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The 10 best seasons on losing teams

Trout is having a performance for the ages on a sub-.500 club
@mike_petriello
March 11, 2019

Michael Trout is the best player in baseball, maybe the best player you'll ever see, and he's having his best season. Within his .314/.459/.632 line, you'll find the following: • Baseball's best on-base percentage, leading the American League for the third straight year • Baseball's second-best slugging percentage, a hair

Michael Trout is the best player in baseball, maybe the best player you'll ever see, and he's having his best season. Within his .314/.459/.632 line, you'll find the following:

• Baseball's best on-base percentage, leading the American League for the third straight year
• Baseball's second-best slugging percentage, a hair behindMookie Betts
• A 198 OPS+, a mark so legendary that it's been reached by only a handful of players in the past century. (Among the greats who never had a year like that: Jose Pujols, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jose Cabrera, Joe DiMaggio and Alex Rodriguez.)

But Trout is not going to win the AL Most Valuable Player Award, obviously. He's probably not going to win because the Angels are going to miss the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. While Betts is phenomenal in his own right and incredibly deserving due to his own fantastic season, at least part of his support will come due to the fact that he's fortunate enough to be teammates with Chris Sale, J.D. Martinez, Craig Kimbrel and others. Trout is ... not.

Because of the inability of the Halos to build a team around him, we're now seven full seasons into Trout's career, with one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins. It's incredibly depressing, but it also made us start thinking: How often have we seen a season this good coming on a team that couldn't even manage a winning record?

The answer, as you might expect: "not often."

The way we went about this was relatively simple. First, we looked for seasons of 10 Wins Above Replacement, dating back to the end of World War II. WAR isn't a perfect stat, obviously, but it's not possible to get to 10 WAR without being irrefutably great. For context, 2 WAR is considered league-average, 4 WAR is All-Star quality and anything above 6 WAR is star level. A 10 WAR season is so rare that in the years since the end of the WAR, it's happened just 52 times, 30 from hitters and 22 from pitchers.

As you'd expect, most of those seasons came on winning teams, including Betts this year, and that's because it's really, really hard to have a player so great surrounded by players so weak that they can't even get to .500. These are the 10 players who managed to do it in that timespan, and here they are, ranked by WAR in that season.

1. Steve Carlton: 12.1 WAR, 1972 Phillies (59-97)
1.97 ERA, 346 1/3 innings, 182 ERA+
This is exactly the season you'd want to see atop a list like this, because this is basically the platonic ideal of "great season on a bad team." Carlton unanimously won the National League Cy Young Award while posting a 1.97 ERA for a last-place Phillies team; for what little individual pitching wins matter, his 27 represented nearly half of Philadelphia's wins that year. Carlton almost singlehandedly prevented the Phils from losing 100 games, impressive considering they hit just a collective .236/.302/.344.

2. Roger Clemens: 11.9 WAR, 1997 Blue Jays (76-86)
2.05 ERA, 264 innings, 222 ERA+
Clemens' brief mid-career interlude in Toronto produced a pair of AL Cy Young Award-winning seasons, but zero playoff appearances. There's no amount of good pitching that can overcome a team .244/.310/.389 batting line, the worst in baseball that year. Only three Blue Jays hitters played enough to qualify for the batting title; while Carlos Delgado was very good, Joe Carter and Ed Sprague (combined .231/.294/.392 in 1,230 plate appearances) were not.

3. Wilbur Wood: 11.8 WAR, 1971 White Sox (79-83)
1.91 ERA, 334 innings, 189 ERA+
The knuckleballing Wood topped 300 innings each year from 1971-74, which tells you a little about how different the era he played in was. The '71 season was his best year, as you can see by his 1.91 ERA, and this wasn't a bad team, pairing strong pitching with league-average offense; the White Sox even outscored their opponents by 20 runs. That all suggests a team hovering around .500, and that's what it was, just slightly on the wrong side of it.

4. Cal Ripken Jr.: 11.5 WAR, 1991 Orioles (67-95)
.323/.374/.566, 34 home runs, 162 OPS+
The 1991 Orioles weren't quite as unsuccessful as the '88 or the 2018 versions, but they still finished 24 games behind the first place Blue Jays, because they simply couldn't pitch. (A rotation led by the likes of Bob Milacki and Jeff Ballard put up a 5.29 ERA, the worst in baseball that year.) Ripken, however, had what was the best year of a Hall of Fame career. He won the AL MVP Award that year, if you're looking for hope for Trout this season.

5. Gaylord Perry: 10.8 WAR, 1972 Indians (72-84)
1.92 ERA, 342 2/3 innings, 168 ERA+
This was Perry's first year in Ohio after a decade in San Francisco, and it went well: he edged Wood for the AL Cy Young Award. His new team could pitch, finishing with the seventh-best ERA in the Majors, and it wasn't all Perry, because Dick Tidrow kicked in 237 1/3 innings of 2.77 ball. As you'd expect, the offense was dreadful, hitting .234/.293/.330 and scoring only three runs per game, third lowest in the AL. This is a recurring theme, isn't it? Baseball is a team game. One player can't overcome the weaknesses of 24 others.

6. Mike Trout: 10.5 WAR, 2016 Angels (74-88)
.315/.441/.550, 29 home runs, 173 OPS+
That's right, Trout was already on this list. He's the only player to appear here twice, which says a lot about how great he is and how the Angels have simply not been able to build around him. (Assuming Trout finishes at 10 WAR this year, he'll be one of only eight hitters to have three or more such seasons. He turned 27 last month.) The 2016 Halos had a similar inability to every other recent Angels club, which was an inability to keep pitchers healthy and productive. It didn't help, either, that their second-best hitter was either C.J. Cron or Kole Calhoun. (Trout won the AL MVP Award that year, for what it's worth, and has finished in the top two of the AL MVP Award voting in ever year of his career except for last year, when he finished fourth because a thumb injury limited him to 114 games.)

7. Zack Greinke, 10.4 WAR, 2009 Royals (65-97)
2.16 ERA, 229 1/3 innings, 205 ERA+
After a few rough years getting his career off the ground and a strong season in 2008, this was Greinke's true breakout year, an AL Cy Young Award-winning campaign that put him in the select group of the few true "aces" around the game, where he remains nearly a decade later. Unfortunately for him, Greinke was surrounded by one of the least imposing rosters of the 21st century; the Royals' entire lineup was worth a total of 3.4 WAR. There's no amount of great pitching that can overcome nearly 2,000 plate appearances given to Yuniesky Betancourt, Willie Bloomquist, Jose Guillen, Mike Jacobs and Mitch Maier, who combined to hit .244/.306/.366 with poor defense, for -5 WAR.

8. Ernie Banks: 10.2 WAR, 1959 Cubs (74-80)
.304/.375/.596, 45 home runs, 156 OPS+
Banks famously played parts of 19 seasons with the Cubs without once making the postseason, and he won his second consecutive NL MVP Award in 1959. It's not hard to see why; he was the only Cubs hitter that year to post at least 400 plate appearances while being at least league-average. Thanks to Banks, their 4.3 runs per game was about league average, but if that's as far as they could get with a season this massive, it tells you a lot about everyone else.

9. Bob Feller: 10.1 WAR, 1946 Indians (68-86)
2.18 ERA, 371 1/3 innings, 151 ERA+
Consider this: Feller was incredible in 1946, throwing a nearly-unbelievable 371 1/3 innings to go with that sparkling 2.18 ERA. Yet his Cleveland team still had a 3.62 ERA that was worse than the 3.46 league average, which tells you something about how ineffective his pitching teammates were. The Indians didn't exactly make up for it with the bats, either; only one team had a lower on-base percentage than Cleveland's .313.

10. Mike Trout: 9.9 WAR, 2018 Angels (75-81)
.314/.459/.632, 38 home runs, 198 OPS+
No, 9.9 WAR isn't 10 WAR. Let's assume that Trout can get that last fraction of a point in the final week, not that it really matters. The 2018 Angels haven't been _bad_, not really, but despite being gifted with the stunning impact of Shohei Ohtani, they've mostly been irrelevant. Calhoun got off to a terrible start, and offseason acquisitions Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart didn't have much impact, plus Pujols' decline continued while Garrett Richards and Matthew Shoemaker got hurt. Playing in the suddenly brutal AL West didn't help, either.

It's true that the Halos haven't won anything with Trout around. But it's important to remember it hasn't really been his fault, either. Trout is already a historically great player, and he just had the best season of that great career. Let's not allow the weaknesses of the roster around him to obscure that.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.