Major League Baseball’s regular season is a grueling 162-game trek, stretching from early spring all the way through the summer and into fall, with almost nightly games for all 30 teams.
It might take a while before the marathon season finally begins to have a noticeable effect, but along the way, the cream of the league always rises to the top, while the slag predictably sinks down in the standings. No doubt, winning streaks, losing steaks, injuries and slumps all have their way of separating the contenders from the pretenders as the season wears on.
While sometimes teams are STILL no farther apart in the standings on the last day of the regular season than they were on opening day, it doesn’t take an in-depth analysis to make an accurate prediction for who’s poised for a deep playoff run and who probably won’t make it past the wild card round.
But Major League Baseball is a fickle game. We see it almost every season. Despite residing safely atop the standings all year long, elite teams trending up often run off the rails inexplicably as soon as October rolls around, while low-seeded clubs who eked into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season happen to peak at the right time, riding Cinderella-story momentum all throughout the postseason.
Then, before you know it, a barely-.500 team is competing for a title on the world’s stage, while the division champs, who dominated from April to September, are sitting home on their couches, cancelling pennant parties and wondering what just happened.
So from the biggest surprises to the most epic flops, here are the eight best MLB teams that never made the World Series and the seven worst that did.
15 15. BEST TO NOT MAKE IT: 2005 St. Louis Cardinals (100-62)
Missed opportunities like the one the St. Louis Cardinals had in 2005 are known to haunt athletes until their dying day. After losing to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series season before, 2005 finally seemed like the Cardinals’ year, and it certainly looked that way when the regular season came to a close.
Cy Young Award-winner Chris Carpenter led an overpowering starting rotation with a 21-5 record, a 2.83 ERA and a Major League-leading seven complete games, while All-Star closer Jason Ishringhausen posted a miniscule 2.14 ERA with 39 saves.
On offense, MVP-winner Albert Pujols swatted a .330 batting average with 41 home runs and 117 RBI. After 162 games, the Cardinals owned a 100-62 record, the best in the Majors, winning the NL Central by 11 games.
Poised for another World Series run, the Cardinals suddenly lost their way in the NLCS and fell to the Astros in six games.
14 14. WORST TO MAKE IT: 1973 New York Mets (82-79)
A lot of things had to go right all at the same time for the 1973 New York Mets to even qualify for the postseason in 1973, let alone make it to the World Series. But sure enough, as if Tug McGraw’s famous “Ya Gotta Believe” mantra carried with it some sort of magical spell to unlock a secret path to success, the Mets went 38-22 in the last two months of the season after entering August 13 games under .500 and qualified for the playoffs with an unimpressive .509 winning percentage.
It’s the worst regular season record of any team that has appeared in the World Series, but the fact that none of the other five teams in the NL East finished above .500 also makes that a little easier to digest. After winning nine of their last 11 games, the Mets knocked off the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS before real life came storming back in the Fall Classic, as the Athletics finally put them to rest in seven games.
13 13. BEST TO NOT MAKE IT: 2002 Oakland Athletics (103-59)
This literal Hollywood story had all the makings of a summer blockbuster. With a lovable protagonist and a rollercoaster of emotions all the way down to the final scene and credits, all that was missing was the fairytale ending.
Then Athletics manager Billy Beane studied the numbers that year and made some surprising moves to put together a ragtag team that somehow produced a Major League-best 103-59 record.
Though they suffered a dreadful 5-16 run early in the season, the A’s went 16-1 in 17 games in June and then erupted for an American League-record 20-game win streak in August as the pitching, hitting and defense all came together at the same time, turning the A’s into a formidable foe as the playoffs approached.
But the postseason was a tragic scene in the story. Like night and day, as soon as the playoffs got under way the Athletics’ magic evaporated, and they wouldn’t even make it to the ALCS.
12 12. WORST TO MAKE IT: 2014 San Francisco Giants (88-74)
Neither team in the 2014 World Series had any business being there. We’ll start with the San Francisco Giants and address the Kansas City Royals later on.
Thanks once again to geographical advantages and the way the divisions are aligned, the Giants snuck into the playoffs with the second wild card spot. They had just the fifth-best record in the National League and played in a division with the two worst teams in the Majors.
Plus, they were fifth in the league in runs scored and sixth in runs allowed – not exactly championship material.
Nonetheless, the Giants dispatched the Pirates in the wild card game, slid past NL East champs Washington Nationals and then whipped the NL Central-winning St. Louis Cardinals in five games to make it to the championship round. There, they took the Royals to seven games and emerged the as one of history’s worst teams to make – and win – an MLB World Series.
11 11. BEST TO NOT MAKE IT: 1984 Chicago Cubs (96-95)
Last season, the Chicago Cubs finally broke the 107-year World Series championship drought. To say it was a long time coming would be an understatement.
In 1984, that drought stood at 75 years, still a long time coming even then. But that season looked like their best chance in recent memory to relieve the nearly eight decades of futility.
The ’84 Cubs led the National League with 762 runs scored, anchored by NL MVP Ryne Sandberg and power-hitters Ron Cey and Jody Davis. Pitching-wise, Cy Young Award-winner Rick Sutcliffe led the way, going 16-1 in 20 starts in Chicago.
The Cubs looked good entering the playoffs and even went up 2-0 in the NLCS against the San Diego Padres. Then, as the Cubs did so often for over a century, they tanked. They lost three straight games to doom their chances as they watched yet another shot at a title slip right through their fingers.
10 10. WORST TO MAKE IT: 2014 Kansas City Royals (89-73)
So we arrive back at the 2014 World Series. You know it must have been a matchup of terrible teams for both clubs to appear on this list. This time, let’s key in on the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals were subpar in almost every category all season. They had a bad 4.02 average runs per game, finishing 9th in the American League, they were dead-last in home runs, and the team ERA was only as good as fourth.
Like the Giants, the Royals weren’t even good enough to win their division. They fell one game short of the 90-72 AL Central-winning Detroit Tigers and had to settle for a wild card berth.
Despite all that, the Royals got hot at the most convenient time possible. They swept the first three rounds of the playoffs with an 8-0 record before going seven rounds with the eventual World Series-winning and equally undeserving San Francisco Giants.
9 9. BEST TO NOT MAKE IT: 1993 Atlanta Braves (104-58)
Whatever happened to the Atlanta Braves in the 1993 NLCS was an enigma wrapped in a mystery, because when you go 104-58 in the regular season, win the two previous NL pennants and the two following, not even the law of averages has the power to intervene.
Nonetheless, despite their statistically second-best team during their historic run to 14 consecutive division titles, the ’93 club missed what was the closest thing to a shoo-in for the World Series you can ask for.
They had the lowest ERA in the National League, recorded the most home runs and posted the best record in the Majors.
Winning the last three games of the season and going 7-3 in their final 10, the Braves were on a warpath towards their third straight World Series berth until an unexplained skid saw them drop Games 4 through 6 in the NLCS as they bowed out early at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies.
8 8. WORST TO MAKE IT: 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
If it weren’t for the Atlanta Braves’ historic late-season meltdown in 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals never would have secured a wild card spot on the last day of the season and never would have made it to the World Series, let alone win the dang thing.
But the Braves did collapse. And that, combined with the Cardinals’ unlikely playoff push that saw them lose just five time in their final 21 games, opened the door for a team who finished 12 games back of National League regular season champs Philadelphia Phillies to get hot at the right time and make a run at a title.
So that’s what they did. After a record of just 67-63 three-quarters of the way through the season, the Cardinals found a way to knock off both the Phillies and Brewers in October to earn a trip to the World Series, where they triumphed over the Texas Rangers in seven games.
7 7. BEST TO NOT MAKE IT: 1993 San Francisco Giants (103-59)
It’s almost criminal that the 1993 San Francisco Giants didn’t make the playoffs. After all, they were the second-best team in Major League Baseball and fell just one game back of the first-place Atlanta Braves. They won 103 games for goodness sakes.
But that was the last season MLB had just two divisions in each league and no wild card berths. With the Giants residing in the same division as the Braves, they were left out in the cold when October rolled around, and watched as the Phillies, who finished six games back of them in the regular season, knocked off Atlanta and earned a trip to the ’93 Fall Classic.
The real shame is the fact that, at one point, the Giants held a nine-game lead in the standings before squandering both it and a chance for NL MVP Barry Bonds and 20-win pitchers Bill Swift and John Burkett to show their stuff in the post season.
6 6. WORST TO MAKE IT: 2000 New York Yankees (87-74)
Fact: the Yankees weren’t that good in 2000. Sure, they appeared in six World Series in eight seasons from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, and they even won it for the third straight time and fourth in five seasons that year, but they never really deserved to be there in the first place.
They could hit pretty well and score nearly at will – I’ll give you that – but with the below-average pitching they had that year, they’re lucky they only had to beat out the mediocre AL East competition to earn a chance in the playoffs.
That year, the Yankees’ collective ERA was a meager 4.76, and no pitcher on staff broke the 20-win plateau. In fact, only Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Orlando Hernandez earned double-digit victories.
Backing into the postseason after going 3-15 in their final 18 games, including a degrading seven-game losing streak to end the season, the Yankees apparently awoke from their slumber and beat Oakland and then Seattle, both of whom had better regular season-records, for a berth in the “Subway Series” against the Mets.
5 5. BEST TO NOT MAKE IT: 1915 Detroit Tigers (100-54)
Back in the day – like, a century ago – there wasn’t really a playoff format for Major League Baseball’s postseason. The World Series simply pitted the two teams with the best regular-season records from each league against each other to battle it out for the title.
That was unfortunate, because the 1915 Detroit Tigers won 100 games and fell just 2.5 games back of the Boston Red Sox, who went on to beat the Philadelphia Phillies for that year’s championship.
Put another way, the Tigers would have won the National League’s regular-season title by 10 games and earned a trip to the Series had they been aligned there. Led by Ty Cobb, the all-time leader in batting average and one of the greatest players ever to play the game, the Tigers went 46 games over .500 and easily could have beaten the inferior Phillies, given the chance.
4 4. WORST TO MAKE IT: 1987 Minnesota Twins (85-77)
The Minnesota Twins’ 1987 season was baseball’s version of Jekyll and Hyde in more ways than one. While they had decent offense – 13 players hit above .250 on the year – the pitching was atrocious. With a collective 4.63 ERA for the entire staff, only starter Frank Viola had a sub-3.00 average.
Next, was their contradictory home and away performances. They struggled on the road, going just 29-52. But at home, they posted a masterful 56-25 mark. After 162 games, an unexceptional 85-77 record was enough to win the AL West, thanks to the six other subpar teams in the division, five of whom went .500 or worse.
Despite losing five straight games to end the regular season, the Twins would out-muscle AL East champions Detroit Tigers 4-1 in the ALCS and then came back from a 3-games-to-2 deficit to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven for an improbable World Series title.
3 3. BEST TO NOT MAKE IT: 1994 Montreal Expos (74-40)
The 1994 Montreal Expos were well on their way to a likely World Series appearance before the players’ strike blew up both their chances at a title and the remainder of the season on Aug 12. As a result, the entire playoffs were lost as collateral damage, while the players and owners squabbled over salary caps and revenue-sharing.
Prior to the work stoppage, the Expos were on fire. They were 34 games over .500 still with 48 games left on the schedule and led the NL East by six games over the tough Atlanta Braves.
They largely owed their success to one of baseball’s best starting rotations, which included now Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill, Jeff Fassaro and Butch Henry. On offense, guys like Moises Alou and Larry Walker gave the starting rotation plenty of run support.
We’ll never know what might have been, but we do know the Expos were the best team in baseball in 1994 before the strike happened and never did make it to the World Series.
2 2. WORST TO MAKE IT: 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (83-78)
With only themselves and the Houston Astros finishing above .500 among the six teams in the NL Central in 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals managed to stumble their way into the division title despite finishing 3-7 in their final 10 games and recording the worst record for a playoff team.
Their 83-78 mark wouldn’t even have been good enough for second in any other division in baseball, but there they were, and since they were there, they figured they might as well try and do something with their generous gift from the baseball gods.
So naturally, they found their stride in October, went 7-4 in the first two rounds of the playoffs and knocked off a far-superior Detroit Tigers team in the World Series to become the statistically worst team to win an MLB title.
1 1. BEST TO NOT MAKE IT: 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46)
Talk about a heartbreaker. The Seattle Mariners were so good in 2001, their 116 wins tied a Major League record for the most in a single season. Unfortunately, it would all come crashing down before the team could reach that year’s Fall Classic.
From April right on through to September, all seemed right in the world. Seattle was riding an MVP season by rookie Ichiro Suzuki, a 37-home-run performance by Brett Boone and a 116-RBI effort from Edgar Martinez. In the playoffs, the Mariners squeaked past the Indians in five games in the ALDS as they marched toward destiny, but then the wheels fell off.
In the ALCS, the Mariners would run headlong into the surging New York Yankees – whom they beat in the regular season standings by 21 games – and their fireball pitching, losing in five games, as one of baseball’s best teams ever missed a chance at the franchise’s first World Series appearance.
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