Great teams may dream of winning 116 games in a season, but for losers, whether of the lovable or non-lovable stripe, 120 is the number at which they gaze, gimlet-eyed. The 1962 Mets, with their inaugural band of cast-offs, left behind a legacy of being great at being not-so-great, losing 120 games and planting their flag in the Mt. Everest of Terrible.
Yes, 120 losses isn’t actually the MLB record, that feat being accomplished by the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who lost 134 of their 154 depressing games. But it took a bit of chicanery to reach that sum. Frank and Stanley Robison owned both the Cleveland Spiders and St. Louis Perfectos and transferred most of the good 1898 Spiders over to St. Louis in an attempt to build one superteam and one comedy legend. Cleveland was doomed by design, though the Perfectos failed to be a superteam.
Incidentally, the Brooklyn Superbas pulled this off more successfully, looting the Baltimore Orioles to put together a 101-win roster (though I’d have penalized them a few wins for the confusing team name, which was swiped from an acrobatic act of the time and awkwardly made into a plural noun).
The 1962 Mets earned their infamy on the square and now serve as the gold standard for seasonal ineptitude. But as we head towards the trade deadline, we have two teams trying to make it interesting, the 25-66 Baltimore Orioles and the 25-65 Kansas City Royals.
Both teams stand slightly behind the Mets’ fierce pace, with winning percentages that round to 45-117, tantalizingly close to bleak greatness, but not quite there. Like when a batter tries to hit .400 over the course of the season, you want to have a cushion over the mark, since the natural course of regression will stamp down on the extremes.
But there’s at least a chance, which is really all that matters. What fun is a record if it’s likely to be surmounted? And it gives an additional layer of excitement to losing seasons when you need a break from wondering in what wacky way the Baltimore Orioles will mess up a Manny Machado trade or being astounded that the Royals actually advertise that it took them years to spare the roster from even a single game of Alcides Escobar’s services.
Powering up the ZiPS SuperComputer (it’s really just a regular computer), I cranked up the old simulations to get the latest probabilities that either the Royals or Orioles pull off the 120-loss feat.
Through Monday night’s games, ZiPS places the mean final records for the Orioles and Royals at 54-108 and 52-110, respectively. These are terrible numbers, but just not quite elite terrible. To lose 120 games, ZiPS put the Royals probability at 0.3%, the Orioles a hair over 0.1%.
But there’s a beautiful black cloud to that silver lining! We haven’t hit the trade deadline, and given the relative positions of these teams, there’s a great shot that they’ll trade away enough players to make the rosters significantly worse. ZiPS is assuming that the Orioles have Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and all their relievers. ZiPS lets the Royals keep Mike Moustakas and… err… yeah.
Trading away Machado, Jones, Britton, and one additional reliever on July 31st (and Machado immediately), knocks 11 wins off ZiPS’ estimate for the O’s roster over 162 games, moving them from a relatively positive 66-win-a-year club to a 55-win one.
All of a sudden, the O’s have a mean final record projection of 49-113, which is where things get interesting. Playing seven games worse than a projection is not all that unlikely over a two-month period. That’s enough to boost Baltimore’s probability of 120 losses from 0.12% to 3%.
Nor does that even require the construction of an outlandish scenario — just the minimal effort required to demonstrate an actual understanding of the team’s present situation. It’s a bit of a moonshot possibility, but what if the Orioles go full tear-down, trade Kevin Gausman (only two years from free agency), two more relievers, Jonathan Schoop, and then also shut down Dylan Bundy in September to protect his arm.
Every marginal loss has incredible value at this point, bumping the projected probability to 10%. Still an uphill fight, but that’s about the same chance that Barry Bonds would hit a home run in any given at-bat and was anyone really gobsmacked when that would happen? The Mets would still have the losing percentage record (they played only 160 games), but the Orioles would be a deserving award-mate, thanks to the fact that they’d be a 42-120 team who’d entered the season with ambitions of being serious contenders.
Getting the Royals even worse is a bit more of a challenge. ZiPS thinks Salvador Perez will play much better than he has, but he’s extremely unlikely to be traded. Moving Mike Moustakas isn’t improbable, same goes for Lucas Duda. That’s enough to get the Royals to almost 1%.
Both the Orioles and Royals have a long, painful rebuilding process ahead of them. If you have to hit bottom before you build back up, here’s a toast to these two cellar-dwellers to hit a low worthy of song.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.