The 10 Most Shocking Pennant-Winning Teams in MLB History
Entering the 2013 season, hardly anyone chose the Colorado Rockies or New York Yankees to contend for pennants. Both have shocked the baseball world by overcoming depth and injuries concerns, but we've seen plenty of that throughout MLB history.
The teams featured on this list made journeys all the way to the World Series despite being perceived as underdogs prior to Opening Day. Each slide reflects on previous seasons to explain why there was pessimism, identifies the difference-makers who made the pennant possible and states whether or not the team was victorious in the Fall Classic.
Every generation has had its unlikely successes.
The New York Giants waited nearly a decade-and-a-half between National League pennants. It would have been even longer if not for an unbelievably effective August and September and Bobby Thomson's clutch home run to put away the rival Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951.
Ted Williams showed no rust in his return from World War II service. His MVP-worthy performance in 1946 helped the Boston Red Sox improve from 71 to 104 victories.
From 1998-2006, the Colorado Rockies always finished fourth or fifth in the NL West standings. Rookie phenom Troy Tulowitzki changed the culture in '07. Jeff Francis became one of the first pitchers in franchise history to complete a 200-inning season with a respectable earned run average.
And though the New York Yankees were usually anointed American League favorites prior to their 40 pennant-winning seasons, 1976 was an exception. The Billy Martin-led bunch finally gave George Steinbrenner a World Series appearance thanks to a career year from Mickey Rivers and an untouchable bullpen.
10. 1990 Cincinnati Reds
Prior to 1990
Pete Rose humiliated the Cincinnati Reds organization when his betting habits became public knowledge. Major League Baseball put him on the "permanently ineligible" list in August 1989, which left the team without its skipper.
Lou Piniella actually was not the first choice to fill Cincinnati's managerial vacancy. He only took over when Dallas Green declined.
From the on-field perspective, there was concern about the offense, which had averaged fewer than four runs per game in both 1988 and 1989.
Much of the summer was devoid of drama, as Cincy stormed out to a 9-0 start and never relinquished first place.
Barry Larkin caught fire immediately and received some NL MVP consideration for the first time in his career. Eric Davis wasn't at his best, but he led the Reds in runs batted in nonetheless.
On the pitching side of things, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers were lights-out in the later innings. Jack Armstrong and Jose Rijo pitched significantly more innings than they had the previous season to solidify the starting rotation behind Tom Browning.
Defeated Pittsburgh Pirates in NLCS, 4-2.
Defeated Oakland Athletics in World Series, 4-0.
9. 2003 Florida Marlins
Prior to 2003
The Florida Marlins had no remaining links to the 1997 championship team. In an effort to trim costs, ownership parted with most veterans from that roster, either via trade or free agency. The Fish lost 38 more games the following year, representing one of the worst immediate drop-offs for a reigning World Series winner.
Entering 2003, Florida lacked lineup depth and notable power hitters (only five guys with double-digit home runs in 2002). Trading Cliff Floyd and Kevin Millar in recent months didn't help matters.
Moreover, the Marlins were overly reliant on young, relatively unproven starting pitching. Neither Josh Beckett nor Carl Pavano had any 200-inning seasons in the pros, and prized prospect Dontrelle Willis only pitched at the High-A level the previous summer.
Veteran manager Jack McKeon righted the ship after an inauspicious 16-22 start.
Ivan Rodriguez was integral to the team's success, as he was very productive from the catcher's position (.843 OPS) and the ideal battery mate for a inexperience pitching staff. Dontrelle Willis ran away with the NL Rookie of the Year award (14-6, 3.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP).
The in-season acquisition of Ugueth Urbina and June call-up of 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera were both incredibly important.
Defeated San Francisco Giants in NLDS, 3-1.
Defeated Chicago Cubs in NLCS, 4-3.
Defeated New York Yankees in World Series, 4-2.
8. 1945 Chicago Cubs
Prior to 1945
The 1944 season was the fifth consecutive one in which the Chicago Cubs posted a losing record. Manager Charlie Grimm got them playing competitive baseball from mid-May onward, but the Cubs still finished 30 games from the National League pennant.
Eleven different pitchers were called upon to start that season, and only Claude Passeau did so effectively.
There was hardly any offensive assistance for All-Star Bill Nicholson. The catcher and shortstop positions were particularly weak, and future Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx had been released with virtually nothing left in the tank.
Like everyone else in the Senior Circuit, Chicago was relieved to learn that Stan Musial would spend 1945 in the U.S. Navy. The St. Louis Cardinals would've been even more formidable had that not been the case.
Grimm's club didn't hit its stride until July. During the final three months of the summer, the Cubs ran the bases much more aggressively and with remarkable efficiency.
Passeau enjoyed another remarkable year, while first baseman Phil Cavarretta (.355/.449/.500, 6 HR, 97 RBI) won NL MVP.
7. 1987 Minnesota Twins
Prior to 1987
There was a 16-year dry spell (1971-1986) during which the Minnesota Twins never finished atop the AL West standings. They only finished above .500 in four of those seasons. It didn't seem that 1987 would be the time to buck that trend because Tom Kelly was beginning his first full season as a major league manager.
The Twins pitched horribly the previous season. The bullpen had control issues, and nearly everybody struggled to keep balls in play.
It's not as if the lineup could carry them, either. Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett were the most influential individuals, while former top prospect Billy Beane looked like a lost cause.
The aforementioned trio fueled the offense and performed very well in the field. Gaetti and Puckett actually won Gold Gloves. Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola, co-leaders of the starting rotation, combined for more than 500 innings and nearly 400 strikeouts. They were the only Twins pitchers to record double-digit victories.
Despite good intentions, general manager Andy MacPhail did everything possible to derail initial success. Midseason acquisitions Steve Carlton, Joe Niekro and Dan Schatzeder all posted earned run averages above 6.00 in their stints with Minnesota.
As their minus-20 run differential suggests, the '87 Twins weren't a dominant team. Frankly, they would not have played beyond the regular season if not for the undeniable advantage that the Metrodome provided. This team amassed 56 home wins compared to only 29 on the road.
Defeated Detroit Tigers in ALCS, 4-1.
Defeated St. Louis Cardinals in World Series, 4-3.
6. 1991 Minnesota Twins
Prior to 1991
Following the fluky 1987 championship, the Minnesota Twins slipped to second place, then fifth place and, by 1990, the AL West cellar. Tom Kelly kept his job as skipper, but he understandably felt pressure to stop the regression.
The Twins signed free-agent right-hander Jack Morris after years of struggling against him. They also scooped up veteran Chili Davis for a reasonable price coming off one of his weakest seasons.
There was initial concern when Minnesota began 4-10. By Memorial Day, the team still hadn't reached the .500 mark.
But that's when Morris reverted to his old form. There might not have been a better pitcher from May 24 onward, and nobody enjoyed a stronger September.
Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch was a near-unanimous selection for AL Rookie of the Year, while right-hander Scott Erickson posted sensational second-year stats (20-8, 3.18 ERA, 13 HR in 204.0 IP). Though past their primes, Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett were indispensable.
Defeated Toronto Blue Jays in ALCS, 4-1.
5. 1912 Boston Red Sox
Prior to 1912
The best years for Boston's American League franchise came at the very beginning of the 20th century, a period when Cy Young ruled the baseball world.
But they were nearly a decade removed from a World Series trip when Jake Stahl took over as player/manager. The Red Sox lacked experience—no pitchers 30 or older—and the Philadelphia Athletics had convincingly captured the pennant the season before.
Future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker made the leap from star to legend with a .383/.464/.567 batting line. Coupled with his terrific defense, it's no wonder he earned league MVP honors.
Smoky Joe Wood also annihilated the opposition (34-5, 1.91 ERA, 3.15 SO/BB in 344.0 IP). His ridiculous workload was even more surprising than the quality of it.
A torrid 36-9 stretch that spanned most of June and July allowed the Red Sox to separate from the pack.
Defeated New York Giants in World Series, 4-3.
4. 1991 Atlanta Braves
Prior to 1991
Continuity is characteristic of stable organizations, and the Atlanta Braves certainly didn't have it from 1984-1990. Six different men managed them during that period, including Bobby Cox, who took over midway through the 1990 campaign.
The roster was remarkably young. An NL West title seemed to be out of reach considering that the Braves shared a division with the reigning champions, the Cincinnati Reds.
Atlanta's success would hinge on the ability of its homegrown pitchers to make adjustments.
David Justice's second full season was nearly as memorable as his first. After signing as a free agent the previous December, third baseman Terry Pendleton performed indescribably well en route to the NL MVP. At age 30, he set new personal bests in extra-base hits, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage and runs scored.
Steve Avery took a huge leap forward in the starting rotation, reducing his earned run average from 5.64 to 3.38 while more than doubling his innings total. The improvement in Tom Glavine was also obvious. He led the National League in complete games and took home the Cy Young Award.
And let's not overlook Mike Stanton, who thrived in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen.
Defeated Pittsburgh Pirates in NLCS, 4-3.
Defeated by Minnesota Twins in World Series, 4-3.
3. 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers
Prior to 1959
The Brooklyn Dodgers were a National League juggernaut for much of the 1940s and 1950s. They had clinched six of the past 11 NL pennants before moving westward for the 1958 season.
It was hardly a smooth transition, as the Dodgers finished in seventh place. A handful of position players underachieved, and the young starting rotation went through its share of growing pains.
All-around mediocrity plagued L.A., according to Baseball-Reference.com, as none of the individuals were worth more than 3.7 WAR.
A much-improved pitching staff allowed the Dodgers to hold off the Milwaukee Braves and San Francisco Giants. Don Drysdale's 15 complete games and league-leading strikeout total made an obvious impact, and Sandy Koufax pitched with better command.
First baseman Gil Hodges bounced back from an uncharacteristically poor year and outfielder Wally Moon exceeded everyone's expectations.
The club traded for him following a summer where he batted only .238/.342/.366 with seven home runs. As a 29-year-old, he spiked to .302/.394/.495 and finished fourth in the NL MVP vote.
2. 2008 Tampa Bay Rays
Prior to 2008
The then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays had created a miserable culture where 65-win seasons and last-place finishes were the norm. In its first 10 years of existence, this expansion franchise was never even in position to contend by midseason.
Due to financial restrictions, Tampa Bay could never obtain elite free-agent hitters or reliable veteran pitchers. The club just asked manager Joe Maddon to get the most out of cheap, homegrown players and undesirable has-beens.
The Devil Rays changed to the Rays following a run-of-the-mill 66-96 record in 2007. Despite strong performances from Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, Carlos Pena, James Shields and B.J. Upton, Maddon received useless contributions from his bench and bullpen.
Tampa Bay began 8-11, then won an MLB-best 47 out of 68 between April 22 and July 6. The team endured particularly rough weeks prior to the All-Star break and in early September, but it remained nationally relevant throughout the summer.
Subtle additions like Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Eric Hinske and Troy Percival made meaningful impacts.
The key to 2008 success, however, was dramatic improvement from pitchers who embarrassed the Rays the previous year. In terms of earned run average, starter Edwin Jackson progressed from 5.76 to 4.42. Similarly, bullpen pieces Grant Balfour (6.14 to 1.54), J.P. Howell (7.59 to 2.22) and Dan Wheeler (5.76 to 3.12) thrived and pitched more often.
Pena and Upton actually regressed at ages 30 and 23, respectively, but they continued to play great defense.
Fielding aptitude propped Tampa Bay above the traditional AL East powerhouses—the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees—as the Rays clinched the division title with 98 wins.
Defeated Chicago White Sox in ALDS, 3-1.
Defeated Boston Red Sox in ALCS, 4-3.
Defeated by Philadelphia Phillies in World Series, 4-1.
1. 1969 New York Mets
Prior to 1969
The first seven years of New York Mets history were about as abominable as any seven-year stretch that any MLB team has ever endured.
They annually finished ninth or 10th in the National League standings. From 1962-1966, Baseball-Reference.com tells us that none of their players was worth more than 4.2 WAR in any season.
An anemic offense made the Mets particularly unwatchable. They scored fewer than three runs per game in 1968, so the chatter on the eve of the '69 campaign was pretty gloomy.
The lower mound didn't disturb right-hander Tom Seaver, who pitched heroically for the third straight summer. This time, he had the win-loss record (25-7) to be taken seriously by the baseball writers, who awarded him the NL Cy Young.
Gary Gentry and Jerry Koosman logged fewer innings, but they were practically as unhittable. And as a 22-year-old, Nolan Ryan split time between the bullpen and starting rotation.
Run production thankfully picked up, largely due to Tommie Agee and his 26 home runs. The next-best total for a Mets batter was Art Shamsky's 14, who exclusively saw playing time against southpaws.
What actually made these "Amazin' Mets" amazing enough to win 100 games? A lot of good fortune, plus outstanding individual defense from Agee, catcher Jerry Grote and infielder Bud Harrelson.
Defeated Atlanta Braves in NLCS, 3-0.
Defeated Baltimore Orioles in World Series, 4-1.