After winning the NL Central three straight years, the Houston Astros
limped into the All-Star break with a 30-57 record, the worst in baseball
by five games. Only three teams in history have gone from first to last in one
Year Team Year 1 Year 2
1914 Philadelphia (AL) 99-53 43-109 1986 California 92-70 75-87 1992 Oakland 96-66 68-94
The 1981 Reds and 1994 Expos went from first to last, but neither one made
the postseason in their successful season, the Reds because of the
ridiculous split-season format and the Expos because there was no postseason.
The 1914 A’s are the only team to have a lower winning percentage than the
Astros’ current .345 a year after finishing in first place. And the A’s
weren’t trying to win in 1915, having sold off all their stars in the First
Great Fire Sale.
Surprisingly, of the 43 teams in major-league history to finish in first
place three straight seasons, four of them finished under .500 in year 4:
Year Team Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4
1990 Pittsburgh 95-67 98-64 96-66 75-87 1962 New York (AL) 96-66 104-57 99-63 77-85 1991 Toronto 91-71 96-66 95-67 55-60 1970 Pittsburgh 89-73 97-65 96-59 80-82
None of these four teams would make the playoffs in the five years
following the seasons they collapsed, which is not a good sign for the Astros.
This has been no ordinary collapse in south Texas. The Astros are 30-57,
but that breaks down as 3-19 in one-run games, 27-38 in all other affairs.
That 3-19 record in one-run contests is unfathomable. Last year, the Kansas
City Royals became just the fourth team to play under .260 ball in one-run
Year Team W L Pct.
2000 Houston 3 19 .136 1935 Boston (NL) 7 31 .184 1937 St. Louis (AL) 10 31 .244 1916 Philadelphia (AL) 11 32 .256 1999 Kansas City 11 32 .256
There is, as you might suspect, a strong correlation between records in
one-run games and whether a team outperforms or underperforms their
Pythagorean projection. The Astros have scored 456 runs and allowed 510.
Using the standard Pythagorean formula (Runs^2/(Runs^2+Runs Allowed^2)),
the Astros should have a .444 winning percentage and be 39-48. They have
underperformed their projection by a whopping 8.7 games.
The greatest underperformers of all time, along with their record the
following season (expected records and differences have been rounded):
Year Team Actual Expected Diff. Next Year
1905 Chicago (NL) 92-61 106-47 -14 116-36 1993 New York (NL) 59-103 73-89 -14 55-58 1911 Pittsburgh 85-69 99-55 -14 93-58 1986 Pittsburgh 64-98 77-85 -13 80-82 1984 Pittsburgh 75-87 88-74 -13 57-104
The unluckiest team ever was the 1905 Chicago Cubs, who managed to win 92
games despite falling short of their projection by 14 games. The following
year, they simply had the greatest single-season record of all time. Four
of the five teams improved the following season, and those four all
improved by at least 8 1/2 games. We have no rational explanation for why
the Pittsburgh Pirates made the list twice in a three-year span. And in
1985, the year in between, Pirates pitcher Jose DeLeon went 2-19, despite
having more strikeouts (149) than hits allowed (138).
The Astros are currently 8.7 games behind their projection; however, if
they continue to underperform at the same pace all season, they would
finish 16 games below expectation, which would shatter the record.
By comparison, the five greatest overachievers ever:
Year Team Actual Expected Diff. Next Year
1905 Detroit 79-74 64-89 +15 71-78 1955 Kansas City 63-91 51-103 +12 52-102 1972 New York 83-73 71-85 +12 82-79 1943 Boston (NL) 68-85 56-97 +12 65-89 1984 New York (NL) 90-72 78-84 +12 98-64
The 1984 Mets, featuring rookies Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling
and Sid Fernandez under rookie manager Davey Johnson, had an amazing
record in one-run games behind the performances of Jesse Orosco and
Doug Sisk. The Mets were 15-5 when tied after eight innings that
year. But instead of collapsing the following season, the Mets traded for
Gary Carter and rode Gooden’s best season to within three games of
the Cardinals; they would win it in 1986.
But the other four teams all played at least two games worse the following
season, even though two of them were well under .500 to begin with. In
their first season in Kansas City, the A’s had the second-luckiest season
of all time…and still went 63-91. In English Literature, that’s what they
call an "omen."
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at email@example.com.