Biggest single-season win gains in divisional era
Will the upstart Orioles buck a 50-year trend?
Every season has its storylines, and in 2022, one of the most captivating surrounded the Baltimore Orioles. After a five-year rebuild that reached staggering depths (including a season in which they finished 61 games out of first place), the tides have turned in Baltimore. With a brand new core, the 2022 Orioles clawed their way into contention and hung around until the final week of the season, closing out the year with an 83-79 record, just a year after a 52-110 last-place finish. This turnaround made them just the fifth team since 1969 to gain 31+ wins in a single season.
But a comeback like that is a tough act to follow -- of the 13 teams that made this list by virtue of adding at least 27 wins from one year to the next, 12 had their records drop again the next season. What this means for the Orioles is unclear -- each club's story was unique, and none were quite like this one.
So, because we can't say for sure where the 2023 season will take the Orioles, here's a look back at the biggest single-season win gains in the divisional era -- excluding those before and after shortened seasons -- and how things shook out after.
1999 D-backs: +35 wins
65 in 1998, 100 in '99
How they did it: As is typical for expansion teams in their first year, the D-backs had a lackluster 1998 season, to which they responded by adding Randy Johnson, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez to the mix. Roster fortified, the 1999 club finished with the second-best record in baseball. Eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, the ’99 D-backs -- still the winningest team in franchise history -- sadly aren’t remembered so fondly as the 2001 World Series champs.
What happened next: Lost 15 wins in 2000 (85-77). Arizona’s 2000 offensive output paled in comparison to San Francisco’s, and the third-place D-backs had a quiet October ahead of their 2001 title run.
1989 Orioles: +33 wins
54 in '88, 87 in '89
How they did it: The 1988 Orioles finished the season in last place, and they seemed resigned to the same fate in ’89, especially after trading future Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray to the Dodgers in exchange for a trio of players who had a combined -1.5 WAR as Orioles. Paradoxically, after losing Murray, the Orioles went from having the worst offense in baseball in 1988 to the fifth-best in ’89, and with Rookie of the Year Gregg Olson anchoring the bullpen, they soared to a second-place finish, just two games out of a playoff berth.
What happened next: Lost 11 wins in 1990 (76-85). The Orioles’ suddenly-improved offense stalled and Baltimore ultimately fell into a fifth-place finish following its resurgent ’89 campaign.
2022 Orioles: +31 wins
52 in 2021, 83 in '22
How they did it: The narrative surrounding the Orioles’ 2022 resurgence centered mainly around catcher Adley Rutschman, whose debut in May clearly separated the club’s 16-25 start and the 67-54 record it posted over the remainder of the season. But Rutschman was one of six top prospects (as ranked by MLB Pipeline on Opening Day) to debut for Baltimore in 2022, and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, baseball’s No. 4 prospect, still waits in the wings, which begs the question – with a full season of these incredibly talented young players, what kind of gains could the O’s make in 2023?
What happened next: ???
2008 Rays: +31 wins
66 in 2007, 97 in '08
How they did it: From their inaugural 1998 season through 2007, the Rays had an MLB-worst .399 winning percentage, and their best season came in 2004, when they went 70-91 and finished fourth in the AL East. So it was something of a change of pace when the 2008 club went from worst to first and stormed all the way to the franchise’s first AL pennant with the help of Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria's breakout season and strong campaigns from Matt Garza, James Shields and Scott Kazmir, even if they were ultimately taken down by the Phillies in the World Series.
What happened next: Lost 13 wins in 2009 (84-78). The pitching that had been so vital in 2008 hit a skid in 2009, and the Red Sox and Yankees came back with a vengeance, knocking the Rays into third place in the East.
1993 Giants: +31 wins
72 in 1992, 103 in '93
How they did it: The Giants were poised to relocate to Tampa Bay in 1992. By ’93, the move had been ruled out, and the club’s new ownership had a powerful opening gambit to revive their sputtering offense – signing Barry Bonds. It worked like a charm. After hitting .244/.302/.355 as a club in ’92, the Giants were up to .276/.340/.427 in ’93. But a playoff berth was contingent on winning the NL West, and both the Giants and Braves sat on 103 wins on the final day of the season. A loss to their rival Dodgers sealed the fate of the ’93 Giants, and they remain the winningest non-playoff team since 1942.
What happened next: Went 55-60 in the shortened ’94 season. The Giants were just 3.5 games back in the NL West when the season was cut short, but their offensive issues had obviously returned – through their first 115 games, they ranked 27th in runs scored.
2011 D-backs: +29 wins
65 in 2010, 94 in '11
How they did it: Pitching was responsible for the D-backs’ worst-to-first resurgence in 2011 – the addition of free agent closer J.J. Putz, a breakout season (and subsequent top-five finish in NL Cy Young voting) from Ian Kennedy and strong first full season performances from both Josh Collmenter and Daniel Hudson brought the team ERA down a full run from ’10. The ’11 D-backs, with essentially the same lineup as the year before, won the NL West and cruised into the playoffs for the first time since 2007, where they were eliminated in a five-game NLDS matchup with the Brewers.
What happened next: Lost 13 wins in 2012 (81-81). While their output on both sides of the ball was largely unchanged the following season, the Dodgers and Giants each rebounded, relegating the D-backs to a third-place finish.
2004 Tigers: +29 wins
43 in 2003, 72 in '04
How they did it: It’d be hard to do much worse than the Tigers did in 2003, but they put in some work to revive the club ahead of the 2004 season, adding Carlos Guillen, Iván Rodríguez and Rondell White to the lineup to address an anemic offense that had scored the second-fewest runs in MLB the year before. The boost from 3.65 runs per game to 5.10 in 2004 made a major difference while the growing pains for Detroit’s young pitching continued.
What happened next: Lost one win in 2005 (71-91). The Tigers remained a work in progress for another year, but try not to worry too much about it – we hear things were better for them in 2006.
1991 Braves: +29 wins
65 in 1990, 94 in '91
How they did it: Not only did the ’91 Braves benefit from breakout performances by starting pitchers Tom Glavine and Steve Avery – who contributed to the club going from giving up an MLB-worst 5.04 runs per game in ’90 to a fourth-best 3.98 in ’91 – but they also found a perfect free-agent addition in third baseman Terry Pendleton, who won the batting title and was named NL MVP in his first season in Atlanta. The '91 Braves went to the World Series for the first time since 1958, where they lost to the Twins in seven games.
What happened next: Gained four wins in ’92 (98-64). The Braves are the only club on this list whose record improved in two consecutive seasons, though ’92 ended the same way, with a loss in the World Series, this time to the Blue Jays.
1980 A’s: +29 wins
54 in 1979, 83 in '80
How they did it: The ’80 A’s jumped all the way from last place into second with the help of a couple of iconic breakout seasons – most notably, it was the first full season of Rickey Henderson’s career, a personal milestone he celebrated by stealing 100 bases. A then-26-year-old Tony Armas also had a major breakout, topping 30 homers for the first time. Then there were the combined improvements of starters Rick Langford, Mike Norris and Matt Keough, who combined for a 4.67 ERA over 541 2/3 innings in ’79 and followed up that performance by tossing 824 1/3 collective innings with a 2.90 ERA in ’80.
What happened next: Went 64-45 in the shortened ’81 season. Had the ’81 A’s played 53 more games on the same pace, they’d have won 95 – a 13-game gain on the previous season – but they were ultimately swept by the Yankees in the ALCS.
2013 Red Sox: +28 wins
69 in 2012, 97 in ’13
How they did it: The downfall of the ’12 Red Sox was bad pitching. The ’13 staff hovered around league average in most categories, but it was enough, because offensively, the team was almost comically dominant against the rest of the league – they scored 57 more runs than the second-best Tigers. Not only did they go from last place in the AL East to first within a year, they capped off the season with a thrilling playoff run, culminating in their third World Series championship in 10 seasons.
What happened next: Lost 26 wins in 2014 (71-91). The 2014 Red Sox followed their 2013 title run with a last-place finish in 2014, earning the dubious honor of being the first worst-to-first-to-worst team in MLB history.
1993 Phillies: +27 wins
70 in 1992, 97 in '93
How they did it: After finishing last in the NL East in ’92, the Phillies became an offensive juggernaut in ’93, upping their run production from 4.23 runs per game to 5.41 (second-most in MLB). The pitching staff also buckled down, striking out 266 more batters than they had in ’92 (5.4 K/9 in ’92, 6.8 in ’93.) After locking up the division, they took down the Braves in the NLCS, then lost their World Series matchup against the reigning champion Blue Jays.
What happened next: Went 54-61 in the shortened ’94 season. The following year, the Phillies dropped into fourth place and sat 20.5 games out of first when the season prematurely ended in mid-August.
1974 Rangers: +27 wins
57 in 1973, 84 in '74
How they did it: In 1973, the Rangers had the worst team ERA in baseball (4.64), and ranked 27th in runs scored. But one significant offseason move -- acquiring future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins -- proved enough to turn things around for an embattled pitching staff. Meanwhile, Mike Hargrove, who would later be named AL Rookie of the Year, quickly took over as the everyday first baseman and sometime-DH and hit .323/.395/.424, pacing a lineup that ended the season with the second-most runs scored in the AL.
What happened next: Lost five wins in ’75 (79-83). Production on both sides of the ball leveled off in Texas after the ’74 resurgence, and the Rangers wouldn’t reach the playoffs until 1996.
1969 Mets: +27 wins
73 in 1968, 100 in '69
How they did it: The 1968 Mets had excellent pitching – but they also averaged a measly 2.9 runs per game, relegating them to a ninth-place finish. When the roster remained largely unchanged and the 1969 Mets sat 10 games out of first on May 27, they seemed destined for another disappointing season. They then rattled off 11 straight wins, which kicked off an 82-39 (.678) run that propelled them into first place. The game-changer? One more run per game. Literally -- the ’69 Mets averaged 3.9. In their first playoff appearance, the Mets swept the Braves in the inaugural NLCS and met the 109-win Orioles in the World Series, neatly taking them down in five games to win their first championship.
What happened next: Lost 17 wins in ’70 (83-79). While Mets pitching still ranked in the top half of the league, run production hovered just below league average, keeping them out of contention.