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July 29, 2011
The Horror of Their Times: The Glory of Baseball's Worsts
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I was rooting this week for the Seattle Mariners to go all the way, to set the record for the longest losing streak in baseball history. They fell seven losses short.
I'm rooting for Adam Dunn to stay in the lineup and qualify for the batting title with an average of .178 or lower, which would be the lowest of the live-ball era, breaking Rob Deer's 1991 mark. Dunn is looking good so far, hitting .163. Even if you count the deadball days, Dunn's average would qualify as the fourth-worst of all time.
Can you imagine the excitement if a player were on his way to the fourth-best batting average of all time? He'd have to be hitting .420. We'd all be going crazy over this guy because he'd be doing something so rare.
It's just as rare on the bottom of the list. So I'm going crazy, folks.
I'm a veteran at this. I have cheered Mark Reynolds over the last three years as he's twice shattered the record for striking out in a season and once fallen a dozen shy of his own mark. I pulled for the 2003 Detroit Tigers to lose more games than the modern loss champion 1962 New York Mets did. For about two weeks in 1988, I rooted for the Baltimore Orioles to go 0-162.
I've had my eye on the Mariners, a team that otherwise holds no particular interest for me, since last year, when I caught on that they were historically bad at getting on base and scoring runs.
It was actually the Houston Astros that grabbed my attention with their .290-plus on-base percentage at midseason, but they improved a bit and I zeroed in on the Mariners, fascinated by their rare futility.
The 2010 Mariners finished with a .298 OBP, the first team to fail to reach .300 since the 1989 Atlanta Braves and the first to do so in the designated hitter league since the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays of the strike-shortened 1981 season.
If you throw out baseball's two deadball eras, which I'll define as before 1920 and from 1960 to '69, the Mariners were only the 19th team in 1,754 team seasons to fail to get on base 30 percent of the time.
I followed closely last year as the Mariners refrained from touching home plate at a historic pace. They put me through the ringer. Sprinkled in among their four shutouts in August, each greeted by a little fist pump from me, were games when they scored nine and seven runs and three times they scored six. Never mind my home team, the San Francisco Giants. This was torture.
But the M's slumped beautifully down the stretch, scoring seven runs in a season-ending four-game series against the Oakland A's to finish with an average of 3.17 runs per game.
That was 1.28 runs below the American League average, only the fifth time since 1900 that a team failed to come within 1.25 runs of the mean. The last team to fall that short was the 1942 Philadelphia Phillies, celebrated in the book "On a Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place: Baseball's Worst Teams," which needless to say is a favorite of mine.
At some point during the year I made up a little stat. The Mariners were obviously horrendous offensively, but 3.17 runs per game didn't tell the story. There were plenty of teams in lower scoring eras that averaged well under three runs a game.
So to give the raw totals a simple context I looked at team scoring as a percentage of league average. Our friends the '42 Phillies had the lowest mark ever, scoring at a rate of 66.92 percent of league average. The 1932 Boston Red Sox were second at 70.36, followed by the 1909 Washington Senators at 71.22.
The 2010 Mariners, scoring 71.24 percent of league average, were fourth.
By that measure—admittedly not the most rigorous in the world, but enlightening nonetheless—the Mariners were the fourth-worst offensive team in major-league history. If you were paying attention last year, as I was, you'd have noticed something more rare than a team winning 110 games in a season. It was awe-inspiring. I'm not kidding.
It's a cliché that given baseball's long history, any time you see something that's never happened or that's happened only a handful of times, you've really seen something special, but it's also true. Again, imagine the fuss that would have been made last year if some team had had the fourth-best offense of all time, by any measure you want to use.
For some reason, I'm more interested in hitting futility than pitching failure, but I can appreciate a really bad run on the mound too.
J.A. Happ of the Astros has given up at least five runs in each of his last six starts. His ERA-plus stands at 61. In the unlikely event that that doesn't change and he pitches another 51 and two-thirds innings, he would have the third-worst ERA-plus of all time among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Is that exciting or what!
"Ahead" of him: Rube Bressler of the 1915 Philadelphia A's, who would soon become an outfielder, and Gene Wright of the 1903 Cleveland Naps and St. Louis Browns, who would soon become a former big leaguer. Eleven pitchers have had an ERA-plus under 65 while qualifying, and only one has done it more recently than 1927: the late, magnificent Jose Lima of the Kansas City Royals in 2005, with a 63.
Before you start thinking I'm just a heartless bastard who loves to see others fail, let me say there's something beautiful in these horrific events, and that is that they end.
The longest losing streak and the most dismal player slumps all stop. Every team turns things around sooner or later, though until this year it's been looking like Pittsburgh might be an exception.
And even if a slumping player never does pull out of it, he'll eventually retire. That can be a little sad, but it's also joyous because it marks an end to the misery. The formerly good player hangs 'em up and, immediately and for the rest of his life, he's that good player again.
It's like in the movies when an old and infirm character finally succumbs, and the young version of that person, unencumbered by age, pain, and cheesy mid-century special-effects makeup, rises from the body, strong and beautiful as before. Look! She's Gene Tierney again!
When Roberto Alomar was inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend, he was the wonderful slugging second baseman of his prime years, not the husk of a player who staggered through three awful seasons with the Mets, White Sox, and Diamondbacks.
Outside of a bitter Mets blogger or two, nobody wrote, "But what about that horrible year and a half in New York?" (Inside of a bitter Mets blogger, it's too dark to read.)
The teams with the two longest losing streaks in modern baseball history, the 23-loss 1961 Phillies and the 21-loss 1988 Orioles, both had winning records the next year. Five of the seven teams with 20-game losing streaks had a winning season within five years. Three teams have won the World Series within five years of losing 16 in a row.
The worst team of this century, the '03 Tigers, who lost 119 times, won the pennant three years later. I could go on.
Another cliché: bad times make the good all the sweeter. Shouldn't we embrace them because of that? How can you not celebrate that extra level of ecstasy enjoyed by fans of outhouse-to-penthouse wonders such as the 1969 Mets, the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, and about half of the Braves teams that ever won anything before 1992?
Surviving the hideous makes the glorious shine brighter. Because of the redemptive nature of baseball, the cycles of losing and winning, the darkest times always carry the seeds of light. That's why I love them, revel in them, root for the extremes.
Also, I'm a heartless bastard who loves to see others fail.
So step toward the light, Adam Dunn. History awaits.