The Oakland Athletics and the worst baseball teams of all time

The A's have a chance to make baseball history — just not the good kind

Oakland Coliseum.
(Image credit: Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

Despite halting an 11-game losing streak in a 7-2 Memorial Day win against the Atlanta Braves, the Oakland Athletics have a chance to make baseball history — just not the kind their fans wanted. In fact, they've had the third-worst 60-game start of the modern era, ahead of only the 1904 Washington Senators and 1932 Boston Red Sox. And there are reasons to think things could get even worse for this hapless squad, which has a clear shot at breaking baseball's 61-year-old single-season loss record of 120 and standing atop the pantheon of the very worst teams in baseball's long history.

How did the A's get this bad?

The team's ownership has strip-mined the club over the last two years, ostensibly part of a "tanking" strategy to position the A's for top draft picks. Young stars like first baseman Matt Olson; catcher Sean Murphy; third baseman Matt Chapman; and pitchers Sean Manea, Frankie Montas and Cole Irvin were shipped out to contenders for prospects. But many fans and critics believe that ownership wanted to drive down attendance to (1) make Oakland look like a lost cause and (2) grease the wheels for what looks like a near-certain move to Las Vegas. Major League Baseball has wanted a new facility for the Athletics for years — the crumbling Oakland Coliseum is one of the oldest stadiums in the sport, and unlike Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, there is no historic or nostalgic reason for it to continue to exist.

If the idea was to put the most inept possible product on the field, the plan worked magnificently. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has blessed the move to Vegas and the Athletics have made even the grimmest predictions about their season seem hopelessly optimistic. Their team Earned Run Average through Memorial Day was 6.78, which would be the worst in baseball history if sustained over a full season, blowing past the notorious 1930 Philadelphia Phillies. The team's opening-day starter, Kyle Muller, was just demoted to Triple-A Sacramento after allowing 92 baserunners in 47 desultory innings. They've given up double-digit runs to their opponents 17 times already and have been outscored by 194 runs. The A's rank dead last of 30 teams in Defensive Runs Saved, a measure of fielding efficiency, and are 29th in runs scored, ahead of only the Cleveland Guardians. Before June the team had racked up losing streaks of six, seven and 11 games.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Are they the worst?

All of this embarrassing data situates the Athletics squarely in the conversation about the worst teams of all time, which inevitably leads straight to the 1962 New York Mets. An expansion team, the Mets were meant to fill the hole in the hearts of fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, who had moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco after the 1957 season. Instead, the Mets mostly broke hearts with each and every game they played. Stocked with players from a miserly expansion draft, the team was entertainingly terrible, earning the nickname "lovable losers" and setting baseball's all-time loss record of 120. But they were also unlucky. Their "pythagorean win-loss" record, a calculation based on run differential, was just 50-110. That's actually a theme for many of the most dreadful teams in recent history, including the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who went 43-119 but had the run differential of a 49-win team. That team was 38-118 heading into the season's final week and rallied to win five of its last six games to avoid eclipsing the '62 Mets. Ditto for the 2018 Orioles, the worst team of the 2010s, who won just 47 games but with a performance more in keeping with a 55-game-winner.

So there's more to being the worst of the worst than a blunt tally of losses. For one thing, the MLB moved from a 154-game schedule to a 162-game schedule in 1962 (just one more way those Mets were unlucky — they were 38-116 after 154 games). The '62 Mets posted only the third-worst winning percentage in the modern era, with the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who featured three different pitchers who lost 20 or more games, still holding that title at 36-117. Again, though, those Athletics (the same franchise as today's A's) were unlucky, with the run differential of a 41-win team. For the 2023 Athletics, however, their win-loss record closely matches their run differential, meaning they're not going to get much help from positive regression.

What are the odds?

Fangraphs writer Dan Szymborski recently gave the Athletics a 3.6% chance of breaking the '62 Mets' loss record — but that was before the team went on to lose 7 of its next 8 games. And as he pointed out, that doesn't take into account the possibility that the team will continue to trade away valuable veterans at the trade deadline this year, including players like outfielder Ramon Laureano and reliever Richard Lovelady, both of whom are among the few Athletics who have performed above what analysts call "replacement level." If the team pulls off another deadline fire sale, Szymborski gave them as high as 10% odds of eclipsing the all-time loss record. He even gave them a 0.4% chance of winning 35, 36 or 37 games, all of which would give the A's the dubious honor of not only the loss record but of the lowest winning percentage of the modern era.

Perhaps there's some bitter comfort in being not just bad a team, but a catastrophe that will be remembered forever.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

David Faris

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. He is a frequent contributor to Informed Comment, and his work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Indy Week.