By the time each MLB season comes to its conclusion, there are only certain things we remember. Our thoughts are mostly dominated by who just won the World Series or how our favorite team performed. Unless it directly impacts us, we rarely remember who exactly was the worst team in baseball for any given year.
Win-loss record and winning percentage are what’s mostly used to determine who takes home this dubious honor — along with the top overall pick in the following summer’s draft — but it should go a little deeper than that.
So, while taking this particular trip down memory lane, we felt it was more appropriate to use run differential as the determining factor, which is the number of runs a team allows subtracted by the number of runs they score. After all, the whole point of baseball is to score more runs than you allow each night.
More often than not (11 out of 15, actually), the worst record in baseball was accompanied by the worst run differential, but there were a handful of times when a team didn’t accomplish both.
Below are the worst teams in terms of run differential from each season since 2002, ranked from least to most soul crushing.
15. Texas Rangers, 2014
Run Differential: -136
Best Position Player: Adrian Beltre (5.8 fWAR)
Best Pitcher: Yu Darvish (3.7)
Naturally, we start off this list with a team that had the worst run differential in their respective season, but not the worst overall record. But honestly, the Rangers had enough to deal with in 2014.
They used 64 different players, which was a record, so considering how deep they had to dip down to put talent on the field, it’s rather impressive that they actually had a better record than the Colorado Rockies (66-96) and Arizona Diamondbacks (64-98).
This was very much a blip on the radar for Texas — it’s been their only losing season since 2009 while they’ve racked up five different 90-plus win campaigns, including two consecutive World Series appearances (’10 and ’11).
14. Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 2007
Run Differential: -162
Best Position Player: Carlos Pena (5.9)
Best Pitcher: Scott Kazmir (4.8)
For as long as Tampa Bay was known as the Devil Rays, they could never put a winning product on the baseball diamond. They did improve from 2006 when they finished 61-101, but it’s not as if this five-game improvement was anything to be happy about.
However, all they had to do was chop off the “Devil” portion of their name, since the 2008 season wasn’t only their first winning campaign as an organization, but it also resulted in a trip to the World Series.
13. Washington Nationals, 2009
Run Differential: -164
Best Position Player: Ryan Zimmerman (6.6)
Best Pitcher: Jordan Zimmermann (1.9)
As you can see below, this was the latter part of a rough two-year stretch for the Nats. This one particularly stung because they finished a full 34 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East, but there’s a good chance they’re thankful for these struggles.
Why would I say something like that? Well, they’re projected to be contenders in 2017, and Bryce Harper, who Washington drafted first overall the following summer because of this dreadful record, should play a big part in whatever success they have this year.
12. Washington Nationals, 2008
Run Differential: -184
Best Position Player: Willie Harris (3.0)
Only two teams were remotely close to the Nats in this department in 2008: the Pittsburgh Pirates (-149) and the Seattle Mariners (-140). So, Washington truly earned the “worst in baseball” title here.
But like we just touched on, they were rewarded for these struggles with the first overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft, which they used to select Stephen Strasburg. He hasn’t blossomed yet into the dominant top-of-the-rotation pitcher they envisioned, but after agreeing to a seven-year, $175 million deal last year, he’ll have until the 2023 season to prove himself.
11. Minnesota Twins, 2011
Run Differential: -185
Best Position Player: Michael Cuddyer (2.4)
Best Pitcher: Scott Baker (2.6)
The Twins were one of baseball’s most consistent franchises between 2002-10, enjoying six AL Central titles and five 90-plus win seasons. While they peaked in terms of postseason success in 2002 (lost in the ALCS), they continually gave themselves a shot at contending for a title.
Fresh off two straight division titles and a 94-win campaign in 2010, the bottom completely fell out the following year. The Houston Astros’ 56-106 record helped keep Minnesota from posting the league’s worst record, but it likely made their league-worst -195 run differential sting a little more (Houston’s run differential was -181).
This was also the start of consistent struggles — the Twins have only won more than 70 games in a season once since this performance, and that was an 83-79 showing in 2015.
10. Philadelphia Phillies, 2016
Run Differential: -186
Best Position Player: Cesar Hernandez (4.4)
Best Pitcher: Jeremy Hellickson (3.2)
One would imagine that the 103-loss Twins from would’ve “ruled” 2016 here, but the Phillies and their anemic offense did them a solid. Philly was actually an early-season surprise — they woke up on May 1 with a 15-10 record, but it seemed too good to be true since they had a -17 run differential at the time.
As it turns out, it was. After scoring the fewest runs in baseball (610) by a wide margin, they’re hoping for a rebound from Maikel Franco and provided him with a little help by acquiring Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders this winter.
9. Atlanta Braves, 2015
Run Differential: -187
Best Position Player: Freddie Freeman (3.4)
Best Pitcher: Shelby Miller (3.4)
The NL East owned the bottom of the run differential category in 2015, as Atlanta and the Phillies (-183) finished very close to one another in the basement. The Braves didn’t improve much in the win-loss column in 2016 (68-93), but a strong second half allowed them to shave their overall run differential from the -187 you see above to -130.
So, that’s definitely progress. With a busy offseason this past winter and a new home to pimp in SunTrust Park, they’re looking to keep this progress going. If it does, Matt Kemp should be a big part of it.
8. Houston Astros, 2012
Run Differential: -211
Best Position Player: Jed Lowrie (2.5)
Best Pitcher: Lucas Harrell (2.8)
When it comes to futility since the 2000 season, the Astros can challenge just about anyone. The 2011-13 campaigns were especially tough since they each included at least 100 losses. Rebuilding from rock bottom is now paying off, though.
They used those high draft picks to select players like Carlos Correa and George Springer, and while they missed the playoffs in 2016 after getting there the year before, they’re primed to make some noise in 2017.
7. Kansas City Royals, 2006
Run Differential: -214
Best Position Player: David DeJesus (4.2)
Best Pitcher: Luke Hudson (1.5)
When your team is playing this badly, it’s important to find joy in the small victories. The 2006 season was the third consecutive 100-loss campaign for Kansas City and their fourth in five years. But at least they improved from the year before (see below), right? That’s something.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays actually played to a worse record (61-101) despite producing a run differential of “just” -167. In fact, the Royals looked even worse considering how deep the AL Central was in this particular season — the Tigers, Twins and White Sox all won at least 90 games and none of them had a run differential worse than +70.
Even the Indians, who finished 78-84, had a +88 run differential.
6. Kansas City Royals, 2005
Run Differential: -233
Best Position Player: David DeJesus (4.0)
Best Pitcher: Zack Greinke (2.0)
We already touched upon KC’s run of futility in the early-2000s, so we’re not going to beat the dead horse here. Instead, let’s look at some more of the positives. This poor performance netted them the top overall pick in the 2006 draft, where they selected Luke Hochevar, who played an important role out of the bullpen for the 2015 World Champions.
It’s a beautiful thing when teams are able to turn negatives, including a season as dreadful as this one, into an eventual positive.
5. Houston Astros, 2013
Run Differential: -238
Best Position Player: Jason Castro (4.4)
Best Pitcher: Bud Norris (1.8)
As mentioned earlier, this was the worst of the three 100-loss seasons for Houston, but it was thankfully the last one the organization and their fans had to suffer through.
It’s still impressive to see just how bad they were compared to the rest of the league — the next-closest team in terms of win-loss record was the Miami Marlins, who finished 62-100. The second-worst run differential was -174 by the Twins, who finished 66-96.
Houston then started its upward trend in 2014, but they unfortunately used their top overall pick that year on Brady Aiken, who never actually signed with the club.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates, 2010
Run Differential: -279
Best Position Player: Andrew McCutchen (3.5)
Best Pitcher: James McDonald (1.7)
As part of their two consecutive decades of posting losing records, the Pirates began the new millennium with 13 straight losing seasons before finally getting themselves over .500 in 2013. So, with such a large sample to draw from, it would’ve been weird if one of those teams didn’t make the list.
There was a lot of disappointment throughout this sad streak, but there were only two 100-loss seasons, and this one easily produced the worst record. It was finally rock bottom — after this performance, the Pirates improved to 72-90 and 79-83 before posting a 94-68 record.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks, 2004
Run Differential: -284
Best Position Player: Chad Tracy (1.6)
Best Pitcher: Randy Johnson (9.6)
My oh my, how quickly those World Series warm and fuzzies go away, right? They went from three straight winning seasons to this clunker. They actually weren’t the only 50-win team in 2004 — the Royals also joined them (58-104). However, Arizona still managed to produce worst run differential by nearly 100 runs (KC finished at -185).
They did select Justin Upton with the top overall pick the following season, so it wasn’t all bad.
2. Detroit Tigers, 2002
Run Differential: -289
Best Position Player: Robert Fick (1.8)
Best Pitcher: Mark Redman (4.0)
The Tigers have truly set the standard when it comes to being terrible in a single season. Based off the teams we’ve already highlighted, that’s really impressive. They did finish the year with the same record as Tampa Bay, but their -245 run differential gives them the slight edge with regard to this particular discussion.
And just when you think it couldn’t get much worse, it did.
1. Detroit Tigers, 2003
Run Differential: -337
Best Position Player: Dmitri Young (1.9)
Best Pitcher: Nate Cornejo (1.6)
I mean, when you’re getting compared to the 1962 New York Mets, you know it’s not a good thing.
Manager Alan Trammell‘s first season at the helm was so rough that they had to win five of their final six games just to avoid becoming the worst team in modern MLB history. The next two teams closest to their -337 run differential, the Cincinnati Reds (-191) and Milwaukee Brewers (-159), had to add their very bad totals just to barely beat out Detroit.
That was the worst it’d get, though. They’d draft Justin Verlander first overall the following season and wound up in the World Series in 2006.
With the 2017 season on the horizon, which team will disappoint the most in run differential? Who exactly will they challenge on this list? We’ll find out soon enough, but we’re sure that everyone is hoping it won’t be them.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball, contributes to The Sports Daily and is also an editor for numberFire. In the past, he has also worked for FanDuel and Bleacher Report. He’s a lover of all baseball, especially the Mets.