Worst records to start an MLB season

May 6th, 2022

Every franchise has had its share of forgettable seasons. As fans, most of us can recall a horrific losing streak or two. Typically, though, these rough stretches happen later in the season, the natural result of mental and physical fatigue and an injury pileup, or, in rarer cases, a clubhouse in disarray (would you still like all your friends after a six-month road trip?)

What’s rarer is for teams to stumble out of the gate so spectacularly that as they creep closer to 20 losses, they can still comfortably count their wins on one hand. Sure, about a third of all baseball teams, statistically, will end the season in the basement -- there are only so many wins to go around. But it’s difficult to gain real separation in April, when much of the league is dealing with bad weather, pitchers are still ahead of hitters and many players are still feeling things out. As they say, you can’t win your division in April, but as it turns out, you can definitely lose it.

So, to put the Reds’ turbulent 3-22 start to 2022 in context, we’re taking a look at some of the worst starts through 25 and 50 games that have come before, all since the Wild Card was instituted in 1995.

Worst starts, through 25 games:

2022 Reds: 3-22 (.120)
Final record: ???

With their 10-5 loss to the Brewers on May 5, the Reds officially tied the Wild Card Era record for the worst start through 25 games. To be honest, it’s hard to find something that hasn’t gone wrong for this team. Cincinnati’s pitching staff has an MLB-worst 6.86 ERA, almost two runs higher than the second-worst. It’s been even worse for the rotation, which has allowed 99 earned runs in 100 innings for a 8.91 ERA, the highest for any rotation in its first 25 games since earned runs became an official National League stat in 1912. There’s no relief to be found in the offense, either, with its second-worst batting average (.203), worst on-base percentage (.267) and second-worst slugging (.318). All of this has been the most literal example of adding insult to injury, as 10 players have already landed on the IL since Opening Day, not considering the seven who started the year there.

2003 Tigers: 3-22 (.120)
Final record: 43-119 (.265)

Or, if you prefer, the record the Reds have tied. The 2003 Tigers were about as bad as it gets. While this list only goes as far back as the 1995 season, only one other team since 1901 has had a worse opening salvo. Interestingly, unlike most of the teams on this list, the pitching largely held together through its first 25 games. The problem was an offense that scored 57 runs, hitting .183/.258/.256 -- yes, that’s a slugging percentage lower than its on-base percentage -- with 11 home runs, all worst in the league in the same span.

2018 Reds: 5-20 (.200)
Final record: 67-95 (.414)

As it turns out, Cincinnati is no stranger to miserable starts -- unfortunately, recent experience probably hasn’t provided much comfort to Reds fans. Not least because, on paper, the 2018 team was better, with a 5.42 ERA, 1.47 WHIP and an offense that slashed .230/.310/.332 through its first 25 games. On the bright side, if history is any indicator, the 2022 Reds could play .450 baseball from here on out and still wrap up the year before hitting the dreaded 100-loss mark.

2018 Royals: 5-20 (.200)
Final record: 58-104 (.358)

The odds of having two teams open the year with a 5-20 record in the same season are clearly low, given it’s only happened once. It’s not entirely obvious how it happened in retrospect, either. They hit about in line with MLB averages, and while the pitching was a mess, most pitching in the early stages of 2018 was hit or miss. Most interesting is that somehow, neither the Reds nor the Royals held the distinction of finishing with the worst record in baseball in 2018 -- that honor went to the 115-loss Orioles.

2006 Royals: 5-20 (.200)
Final record: 62-100 (.383)

As one might expect, the 2006 Royals opened the season with a shaky pitching staff. But that's not much of an explanation within the context of the 2006 season -- in their first 25 games, the Twins had an MLB-worst 6.35 team ERA and ended up winning 96 games. But the 2006 Royals’ 5.66 team ERA, paired with a lineup that slashed .236/.291/.365 with 15 home runs, spelled absolute disaster.

2004 Expos: 5-20 (.200)
Final record: 67-95 (.414)

There’s no getting around this -- the 2004 Expos are, as of '22, the last team to have played baseball in Montreal, so it’s a bit more difficult to be light-hearted about their poor start. Poor performance wasn’t the only reason the Expos were relocated, but to open what was a difficult and emotional season for the franchise and its fans with 20 losses in 25 games -- owing largely to a league-worst offense that scored just 49 runs over that period -- was an unfortunate memory for the club to take with it to Washington.

1995 Marlins: 5-20 (.200)
Final record: 67-76 (.469)

The 1995 season was shortened to 143 games by the 1994-95 strike, which was particularly unfortunate for the Marlins -- because after that awful start in which they hit .221/.323/.331 as a team, they went 62-56, and could have conceivably fully turned things around with another 19 games to work with. It wasn’t to be, but the effort they made in their last 118 deserves some respect.

Divisional Era record (since 1969): 1988 Orioles (2-23, .080), final record 54-107
Modern Era record (since 1901): 1988 Orioles (2-23, .080), final record 54-107

Worst starts, through 50 games:

1996 Tigers: 12-38 (.240)
Final record: 53-109 (.327)

That’s right, a Tigers team leads in this category, too, and it isn’t even the same Tigers team. In 1996, the team's collective ERA was a staggering 7.13 over its first 50 games, and their WHIP was arguably worse at 1.81 -- in other words, about as close to two baserunners per inning as Major League pitchers get. We can't exactly dig into swing-and-miss data of the mid-90s, but their 288 strikeouts (against 248 walks) in 436 2/3 innings probably says it all.

2013 Marlins: 13-37 (.260)
Final record: 62-100 (.383)

There were several players on the 2013 Marlins roster who had enjoyed productive careers or went on to have plenty of success in the future -- Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna, just to name a few -- but that didn’t save the team from a miserable first 50 in which it collectively hit .221/.281/.309 with just 12 home runs, all MLB-worst figures.

2006 Royals: 13-37 (.260)
Final record: 62-100 (.383)

It clearly took a while for things to get better for this squad. While the offense improved and was hitting at a .260 clip by this stage of the season, the pitching somehow deteriorated even further, with the Royals’ team ERA ballooning to 6.24 and its WHIP to 1.65 with just 258 strikeouts in 430 collective innings of work. So … check back in another 25 games, maybe?

2005 Royals: 13-37 (.260)
Final record: 56-106 (.346)

Not a typo, this did actually happen to the Royals two years in a row -- although Kansas City probably needs no reminder. The '05 Royals posted a 5.65 ERA through 50 games, which was second only to the Rockies, and they scored the sixth-fewest runs in baseball, hitting at an anemic .246/.304/.387 clip.

2003 Tigers: 13-37 (.260)
Final record: 43-119 (.265)

Like we said, historically bad. The 2003 Tigers are one of just two teams to appear on both of these lists, which speaks to how difficult it is to lose quite so much for so long. Fortunately, with that 3-22 opening, there was nowhere to go but up, so the team clearly improved -- but it dug itself enough of a hole that its .265 overall winning percentage remains the second-worst since 1962, when the Major League season was extended to 162 games, just behind the Mets’ inaugural season in which they finished with a record of 40-120.

2013 Astros: 14-36 (.280)
Final record: 51-111 (.315)

The 2013 Astros are rare, in that their poor start could have been predicted ahead of time. Houston’s move to the American League was simple enough logistically -- it solved the awkward lopsidedness that expansion had created between the leagues. The problem was, while the Astros kept everything that made them the Astros, their competition changed completely. While the offense had almost identical outputs in 2012 and '13, the Astros' pitching was comprehensively taken apart by the AL. Through 50 games in 2012, the club pitched to a perfectly respectable 3.73 ERA. In 2013, it ballooned to 5.51, accounting for the eight-win difference between the two clubs.

2009 Nationals: 14-36 (.280)
Final record: 59-103 (.364)

The '09 Nats had a pretty average offense, but their lineup was wildly outpaced by the pitching staff, which posted an MLB-worst 5.69 ERA and 1.64 WHIP in the team’s first 50 games. Mercifully for Washington, its top prospect -- someone named Stephen Strasburg -- would usher in a new era with his debut the following season.

2003 Padres: 14-36 (.280)
Final record: 64-98 (.395)

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before -- the pitching was the problem. San Diego’s staff opened with a 5.74 ERA through its first 50 games and allowed the second-most home runs over that period. This isn't to say the team hit well -- it scored the third-fewest runs through 50 games, amounting to 3.88 runs per game -- but it would have been difficult even for a great offense to outrun pitching like that.

2001 Devil Rays: 14-36 (.280)
Final record: 62-100 (.383)

Remember when the Rays were among the worst teams in baseball? Yeah, me neither. But all those years ago, they did play the way most brand-new expansion teams do -- not well. In their first 50 games, the '01 Devil Rays allowed 6.2 runs per game while scoring 3.8, which more than explains that winning percentage. Interestingly, this isn't even the worst team in Rays' franchise history. That honor goes to the 2002 club, who went 55-106, finishing so far out of first place that its 162nd game was never made up. The team that just missed its shot at losing 107 games had a better start to its season – but only slightly, at 17-33.

Divisional Era record (since 1969): 1988 Orioles (54-107) and 1987 Padres (65-97), 11-39 in first 50
Modern Era record (since 1901): 1932 Red Sox (43-111), 10-40 (.200) in first 50