EDITOR’S NOTE: As you know, Josh Timmers had to leave BCB and SB Nation as a paid contributor due to California’s AB5 law. He wrote up the details here last March.
However, SB Nation policy allows people like Josh to be unpaid contributors. The only requirement on me as site manager is that I can’t specifically require him to write anything.
So when he sent me some of the info below and thought it might make a nice article, I said sure, go for it. I appreciated him putting this together and I’m sure you’ll be happy to be able to read more from him. Enjoy!
When MLB announced fifty years ago that it was returning in 2020 with an abbreviated 60-game schedule, I knew that a lot of teams were going to set a new all-time franchise record for the fewest wins in a season. (Was it fifty years ago? It really feels like fifty years ago. I think I was still working here back then.) But what I was really interested in was if every team would set a new franchise low for wins. After all, teams play 162-game seasons and even the infamously-bad 1962 Mets won 40 games that year. Any team that wins 40 games this year is playing .667 ball and is at a 108-win pace in a 162-game season. We knew the Mets weren’t going to play 108-win-quality baseball in 2020.
Almost every team in baseball history wins between 30 and 70 percent of their games each season. So clearly, every team was likely to set a new franchise-low for wins in a season when MLB is only playing 37 percent of a schedule this year.
Except, of course, the 162-game season only dates back to 1961, or 1962 in the National League. Before that, teams played 154 games but even the worst teams in that era had win totals in the upper-30s. So a team that was really bad in 1920 but really good in 2020 had at least small chance to exceed those win totals and not set a new franchise record for fewest wins in a season.
That really covers the history of the American League, which dates back to 1901. The National League is different. The NL dates back to 1876 and teams did not play over 100 games in a season until the mid-1880s. In fact, in 1877, the Cubs (then called the White Stockings, of course) played exactly 60 games! Just like this year! So in order for the Cubs to avoid setting a new franchise mark for fewest wins, they would just have to beat their 1877 total.
I’m happy to report that the Cubs did that over the weekend. The 1877 White Stockings went 26-33-1. The Cubs won their 27th game on Saturday.
The only other team still in existence from those origins in 1876 is the Braves. But the then-Boston Red Stockings were a very, very good team in the 1870s, often winning more than two-thirds of their games. In fact, the Braves’ lowest win total in a season is 38, which they did twice. In 1881, Boston dipped below .500, but the season had expanded and they went 38-45 in 83 games. In 1935, the Braves had one of the worst seasons of all-time, going 38-115 in 153 games.
The Braves are currently 29-20. They’d have to go 9-2 the rest of the way just to tie their low-water mark for wins.
But one other major league team has also already passed its franchise-low for wins in a season: the Phillies. There was a Philadelphia team in the NL in 1876, but they got kicked out for refusing to play road games. A new Philadelphia team joined the league in 1883 and the brand-new Philadelphia Quakers went 17-81-1 for a whopping .173 winning percentage. That’s almost bad as the infamous 1899 Cleveland Spiders, but at least the proto-Phillies got to stay in the league. The Phillies are 24-23 at the moment.
As the 19th Century rolled along, the National League added more teams and more games. Back then, there was a lot less parity in baseball than MLB would ever allow today, so some teams put up some pretty terrible win totals. But it was still pretty difficult to not put up a win total that was at least in the upper 20s.
Since 1901, there have been five MLB seasons that did not play out their full schedule. Most of them only lost a dozen or so games, so the only ones worth mentioning here are the 1981 season and the 1994 season, both of which were cut short by labor strikes. The 1981 teams only played between about 106 and 112 games and the 1994 season only got in around 113 to 117 games. But that’s still at least 45 games more than MLB is playing this season, so there won’t be too many, if any, teams exceeding their 1981 win totals in 2020.
Here are all 30 MLB teams, ranked by their all-time lowest single-season win totals.
Phillies: 17-81-1 (1881)
Pirates: 23-113-2 (1890)
Cubs: 26-33-1 (1877)
Cardinals: 29-102-2 (1897)
Athletics: 36-117-1 (1916) and 36-104 (1919) (Both teams were in Philadelphia)
Blue Jays: 37-69 (1981)
Braves: 38-45 (1881) and 38-115 (1935) (Both teams in Boston)
Twins: 38-113-6 (1904 — in Washington)
Mets: 40-120-1 (1962)
Dodgers: 40-64-5 (1884 — in Brooklyn)
Padres: 41-69 (1981)
Orioles: 43-111 (1939 — in St. Louis)
Red Sox: 43-111 (1932)
Tigers: 43-119 (2003)
Mariners: 44-65-1 (1981)
Giants: 46-50-2 (1883 — in New York)
Angels: 47-69 (1994)
White Sox: 49-102-1 (1932)
Yankees: 50-102-1 (1912)
Royals: 50-53 (1981)
Diamondbacks: 51-111 (2004)
Astros: 51-111 (2013)
Marlins: 51-64 (1994)
Indians: 51-102-4 (1914)
Nationals: 52-110 (1969 — in Montréal)
Reds: 52-87-3 (1901) and 52-99-1 (1934)
Rangers: 52-62 (1994)
Rockies: 53-64 (1994)
Brewers: 53-62 (1994)
Rays: 55-106 (2002)
Can any team join the Cubs and Phillies and avoid setting a new season-low wins record? The obvious one is the Cardinals, who are 21-22 right now and only need to get to 29 wins to tie their low mark and 30 to be over it. But the Cardinals are only going to get in 58 games this season, unless they have to play a makeup doubleheader the day after the season is scheduled to end. St. Louis needs to go 8-7 the rest of the way just to tie their win total, assuming they don’t miss any more games. It’s going to be close.
The A’s are at 30-19 out west, so they just have to go 7-4 the rest of the way to avoid tying their franchise record for fewest wins. Fangraphs projects them to win 36 games this year.
The Dodgers have been winning at a blistering pace this season and certainly looked like they could play the .667 baseball necessary to win at least 40 games. But right now they stand at 34 wins with 11 to play. Los Angeles also needs to go 7-4 the rest of the way to beat 40 wins. That seems quite possible for them, but they have six games left with the Padres and Athletics. It’s going to be tough for them, but within reach.
The Twins, Blue Jays, Braves and Padres all still mathematically have a shot at beating their all-time low for wins, but all of them would have to go 9-2 or something like that the rest of the way to avoid it.
Then there are the Pirates. The Pirates are so bad that they are unlikely to beat their 23-win 1890 season. It’s still possible, I guess, but the Pirates would have to go 10-2 the rest of the way. Pittsburgh has to go 3-8 the rest of the way just to tie that Phillies mark for the fewest wins in any season.
Just a couple more notes:
- The Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays have the best “lowest-season win total” of all 30 MLB teams, which makes sense when you remember that they are one of only two teams (along with Arizona) that have never played fewer than 161 games in a season before 2020.
- The Royals’ low mark for wins is 50-53 in 1981. They made the expanded playoffs that year. Many teams will join the Royals this year in that unusual distinction.
- The Rangers didn’t make the playoffs in 1994 because there were no playoffs that year, but their record-low 52-62 was good enough for a divisional title. It was the franchise’s first title of any kind. At least the Rangers will no longer have to consider the season with their fewest-ever win total as their first divisional pennant anymore.
- How amazing is it that a team that dates back to 1901 like the Tigers set their low mark for wins in 2003, a full 162-game season? And that their second-worst single-season win total was last year with 47?
Too long, didn’t read: The Cubs and Phillies are the only two teams that have already passed the franchise record for fewest wins in a season. The three teams with a good chance to join them are the Cardinals, A’s and Dodgers. But most teams will unsurprisingly set a new mark in this shortened 60-game season.
All win totals are from baseball-reference.com