Major League Baseball's 1994 strike cost fans many things. It took away Matt Williams' chase for 62 homers, Tony Gwynn's pursuit of the first .400 batting average since the days of Ted Williams, robbed us of a full season of Jeff Bagwell defying everything we knew about the hitter-hating Astrodome, and, of course, little thing they play at the end of the season known as the World Series. None of those compare to the worst of what was taken away from us, though: A playoff team with a losing record.
Teams have come close to making the playoffs with a losing record before, but it's never happened. Within the last decade, the 2005 Padres won the National League West with an 82-80 record, and in 2006, the Cardinals went 83-78 in 161 games, skipping the 162nd as it (somehow) wasn't necessary to sort out the postseason picture, since the second-place Astros had already lost 80 games. No one has actually managed this feat of futility for real, though, and 1994 was our best chance.
It was the first season with the three-division format and the wild card, and all four of the clubs that ended up out in the AL West were bad (or, at least, weren't much good). The Rangers had been solid enough in 1993, going 86-76 to finish second in the then much larger West, but the Mariners were just a hair over .500 while the Angels and Athletics both lost over 90 games. When the strike hit on August 12, 1994, the AL West had four teams with a losing record out of four, with the first-place Rangers sitting at 52-62.
That alone is bad enough, but let's slap some context on this to drive home how absurd it would have been for the 1994 Rangers or one of the teams trailing them -- after all, the last-place Angels were just 5.5 back of Texas at the time of the strike -- to make the playoffs. Were the Rangers playing in a division that had even one half-decent team in it, they would have been chasing the newly introduced wild card instead of the division. Except their .451 winning percentage would have put them behind eight other teams gunning for the wild card -- another way to say that is the Rangers trailed every single team in the American League for a playoff spot, except for their three pals in the AL West who were somehow worse.
The Tigers -- in the AL East at the time, since the Devil Rays had not been introduced yet and the Brewers remained an AL property -- sat 18 games behind the division-leading Yankees, but were ever so slightly ahead of the Rangers in the standings with a .461 winning percentage. The Brewers had the same winning percentage as the Tigers, too, while sitting in the AL Central's basement, 15 games back of the White Sox. The Rangers were bad, but there they were, with a better chance at October than almost everyone besides the Yankees in spite of that important point.
The Rangers could hit a bit, as they had Ivan Rodriguez (118 OPS+), Will Clark (a team-leading 141 OPS+), a 25-year-old Rusty Greer (132 OPS+), and they even managed to get one a great season at designated hitter out of Jose Canseco, who was just 29 but had already seen his numbers tail off from his peak. Dean Palmer and Juan Gonzalez were not quite what they would become, but they weren't bad, either, so the Rangers had that going for them. There were too many holes in the rest of the lineup, though, leading to an overall OPS+ of 104 in spite of all these major contributions. That was good for fifth in the AL, but fifth wasn't good enough for a rotation that was the second-worst in the majors by ERA+.
Neither Kevin Brown nor Kenny Rogers were of the quality you might associate with them at this point, with Brown being very average and Rogers just a bit above. Bruce Hurst was a shell of his former self in what would end up being his last season, while pitchers like rookie Rick Helling -- just 23 at the time -- weren't there yet from a developmental perspective, and they performed nearly as poorly as the pitchers they were meant to replace. The top pitchers on the club after Rogers and Brown were likely relievers Darren Oliver and Tom Henke, with everyone else a disaster or simply not around long enough to undo all the previous damage.
Angels' hopes on slumping offense, thin pitching
Losing Tyler Skaggs isn't exactly a killing blow, but the starting rotation at least had the hope of improvement while he was still functional. Now they have to pin their hopes on a slumping offense and less promising pitchers.
What's especially odd is where all this poor production came to be a problem. The Rangers went 21-20 against the far superior AL East, and posted a 23-20 mark against the Central, but had all of eight wins in 30 tries against their AL West opponents. They were 20-19 against teams over .500 and 32-43 against teams under that threshold, and their complete inability to beat teams that they theoretically should have was their undoing. At least, until the strike ended any dreams of a flat-out bad team showing up in October, anyway.
The Rangers' closest competition, the A's, were managing the opposite. They had gone 17-9 against the lowly AL West, but a combined 34-54 against everyone else. The Mariners had done the same, going 19-7 against the West but 30-56 against the rest of the AL: if the Rangers had just been able to beat the teams who couldn't beat anyone else, they would probably have just been in Cardinals/Padres territory, and not noteworthy 20 years later. Instead, they stand alongside the other unfinished business of 1994, as a piece of history that we were robbed of with both the start of the strike and the eventual cancellation of the World Series just over a month later.
It might not have the same sex appeal as batting .400 or breaking a decades-old home run record, but you'd be hard pressed to say a losing team making the playoffs wouldn't have been just as historically significant. And funnier.