The Marlins are making a strong case to finish among the worst teams ever, wedged between the 1916 Philadelphia A’s and 1935 Boston Braves.
If you had to pick a single play to define the 2019 Miami Marlins, it might be tempting to go with a particularly embarrassing whiff, or a horrific wild pitch, or a cartoonish error. Some over-the-top goof destined to be made into a silly reaction GIF, where it could exist in digital perpetuity as universally understood shorthand for the very concept of failure. In other words, a play that was not simply bad, but stupendously, perhaps even hilariously, so. This is the sort of choice that might seem fitting for the worst team in baseball.
But I’d pick something different. I’d pick something that happened on Wednesday, between the fourth and fifth innings, while the defense was warming up on the field. Shortstop Miguel Rojas bent to field a lightly bouncing ball and toss it across the infield—the sort of minor routine action that forms the basis of any warm-up—and, suddenly, he was gone. He limped off the field and was pulled from the game, after having looked just fine in the prior four innings and even in the very motion that had apparently taken him out. Later, he was declared day-to-day with back spasms. It was a small, weird, unfortunate twist—something that felt a little absurd and did not make too much sense and certainly did not help the team on the field. It wasn’t dramatic or silly or even particularly interesting. It was just confusing and unlucky and self-evidently bad. It was, in other words, the 2019 Miami Marlins.
The Marlins lost the game, 1-0 to Tampa Bay, to stretch their current losing streak to seven. This dropped them to 10-31, for a winning percentage of .244; they have yet to win more than two games in a row. They have baseball’s worst record and worst offense and worst run differential. In a sense, there’s nothing too surprising about this, as this is a team that was designed to be bad from the very start. There is something surprising about just how extreme it has been, though. The Marlins have not looked like simply the worst team in baseball right now. They have looked like potentially one of the worst teams ever.
If you limit your scope to the modern era, beginning in 1901, baseball’s worst team is the 1916 Philadelphia A’s, who were torn down in a fire sale and finished 36-117 for a winning percentage of .235. (It was bad.) The 1935 Boston Braves take the next spot on the list, at 38-115 (.248). The 2019 Marlins, you might notice, are currently on track to slot in right in between the two—to become baseball’s worst team in more than a century. Of course, it’s still reasonably early-ish; scarcely a quarter of the way through the season, there’s plenty of room for a team’s record to be misleading, based on a single stretch of bad luck or an odd injury or two. The Marlins, however, have been relatively healthy, and they’ve actually played slightly worse than even their miserable record indicates, according to adjusted standings like third-order wins at Baseball Prospectus, which are based on factors like strength of schedule and run differential.
After Wednesday’s loss, Miami’s run differential fell to -96. (If they continue at this rate for the rest of the season, they’ll easily threaten the modern record of -345.) The pitching hasn’t been especially great, but it’s not the real problem here. No, instead, Miami has scored less than any other team in baseball, with an offense that’s been historically terrible. Their 65 OPS+ is on track for the worst in the modern era. To find another team with such a poor offensive performance relative to its league, you’d have to go back to ... the 1884 Wilmington Quicksteps of the Union Association, who played just 18 games after being pushed up in August to replace another team that had folded mid-season. This is the type of ineptitude represented by these Marlins—truly without compare, unless you’re willing to go all the way back to a 19th-century replacement-level team. They’re bad on a level that does not feel silly or impressive or otherwise compelling. It only feels absurd.
The ‘84 Quicksteps disbanded only a month after they’d originally joined the league. After their first few dismal weeks, fan interest was not especially high, and when they drew gate attendance of exactly zero for a home game against the Kansas City Cowboys, they initially decided to forfeit, and then they chose to just break up altogether. Some of the players went back to Kansas City to finish the season as members of the Cowboys. It was a little absurd and did not make too much sense and certainly did not help the team on the field (to say the least)—something confusing, unlucky, self-evidently bad—and, now, however weirdly and loosely, it has a chance to feel familiar.