As of this writing, the Mets have a 6.5 game lead over the Nationals in the National League East. There is nothing noteworthy about that fact, aside from the Nationals continuing to struggle. However, as you move down the standings within the division, that’s when eyebrows will be raised. The third place Atlanta Braves sit at 54-73, a full 16.5 games behind the Mets. The Marlins are 51-76, 19.5 games out in fourth place. The Phillies hold last place with a 50-77 mark and are 20.5 games back. The Braves would be in last place in every American League division, but in the putrid NL East they are third!
Furthermore, it’s not like the Mets and Nationals are setting wins records. The Mets have a respectable 70-56 record, while the underachieving Nationals are 63-62. In the Wild Card race, the Nationals are ten games behind the Cubs for the second spot. While this division is truly awful, how terrible are they? Is this the worst division in the history of baseball?
For those who may not be up on their baseball history, a little context maybe useful. Through the 1968 season, baseball was split into two leagues (no divisions) and whomever won the league, went to the World Series. Pretty straightforward. From 1903 through 1968 the worst record of a league winner was the 1945 Tigers and the 1959 Dodgers who each won 88 games (who each won the World Series by the way). There were a lot of dominant teams during that time. 40 teams won 100+ plus games during that stretch (154 game seasons back then as well). Indeed, teams often won by a wide margin and there were some really bad teams during that time. For our purpose though, comparing the first 64 seasons of baseball and the current game is like comparing apples to oranges. So we won’t factor that into our historical perspective for this year’s edition of the NL East.
From 1969-1993, each league was split into two divisions (East and West) and the winner of each league met in the League Championship Series. During that stretch, the ’73 Mets boast the worst record of a division winner (82-79).
Following the 1993 season, Major League Baseball introduced a third division into each league and adding the revolutionary Wild Card which we take for granted today. To make our job easier, we will focus on just the years 1994 to the current day for our historical exploration. One final component of our mission: while above we looked at the worst record of the winning team, within the last 10 years we’ve seen teams win the division that barely had a .500 record. Because of the unique situation of the NL East, we will try to look at the division as a whole and see how they compare to the worst divisions top to bottom, not just the winning team. This will provide an accurate context to our data and will helpfully give us the most clear insight into the historical place this year’s edition of the NL East in the pantheon of divisional mediocrity.
What the data says
It’s easy to sit here and say that the NL East is the worst division of all-time, but you need actual data to quantify that assertion. And yes, basing this thesis solely off winning percentage is a bit simplistic and there are many factors to consider when making an argument along these lines. But that endeavor is for the mathematicians and people who literally have nothing better to do with their lives. Now for all of you who actually probably don’t have anything better to do here is the raw data for every winning percentage of the each division since 1994 (may or may not help your 5-year old child fall asleep sooner also).
First impressions: 1994, while obviously strike-shortened, boasts two of the lowest winning percentage of a division since the 3 divisions were introduced. In fact the American League West was statistically the worst of any division since 1994, they had a winning percentage of .437. The Texas Rangers who led the division when the strike started, had a paltry 52-62 record, with the last place team California Angels were only 5.5 games back in the standings. The Rangers had plenty of young talent in Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer, and Rusty Greer, along with Jose Canseco and pitcher Kenny Rodgers (who pitched a perfect game that season against the hapless Angels). Two years later, they won a more respectable 90 games and captured the division title.
Conversely, the AL Central in ’94 had one of the better performances of the past 22 years (.533). The third place Kansas City Royals finished the year 64-51. Interestingly, four of the years where one of the lowest 10 winning percentages were achieved by a team, one of the ten highest winning percentage happened in the same league. Which makes sense, if a division is losing a bunch of games, someone else must be winning them. Not rocket science.
Alright, but what about full 162-game seasons? The lowest winning percentage of a division, if you ignore the ’94 AL West, is the 2002 AL Central. While the division champion Twins were solid with a 94-win season, the rest of the division was ugly. The Royals finished with 100 losses and still had a comfortable lead in front of the last place team. The Tigers lost 106 games that year, which foreshadowed their 2003 campaign where they lost an American League record of 119 games. The ’02 edition of the Tigers included a Who’s Who of “Never Heard of Him,” with names like Shane Halter, Robert Fick, Steve Sparks, and Chris Truby seeing regular play. Because of drains like them on the roster, the Tigers weren’t able to capitalize on the efforts of guys you probably have heard of: Carlos Pena, Brandon Inge, Damian Easley, Mark Redmond, Jose Lima, and Bobby Higginson. Having two teams with 100 losses in the same division is pretty remarkable and it’s not surprise that’s enough to capture the lowest winning percentage of any division since 1994.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the AL West was tearing it up top-to-bottom. In 2001 and 2002, that division posted the best winning percentage of any division during the Wild Card era. In 2001, Mariners tied the Major League record for wins in a season with a staggering 116. With the likes of Ichiro (MVP and Rookie of the Year), Bret Boone, John Olerud, Mike Cameron, Edgar Martinez, Freddy Garcia, and Jamie Moyer, the Mariners made quick work the the American League during the regular, but just couldn’t get past the Yankees in the playoffs. The second place team in the AL West that year was the Billy Beane Oakland A’s, who won 102 games. With the pitching staff of Mulder, Hudson, and Zito, the A’s seemed destined to win it all at some point.
The following year the division actually had a winning percentage 1 point higher than 2001. The A’s won the division with 103 victories, with the wild-card (and eventual World Series champions) Angels not far behind with 99 wins and the Mariners managed 93. The 2002 AL West holds the best winning percentage of a division since 1994, and likely will hold onto that title for several more years.
Alright well what about the NL East?! As of this writing, they sit at a .456 mark which would be the lowest since the 2003 AL Central. Of course, there is over a month left in the season and one could surmise that as the year winds down, teams like the Phillies and Marlins will use the 40-man roster to get some young guys some experience and with that losses tend to come in bunches. The NL East definitely has the potential to post the worst record in a non-strike shortened season since the 1994 season and that would be pretty remarkable considering it’s starting to look unlikely like neither the Phillies or Marlins will manage to lost 100 games. This fact goes to show the mediocrity from top-to-bottom in the division. Someone has to win the division and while it looks to be the Mets, winning the division this year is kind of like being the tallest midget at the circus.