February 5, 2015
It Was the Best of Times... Emphasis on Was
When it comes to collapses—and the big ones, like from the very top to the very bottom—the 1998 Florida Marlins are the brand name standard. They won the 1997 World Series, and after disposing of Kevin Brown, Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou and Charles Johnson, finished a major league worst 54-108 the very next year.
They were the Wild Card, though, and not to reignite a discussion of whether that means they truly went best to worst, what the Phillies are capable of doing this year is a best-to-worst in its purest sense.
It was just four years ago that the Phillies were the best team in baseball with their super-rotation having carried them to 102 wins. They were old though—their pitchers averaging just over 29 years, which was fifth in the National League, and their hitters by far the oldest at 31.5 years.
Then the oldest team in baseball didn’t trade anyone and you’ll never guess what happened next. Or maybe you will. The Phillies are projected to have the worst record in baseball, with PECOTA penciling them in for a 70-92 record (tied with the Twins for baseball’s worst).
If the Phillies indeed fulfill their PECOTA-prescribed destiny, it would be a nearly unparalleled fall from the best record in baseball, going best to worst in just four years. It wasn’t a straight line, as 102 wins immediately turned to 81 and then back-to-back years of 73 before being expected to bottom out this year. But it would be one of the fastest.
Four times in baseball history has a team gone from the best record in MLB to the worst in five years or fewer, and there is no consistent story. Each decline came with its own trajectory and its own very different set of circumstances.
Detroit Tigers: 2 years, from the best in 1987 to worst in 1989
Just like the 2011 Phillies, this team was the best in baseball but couldn’t repeat its World Series success—or even its World Series trip—from three years earlier. This team was old as well, with the oldest roster of bats in the league.
The falloff wasn’t immediate, though. They still won 88 games the next year, losing the services of Kirk Gibson to the Dodgers, but not much more. Then it all went to hell and a 59-win season. Alan Trammell and Chet Lemon cratered, but their pitching staff wore it worse, going from fourth in the league in ERA to dead last with the bullpen taking more than their fair share of that decline.
Boston Americans: 3 years, from best in 1903 to worst in 1906
The inaugural World Series champions didn’t tank right away, but when they did, they tanked hard. They were even better the next year when there was no World Series and still in the black at 78-74 the following year.
But even with Denton True Young in tow, the Americans bottomed out in 1906. Young’s ERA went up more than a full point, and at 300 innings per year, that’s a big deal to start. And they were last in scoring, last in pitching and last in the American League at 49-105.
Philadelphia Athletics: 4 years, from best in 1911 to worst in 1915
This is the 100ish-year anniversary of the Federal League’s short impact on the game, and nowhere was it more impactful than on the Philadelphia Athletics. This was not a slow and steady decline. The A’s were in four World Series in five years ending in the 1914 season, and then the Federal League came along as a competitor. With salaries expected to rise and players really having negotiating power for the first time, Connie Mack started selling off players.
Home Run Baker, who coincidentally led the league in home runs each of the previous four seasons for the A’s, retired to play with an independent league club. Mack started selling off the rest of the players including Eddie Collins, Chief Bender and Eddie Plank, the last two of whom went directly to the Federal League for a year. The four would reunite in a museum in Upstate New York. Mack’s team would go 43-109.
Philadelphia Athletics: 5 years, from best in 1931 to worst in 1936
Apologies for the Philadelphia theme here. This closely resembles the current Phillies in the fact that this was a steadier decline from sustained success to the bottom. However, the reasons were entirely different than the 2010s team, which was put in its current position in a way because of its high spending.
Those Athletics faced poor attendance and that only hastened the financial troubles and ultimately the decline. From the championship season of 1931, the attendance dropped more than 50 percent over just two years, leaving the team unable to afford stars by the middle of the decade and in a rot that would define the rest of their history in Philadelphia.
The reason the Phillies example might stand out, if it does happen, is that even in this age of parity, we haven’t seen anything like it in recent history. Not since the strike has a team finished with the best record in baseball and gone on to have the worst record at any time since.
The Mariners came close, finishing with the second-worst record in the seven years after their record 116 wins, but that’s really about it. Getting to the very top has pretty much ensured that there will be no terrible fall from that, but this year will be the biggest test of that in quite a while.