How playoff teams with fewest wins have fared

November 2nd, 2023

The Braves, Dodgers, Orioles and Rays all stormed into the 2023 postseason after winning at least 99 regular season games. Not every playoff team boasted such an impressive record, though.

The Marlins captured the No. 5 NL seed at 84-78 (.519) and held the tiebreaker against the D-backs, who captured the No. 6 NL seed with the same record.

The thing about the postseason, though, is that once you’re in it, you’re in it. No matter how lopsided some matchups might appear, there is always hope for the underdogs in October. Look no further than the '23 D-backs, who swept the Brewers in the Wild Card Series and Dodgers in the NLDS and took down the Phillies in a seven-game NLCS before losing the World Series in five games against the Rangers.

Here, then, is a look at the eight teams to make the postseason with no more than 85 wins in the Wild Card Era, and how they fared. This is for full seasons only, so we're excluding 1995 and 2020.

(Note: The Twins won the World Series in 1987 with 85 wins, and the 1973 Mets won the NL pennant with 82 wins. Both of those predate the Wild Card Era, which is why you don’t see them on this list.)

7-T) 2007 Cubs (85-77, .525)
Regular season: Won NL Central
Postseason: Lost in NLDS (3-0 to D-backs)

The year after watching their hated rivals win a World Series despite, well, despite being a team that will show up later on this list, the Cubs got aggressive in the offseason. They signed Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis as free agents and hired manager Lou Piniella. They still weren’t great, but they were improved enough to outlast everyone else in a division that had only one other winning team. (The Brewers went 83-79.) But in the playoffs, the Cubs were immediately blitzed by the D-backs in a three-game sweep.

They’d win 97 games in 2008 and reach the postseason again -- only to be swept again, this time by the Dodgers. The Cubs wouldn't return until 2015.

7-T) 2017 Twins (85-77, .525)
Regular season: Won 2nd AL Wild Card spot
Postseason: Lost in Wild Card Game (to Yankees)

The Twins hadn’t made the playoffs in seven years, but thanks to a weak Wild Card field, they were able to sneak into the field. In retrospect, this looks like the first tiny step forward for a team that would make a big leap in 2019, winning 101 games. But back then, the Wild Card Game just felt like a happy bonus. The Twins' reward? Yet another loss to the Yankees, who have defeated Minnesota in all six of their postseasons series matchups since 2003.

3-T) 1997 Astros (84-78, .519)
Regular season: Won NL Central
Postseason: Lost in NLDS (3-0 to Braves)

This was actually a much better team than the record indicated. The Astros’ Phythagorean record -- based off runs scored and runs allowed -- was 93-69, a full nine games better than their actual record. This team had two Hall of Famers in their primes (Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio), a top-shelf starter (Darryl Kile) and an elite closer (Billy Wagner). Maybe they just realized they didn’t need to win that many games. Despite its mediocre record, Houston won the division by five games over the Pirates, who were 79-83. Not that it made any difference: The 101-win defending NL champion Braves swept them in the NLDS.

3-T) 2008 Dodgers (84-78, .519)
Regular season: Won NL West
Postseason: Lost in NLCS (4-1 to Phillies)

This was the "Mannywood" year. The Dodgers acquired Manny Ramirez at the Trade Deadline, and he went absolutely bonkers. His slash line in 53 games with the Dodgers: .396/.489/.743. That was enough to sneak the Dodgers into the playoffs, by two games over the D-backs. They didn't stop there, sweeping the Cubs in the NLDS for their first postseason series victory since winning the 1988 World Series, before the run ended against the eventual champion Phillies. Fun facts with this team: Joe Torre was the manager, and a 20-year-old left-hander named Clayton Kershaw was a rookie who pitched out of the bullpen in October.

3-T) 2023 D-backs (84-78, .519)
Regular season: Won 3rd NL Wild Card spot
Postseason: Lost in World Series (4-1 to Rangers)

It was an improbable World Series run for the upstart D-backs, who lost the Fall Classic in five games against the Rangers. Both teams made jumps from 100-loss seasons in 2021 to the '23 World Series in record time, making for one of the most unlikely matchups in recent years. While the D-backs ultimately fell in their first World Series appearance since winning in 2001, it was an incredible run that few people saw coming. 

After sweeping their way through the first two rounds against the Brewers and Dodgers, Arizona fell behind 2-0 in the NLCS against Philadelphia before coming back to win the series in seven games. The D-backs made it to Game 5 of the World Series before their magical season ended against Texas. Backed by strong pitching and an exciting offense featuring blazing speed, the D-backs made for an epic title push.

3-T) 2023 Marlins (84-78, .519)
Regular season: Won 2nd NL Wild Card spot
Postseason: Lost Wild Card Series (2-0 to Phillies)

The Marlins were outscored by 57 runs in the regular season, giving them the lowest run differential of any team to ever make the playoffs. How did this unlikely playoff team pull it off? Going 33-14 in one-run games and 7-3 in extra innings meant the Marlins were winning the important and close games all season. However, the luck ran out when the Marlins were swept by the Phillies in the Wild Card Series in a pair of games decided by a combined 11-2 margin.

2) 2006 Cardinals (83-78, .516)
Regular season: Won NL Central
Postseason: Won World Series (4-1 over Tigers)

It is worth noting that this team -- which had the fewest wins of any full-season World Series champion --- was looking just fine in mid-September, 11 games over .500. Not great, but certainly worthy of a playoff spot. They then lost seven in a row and nearly blew their division lead. They recovered just in time to limp into the playoffs, where they beat the Padres in the NLDS and then came out on top against a terrific Mets team in an epic NLCS. The Tigers famously fumbled all over themselves in the World Series -- pitchers made throwing errors in every single game -- and the Cardinals had their first title since 1982.

They are still used as a cautionary tale, but also a hopeful one: If those 83-win Cardinals can win a World Series, any playoff team can do the same.

1) 2005 Padres (82-80, .506)
Regular season: Won NL West
Postseason: Lost in NLDS (3-0 to Cardinals)

Other teams on this list were probably a little better than their record. The Padres were worse; their Pythagorean record was 77-85, and they only had one above-average starting pitcher (Jake Peavy). But the rest of the division was worse, much worse: Not only were there no other .500 teams in the NL West, no one even got to 78 wins. The Padres were promptly swept out of the playoffs, getting outscored 21-11 in three games.