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March 7, 2013
In A Pickle
The Worst All-Around Teams in History
In December, I created a toy for figuring out which teams had the best all-around performances along the lines that we talk about multi-tool players, i.e. not by looking at final standings or even Pythagorean record but by examining the team's rank in four Baseball Prospectus metrics that cover the four ways baseball teams win or lose games:
Averaging the ranks and adjusting for the fact that it's easier to finish with a high rank in a league with fewer teams, we saw that the 1974 Dodgers were the best all-around team in the period from 1950 to the present. This raised the understandable question of who the worst teams were by this method. Spring is in the air, so let's do this.
Here's what we'll look at:
Easing in slowly and with the squad you knew would make an appearance here, the worst team of 2012 by this measure was the Houston Astros, who finished:
This is somewhat historically bad. Out of 1,532 teams in my spreadsheet (created by the very kind Dan Turkenkopf before he departed for diamonds even more emerald than our own—specifically, the front office of the Tampa Bay Rays), the 2012 Astros are the 1,517th-best. Or 16th-worst, if you insist, just outside the bottom one percent. (Hooray for avoiding the bottom one percent!)
Fernando Rodriguez led all relievers in innings pitched but had a 5.37 ERA and somehow found a way to lose 10 games. Playing time for hitters was spread around like hummus in Williamsburg, with only Jose Altuve managing more than 439 plate appearances. And baserunning and defense? Well, hey there, Carlos Lee.
But it's not entirely fun to break the team down because they weren't trying and they're so fresh and so recently in existence that we remember them not trying. We can't simply marvel at their roster without much memory of the context in which their season occurred the way we might the rosters of older teams. Their teardown remains far too much in full effect for that—note, for instance, that last year's top TAv man, Jed Lowrie, has been sold off to the A's this offseason and the no. 2 pitcher by PVORP, Wandy Rodriguez, was exiled to Pittsburgh last year.
Let's move on, then, to the curiosity: a truly awful team that happened to be good at one little thing. The 2005 Colorado Rockies finished 67–95 by bringing up the rear in TAv and PADE and finishing 29th in FRA. But hey, guess what? They were sixth in BRR! Wooooooooo! BR— no?
The Rockies had a pair of good hitters (Todd Helton and Matt Holliday) but the rest of the regulars were mediocre at best: Garret Atkins, The Other Luis Gonzalez, Cory Sullivan, Clint Barmes, and Brad Hawpe all had batting lines that in 2012 in San Diego would have made you feel fuzzy in your special places but in 2005 in Colorado didn't live up to those fuzzy standards.
Taking the air out of the batting lines applies to pitchers too, but the pitchers who actually threw baseballs for this Rockies team were so awful that their numbers are bloated and puffy anyway. When the fifth-worst FRA on the team belongs to the person who threw the second-most innings (Jamey Wright), you have not constructed a solid pitching staff. In a league that scored about four-and-a-half runs per game, just two pitchers with at least 50 innings beat even a 4.90 FRA: Sun-Woo Kim (53 1/3, 4.30) and Brian Fuentes (74 1/3, 3.30, legitimately good). One hundred twenty-some-odd innings of good pitching do not cancel out the dozens and hundreds and thousands ... okay, the hundreds of innings that felt like thousands because they were being pitched interminably by hurlers who couldn't get anyone out.
As to the scampering around on the dirt part of the game, you can see the BRR for all the Rockies that year here. The major point you'll notice is how little there is to notice. Cory Sullivan had +5, so that's nice, but Todd Helton being the worst at just -2 typifies the team's baserunning rank more than Sullivan does: a few contributions from a bunch of players and no major negatives, all adding up to, sure, a solid finish in the league rank, but, frankly, screw-all in the context of things, given, remember, 67 wins and caboose position in the areas on the field that actually matter.
For what it's worth, here are the worst teams to finish in single digits in the other categories:
FRA: 1980 Cubs, 25th out of 26 in PADE, TAv, and BRR, ninth in FRA
TAv: 1983 Red Sox, last in PADE and BRR, 23rd of 26 in FRA, and eight in TAv
PADE: 2005 Dodgers, 29th of 30 in BRR, 26th in TAv, 24th in FRA, sixth in PADE
Okay, one more: the worst all-around rank for a team that actually led the league in one of these categories was the 2006 Royals, who were the best baserunning team around but were last in FRA, 28th in PADE, and 25th in TAv. They lost 100 games.
I lied. One more one more on the flip: the best all-around rank for a team that finished last in one category was the 1968 Mets, who were second in PADE and BRR, fourth in FRA, and last (of 20) in TAv. They finished 73-89-1, ninth of 10 in their league, but they won the World Series the next year.
It is entirely possible that I have screwed something up in finding this, but I believe that the only team to finish dead last in at least three categories was the 1993 Colorado Rockies. (Sorry Coloradans. I love your state. Even though I've never been there.) That team was, like the 2005 squad discussed above, bad at all the important stuff (PADE, TAv, FRA) and good at running the bases (12th in BRR). (Maybe this was secretly Colorado's attempt to exploit a market inefficiency all along?)
At least they had the excuse of being an expansion team, though, and, further, they somehow managed to avoid the cellar, finishing ahead of the Padres in their division as well as the Marlins and the Mets in their league. But don't let me downplay how bad this team was: sure, our calculations show the Rockies' home park inflating run-scoring by over 20 percent, but that doesn't excuse leading the league in runs allowed by 131 runs. The gap from Colorado to 27th (of 28) in runs allowed is bigger than the gap from 27th to ninth. Deflate the Rockies' runs allowed at home by their park factor and you still get a home + road total of 871, enough to lead the league by 25. I'd like to talk to you about how this happened, but the answer boils down to things like 15 different pitchers making at least one start and just one making even 20. There weren't any pitchers worth sticking with. (Poor David Nied. At least he married a nice lady from the TV.)
The hitting side ain't great, either. Colorado scored 3.3 runs per game on the road, which is astoundingly bad when the NL was scoring almost 4.5. Take the team out of the park in which my lifetime slash line is .121/.187/.140 (compared to .000/-.041/.000 elsewhere) and they couldn't hit a lick, in other words. Not that you'd want to hit a lick. Slimy.
Note that while the team was managed by Don Baylor, it also had Eric Wedge get nine games and Joe Girardi play half time at catcher, so there was surely no shortage of Leadership and Gutsy Gritty Granky Gartsiness going on. Imagine how horribly this team would have played without that.
Rockies fans are finally ready for the main event, as I've spent much of this article trashing their team, and it's time for someone else to take the abuse. Drumroll, please, as we discuss the least capable team most of us have ever seen, a team that finished 30th in FRA, 30th in PADE, 29th in BRR, and 28th in TAv, a team that lost 90 games and finished 25 games out of the playoffs despite being managed by a possible future Hall of Famer, a team that, without further ado, is named
The 1999 Colorado Rockies!
I really do apologize, Rockies fans. The data say what they say, and what they say is that the team allowed 1028 runs, one of just 10 times a team has allowed 1,000 or more since 1916 and one of just two to occur since 1939. They say that the team, while scoring 906 runs, finished fourth in that department (second in the NL) despite a park that inflated run-scoring by 24 percent. They say that the team was the only one in the league to convert fewer than 68 percent of balls in play into outs.
I wanted to get into some of the individual numbers (such as Pedro Astacio and Jamey Wright being the only worthwhile starting pitchers, Mike DeJean pitching 56 games in relief with an 8.41 ERA, Darryl Kile and Brian Bohanon starting a combined 65 times with ERAs well into the sixes, Neifi Perez hitti—well, Neifi Perez), but they're too mind-boggling for me to comprehend that rabbit-ball era. I invite you to, if you dare. Here are their pitchers and here are their hitters. In the latter you can weep as you see that the aforementioned Neifster led the team in plate appearances by almost 60. Sure, he was durable, but he also appeared 139 times in the top two slots in the lineup. Could the Rockies have scored and allowed a combined 2000 runs with Todd Helton batting second instead of sixth (!) and, more importantly, with a fully healthy Larry Walker? Joaquin Andujar knows how to answer that question.
For what it's worth, this Rockies team was really awful, so even adding 50 games to Walker's 127 probably would not have made a difference: to avoid the cellar in our all-around rankings, Colorado would have needed to finish 22nd in TAv rather than 28th. Walker was a mad Canadian baseballing genius, but he didn't have it in him to raise the entire team's TAv from .247 to .256 all by himself.
It wasn't all bad for Colorado, though, as they led the league in attendance and were clearly a team on the rise, winding up making it into the World Series a mere eight years later.
Obviously from a deeply insightful article like this one, there are many possible takeaways, but I'd highlight, in case you didn't catch my drift, the one that I think is most important: Denverites, it's time to move.
As an appendix, here are the 10 worst all-around teams since 1950, from number 10 down to number one: