By Matthew Kory
The best team in baseball always gets special attention -- as it should, because being the best is very difficult. But, in terms of pure difficulty, so is being the worst. In fact, one could argue being the worst is as difficult as being the best. It's certainly less desirable, there's no question of that, but that doesn't make it any easier.
If we accept that all major league teams try to win every game, and as such try to score the most runs while giving up the fewest, and we were to plot all this in graph form, the result would look like the prototypical bell curve. Most teams are clustered in the middle (the top and sides of the "bell") somewhere between "moderately bad" and "moderately good." But there are a few outliers. On one side you have the all-time great offenses, your 1936 Yankees that scored 1,065 runs, and your 1930 St. Louis Cardinals that scored 1,004 runs.
Then there are a few teams as incapable of scoring runs as a man in a giant gerbil ball is incapable of running a triathlon. Sure, these bad teams don't have Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig or Frankie Frisch in their lineups, just one of whom would save them from a humiliating fate, but just as raising a child takes a village, so does ruining one. Reaching the very bottom is a team effort.
Every year some team wins the World Series, but that doesn't make it a truly great team. True greatness is more rare. Similarly, truly bad offenses don't come around every season. They are like particularly good vintages of wine ... or maybe they're nothing like that, who knows about wine? They are rare, is the point, which makes this season that much stranger. This year we are treated to two, putting it kindly, execrable offensive teams.
The first is the Astros who, as I've written here before, are appalling. However, their hideousness is mostly confined to their pitching staff. That's not to say they are good at scoring runs -- no, no, please don't get that idea -- just that they aren't trying to put out a house fire by siphoning gasoline from the car. To date, Houston has scored 197 runs in 50 games, or 3.94 runs per game. The average team this season (which includes both bad teams) has scored 4.3 runs per game. What pushes the Astros toward (awful) history has little to do with their hitting, which is in the bottom of the middle of the pack.
In contrast, what pushes the Marlins toward (awful) history has everything to do with their hitting. The Marlins [puts on plastic gloves] may just be the worst at scoring runs in a long time. They are so wretched that they have a chance to do something really special, by which I mean really awful: They have a real chance to score the fewest runs in baseball history.
At this writing, the Marlins have scored 138 runs in 51 games. That is an average of 2.71 runs per game. The worst team in the modern era, which I'm defining as since 1900*, is the 1908 St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals played 154 games that season and mustered up a pitiable 372 runs, an average per game of 2.42. You math majors out there will note that is 0.29 runs per game less than the modern day Marlins. Yes, that's right. All that separates today's Marlins from history is scoring one fewer run every third day.
*There are a bunch of odd results in the 1800s primarily due to strange schedules, uneven competition, and a whole host of other oddities that make comparisons to modern day teams almost impossible. I say "almost" because I'm sure someone out there is smart enough to pull it off. I am not that someone.
Of course, the '08 Cardinals aren't the only team between the Marlins and history. I went through and found the worst offensive team that each organization has put on the field in its history (again from 1900 on). The Marlins rank fourth on that list, and as such will have to 'beat' the following:
- The forerunner to today's Dodgers, the 1908 Brooklyn Superbas, scored just three more runs than their worst-ever Cardinals league-mates, making them the second-worst scoring club of all time. In a fatal error that left them on the outside looking in at history, Brooklyn out-scored St. Louis 54-43 during 22 head-to-head games that year. Makes you think the Cardinals knew what they were doing. Or really, really didn't.
- The 1909 Washington Senators were led by first baseman Jiggs Donahue, who hit .237/.294/.286 with no homers, or in other words, exactly like you'd think he hit if you looked at him. The Jiggs-infused Senators scored 380 runs in 156 games for an average of 2.44 runs per game. Donahue had the good sense to retire following the season.
- The 1942 Philadelphia Phillies scored 394 runs in 151 games. Led by third baseman Pinky May, who did as close to nothing with the bat as a hitter can, the Phillies lost 109 games. They would have lost more, but a winningish streak saw the Phillies take two of five to close out the year.
Pinky May and Jiggs Donahue? It's some hefty company to overcome. Or undercome. Either way, it looks like the 2013 Marlins will have no difficulty topping the list of the worst hitting Marlins teams of all time. To date, the 1993 squad is the horse to beat in that race. They scored 581 runs. That's not good as far as baseball teams go, but at an average of 3.59 it's pretty good as far as really bad baseball teams go, and it's well toward the bottom of my list of the worst offenses ever by team.
We don't know if the Marlins can be the worst ever or not, but it seems pretty clear they have a good shot at bettering (worsing?) some pretty famously bad baseball teams. The 1962 New York Mets are the poster child for bumbling ineptitude. Thing is, the Mets weren't really that awful at scoring runs, at least when compared to the all-time worst. The Mets scored 3.83 per game, more than a run per game greater than the 2013 Marlins.
The other famously awful team is the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. The Spiders are still the record-holder for most losses in a season, having finished a mind-melting 20-134. Still, the Spiders scored more runs per game (3.44) than this year's Marlins. The Marlins will have a long way to go to beat the Mets and Spiders, a sentence that has literally never been written before in the history of the English language.
Will the Marlins ever score that 373rd run to top the Cardinals? Sadly, probably so. They are on pace for 438 runs now, and they've done that mostly without star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton has played in just 20 games and his .728 OPS is easily the worst of his career, but even if he continued at that pace (he won't), that OPS would still be the highest of any Marlins regular. It isn't particularly close. If he a) comes back, and b) can stand at the plate without passing out, then the Marlins are probably out of the woods, and back on the dogpile of normal everyday boring awfulness.
So the Marlins run at history will probably fall short (go long?) of the record books. But maybe it won't! We'll see. If it does, though, that won't take anything away from their overall badness. They are still horrendous and atrocious, and there is something to be said for that.
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Matthew Kory is an author at Baseball Prospectus, a writer at SB Nation's Over The Monster Red Sox blog, a stay-at-home dad, and the author of the books "How Dare I: An Unauthorized Autobiography" and "The Best Things In Life Are Stolen Which Is Why You Just Paid For This Book," neither of which will ever be published. He lives in Portland, Ore.