More than a quarter of the way into the 2023 season, the Oakland Athletics are 8-29 with a .216 winning percentage that would supplant the 1962 New York Mets as the worst in baseball history.

But the A’s aren’t alone in their ineptitude. The Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox are all currently on a 100-loss pace — and the Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds aren’t much better.

How rare is it to have this many bad teams at one time? Why are these teams so terrible in the first place? And how many of these teams will finish the season with 100-plus losses? Let’s dive into the year of the terrible, horrible, no good very bad teams at the bottom of the MLB standings.

Yes, this group is historically terrible

When something like this comes up, the first question you have to ask is whether it’s real. And by real, we mean whether or not it’s something that can be measured and documented. So let’s start there: Is the degree to which the bottom tier of the MLB pecking order has struggled, unusual? Or has there been a spate of rebuilding teams getting manhandled on a regular basis?

Simply put, it is a real thing and it is very, very unusual in a historical context. We can argue about if it will continue, but for now, this is the reality of the big league competitive landscape: There are some teams playing very badly. There are an usual number of teams playing very badly. And there are an unusually large number of teams playing so badly.

First, let’s consider season-over-season comparisons. We’ll set the end points as the first 33 games of a team’s schedule, just to make it apple-to-apple, year-over-year, to correspond with where we are at with the 2023 schedule. We’ve drawn that line at eight teams, but the picture doesn’t substantially change if we look at six, eight or even 10 teams.

Through those 33-game samples, here are the all-time worst combined winning percentages for the bottom eight teams in the majors:

1981: .324
2018: .326
2023: .341
1979: .348
2002: .348

So, yeah, there we are. This season has the third-worst bottom tier of the modern era in terms of winning percentage, 33 games into the proceedings. But wait … there’s more.

If we’re wondering if this will hold up, there are a lot of moving parts to consider. But run differential is one telling forward-looking indicator. This tells us about not just the degree to which the bottom teams have lost, but also just how competitive (or non-competitive) these teams have been.

So using those same 33-game measurements, let’s consider run differential, expressed as a Pythagorean winning percentage — the percentage of games each team could be expected to win based on their runs score and runs allowed.

That earlier bad news is about to get worse.

2023: .344
1981: .351
2010: .356
2018: .357
1977: .361
1969: .361
2003: .362
1988: .365
2007: .368
1972: .370
2016: .371
2001: .372
1979: .375
2022: .377
1904: .377
1970: .377

Yes, it’s a real thing. And we made the list this long to include one more tidbit: Things were pretty bad in this regard last year, too. It’s gotten worse.

Why are these bad teams so … bad?

The easy answer, of course, is tanking. This really started in the early 2010s when front offices started tearing teams down to the bare bones to gain high draft picks and rebuild with younger, cheaper players. That may be the right answer — although it’s not the only answer.

The strategy worked spectacularly well for the Chicago Cubs under Theo Epstein and the Houston Astros under Jeff Luhnow. In Epstein’s first year with the Cubs in 2012 they lost 101 games. Three years later, through a combination of drafting and developing hitters and overhauling their lineup through trades and free agency, they were in the playoffs, and the year after that, they won the World Series. The Astros lost 106 games in 2011, Ed Wade’s final season as general manager. Luhnow completed the teardown and the Astros lost 107 in 2012 and 111 in 2013. In 2015, they were back in the postseason, and in 2017 won the World Series behind a mix of homegrown stars who were already in their system (Jose Altuve, George Springer and Dallas Keuchel), high draft picks during their teardown (Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker) and acquired aces (Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke).

Draft well, develop well, trade well and spend money. If you don’t do all four of those things, the tanking-to-contending span will last a lot longer than it did for the Cubs and Astros. Which brings us to our current group.

Take the Royals. After winning the World Series in 2015, Dayton Moore tried to stretch that success out for a couple more seasons, but the team went 81-81 and then 80-82. The Alex Gordon/Eric Hosmer/Mike Moustakas core wasn’t a strong one for a World Series winner, and by 2018 the major league roster had little left besides Salvador Perez and the farm system was weak. The tank was on and it was hard to argue against that strategy.

Six seasons later, however, the Royals are no better than when they lost 104 games in 2018. They hoped to rebuild around a homegrown pitching staff of first-round college pitchers that included Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic and Asa Lacy, but that group hasn’t clicked. Bobby Witt Jr. was the crown jewel of the farm system, but let’s be honest: He is far from a franchise player at this point, with a .291 career OBP. He doesn’t turn 23 until June, so there’s still time for him to learn and improve, but he needs to turn into the Kansas City version of Altuve and that hasn’t happened.

The A’s are in the second season of their tank-and-rebuild after trading away Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea after the 2022 lockout ended, and then Frankie Montas during the season and Sean Murphy this past offseason. They have their own unique set of circumstances, of course, with the plan to now move the team to Las Vegas, but the current plight of the A’s is directly correlated to the penny-pinching ways of owner John Fisher. For the second straight season they’ll run the lowest payroll in baseball.

I don’t think the A’s expected to be this bad in 2023. Under Billy Beane, the team had executed three successful rebuilds: The original “Moneyball” teams of the early 2000s, the 2012-14 club that made three straight postseason trips and then the 2018-2021 run that featured three playoff appearances. The A’s had some mediocre seasons between those runs but never completely tanked. The sell-off of talent after 2021, however, has produced some deplorable baseball. They lost 102 games in 2022, the franchise’s first 100-loss season since 1979. This year’s team has featured historically bad starting pitching: The rotation is 2-17 with a 7.70 ERA. The bullpen has been historically awful as well with a 6.70 ERA.

The A’s had followed a similar blueprint to their past two rebuilds in collecting a bunch of young starting pitching prospects — none of them top-flight prospects, but with the theory that they could cobble together a halfway decent rotation from the likes of Ken Waldichuk, Kyle Muller, JP Sears, Shintaro Fujinami, James Kaprielian, Adam Oller, Freddy Tarnok, Drew Rucinski and Paul Blackburn. Needless to say, it’s been a disaster.

In fact, the Reds aren’t far behind: Their rotation ERA is 6.40, despite the presence of two former elite prospects in Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo. Greene has been fine, but Lodolo has struggled, and the fourth and fifth starters (Luis Cessa, Luke Weaver, Connor Overton and Levi Stoudt) have combined for a 9.80 ERA. The Reds fit the classic tanking narrative: After making the playoffs in 2020 and finishing 83-79 in 2021, they decided to blow up their roster coming out of the MLB lockout. They went 62-100 in 2022, their first 100-loss season since 1982. Attendance plummeted to just over 17,000 fans a game. Even when Cincinnati suffered through nine consecutive losing seasons in the 2000s, it never dipped below 20,000 per game. (A new ballpark opening in the middle of that run of ineptitude helped.) The Reds are probably in a better position than the Royals or A’s, based on the talent in the farm system.

The Rockies are their own story. They’ve never tanked, at least not on purpose. They’re more similar to the classic dysfunctional organizations of the 1970s and 1980s. The Rockies did make the playoffs in 2017 and 2018 with a team built around homegrown talent. They’ve tried to replicate that strategy since trading Nolan Arenado and losing Trevor Story in free agency, but the next wave of talent never materialized — in combination with the occasional bad free agent signing and some injuries to pitchers (German Marquez just went down and will need Tommy John surgery).

In fact, the Rockies are a reminder that we’ve always had terrible teams, and it used to take longer to rebuild. Here’s a decade-by-decade look at how long it took before teams that lost 100 games finished over .500:

1970s: 15 teams (4.2 years on average to winning season)

1980s: 11 teams (4.1 years on average to winning season)

1990s: 5 teams (5.0 years on average to winning season)

2000s: 15 teams (5.0 years on average to winning season)

2010s: 15 teams (3.1 years on average to winning season, subject to change based on the 2018 Royals and 2019 Royals and Tigers, who are still seeking a winning season)

In this snapshot analysis, you can see why teams have tried the tanking strategy: When properly executed, the turnaround to playoff contention can be quicker than it was in prior decades. But the Tigers are a prime example of why tanking is no automatic path to a quick turnaround.

In the midst of a bad season in 2017, Detroit decided to embark on the full tank, trading away Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton. Backup catcher Jake Rogers was the best player they received in those deals. It didn’t help that Dave Dombrowski had left them with an empty farm system and Miguel Cabrera‘s payroll-eating contract.

They drafted Casey Mize first overall in 2018, Riley Greene fifth in 2019 and Spencer Torkelson first in 2020. All reached the majors as top prospects — Detroit’s version of Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — but have yet to take off in MLB. Mize is out for the season after Tommy John surgery last June, Torkelson just hasn’t hit in the majors, and Greene has a meager seven extra-base hits despite ranking in the top 10 in the majors in strikeout. Tarik Skubal also had elbow surgery last June and has yet to pitch. Matt Manning, who showed signs of breaking out in 2022, is currently out with a broken foot. Throw in the bad money spent on Javier Baez, and this run of poor player development combined with some bad luck finally cost Al Avila his job. The club brought in Scott Harris from the Giants as president of baseball operations after last season, and the Tigers are essentially now on Rebuild II (although they played better last week to at least temporarily take themselves off the list of the worst teams of 2023).

The no-good pitching staffs

The biggest chasm right now between the haves and the have-nots is pitching. Why? That’s hard to say. Maybe it’s an economic mechanism, either in terms of actual financial capacity or in a talent sense. Pitching is a great commodity in the trade market, and when teams strip down, sending out veterans for prospects, many of those deals center around experienced pitchers.

Maybe that effect is amplified by scarcity. That is, more pitchers can throw 100 miles per hour than ever, but teams require many more pitchers to get through a season than they used to. Some of that is due to role changes and some of it is related to the injuries that go with trying to throw every pitch through a brick wall or trying to put so much spin on it that the ball behaves like a yo-yo.

Whatever the cause, the biggest differences between teams right now lies in the quality of pitching. That’s the context behind some of the remarkably bad pitching numbers for some of the struggling teams so far this season.

Through Monday, the Oakland Athletics sported a team ERA of 7.26. That number is extreme and has been coming down very gradually in recent days. But if the season ended today, Oakland would have the worst-ever team ERA by more than a half-run over the existing mark, held by the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies (6.71).

The A’s aren’t alone. On a leaderboard 2,646 team-seasons long going back to 1901, the White Sox (No. 14, 5.76) and Royals (No. 21, 5.62) would also rank high on the worst team ERA list. The Reds (No. 87, 5.19) merit dishonorable mention.

Now let’s talk stratification, or the spread of a given statistic across all teams. The more stratified a league is, by whatever measure, the less parity there is in that category. To illustrate this, I made up a stratification index that looks at the standard deviation between teams in a category for each season, then compared that to the overall average spread during the modern era. These measures are expressed as integers, with 100 representing average. The higher the number, the more spread there is in the category.

The overall level of stratification is higher so far in the 2020s than at any time since World War II. This is true in both straight winning percentage and Pythagorean winning percentage:

But we’re talking pitching right now. Generally speaking, there is usually more of a spread between teams on the run prevention side and in terms of run scoring. This hasn’t always been true in a historical sense — it used to be more back and forth. But since the 1990s, this dynamic has been pretty ironclad, and it has been increasing.

So far in the 2020s, the stratification index on the run scoring side has run about 85% of the spread in run prevention. That’s the biggest gap of the modern era. In the 2000s, the figure was 96%, then fell to 91% in the 2010s. So it’s fallen another six percent in the 2020s.

And that brings us to the spread in pitching, circa 2023. The stratification index for the majors in this area so far this season is 131. We have a lot of season to go, but if the campaign ended today, that would be the second-highest level of run prevention stratification since 1901, surpassed only by a 134 figure in 1939.

To sum all of this up in plain English: The difference between the haves and have nots is a historical peak. And while the gaps exist on both the hitting and pitching sides, the differences in pitching are more extreme … almost as extreme as they’ve ever been.

The very bad, negative-WAR offenses

One of the themes of the 2023 season is just how bad the position players on some of these bottom teams have been — feeble at the plate and not helping on defense. The whole idea of replacement level is to determine the number of wins a player is contributing beyond the type of player readily available in Triple-A. That’s how WAR is measured: wins above replacement. A major league team should, in theory, be able to field a team of players above replacement level.

According to the WAR at Baseball-Reference, however, several teams are struggling to do just that. Look at the totals for position players on the following teams through Saturday:

Rockies: minus-0.2 WAR

White Sox: 0.0 WAR

Reds: 0.1 WAR

Guardians: 0.5 WAR

(Yes, no A’s here. They’re already at 1.8 WAR. They haven’t been good on offense, but they have outscored the Nats, Marlins, Guardians and Tigers.)

To put the early returns from the Rockies and White Sox in perspective, since the expansion era began in 1961 only 18 teams have finished with negative WAR from their position players. Shockingly, the infamous 1962 New York Mets come in at 5.6 WAR.

To see how bad you have to be to be all-time bad, here are the bottom three:

1. 1977 Atlanta Braves: minus-10.0 WAR (61-101)

The Braves had a run of ineptitude in this era. The ’75 and ’76 lineups also finished with negative WAR. Part of the problem is Braves management had no idea how to evaluate park effects. Fulton County Stadium was a hitter’s paradise back then, and the Braves hit .277 with 97 home runs at home in ’77 but .231 with 42 home runs on the road. So despite overall numbers that were middle of the pack, including Jeff Burroughs hitting 41 home runs, it was still a terrible offensive team. The defense was apparently abysmal: Burroughs was an estimated minus-26 runs below average in right field (which matches his defensive reputation) and the infield combo of Jerry Royster and Pat Rockett combined for minus-50 runs below average with OPS+ figures of 46 and 64.

2. 1979 Oakland A’s: minus-7.3 WAR (54-108)

This team featured rookie Rickey Henderson as a midseason call-up and young outfielders Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas, but finished last in the AL in batting average, OBP, slugging and runs. Infielders Mike Edwards and Rob Picciolo combined for three home runs in 748 at-bats – with OBPs of .263 and .261. Welcome to the 1970s! I do wonder if some of the defensive evaluations are off, however. Murphy is charged with minus-17 runs saved on defense even though he was regarded as an outstanding center fielder. Indeed, the next year when the pitching improved when Billy Martin took over as manager, his defense suddenly improved to plus-22 runs. He got 39 runs better on defense in one year? Hmm.

3. 2019 Tigers: minus-6.1 WAR (47-114)

The low point of the Tigers’ rebuild, this was a truly wretched offensive team. Remember, this was the juiced ball season when the average AL team hit 232 home runs and scored 791 runs. The Tigers hit 149 and scored just 582 – 3.61 per game, more than half a run worse than the second-lowest team. Brandon Dixon led the Tigers with 15 home runs while veterans on their last legs like Jordy Mercer and Gordon Beckham received playing time and youngsters like Dawel Lugo and Christin Stewart were seen and rarely heard from again.

As for this year’s teams, the Guardians are the surprise as they finished sixth in the majors in position player WAR in 2022, buoyed in part by some excellent defensive metrics from the likes of Andres Gimenez, Myles Straw and Steven Kwan plus the usual all-around brilliance of Jose Ramirez. Cleveland hasn’t hit for any power so far and their speed just doesn’t generate enough runs by itself. Gimenez hasn’t hit at all after a strong 2022 and while his defensive metrics have once again been superb, the same isn’t true for Straw or Kwan. Still, at the minimum I expect the defense to pick it up, Ramirez to start raking, and others like Josh Naylor and Josh Bell to hit better.

The Reds … well, I don’t think they’ll end up with negative WAR, but there isn’t much reason for optimism either. Jonathan India is back looking like the player who won Rookie of the Year in 2021, and TJ Friedl has hit well, but overall they haven’t hit for much power despite playing in a homer-friendly park. Tyler Stephenson just hit his first home run, Wil Myers has struggled, and they’re now trying Spencer Steer at first base and Nick Senzel at third base as they try to pretzel together a lineup. They should probably just play Jose Barrero at shortstop and give him a season to see what he can do, but they keep messing around with Kevin Newman as well. The Reds had just 1.8 WAR from their position players last season, so this may be your best bet to get to 0 WAR in 2023.

The White Sox have been torpedoed by injuries (again) and a predictable lack of depth which has been exposed by said injuries. Lenyn Sosa hit .140 with a .155 OBP in 59 plate appearances. Elvis Andrus has been one of the worst regulars in the majors. Andrew Benintendi and Tim Anderson (when he’s played) have been far below their career norms. Oscar Colas struggled and got sent down. The supposed good hitters haven’t been so good. The White Sox should improve, but this is a team that doesn’t walk and didn’t have a 20-homer guy last season, so maybe the offense never materializes.

The Rockies … now this could get interesting. Even with last week’s surge — they swept the Brewers and took two of three from the Mets, including scoring 13 runs on Sunday — they’re hovering around replacement level. The lineup Sunday included five players with sub-.300 OBPs despite, you know, playing half their games at Coors Field. They haven’t hit many home runs, and five of the regulars are 30-plus years old, so they’re not even a young team that you might expect to improve as the season progresses. They’re not terrible on defense, however, and it does seem to finish with negative WAR, you need to fail in all facets of the game.

How many 100 loss teams will we have this year?

The A’s are a virtual certainty for triple-digit losses, and the Royals aren’t far from that status. Other teams on pace to lose that many, either by straight win percentage or Pythagorean percentage, are the White Sox, Cardinals and Marlins but they are unlikely to wind up in this category — with the possible exception of the ChiSox. As bad as the Marlins’ run differential is, they’ve already booked enough wins to stay around .500 because they’ve developed a mystical ability to win one-run games. The Cardinals are a good team on paper that has gone through a prolonged bad spell. According to the most recent run of Doolittle’s season simulations, seven teams have a 10th percentile result that would land them in the 100-loss category: The White Sox, Reds, Rockies, Tigers, Royals, Athletics and Nationals. So let’s say the A’s, Royals and two of the other five — take your pick which ones — which leaves us with a final tally of four 100-loss teams.

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