The 10 Worst Teams in MLB History

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 25, 2020

The 10 Worst Teams in MLB History

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    2003 Detroit Tigers pitcher Nate Cornejo
    2003 Detroit Tigers pitcher Nate CornejoEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    We fondly remember and debate about some of the best teams in Major League Baseball history, but there is also a much less successful flip side of that coin.

    For every team like the 1927 New York Yankees, 1954 Cleveland Indians and 2001 Seattle Mariners that made compelling cases for all-time greatness, a few others lost roughly three out of every four games during seasons that were downright atrocious.

    While winning percentage was the primary factor in choosing the proper candidates, these 10 worst teams of all time were ranked in ascending order of perceived awfulness in the context of their respective seasons. In other words, it's possible for a team that won 27 percent of its games to be regarded as worse than one that won 25 percent.

    In most of these cases, it was a multiseason stretch of terrible play. Those situations will be addressed within. But for ranking purposes, we tried to focus solely on the single season in question.

The Ancient History

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    Cleveland Spiders
    Cleveland SpidersTranscendental Graphics/Getty Images

    It's hard to compare across eras in any sport, but it would be ludicrous to try to argue whether the 1899 Cleveland Spiders or the 2018 Baltimore Orioles were a worse team. As far as winning percentage is concerned, 32 of the 35 worst seasons in MLB history happened before 1900, and 23 of those teams played 65 or fewer games.

    Rather than try to cherry-pick a couple of the especially terrible teams from the pre-World Series history of the sport and then interweave them with sad seasons from the 1900s and 2000s, we're just going to briefly address our "top" four of those teams before working through a top 10 from the 12 most recent decades.

    4. 1883 Philadelphia Quakers (17-81): One of baseball's oldest franchises didn't get out to a great start. Seven years before changing their name to the Phillies, the Quakers' inaugural season was a disaster. If you think general managers are quick to make coaching changes now, be sure to note the Quakers fired their manager (Bob Ferguson) 17 games into franchise history. They also went 0-14 against the Boston Beaneaters and were outscored 169-67 in those games.

    3. 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys (23-113): A 4-2 start to the season proved to be fool's gold, as the Alleghenys had a winning percentage of .146 the rest of the way. From Aug. 12 through Sept. 2, they lost 23 consecutive games, including one stretch of nine losses in six days thanks to two double-headers and a triple-header. But as far as Baseball Reference is concerned, their two most valuable players were named Doggie Miller and Phenomenal Smith, so that's cool.

    2. 1889 Louisville Colonels (27-111): A 26-game losing streak "highlighted" a campaign that included a manager getting fired after 10 games and an owner who fined his team relentlessly and refused to pay the players before surrendering the franchise in July. Wish there was a 30 for 30 doc on this mess.

    1. 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20-134): No team that played at least 12 games has ever gone winless, but the Spiders gave it the ol' college try. Not only did they have a full-season winning percentage of .130, but their best head-to-head winning percentage against an opponent was .2864-10 against both the Washington Senators and the Louisville Colonels. They finished 84 games back of first place with a run differential of minus-723. They had six separate losing streaks of at least 10 games, topping out at 24.

10. 2013 Houston Astros

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    Carlos Pena
    Carlos PenaGus Ruelas/Associated Press

    The Record: 51-111 (.315 winning percentage)

    The Good

    At least this was a calculated, somewhat self-inflicted wound. After previous management spent too many years trying to hang onto the glory days of the run to the 2005 World Series, the Astros had little choice but to blow it all up and start from scratch. They were awful from 2011-13, but with the assistance of low-risk contracts, great draft position and trash-can banging, they were able to win it all in 2017.

                 

    The Bad

    Houston wasn't batting well in 2011 or 2012 while still in the National League. Transitioning to the AL and needing to add a designated hitter to the mix didn't improve matters. Chris Carter, Brett Wallace and Carlos Pena held down the DH/1B duties for most of the season, but no member of that trio batted better than .223. Moreover, most of the key "contributors" at other positions were too young and inexperienced to deliver with any regularity.

            

    The Ugly

    The batters struggled, but the pitching staff was awful. Houston allowed 848 runs, 60 more than the next-worst team in 2013. These things happen when not a single pitcher on your roster is making so much as $1.2 million, though. The funny thing is eventual 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel tied for the team lead in innings pitched; he just didn't start to morph into a star until the following season.

9. 1932 Boston Red Sox

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    Fenway Park
    Fenway ParkBillie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    The Record: 43-111 (.279 winning percentage)

    The Good

    Smead Jolley (What a name!) only played four seasons in the majors, but he was the high point in an otherwise dismal season in Red Sox lore. Excluding the 12 games he played with the Chicago White Sox to begin the season, Jolley batted .309 with 18 home runs and 99 RBI in Boston, finishing 24th in the AL MVP vote. Equally noteworthy, Dale Alexander batted .372 over 101 games after he was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in June. He finished 11th in that same MVP vote.

                 

    The Bad

    The Red Sox had a few quality hitters, but their pitching was atrocious. They ranked dead last in the majors in both ERA and walk rate, and they would have been last in strikeout rate if the Cincinnati Reds had been just a little bit better at painting the corners. Only four pitchers on the roster had an ERA below 5.00. Only one (Ivy Andrews) had a winning percentage better than 0.460.

            

    The Ugly

    Boston was already 15 games out of first place a mere 26 contests into the season. The Red Sox started out 4-22 and only had one two-game winning streak in the first 78 outings, at which point they were 17-61 and 36 games behind the New York Yankees. They played slightly better the rest of the way but still finished a franchise-worst 64 games out of the running for the World Series.

8. 2018 Baltimore Orioles

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    Manny Machado
    Manny MachadoPatrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The Record: 47-115 (.290 winning percentage)

    The Good

    For the three-plus months the Orioles had him, Manny Machado was worth the price of admission. In 96 games, he batted .315 with 24 home runs and 65 RBI. All three of those marks either matched or exceeded every other Oriole's full-season numbers. And that doesn't even factor in his wizardry with the glove. Even though Baltimore was a disaster, he was voted the starting shortstop for the All-Star Game.

                 

    The Bad

    Two years removed from a playoff berth, Baltimore was 13 games below .500 a mere 25 contests into the season. But it's not like the O's went into some sort of Miami Marlins-esque complete rebuild after a great run. Most of the primary players from that impressive 2016 campaign were still on the roster in 2018. They simply started poorly and never showed so much as a pulse after that. Most notably, Chris Davis batted .168, only hit 16 home runs (compared to 38 in 2016) and posted the third-worst Baseball-Reference WAR by a qualified position player in MLB history.

            

    The Ugly

    A record 41 games below .500 by the All-Star Break, the Orioles were basically forced to trade the 25-year-old face of their franchise (Machado) to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a bouquet of prospects in hopes of at least getting some sort of return on investment before he walked for nothing following a contract year. It hasn't done them much good yet, though. They only improved by a few wins in 2019, and no one is expecting anything good from this team in 2020.

7. 1904 Washington Senators

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    Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

    The Record: 38-113 (.252 winning percentage)

    The Good

    Run support was limited (more on that momentarily), but starting pitcher Casey Patten had a solid season. He was credited with 14 of Washington's 38 wins, logging more than 350 innings pitched with an ERA just north of 3.00. He was no Cy Young or Rube Waddell, but that didn't stop him from toeing the rubber every fourth game and throwing a complete game almost every time out. Gotta love pitching stats from more than three decades ago. 

          

    The Bad

    Name a batting category and the Senators probably ranked dead last in the majors in it. They certainly did for batting average (.227), on-base percentage (.275), runs scored (2.78 per game) and home runs (10). It was Major League Baseball's first dead-ball era, sure, but that ball was especially dead at American League Park II.

            

    The Ugly

    This hot mess was over before it started. The Senators went 1-16-1 in their first 18 games and fired catcher Malachi Kittridge from the latter part of his player/manager role. That's a .059 career winning percentage for Kittridge, which is the worst among the nearly 650 men who managed an MLB team for at least 12 games. Things didn't get much better with outfielder Patsy Donovan running the show for the remainder of the season, but at least they won better than one out of every four games the rest of the way.

6. 1939 St. Louis Browns

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    Just one example of the Browns getting pummeled regularly in 1939
    Just one example of the Browns getting pummeled regularly in 1939John Lindsay/Associated Press

    The Record: 43-111 (.279 winning percentage)

    The Good

    While the Browns certainly didn't have a Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams or Jimmie Foxx on the roster, George McQuinn had a dandy of a year at the plate. He batted .316 with career highs in home runs (20), RBI (94), triples (13) and slugging percentage (.515). McQuinn finished 13th in the AL MVP race and was selected to the first of his six All-Star teams.

          

    The Bad

    Throughout the entire season, the Browns never had so much as a three-game winning streak. They did put together two consecutive wins on 10 separate occasions, but there was never a point at which fans were able to think, "Well, at least we're starting to turn things around!" In defense of Fred Haney, he was their fifth manager in the span of less than two calendar years. It's not like things were going swimmingly in the seasons leading up to 1939.

            

    The Ugly

    Even though leaguewide batting stats were worse than any other season in the 1916-45 time frame, the St. Louis pitching staff was some kind of awful. Of the nine players to log at least 46 innings pitched, Roxie Lawson had the best ERA with a woeful mark of 5.32. The Browns had a team ERA of 6.01, which is the seventh-highest mark since 1900. Compared to how the rest of the league pitched that season, this legitimately might be the worst pitching staff of all time.

5. 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Ralph Kiner
    Ralph KinerKidwiler Collection/Getty Images

    The Record: 42-112 (.273 winning percentage)

    The Good

    If nothing else, at least they had Dick Groat and Ralph Kiner on the roster. The former was a solid candidate for 1952 NL Rookie of the Year who would later win NL MVP in 1960. The latter ended up in the MLB Hall of Fame and led the majors with 37 home runs this yearhis sixth consecutive season doing so. His RBI count was way down from previous years, though, because ducks on the pond were few and far between.

                 

    The Bad

    Like the aforementioned 1939 St. Louis Browns, the Pirates were unable to manage so much as a three-game winning streak. They did sweep a doubleheader on three separate occasions, but they were unable to harness any momentum from those rare good days. Aside from a 10-game losing streak in April, though, at least there weren't any particularly prolonged droughts. Then again, when you lose 10 straight in April, your season is just about finished before May begins.

            

    The Ugly

    There were 13 rookies on Pittsburgh's opening day roster, and Groat wasn't even one of them. (He signed in June, shortly after graduating from Duke.) Seven of the 14 batters who received at least 100 plate appearances and six of the 10 pitchers who logged at least 50 innings were eligible for the NL ROY vote. Perhaps it wasn't as intentional as the Houston Astros tanking from 2011-13, but it's clear from the approach that the Pirates never had any intentions of winning a title in 1952.

4. 1942 Philadelphia Phillies

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    Danny Litwhiler
    Danny LitwhilerWarren M. Winterbottom/Associated Press

    The Record: 42-109 (.278 winning percentage)

    The Good

    The pitching wasn't that bad. The Phillies had a 4.12 team ERA, which was only third-worst in the majors that season. Four of their five primary starters had a sub-4.00 ERA. Tommy Hughes led the way, accounting for 12 of the team's 42 wins and throwing 19 complete games en route to a 22nd-place finish in the NL MVP race.

          

    The Bad

    The offense was an outright disaster. Nine of the 13 Phillies to receive at least 100 plate appearances batted below .245. Danny Litwhiler (.271) was the only one to bat .265 or better. As a whole, the Phillies' position players had a Fangraphs WAR of 0.8. There have been a few dozen negative scores in that category over the years, but at least most of those teams had someone respectable in the lineup. The Phillies were just bad from top to bottom, averaging 2.6 runs per game and finishing 62.5 games out of first place in the National League.

            

    The Ugly

    Though it was the worst of the bunch, this particularly disastrous season came in the middle of an eight-year stretch (1938-45) during which the Phillies finished at least 41 games out of first place in the NL each season. And that was after finishing 31 to 38 games back each year from 1933-37. The Philadelphia Athletics were also at least 10 games below .500 every year from 1934-46, so the baseball in the City of Brotherly Love was not great for quite some time.

3. 1935 Boston Braves

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    Babe Ruth with the Boston Braves
    Babe Ruth with the Boston BravesTOM SANDE/Associated Press

    The Record: 38-115 (.248 winning percentage)

    The Good

    Most of the teams on this list had a multiple-year stretch during which they were consistently nowhere close to even vying for a pennant. For those teams, we simply chose the lowest of the low seasons. But the Boston Braves just kind of bottomed out in spectacular fashion for one season. They finished above .500 in both 1934 and 1937 and managed to have this 77-games-below-.500 debacle in between. And despite all the losses, Wally Berger led the NL in both home runs (34) and RBI (130) and finished sixth in the MVP vote.

          

    The Bad

    Berger was absolutely the only bright spot, hitting almost as many home runs as the rest of the roster combined (41). The Braves signed 40-year-old Babe Ruth as a free agent in hopes he still had something left in the tank, but he batted .181 and only hit six dingers before retiring on June 2. And that putrid offense saved its worst for poor Ben Cantwell, who went 4-25 with a not-that-awful 4.61 ERA. His average run support was just 2.44. Even Jacob DeGrom got 3.49 runs per game when he won the 2018 NL Cy Young with a 10-9 record.

            

    The Ugly

    In addition to a 15-game losing streak in July, the Braves had a stretch from Aug. 18 through Sept. 21 during which they lost 28 of 30 games played. Their season was already basically over by the time Ruth retired, but they really packed it in during the second half, finishing with the MLB's second-worst winning percentage since 1900.

2. 2003 Detroit Tigers

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    Dmitri Young
    Dmitri YoungJohn Williamson/Getty Images

    The Record: 43-119 (.265 winning percentage)

    The Good

    By losing at least 20 more games than each of the other 29 teams in 2003, the Detroit Tigers were able to take Justin Verlander in the 2004 MLB draft. Next to nothing is guaranteed in the draft, even in the first round, but that pick certainly worked out well for the Tigers for more than a decade.

                 

    The Bad

    Aside from Dmitri Young swatting a career-best 29 home runs and almost batting .300, no one on the roster even had a respectable season. The second-most valuable player on the roster was arguably Nate Cornejo, who went 6-17 with a 4.67 ERA and just 46 strikeouts in 194.2 innings pitched. At least he didn't lose as many games as Jeremy Bonderman (19) and Mike Maroth (21)?

            

    The Ugly

    In the entire lifetime of my 84-year-old grandfather, only two MLB teams have won fewer than 27 percent of their games in a season: the 1962 New York Mets and these Tigers. The Mets get somewhat of a pass because that expansion-draft roster never had a prayer, which makes the 2003 Tigers the worst team since at least World War II. They went from 79 wins in 2000 to 66 in 2001 and 55 in 2002, and they bottomed out at 43 in 2003. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion.

1. 1916 Philadelphia Athletics

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    Associated Press

    The Record: 36-117 (.235 winning percentage)

    The Good

    The A's won the World Series in 1910, 1911 and 1913, and they represented the American League in the 1914 iteration of baseball's Fall Classic. It's never fun to finish dead last in the league for seven consecutive years (1915-21), but at least the A's had brighter days to reminisce about. And at least they had Amos Strunk, who had a career year in 1916, batting .316 with a Baseball Reference WAR of 5.6.

          

    The Bad

    Philadelphia didn't just have a losing record against every other team in the American League; it lost at least two out of every three games it played against the other seven teams. Its best head-to-head record was 7-15 (.318) against the New York Yankees. The A's allowed 1.2 more runs per game (5.04) than the second-worst pitching staff in the AL, and they scored 0.46 fewer runs per game (2.90) than the second-most anemic offense.

            

    The Ugly

    From June 27 through Aug. 8, the A's went 2-41. Bullet Joe Bush pitched complete-game shutouts in both of the wins, but this horrendous stretch started with a 12-game losing streak, ended on a 20-game losing streak and had a nine-game skid sandwiched between the victories. They were already 16 games back in late June and going nowhere fast, but they were 38.5 games out of the pennant race less than a month and a half later. (They would end the season 54.5 games back, a full 40 games behind the next-worst team.)