Are the 2009 Nationals the worst team ever?

, Monday, July 27, 2009 at 12:01 AM Comments (1)

Through the first half of the season, there has been a lot of talk of whether the Nationals are bad or historically bad. Currently (6/26/09), their winning percentage was .306, which is within shouting distance of the 1962 Mets all-time record of futility of .250. Inevitably, if the Nationals continue to play as poorly as they have been, there will continue to be discussions of whether or not they are the worst team ever. So let’s see if we can find some statistical way to look at this question.

We’ll start with the year the Mets set the record for futility, 1962. The good news is that since that time, we have had most of the expansion that helped mold the league that we know so well. So, once again I thought we might pour through history to see what we can find out. So, starting with 1962, I looked for every team that completed a season with a winning percentage of .350 or less. For those less inclined to do math, that translates to a 57-105 record over a 162 game season. Since 1962, there have been 21 teams that fit that description (the Nationals would be the 22nd). So let’s take a look at what we can find out about those teams…once again, in chart form (and as always, a gigantic thanks goes out to the folks at baseball-reference.com for their invaluable information):

Year Team W/L % OPS+ ERA+ DISTANCE FROM AVERAGE
1969 Padres 0.321 75 83 42
1998 Marlins 0.333 86 77 37
1962 Mets 0.250 82 82 36
2003 Tigers 0.265 83 81 36
1963 Senators 0.346 80 85 35
1979 A’s 0.333 80 85 35
1996 Tigers 0.327 87 80 33
1970 White Sox 0.346 86 83 31
1976 Expos 0.340 76 94 30
1978 Mariners 0.350 89 81 30
2004 Diamondbacks 0.315 77 93 30
2005 Royals 0.346 91 79 30
1979 Blue Jays 0.327 82 89 29
1969 Expos 0.321 87 85 28
1988 Braves 0.338 83 89 28
2002 Tigers 0.342 86 86 28
2002 Devil Rays 0.342 89 84 27
1988 Orioles 0.335 88 86 26
2002 Brewers 0.346 88 86 26
1977 Blue Jays 0.335 85 92 23
1981 Blue Jays 0.349 74 104 22
2009 Nationals 0.299 97 86 17

For any newcomers, OPS+ and ERA+ might not be familiar. To put it simply, with all things being equal, these stats give us an idea of how good a player (or team in this case) is compared to the league average. So a player or team with an OPS+ or ERA+ of 100 is performing at exactly the league average. Those with scores above 100 are performing better than the league average and those with scores below 100 are performing below the league average. Lastly, an OPS+ or ERA+ of 82 would indicate that that team or player is performing 28% worse than the league average. The last column is the combination of those two stats and their distance from 100. Simply, it gives us a rough idea of how far away from average a team is.

The first thing that we notice is that those 2009 Nationals are the closest to average of all the teams we looked at in this study. These numbers show that the team is 17% worse than the league average. In fact, the 2009 Nationals are hitting almost exactly at the league average. On top of that, they are not even the worst team in MLB by this measure. That honor goes to the Padres whose OPS+ of 87 and ERA+ of 79 makes them 34% worse than the league average. So, if the Nationals really are going to be the worst team ever, they have a lot of work to do.

The next thing we should take note of is where the infamous 1962 Mets finished in this analysis. According to the numbers, that iteration of the Mets was 36% worse than the league average, and the third worst team in this study. So who is the worst? Well, that honor goes to the 1969 San Diego Padres. As you may already know, the 1969 Padres were an expansion team, just like the 1962 Mets. The best hitter on that Padre team was a man named Nate Colbert. The best pitcher on that team was a man named Dick Kelley. The two most famous names on this team were Cito Gaston and Joe Niekro. Let’s move on.

I know what you are thinking: “Which was the worst team that wasn’t an expansion team?” Well, that dubious honor goes to our friends the 1998 Greedy Owners, Firesales, Let’s Destroy The Trust of Our Fan Base, Marlins. This team had 22 yr olds Derrek Lee, Edgar Renteria, and Mark Kotsay. It also had a 25 year old Cliff Lee, a reasonably productive Todd Zeile, and an injured Gary Sheffield. Still, they were 14% worse than the league average.

The true misery of the 1998 Marlins was their pitching. At 23% worse than the league average, they really hurt their team (and yet they struck out more hitters per nine innings than all but two other teams on the list). The starting pitching is at fault in this case. 234 innings of Livan Hernandez at 15% worse than the league average, 174 innings of Brian Meadows at 23% worse than the league average, and the combined abysmal performance of Rafael Medina and Ryan Dempster at 33 and 43% worse than league average respectively, doomed these Marlins to futility.

So are the Nationals bad? Sure they are. Do they have any chance of being respectable at any point this year? No they do not. Despite how bad they have been, it is this writer’s opinion that they have a long way to go before they are the worst ever.

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