Psst, wanna see a freak?
You see, Major League Baseball this year has given us something so twisted, so extraordinary, so enigmatic that it belongs in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. So put on your best gawk and prepare to be amazed.
Right next to General Tom Thumb, Robert Wadlow and the great Frank Lentini you’ll find a burly creature with a half dozen arms that don’t work known as the 2003 Cincinnati Reds–the worst contending baseball team in history.
As of today, the Reds sport a 25-27 record while allowing the opposition to outscore them by a whopping 58 runs. They’re on pace to be outscored by 181 runs over the course of the season. A simple Pythagorean equation would predict a team like the Reds would finish with a record of 66-96 playing that kind of baseball. Technically they should be 21-31 at the moment.
Yet there they are, hovering within striking distance of a division lead at 3.5 games out, record-wise playing respectable baseball. It’s thoroughly abnormal. They should be an afterthought by this point of the season.
A grand total of 15 teams right now have a record of .500 or better in MLB, all but the quickly evaporating Kansas City Royals (-11 run differential) have outscored the opposition.
That’s not unusual. Since 1980 it’s fairly common to see two to three teams make it to the quarter pole (using May 19 as the standard date for that moment) and play .500 or better while being outscored. From 1996-2002, 17 teams did it, averaging -11.2 runs per squad.
You’ll of course note the Reds, who were 22-22 and -51 on May 19, were 40 runs worse than that average.
Only five teams in that 1996-2002 period reached the -20 runs mark:
1997 Pittsburgh Pirates, 21-19, -22 2000 Kansas City Royals, 18-17, -28 2000 New York Mets, 19-18, -24 2000 Toronto Blue Jays, 19-18, -20 2002 Pittsburgh Pirates, 17-16, -24
Again, the Reds are almost twice as bad as the worst club on the list.
In fact, until the 2003 Reds showed up, the worst above .500 baseball club as of May 19 in a given season was the 1984 New York Mets at -38:
The 1986 Detroit Tigers were -33. The 1949 Reds were -31. The 1938 Tigers were -29. The 1987 Seattle Mariners tied the 2000 Royals for fifth at -28.
There’s no one in the -40s, let alone the -50s. Blame it on the pitching. Only the 1941 Philadelphia A’s allowed more runs by May 19 and managed to play at least .500 ball (21-21, 274 total runs allowed, -19). That team finished 64-90, -127. The Reds are now up to 319 runs allowed (a 994-run pace). After that you drop down to the 230 runs given up by the ’00 Blue Jays.
Really the only precedent for the Reds is the 1984 Mets, a team which got to 22-20 at -43 runs. They improved after that, finishing at -24 runs and a 90-72 record.
There’s good news in that tidbit for the Reds. If the club can rebound and score more than its opposition from here on out, it might be able to retain the unlikely wins it’s gained to this point. The ’86 Tigers did it too, finishing 89-73 and +84. An early season run deficit does not equal fate. Only 10 of the 17 teams from the 1996-2002 grouping finished with losing records.
Four of those clubs made the playoffs (’02 Braves, ’01 Cardinals, ’00 Mets and ’96 Orioles). Last year’s A’s were 17-18 and -11 before going on an 86-41, +157 tear. The ’84 San Diego Padres were the first team to make the playoffs with this type of profile. The only other team to do it was the ’87 Minnesota Twins, also the only club from this group to win a World Series. Only one (the ’00 Blue Jays again) from the 1996-1992 group managed to finish better than .500 (83-79) while being outscored (-47, 77-85 Pythagorean W-L expectancy).
History suggests that if these Reds continue to struggle like the ’49 Reds (-143, 62-92) or the ’87 Mariners (-117, 67-95), they’re in for trouble. They can’t expect to keep pace if they don’t start at least scoring in line with what they allow the opposition.
Drama and luck can only take you so far. In fact, it’s uncanny that it’s taken the 2003 Reds this far. Luck may have started catching up with them over the past six games (1-5, -14). If things don’t change, these Reds are going to wind up nothing more than a sideshow attraction stuck between an anonymous bearded lady and a guy who bites the heads off chickens.
Statistical legwork for this article was performed by Brian Erts.
Michael Meehan is a freelance writer from Boston whose favorite professor in college was Theo Epstein’s dad. You can contact Michael at email@example.com
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