twins only won 85 games, which would have put them fifth in the American League East. But they American League West was dreadful. They beat the Tigers in five, actually clinching the thing in Detroit.
And then in the World Series, they lost all three games in St. Louis and scored a total of five runs. But at home they clubbed six home runs (by six different players, one of those by the 411-year-old Don Baylor) and won all four games. In 100-plus years of baseball, you inevitably will have those teams that have everything go right. The ’87 Twins are the most charmed team in baseball history. And with the ventilation system, yeah, they probably cheated too — you know, sometimes charm is not enough.