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Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments | SportsLibrary.net
The worst baseball teams of all time

 

By Roger Weber

 

In baseball, a good portion of outcomes are more or less random. According to statistical rules or randomness and probability, an average team playing a 162-game season might win as few as 68 or as many as 94 games just because of chance. It's most likely, of course, that they'll win somewhere in the vicinity of 81 games, but nevertheless chance can heavily affect a team's season outcome, especially in a sport where so few games separate good teams from bad teams. After all, the difference between the best and worst teams is usually only around 20 percentage points.

 

It would be an historic and arguably wasteful use of time to look in depth at all teams ever to play Major League Baseball, even though that might be necessary to examine the actual talent of every team ever to play. But to determine the best and worst teams there are easier ways to ensure luck doesn't skew the results too much and show a good team as bad or a bad team as good.

 

The goal is to figure out which teams were especially good and which were especially bad. So it makes sense that we want to include teams that without question fall outside the range that a simply average team could attain. The way this is achieved is to go several standard deviations away from the mean, essentially including only totals that we know are good teams, ones that finish outside of a confidence interval centered at an impressive record. The probability that an average team will fall outside of this range (55-107 wins in a 162-game season) is .00006.

 

Excluding Teams due to unusual Circumstances

  • 1) Teams from 1943-45. World War II rocked baseball. Many players went into combat and all were affected in a major way. The easiest and most fair way of dealing with this era is to eliminate it.
  • 2) Teams pre-1900. Although there were certainly great teams, it is not reasonable to compare them to modern teams.
  • 3) Teams pre-1920. These teams actually are included in the study, although a separate category is made excluding them. Like the pre-1900 teams they are difficult to compare to modern teams.

Grappling with time

 

I have experimented with era adjustments a good deal. I have pondered long and hard as to whether to adjust for competition levels or not and have decided against it. It is not a fair judgment to penalize certain teams for playing in an era we cannot actually honestly compare to another – there are statistical ways of attempting but none has ever truly satisfied me. To say that one field of competition was better than another is to state a valid point. Modern baseball probably employs a higher level of talent than in the distant past. Still, that doesn't do us too much good in this study. Regardless of the actual talent of the players, a team that finishes well above its competition is a great team. It is not fair to penalize a team for not having players that were not available at the time.

 

In fact it is true that several major league teams today might beat the great teams of the early 1900s, but the fact that they have more talent is only a function of the time in which they play. To me, a team's greatness is defined more by how it dominates its competition and plays in the situation it is in than by how it might play in another era. John McGraw, if he managed the 1905 Giants today, certainly would not have played with all the players on his team at the time. He would have at his disposal players of all races. It is not fair to punish his team in 1905 for not including players that were not allowed to play.

 

The comparison

 

In many ways this comparison is like the comparison between the best teams. Most obviously it is important to recognize that to be a truly terrible team losses are the most important ingredient. A bad team must lose many, many games. The 2003 Detroit Tigers, for example, were terrible. But they were good enough to win a few games at the end of the season to avoid setting the all time losses record. Wins and losses are indisputably the number one measure of a team's futility.

 

Second, we expect a truly terrible team to have lost by tremendous margins. It can be argued that the worst team might win below its ratio of runs scored and runs allowed by losing even winnable games. But then we must think what we are measuring in the study. I would think that it makes more sense to measure which team actually "was" the worst team in the sense of being the worst allotment of players with the least ability to even play the game instead of measuring which team "played" the worst regardless of ability. So in that case, it is more important for a team to have lost games by a tremendous number of runs. But it does not matter whether that team is offense-powered or defense-powered. It should ideally have bad hitting, bad pitching and bad fielding. So not only should it lose by a great many runs, but its ratio of runs scored to runs allowed should be horribly low.

 

We also want to measure complete and total futility. To be a truly terrible team it must express uniform and absolute terribleness. It should prove to fans that it was far below even its lowest competition. Like a best team, it should separate itself from the pack and be undisputedly in the cellar of the standings. Therefore any opponent against which it has a winning record is in some way, or at least performed, worse than this team. Therefore a component of the measurement should be the uniformity of its futility. 

 

The math

 

The math used in this study is not terribly complex. Measurements like z-scores are used to measure a team's performance in each of four categories. The z-scores are not actual z-scores but mathematically computed standard intervals that are likely slightly smaller than actual standard deviations but serve the same purpose.

 

Component                             Percent

Winning percentage: 40%

Average margin of loss: 20%

Runs scored / Runs allowed: 20%

Futility against all competition: 20%

 

The percentages are fairly arbitrary but seemed to make sense given that this study is meant to give a general overview of the worst teams and could never actually give a perfect mathematical determination. The fourth component is measured by how a team performed versus how all other teams performed against a certain opponent. Any winning record against an opponent over the course of the season is counted against the team.

 

Using these data I computed an overall z-score for each team and then translated that z-score into an easier-to-understand predicted win total in a 162-game average season. This way we can see how a team might have performed versus another in a modern season. This was not tremendously difficult to compute because to figure out z-scores for winning percentages, I had to first compute the data for averages and standard deviations of winning and losing.

 

The teams

 

1920-present teams

 

 

 

 

 

Win %

Margin

% of

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

x 1000

of

total

 

Total

Equivalent

 

 

 

 

 

loss

runs

 

"Z"

Wins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1920

Athletics

 

312

-1.77

0.401

 

-1.74

49.74

1921

Phillies

 

331

-1.96

0.402

 

-1.7

50.32

1923

Braves

 

325

-1.05

0.443

 

-1.3

57.66

1923

Phillies

 

325

-1.67

0.426

 

-1.59

52.39

1925

Red Sox

 

309

-1.87

0.409

 

-1.74

49.65

1926

Red Sox

 

301

-1.77

0.402

 

-1.77

49.13

1927

Phillies

 

331

-1.46

0.428

 

-1.52

53.65

1927

Red Sox

 

331

-1.68

0.411

 

-1.5

53.92

1928

Braves

 

327

-1.62

0.418

 

-1.48

54.27

1928

Phillies

 

283

-1.96

0.408

 

-1.85

47.61

1930

Phillies

 

338

-1.64

0.44

 

-1.49

54.14

1930

Red Sox

 

338

-1.32

0.429

 

-1.35

56.68

1932

White Sox

 

325

-1.51

0.427

 

-1.56

52.99

1932

Red Sox

 

279

-2.26

0.383

 

-1.9

46.87

1935

Braves

 

248

-1.81

0.403

 

-1.96

45.64

1937

Browns

 

299

-1.98

0.411

 

-1.79

48.75

1938

Phillies

 

300

-1.92

0.396

 

-1.83

48.13

1939

Phillies

 

298

-1.99

0.393

 

-1.86

47.58

1939

Browns

 

279

-1.93

0.415

 

-1.84

47.86

1940

Phillies

 

327

-1.67

0.397

 

-1.68

50.85

1941

Phillies

 

279

-1.89

0.387

 

-1.92

46.4

1942

Phillies*

 

278

-2.07

0.358

 

-2.05

44.03

1949

Senators

 

325

-1.85

0.402

 

-1.59

52.4

1950

Athletics

 

338

-1.58

0.423

 

-1.42

55.42

1951

Browns

 

338

-1.76

0.409

 

-1.62

51.92

1954

Athletics

 

331

-2.14

0.382

 

-1.69

50.6

1956

Athletics

 

338

-1.38

0.427

 

-1.37

56.35

1961

Phillies

 

305

-1.37

0.423

 

-1.61

52.01

1962

Mets

 

 

250

-2.06

0.394

 

-2.04

44.35

1963

Mets

 

 

315

-1.69

0.393

 

-1.74

49.74

1964

Mets

 

 

327

-1.27

0.423

 

-1.51

53.77

1969

Expos

 

 

321

-1.29

0.424

 

-1.46

54.67

1976

Expos

 

 

340

-1.25

0.42

 

-1.47

54.5

1977

Blue Jays

 

335

-1.35

0.424

 

-1.5

54.04

1979

Athletics

 

333

-1.77

0.4

 

-1.6

52.13

1979

Blue Jays

 

327

-1.54

0.415

 

-1.53

53.47

1988

Braves

 

338

-1.16

0.428

 

-1.43

55.18

1996

Tigers

 

 

327

-1.98

0.415

 

-1.68

50.75

2003

Tigers

 

 

265

-2.08

0.389

 

-2

44.95

2004

Diamondbacks

315

-1.75

0.406

 

-1.65

51.28

 

*partial war year

 

1900-1919 teams

 

 

 

 

 

Win %

Margin

% of

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

x 1000

of

total

 

Total

Equivalent

 

 

 

 

 

loss

runs

 

"Z"

Wins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1903

Cardinals

 

314

-2.09

0.388

 

-1.83

47.99

1903

Senators

 

314

-1.82

0.387

 

-1.67

50.95

1904

Senators

 

252

-1.95

0.37

 

-2.08

43.5

1905

BeanEaters

 

316

-1.7

0.39

 

-1.74

49.6

1906

BeanEaters

 

325

-1.59

0.386

 

-1.59

52.39

1906

Americans

 

318

-1.56

0.397

 

-1.69

50.63

1907

Senators

 

325

-1.2

0.423

 

-1.39

55.94

1907

Cardinals

 

340

-1.22

0.408

 

-1.39

55.96

1908

Cardinals

 

318

-1.65

0.372

 

-1.78

48.92

1908

Highlanders

 

331

-1.64

0.392

 

-1.67

50.88

1909

Doves

 

 

294

-1.6

0.389

 

-1.8

48.53

1909

Senators

 

276

-1.77

0.367

 

-1.97

45.49

1910

Browns

 

305

-1.85

0.377

 

-1.85

47.66

1911

Browns

 

296

-1.61

0.411

 

-1.73

49.89

1911

Rustlers

 

291

-2.06

0.407

 

-1.74

49.74

1912

Braves

 

340

-1.08

0.446

 

-1.35

56.61

1912

Highlanders

 

329

-1.38

0.428

 

-1.4

55.86

1913

Cardinals

 

340

-1.48

0.412

 

-1.43

55.25

1914

Naps

 

 

333

-1.09

0.431

 

-1.43

55.29

1915

Athletics

 

283

-2.23

0.38

 

-2

45.05

1916

Athletics

 

235

-2.14

0.365

 

-2.2

41.45

1917

Pirates

 

331

-0.83

0.439

 

-1.36

56.5

1919

Athletics

 

257

-2.04

0.381

 

-2.05

44.11

 

Pre-1900 teams

 

Obviously with this grouping of teams, the equivalent wins measure is somewhat pointless, but nevertheless humorous because the numbers used to attain it are based on more modern statistics. So please disregard that category other than to get a general overview of the teams versus each other.

 

 

 

 

 

Win %

Margin

% of

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

x 1000

of

total

 

Total

Equivalent

 

 

 

 

 

loss

runs

 

"Z"

Wins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1871

Forest Cities

 

160

-2.24

0.446

 

-1.82

48.16

1872

Eckfords

 

103

-9

0.269

 

-4.34

2.798

1872

Nationals

 

0

-10

0.296

 

-4.42

1.406

1873

Resolutes

 

87

-8.74

0.247

 

-4.42

1.437

1873

Marylands

 

0

-21

0.146

 

-7.5

-54

1874

Canaries

 

191

-5.91

0.31

 

-3.28

21.9

1875

Nationals

 

179

-8.25

0.24

 

-4.02

8.694

1875

Elm Cities

 

149

-4.83

0.3

 

-3.25

22.52

1875

Centennials

 

143

-4.86

0.336

 

-3.16

24.14

1875

Westerns

 

77

-3.31

0.338

 

-3.08

25.61

1875

Atlantics

 

45

-6.95

0.232

 

-4.26

4.332

1876

Reds

 

 

138

-5.25

0.291

 

-3.4

19.81

1883

Quakers

 

173

-4.55

0.33

 

-3.01

26.78

1884

Nationals

 

190

-3.69

0.341

 

-2.75

31.58

1884

Quicksteps

 

111

-4.39

0.235

 

-3.5

17.92

1889

Colonels

 

196

-3.28

0.367

 

-2.56

34.94

1890

Alleghenys

 

169

-4.62

0.326

 

-3.05

26.06

1899

Spiders

 

130

-4.69

0.297

 

-3.3

21.67

 

Rankings
 

1920-present teams

 

1. 1942 Phillies*: 44

2. 1962 Mets: 44

3. 2003 Tigers: 45

4. 1935 Braves: 46

5. 1941 Phillies: 46

6. 1932 Red Sox: 47

7. 1928 Phillies: 48

8. 1938 Phillies: 48

9. 1939 Browns: 48

10. 1937 Browns: 49

11. 1926 Red Sox: 49

12. 1925 Red Sox: 50

13. 1963 Mets: 50

14. 1920 Athletics: 50

15. 1921 Phillies: 50

16. 1954 Athletics: 51

17. 1996 Tigers: 51

18. 1940 Phillies: 51

 

The 1942 Phillies come out on top, but 1942 was a partial war year. So this isn’t conclusive. But while not as well known as the ’62 Mets, the Phillies were bad. They finished the season 42-109 (.278) They were consistently dominated by every team in the league and were shutout 16 times. In games decided by five runs or more, they were 3-32. They actually had a decent record (23-29) in one run games, indicating that they were perhaps lucky, or at least could somehow find a way to win the close ones. They may have been even worse than their record.

 

An equally strong argument can be made for the 1962 Mets – the difference was about three tenths of a win, and given that the study is certainly imperfect, the Mets may certainly have been the worst team ever. Their win/loss record of 40-120 is just a .250 winning percentage. Amazingly the Mets did tie the season series with the Cubs and won four shutouts. Their final record seems a little more indicative of their actual strength than the Phillies’.

 

The 2003 Tigers, on the other hand, were a different type of case. While horrible, they were bad because the organization was using young players, trying to build a dynasty, which, by 2006, would be successful. Yet that one year is memorable for Detroit baseball fans as the Tigers rallied at the very end of the season to avoid ending up with the fewest wins in baseball history.

 

Of teams from 1900 to 1920, the 1916 Athletics, as many people believe, were certainly the worst. The “hundred dollar infield” finished just 36-117. A case could also be made for the 1919 Athletics or 1904 Senators as the worst team ever. And the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, although off the range of the list, won the equivalent to 22 games today. Of course, in the 1870s, the Marylands did not win a single game.

 

 

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