From the Outhouse to the Penthouse, and Vice Versa

Cole Hamels was a big reason the Rangers surged during the second half of 2015. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Cole Hamels was a big reason the Rangers surged during the second half of 2015. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

I take as my text today the Gospel According to St. Matthew, chapter 19, verse 30:

But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

This may be taking the conceit of baseball as a church a little too far, but you have to admit it’s a heck of an opening.

It was a quarter century ago this year that this verse received its greatest fulfillment in the baseball world. The Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves, both of whom had finished last in their respective divisions in 1990, rose all the way through the standings to capture their division crowns. What’s more, they both won in the League Championship Series, facing each other in the 1991 World Series, one that’s been called the best ever and which the Twins won in seven games. (If Jack Morris ever enters the Hall of Fame, Game Seven will have gotten him there.)

The silver anniversary was not forgotten by Minnesota or Atlanta. July 27 saw the Twins give away 10,000 anniversary beer steins during a visit by those very Braves. Three days later at Turner Field, the Braves were giving away 20,000 replica NL championship rings, complete with a “Worst to First” legend.

The dual accomplishment was widely hailed at the time, not only in retrospect. Two teams going “worst to first” and vying for the championship was a compelling story. It gave hope to every team sunk in the second division. And to all their fans, the prospect that failure was temporary and glory could be just around the corner.

To add my own bit of recognition to the anniversary–and to give hope to the floundering–I decided to look at all the teams that ever have managed to climb from the cellar to the penthouse in a single season. But I also had to look at the mirror image: teams that finished first one year only to fall to last the next. I’ll also make mention of some teams that made huge leaps or plunges without moving all the way between the two extremes.

Early Years

Admittedly, the standards for a worst-to-first move (or its reverse) have changed over the years. Today it means moving four places in the standings. When the Twins and Braves made their double charge, it was a jump of five spots for Atlanta and six for Minnesota. Some time before that, there were no divisions, just a league of eight (or for a time 10, or a long time ago 12) teams.

That’s one reason why going worst-to-first is easier today. Another partially related one is that winning percentage spreads in baseball aren’t as wide: There are fewer teams winning or losing 100 games a season. The gap is thus narrower in games as well as in teams to leapfrog.

That said, bigger percentage swings were more common in earlier times. Anyone who doubts this can look at the infamous case of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

The Spiders were a special, but not unique, case. The Robison brothers owned both the Cleveland and St. Louis franchises, and for 1899 they shunted all their good players to St. Louis in hopes of forming a pennant winner. The Perfectos (they were the Browns the year before and would become the Cardinals the year after) gained 296 percentage points in ’99, from .260 to .556, going from twelfth to just fifth. The Spiders went from fifth to twelfth, plummeting 414 percentage points to finish the season 20-134.

The Robisons’ brainstorm gave them the same places as the previous year, just switched between teams, at the cost of the most hopeless and pitiful season a pro baseball team ever endured. And even this epic plunge by the Spiders was not the furthest fall a major league team ever suffered. That belongs to the 1884-85 St. Louis Maroons.

The Maroons won the pennant in the lone major league season of the Union Association. Many modern commentators say the classification of the UA as a major league was a gross mistake. Perhaps the strongest evidence for this claim is how the Maroons, absorbed into the National League after the UA collapsed, fared in 1885. They went from a 94-19 record to 36-72 and dead last in the NL. Their winning percentage fell 499 points, the worst year-to-year mark ever. They ceased to exist by the end of the 1880s.

That was the earliest first-to-worst move. The earliest team to go worst-to-first was another franchise that no longer exists, the Louisville Colonels. This team in the American Association finished 1889 with a Spider-like 27-111 mark, deep in the AA basement. It looked bleaker still when Pete Browning, the original Louisville Slugger, jumped to the new Players League.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But thanks mainly to two very young pitchers, Scott Stratton and Red Ehret, taking a big step forward (and maybe to losing fewer players to the PL than the rest of the league), Louisville drove through the pack. They finished 88-44, 471 points higher than the previous year, and captured the AA flag.

Sadly, it would not last. Their star pitchers regressed, and the team finished next to last in 1891, the AA’s final season. The majors would not see another worst-to-first performance for just over a century.

There were a couple other near misses by now-defunct teams. The AA’s New York Metropolitans took the circuit’s flag in 1884 with a 75-32 record. (They then lost three straight to Old Hoss Radbourn and the Providence Grays, in the first of what was called the World’s Series.) When they lost Hall-of-Fame hurler Tim Keefe to the crosstown Giants of the NL, their pitching staff collapsed. They wound up seventh of eight teams in 1885.

Thirty years later, the near miss went the other way. The Federal League’s St. Louis Terriers were the anchormen of the league’s 1914 season, going 62-89 (which was rather good back then for an eighth-place club). Next season, they were in the thick of a pennant chase that saw five teams in contention in the final week. They finished 87-67, one percentage point behind the 86-66 Chicago Whales. Had Chicago been made to finish out its full schedule, the Terriers could have gone from last to the pennant.

They would never have another chance, as the Federal League folded after the 1915 season. The existence of that league, though, greatly influenced one of the teams I will soon be discussing.

Climbing the Ladder

The 1991 Twins and Braves performed their dual feats 101 years after the Louisville Colonels led the way. It was thus understandable if commentators said it was the first time it had ever happened in the majors. For Minnesota it was a last hurrah, as they would spend the next decade out of the playoffs. For Atlanta it was the appetizer to a long feast. The next time they would complete* a season in a position other than first was 2006.

* They ended 1994 in second place in the NL East, but that strike season was never completed.

The next worst-to-first bound took far less time to happen: two years. The 1992 Philadelphia Phillies weren’t really as bad as their 70-92 record, but hard luck stuck them sixth and last in the NL East. The next year, the birth of the Florida Marlins expanded the division to seven teams, so perhaps the Phillies felt they didn’t have to worry about another basement finish*. The pressure taken off, they rode a career year by center fielder Lenny Dykstra^ to a 27-game improvement and the division title.

* Actually, neither did the Marlins. It was the Mets who ended up last in ’93.

^ Dysktra may have been riding PEDs to his career year. I would have credited Curt Schilling instead, but ’93 was a down year for him.

The glory was brief. Philly lost the World Series to Joe Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays. The next year, realignment moved the juggernaut Braves into the NL East, and Philadelphia ended up back below .500. There was another team helping to bury them that year, and I will be talking about them later.

That same realignment helped make the next two leapfroggers possible. From 1994 to 1997, the West divisions had just four teams apiece. The San Francisco Giants were first to exploit this shortening of the odds, going from fourth in 1996 to first in ’97. The San Diego Padres followed the fourth-to-first path the next year, reaching the Series only to be flattened by the juggernaut 1998 Yankees.

The Padres made their bound in another expansion year, the fifth team in the enlarged NL West being the Arizona Diamondbacks. Arizona unsurprisingly finished its inaugural year in fifth and last. The next year was the stunner. Paced by free-agent get Randy Johnson and his second Cy Young campaign, the Snakes improved by 35 games–and 216 percentage points–to finish their second year ever with 100 wins and the NL West crown.

This is likely the greatest worst-to-first campaign ever. Only the Colonels made a better move by percentage points, and that was in an era so different that it’s really not comparable. Arizona had the anchor of expansion weighing them down as well, but the D-backs broke that chain with the help of one of the best free-agent acquisitions ever made.

A dozen years later, the Diamondbacks repeated the feat, jumping from 65-97 (same record as ’98) and the division cellar in 2010 to the division title in 2011. Arizona is the only franchise ever to pull the worst-to-first trick twice—and they are one of the two youngest teams in MLB. Kirk Gibson’s tenure as D-backs manager may have ended badly, but his first full season there was a piece of baseball history.

Doubling back, the Chicago Cubs performed the deed in 2007, in throwback style. Houston was still part of the NL Central at that time, giving the division six teams. This was the last time a club went worst-to-first in a group that large and will be at least until the next expansion or realignment. Despite hopscotching five teams, Chicago had the smallest winning percentage gain of any worst-to-first club, going from .407 to a mere .525. The record they eclipsed had belonged to the 1991 Twins.

The next year saw an amazing turnaround. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays had finished last in 2007, as they had for nine of the 10 years of their existence. In 2008, the front office’s calculated maneuvers and manager Joe Maddon’s superb people skills jelled dramatically. The newly-renamed Rays improved by 31 games, topped the AL East, and made it all the way to the Fall Classic. They haven’t had it as good again, but it did kick off a half-dozen years of success for a club that seemed destined to be the new St. Louis Browns.

The most recent example was just last season. The 2014 Texas Rangers suffered a welter of injuries—they used 63 players that year—that dropped them hard into the AL West basement with a 67-95 record. They rebounded partway in the early stages of the 2015 season–despite losing Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery–and a bold deadline trade for Cole Hamels pushed them hard into the playoff chase. They finished with 88 wins and a narrow division victory over the resurgent Astros.

In all, 12 major league teams have pulled the worst-to-first trick. (There is one I haven’t listed here— the 2013 Boston Red Sox—but I’ll be getting to them later, for their own historic reasons.) A sprinkling of other teams have made similar upward bounds without actually going from worst to first, and I’ll touch on a few of them before moving over to the downwardly mobile group.

The 1902 New York Giants were cellar-dwellers despite having a young Christy Mathewson pitching and a pretty young John McGraw taking the managerial reins midway through the campaign. Big Six and Little Napoleon turned things around hard in ’03, raising the team’s winning percentage 251 points and getting them to second in the National League. The pennant would have to wait for ’04.

The end of World War II changed many fortunes, notably for our purposes, those of the Boston Red Sox. From seventh in 1945, they soared by 214 percentage points to the ’46 pennant. Lots of teams were getting their best players back from wartime duty, but Boston’ returnees were led by Ted Williams. I’m not saying Teddy Ballgame was wholly responsible for their climb…but he was probably mostly responsible.

When you talk about miracle teams, you can’t avoid thinking of 1969. The New York Mets’ jump of 27 games (167 percentage points) was not that extraordinary compared to other teams we’ve looked at. Jumping from ninth place to first, for a club that had never finished higher than ninth in its first seven years, was pretty extraordinary. (Boston had performed a like feat two years before, but with a mere 124-point improvement.)

Lastly, the 1988 Baltimore Orioles buried themselves early with a 21-game losing streak to open their season. They finished 54-107, in last by 23.5 games. The 1989 campaign both started and ended better. The Orioles’ winning percentage rose 202 points, and they remained in contention until their 161st game, falling two shy of the division-winning Blue Jays. Leaving behind the debacle of ’88, it was the best season manager Frank Robinson ever posted.

Team Year Win Pct. Rise Team Year Win Pct. Rise
Louisville Colonels 1890 .471 Arizona D-Backs 1999 .216
Minnesota Twins 1991 .129 Chicago Cubs 2007 .118
Atlanta Braves 1991 .179 Tampa Bay Rays 2008 .192
Philadelphia Phillies 1993 .167 Arizona D-Backs 2011 .179
San Francisco Giants 1997 .136 Boston Red Sox 2013 .173
San Diego Padres 1998 .136 Texas Rangers 2015 .129

Shooting the Chute

Ten teams have traveled the reverse route, going from first to last in consecutive seasons. The Maroons were probably the most severe case, but coming a close second are the 1915 Philadelphia A’s.

Connie Mack’s A’s reached their fourth World Series in five years in 1914, though they got swept by the Miracle Braves. In the offseason, Mack began suffering heavy roster losses, as the insurgent Federal League raided the established circuits. The competition also sent salaries spiraling upward. Mack made a radical decision: he’d sell off his star players before they could jump their contracts and run his team on a shoestring budget while it rode out the hard times.

That kind of thing happens today: We call it a “tear-down.” One big difference is that today’s teams do it once they’ve already crashed in the standings. Mack’s A’s were still the defending American League champions—but you’d never know it by their 1915 performance.

They finished 43-109, 368 percentage points lower than in 1914, a whole 58.5 games out of first. They would do worse yet in 1916 and then spend seven straight years in the AL basement. The A’s tenancy of eighth place lasted six years longer than the Federal League challenge that triggered it.

It would take 67 years and another calamity for the next first-to-worst team to emerge. In 1981, the Cincinnati Reds had the best record in the majors. They also had a season snapped in two by a strike, an ex post facto split-season format, and records in each half that just were edged out by other teams. The best team in baseball (at least by record–their Pythagorean mark was much weaker) could not even sneak into an expanded eight-team playoff bracket.

It’s enough to make someone say, “What’s the use?” and give up. That’s not quite what happened with the Reds. Losing George Foster and Ken Griffey to free agency, plus a collapse by Tom Seaver, were more material culprits. Cincy ended up 61-101, five wins fewer than in the 54-game shorter season the previous year, to finish last not just in the West but in the whole National League.

The next great plunge came from the 1993 Oakland A’s. Tony LaRussa’s boys had won their fourth straight division title in ’92, which sounds a little similar to the A’s of 1914. No epic sell-off brought this collapse; the pitching just went south, from reigning MVP Dennis Eckersley on up. This made the A’s into the counterpart of the D-Backs, the only team to go first-to-worst twice in its history.

The next year saw the start of another special case–and another strike case. The 1994 Montreal Expos were commemorating the franchise’s silver anniversary in sterling fashion, posting the best record not just in the NL East but in the majors. Then the strike came. The Expos had made their lone playoff appearance in 1981, thanks to the strike and the split season. Now the scales balanced, or even over-balanced, for a team with good potential to finally reach the World Series.

They wouldn’t have another chance. The cash-strapped Expos, suffering from the strike’s added blow to the wallet, traded or just gave up leading players to save money. They dropped like a rock to the division basement, shedding 191 points of winning percentage. Their second playoff appearance would have to wait until the eighth year after the team abandoned Montreal for Washington.

The 1997 San Diego Padres suffered the next first-to-worst drop, but it almost doesn’t count. It came in the period of a four-team NL West and involved the Padres falling just 96 percentage points season-to-season. The years ’96 to ’98 had San Diego going first to last to first, so the moderate fall in ‘97 ends up looking like a blip. The 2015 Detroit Tigers had the same little 96-point drop going top to bottom, though that was in a five-team division.

The 2000 Texas Rangers took the next plunge after San Diego. They had won three of the previous four AL West crowns, giving them their first three playoff appearances and easily the franchise’s best stretch to that time. It went to pieces in 2000, opening a four-year stretch of basement finishes.

The 2011 Twins followed a similar line. They had won the AL Central the previous two years, and six of the last nine, though it felt sometimes like manager Ron Gardenhire was doing it with mirrors. In 2011, the mirrors broke (probably from the team OPS+ plunging 25 points). The team took a 31-game, 191-point tumble into last place. Despite a surprise finish above .500 in 2015, they really haven’t contended since.

Minnesota makes the third team we’ve looked at that’s had both a worst-to-first and a first-to-worse move in its history. The fourth is the one I carried over from the preceding section: the Boston Red Sox.

Boston was cruising as September of 2011 began, but a month-long stumble culminated in their being eliminated on a memorable final day of the season. Terry Francona, thought to have lost control of the clubhouse, was fired, and Bobby Valentine was hired to change things. He did, taking a 90-win team to 69 wins and the AL East cellar in 2012. He got the sack, and John Farrell got his chance.

Farrell converted it. He hoisted the Red Sox to 97 wins, a 173-point improvement, the division title, and–not incidentally–a World Series triumph. Going worst-to-first made the year of Valentine feel like a fluke.

Then came 2014. Boston wound up just two games better than it had been in 2012 and back in fifth, and last, place. (A 25-point OPS+ drop again was the culprit. The Twins must have been contagious.) The team improved to 78-84 in 2015, but in a highly competitive AL East, that stuck them back in the basement.

After 2013, the 2012 tumble looked like a fluke. After 2015, it was the 2013 championship surrounded by three last-place finishes that looked like the deviation. Draw back some more, look at Boston as a high-payroll team with expectations of perennial contention, and the picture grows murkier instead of clearer.

Which was the fluke, if either? If forced to choose, I’d say 2013 was. Three lasts versus one first is a telling ratio. Even with a triumphant postseason thrown in, it’s 178 games against 486. Also, the Red Sox’s BABIP for 2013 was an astonishing .329, 32 points above league average. For the fall to last in 2014, it went to .297, one point above average. Boston’s batting in ’13 was amazing, and probably unsustainable, and definitely unsustained.

Good thing they won the Series, or this would be kind of depressing for them.

As before, there are a few teams that didn’t quite to first-to-worst but had huge moves worthy of comment. One such team was the 1934 Washington Senators. Coming off a pennant in ’33, the Senators forgot how to win. They dropped by 33 games, 217 points, to a seventh-place finish. Manager Joe Cronin, who won the pennant in his first year as skipper, got the boot after his second.

The next year, 1935, saw the Boston Braves pull a stupendous 269-point nose-dive to a ghastly 38-115 record. The team had been middling the year before, finishing 78-73, and amazingly they would be middling the year after (playing under the newly-adopted moniker of the Boston Bees), with a 71-83 mark.

This was the year, of course, Braves owner Judge Emil Fuchs signed 40-year-old Babe Ruth, more as a gate attraction than for offensive potency. Fuchs got neither, at least not on the scale one associates with the Bambino. One could rationally argue the introduction of Ruth’s ego wrecked team chemistry, and the lack of old-fashioned Ruthian production provided no compensation. It would explain the rebound of ’36, once the Babe had retired and Fuchs had sold the team.

It is a glaring peculiarity of the current Wild Card age that the Florida/Miami Marlins have never won their division but own two World Series titles. They got their first in 1997, thanks partly to massive free-agent spending by owner H. Wayne Huizenga. Finding the expense unsustainable, Huizenga promptly conducted a fire sale, leaving the defending champions a husk of their former selves for 1998.

This latter-day Connie Mack maneuver had the effect one would expect. Florida went from 92 wins to 54, shedding 235 points from their winning percentage and leaving a small crater when they landed in the cellar. Speaking of seller—homophones count, right?—Huizenga sold the team a year later, two years too late for Marlins fans. Still, they did better than Mack’s A’s: instead of 15 years between pennants, the Marlins had to wait just six.

Team Year Win Pct. Fall Team Year Win Pct. Fall
St. Louis Maroons 1885 -.499 San Diego Padres 1997 -.093
Philadelphia A’s 1915 -.368 Texas Rangers 2000 -.148
Cincinnati Reds 1982 -.234 Minnesota Twins 2011 -.191
Oakland A’s 1993 -.173 Boston Red Sox 2014 -.161
Montreal Expos 1995 -.191 Detroit Tigers 2015 -.096

Final Thoughts

There are a dozen teams in major league history that have made the climb from last place to first in a single year, while 10 have taken the opposite route. The numbers are a slight surprise. It’s a lot easier to fall than to rise, not even counting the Robison, Mack, and Huizenga teams that did the former deliberately (or accepted the fall as the cost of a broader plan). Still, more teams have made the ultimate rise than the ultimate fall.

Rare as the event was for a very long time, it is almost commonplace today. In 13 of the last 25 completed seasons, 1991 to 2015, at least one team made the big move, up or down. In five of those years (1991, 1993, 1997, 2011, and 2015), two teams did it, each time except ’91 being one up and one down. This is largely from smaller division sizes, though the four moves in ’91 and ’93 came with divisions of six or seven teams.

Team teardowns have become a standing controversy in recent years. Many commentators deplore teams that give up on current seasons in attempts to build future success. I think their opinions may be influenced by the recent frequency of big year-to-year jumps in the standings. It tempts one toward a short-term outlook, toward taking a chance your team will have the great rebound year someone has every few seasons.

They aren’t all that wrong. It’s not a false hope, even if it may be an exaggerated one. Going from the basement to the penthouse in one step is no longer something that makes history and rocks the baseball world. It could happen again as early as this year, should the Red Sox or even the Tigers finish hot enough.

This definitely could affect how front offices think. Perhaps it’s doing so already in some places. It certainly can affect how fans think, which is where this essay began. Glory can be just around the corner, with the right team and a strong dash of luck. Fans today are more justified in hoping for a big, quick turnaround than they have ever been.

Let’s just hope they remember it can go in the other direction, too.

References and Resources

  • Baseball-Reference, including the Bullpen
  • John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, for a few 19th-century facts
  • Jonah Keri, Up, Up, and Away, for 1994-95 Expos facts
  • David Laurila’s Aug. 14th, 2016 Sunday Notes at FanGraphs gave me a nice lead on the 2013 Red Sox. Plus an added tip of the topper to Tom Tippett (say that five times fast), even if he did undersell his Sox.

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Paul G.
6 years ago

A note about Tim Keefe. The reason he moved from the New York Metropolitans (AA) to the New York Giants (NL) was a prelude to what happened with the Cleveland Spiders. Both New York teams were owned by the same men and they decided that the National League entry was to be the favorite. Keefe along with manager/owner Jim Mutrie and another player were transferred to the Giants. Oddly, it is difficult to say if the two teams qualified as crosstown rivals, given both the shared ownership and the fact that both teams played in the Polo Grounds, occasionally at the same time (there were two fields). The Mets did play in a different stadium for a while in 1884 so it semi-counts.

Halogen Headlight
5 years ago

There are a dozen teams in major league history that have made the climb from last place to first in a single year, while 10 have taken the opposite route. The numbers are a slight surprise. It’s a lot easier to fall than to rise

ruby singh
5 years ago

New York teams were owned by the same men and they decided that the National League entry was to be the favorite. Keefe along with manager/owner Jim Mutrie and another player were transferred to the Giants.