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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 29, 2010 at 12:09 AM

MLB has had one sub-.500 playoff team — but AL West was headed there in 1994

All this consternation about the Seahawks possibly making the playoffs with a sub-.500 record — which will happen if they beat the Rams on Sunday — got me wondering if something similar has ever happened in baseball.

Yes, it has — but with an asterisk. The only team to make it to the postseason with a losing record was the 1981 Kansas City Royals, who were 50-53 that season. But here’s the catch: there was a players strike that season that began on June 12, and lasted until July 31, wiping out 713 games (38 percent of the schedule).

Once regular play resumed on Aug. 10 (one day after baseball returned with the All-Star Game in Cleveland), the owners decided to split the season into two halves, with the winner of each half in what were then two divisions in each league meeting in a best-of-five first-round playoff series.

When the strike hit, the Royals were in fifth place in the seven-team AL West with a 20-30 record, 12 games behind Oakland. But in the second half, the revitalized Royals, under new manager Dick Howser, surged to the AL West “title” with a 30-23 record — one game ahead of Oakland. Kansas City’s combined 50-53 record was the fourth-best overall record in the division, trailing the A’s (64-45), Rangers (57-48) and White Sox (54-52). The A’s swept the Royals, three games to zero (4-0, 2-1 and 4-1), in the playoffs, before getting swept themselves in the ALCS by the Yankees.

The worst record for a playoff team in a 162-game season was the 2005 San Diego Padres, champions of the NL West. The Diamondbacks finished second in the five-team division with a 77-85 record. On Sept. 26, the Padres were 77-79 with six games to play, but they won four in a row, lost a game, then won their finale to barely finish above .500. In the first round of the playoffs, they were swept by the St. Louis Cardinals.

The shrinking of teams in each division increases the likelihood of a sub-.500 team. From 1901 to 1968, when there were no divisions, the worst record for an NL champion was the 1959 Dodgers at .564 (88-68), while the AL nadir was the 92-70 (.568) of the 1967 Red Sox.

In 1969, baseball went to two divisions in each league, a format which held until 1994. The worst record in that span was the 82-79 record of the 1973 Mets in winning the NL East. The 1984 Royals won the AL West with an 84-78 record.

The AL West appeared to be headed toward the embarrassment of the entire division finishing with a losing record in 1994, when a much-bigger debacle occurred — another strike that resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the season, including the postseason. At the time the strike began on Aug. 12, 1994, here were the standings in the AL West (remember, this was the first year of the three-division format and the expanded playoffs, which included a wild-card team from each league):

Texas 52-62 (.456)

Oakland 51-63 (.447) -1

Seattle 49-63 (.438) -2

California 47-68 (.409) -5.5

That’s right — the division leader was 10 games under .500. We’ll never know how it would have turned out, of course, but to this day, Mariner players from that team firmly believe they would have won the division. Remember, this was the pretty much the same Seattle group that would come together the following year to run down the Angels and win the AL West — a young but supremely talented nucleus that included Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner and Randy Johnson, all in their relative prime. At the time the strike hit, the Mariners were by far the hottest team in the division, if not the majors. They had won six in a row, and nine of 10, when players went out (that surge immediately following a seven-game losing streak). The division-leading Rangers, in contrast, were working on a six-game losing streak at the time of the strike, and had dropped nine of 11, while the A’s had lost nine of 13.

Now, could the Mariners, under their second-year manager, Lou Piniella, have kept hot enough to go 33-17 — .660 ball — down the stretch to get their record over .500? Again, that question will forever go unanswered. But considering the Mariners had never come close to tasting the postseason in their history (indeed, had finished with a winning record just twice in their previous 17 years — and just barely at 83-79 in 1991 and 82-80 in 1993) I have a strong hunch that their fans would have giddily welcomed the chance to compete in the playoffs. Even with a sub-.500 record.

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