The 2003 Detroit Tigers are a very worthy successor to 1962 Mets’ crown as the worst team in recent memory, finishing the season 43-119. Nearly 40 years passed between these monuments to ineptitude, but it was worth the wait. They hit rock bottom some 80 games below .500 before a last-season flail netted them five wins in their last six games. At no point in the first half of the season did they break double digits in runs, and they were shut out a total of 17 times. As a team, the Tigers hit .240/.300/.375; their combined 83 OPS+ means they were 17 percent below league average offensively. Yet as bad as their offense was, their pitchers managed to be worse: a combined 5.30 ERA, a 1.51 WHIP, and staggeringly poor 4.8 K/9 all added up to an 81 ERA+. All in, the Tigers posted a team WAR of -1.2.
En route to a division title, the Twins beat the hapless Tigers 15 times out of 19 meetings (the second place White Sox went 11-8 against Detroit and lost the division by four games; needless to say, those games were a substantial missed opportunity). They lost close games when their bullpen failed, they lost blowouts when the hitters didn’t hit, they lost pretty much every way imaginable, which is what it takes to get all the way down to 119 losses.
The first six weeks of the Twins’ season felt a little bit the same way. They actually pitched moderately well during their losing streak to start the year, but either couldn’t hit or couldn’t preserve the leads they got. Over the first 16 games of the season, they scored 53 runs and allowed 67, making their 5-11 record somewhat puzzling, as the gap of less than a run per game should have -- in theory -- put them closer to .500. Their next 15 games (3-12) made them look like a team with a chance at truly historic ineptitude, as they scored 53 runs in one fewer game, but allowed 93 runs. So through 31 games, the team had been both unlucky and very bad, and the comparisons to the ‘62 Mets or ‘03 Tigers seemed apt.
Over the last 15 games, even if the record hasn’t been much better, the Twins are quietly becoming more of the team they looked like they’d be before the season started. They’ve scored 61 runs, just a touch over 4.0 per game or about half a run better than their full-season per-game average, but the pitching has given up 88 more runs and they’ve come in worryingly large bunches. Miguel Sano has five home runs in those games, Robbie Grossman has made a nice first impression, and while there’s still a substantial amount of scuffling in the rest of the offense, it’s getting easier to see how the lineup is supposed to function. Since warm air really does add extra distance to flyballs, and since the Twin Cities are in for a hotter-than-average summer, the Twins should see a few extra home runs now that spring has ended.
Yes, it is worrisome that Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, Byung-Ho Park, and others look so bad, but it’s a presupposition that the team is bad right now. That they’re at least ahead of a historically bad pace with so much dead weight is a good sign for the future, provided you believe one or more of them will come around before Eduardo Nunez regresses.
Contrast this to the Tigers, who were little more than Dmitri Young and the Also-Rans. If he didn’t hit, they didn’t win; though, frequently, they didn’t win even if he did. So, yes, looking at the season to date, the Twins look only marginally better than the Tigers (about 3 percentage points according to both OPS+ and wRC+) but expecting the Twins to improve as the summer heats up isn’t irrational; in fact, it may already be happening.
If the Twins are going to avoid being historically bad, however, they’re going to need to start seeing that improvement in the offense soon, because seeing improvement from the rotation takes a good deal of squinting and maybe letting your eyes go out of focus like the old Magic Eye books. Kyle Gibson’s return may help -- it should help -- but it’s hard to guess how much like the old Gibson he’ll look. Jose Berrios will likely return to the majors at some point in the season’s second half, but he too offers an uncertain amount of improvement. Like the Twins’ hitters, their pitchers currently compare favorably to the Tigers’ staff, but the margin is razor thin. If the Twins do end up with the Tigers, Mets, and Spiders as one of the most beatable teams in history, the pitching is going to be a major reason for it.
Heading into the middle third of the season, the Twins are on an almost identical pace to the Tigers. If nothing changes, they’ll finish with either 119 or 120 losses, making them one of the all-time worst teams. Injuries could change their course for the worse, but barring a complete health crisis, they’re unlikely to lose more starters than they already have. If I were a betting man, I’d take the under on 120 losses, but until the offense strings together more than two weeks of 4+ runs per game, 100 losses feels very possible.
Whether that’s better or worse than being the worst team since those hapless Spiders is a matter of opinion, but if the last few weeks have been an aberration instead of a pattern, the Twins won’t be able to stop fans debating whether they’re one of the most hapless groups to ever take the field.