The Tigers and Padres aren’t that bad, it turns out. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for both of them, but the Tigers have cobbled together some competent starting pitchers, and the Padres have another fantastic bullpen helping them. Both teams are within six games of first place, which doesn’t mean they’ll make the postseason, but there’s at least a little reason for fans to hold out hope. People didn’t take the Twins seriously last year, either.
Both of those teams were supposed to be 100-loss contenders. Both of them were supposed to be horrible. For now, they’re fine. Good for them. Good for their fans.
Good for baseball. Because if these two teams were awful, this entire season would have had to be canceled on account of gross baseball. There are six teams — six! — with a winning percentage under .400. If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is. Here’s a graph that shows the percentage of teams that have finished under .400 in every season for the last 100 years:
The big honkin’ bar on the right belongs to 2018, and the offending teams are the Rangers, Orioles, Royals, White Sox, Marlins, and Reds. If these results hold, a fifth of the teams in baseball would finish with a winning percentage under .400*, which would be the most since 1969, when there were four expansion teams. There were only three seasons worse before that, but all of them came with 16-team leagues, which meant that the difference between three and four .400 teams was substantial enough to push them into historical territory.
I chose .400 as the arbitrary benchmark because winning percentage was the easiest to compare across eras of expansion and seasons of different length. But if you want something nice and round, we can do 100-loss teams:
The Rangers have escaped to the land of the normal if you use this metric, but even after accounting for the numbers of teams in each year (20 starting in 1961, 24 in 1969, 26 in 1977, 28 in 1993, and 30 in 1998), you can tell that something is off in 2018 compared to the rest of the seasons. Most years, there is one 100-loss team, maybe two. In 2002, there were four, and it was the highest total ever.
In 2018, there might be five.
I’m not complaining. Not yet. We’ll get to the one complaint in a bit. Right now, though, I’m fascinated. And for all the talk about tanking, I’m not sure that’s the only thing going on here. The Royals weren’t actively tanking, not quite, and neither were the Orioles. The Reds are rebuilding, sure, but they were hoping for a season like the Braves or Phillies, where their accumulated talent started to turn the corner. The purest tankers would seem to be the Marlins, White Sox, and Tigers, and look at that, one of them is actually doing OK. It’s the other teams that are even messier than expected.
Before we get too agog with these numbers, there’s an obvious caveat at play: There’s still a lot of baseball left. Some of these teams will progress to the mean, and we’ll get just one or two 100-loss teams, just like a normal year. It’s still likely that 2002 will remain alone on an island of crapulence.
That’s not fun, though. I want us to travel down a rabbit hole and explore what it would mean if all of these teams really are this bad.
Brutal attendance and ratings, for one. If you want to attend a White Sox/Royals game in September, there will be good seats available. I know that it’s trendy to put an uncompetitive team on the field and relive the glory years of the 2014 Astros, but it still sucks while it’s happening. There will be a lot of unwatchable baseball this summer, and I reckon that not that many people will be watching, by definition.
Mostly, though, I’m fascinated by the pennant races. Someone is going to get hosed because of all these garbage teams.
Take the 2002 season, for example. The Mariners had Ichiro in his prime, Edgar Martinez still mashing baseballs, and the ageless Jamie Moyer. They were coming off one of the best seasons in modern baseball history, and they were still an excellent team.
They missed the postseason.
The Red Sox had a Pythagorean record of 100-62, and they were a wondrous combination of Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. This was still in the drought days, too, so you know they were desperate for another October chance.
They missed the postseason.
This is the corollary to the golden age of crappy teams: They lead to better teams soaking up more victories, which sends postseason inflation soaring. The second wild card helps this a lot, but if this pace holds, you would have the 108-win Red Sox facing the 102-win Astros in the American League Wild Card Game.
This pace won’t hold, idiot.
I know. But what if it does? What if these six teams really are this awful, which leads to four teams in the AL close to 100 losses or over? It’s especially nice how they’re spread out among the divisions, too, so that every team gets a nice helping of terrible opponents, which allows them to gorge on wins.
We’re closer than ever to a scenario like 1993, where the 103-win Giants didn’t make the postseason. They didn’t because the 104-win Braves got to gorge on the terrible expansion Rockies, winning all 13 games against them. This is like that, except there are several expansion-worthy teams all screwing up so badly, that not even two extra postseason spots are guaranteed to help.
There might be a team that goes home after a single postseason loss after winning 100 games in the regular season. That’s the real cost of this golden age of terrible baseball. If it’s real and not an early-season mirage.
It’s probably an early-season mirage. Some of these bad teams will rise out of the bog, and some of these teams on a 100-win pace will stumble, at least a little bit. I’m not going to name names, but I can already feel the dread and loathing spilling out from the Northwest, but that’s between you and y’all.
As a chaos connoisseur, you have to know that I’m rooting for six 100-loss teams and an excellent team going home disgruntled and mortified.
If you thought that the only downside to awful baseball teams was all the awful baseball, don’t forget about all the great baseball that won’t be rewarded. It will be cruel and capricious, and I’m still mad at the Rockies for 1993, so I guarantee that the scars will last.
Baseball might be in a golden age of crappy teams. If this holds, there will be consequences. Hilarious, miserable consequences.