It's pretty well known that the 2006 Cardinals won the World Series despite only winning 83 games during the regular season. That, to the surprise of probably no one, remains the fewest number of wins for a World Series champ for a full 154 or 162-game regular season. Well, here's something else you might not have known, but could have perhaps reasonably assumed had you considered it: The 2006 Cardinals are not only one of the few teams to ever have a drop in win total from their previous year during a season in which they won the World Series, but they also have the largest decrease on record since the playoffs expanded in 1995, and well before that, too.
This first caught my eye when studying a pretty bad graph I made showing the history of the NL Central since its inception. Here it is again, in case you missed it the first time.
Take a look at the near-middle of the graph where the Cardinals' line reaches its peak. That, of course, is 2004 when the Cardinals won an NL-Central record 105 games. The following season they won 100. And, again, the season after that they won just 83 games, yet still won the division and the subsequent World Series. That 17-game drop from 2005 to 2006 represents the largest decrease in losses from one Cardinals season to the next during the Wild Card era.
So, working backwards, this had me thinking that it's probably not often that a team wins the World Series while actually winning fewer games than the season before. And that a net loss of 17 games must be some kind of record. Correct on both counts, it turns out.
Here is a table showing all World Series winners starting with 1996 to the present and their difference in regular season wins compared to the season that preceded it. (Sorry the years aren't listed at the bottom, the text was too crowded, but just try to count along starting on the left with 1996. One day I might actually make a graphic that's worth a damn. Also, since there were only 144 regular season games in 1995, that season was pro-rated for a 162-game schedule for the sake of the '96 Yankees. I didn't bother marking 1995 since that came after another strike-shortened year in which most teams only played 114 games, but know that by win percentage, the '95 Braves, who won the title that season, were better than their '94 version. Anyway, if you're still here...)
World Series winners, 1996-2017
As you see, only three teams ('99 Yankees, '00 Yankees, '06 Cardinals), or 14 percent, have won the World Series since 1996 while winning fewer regular season games than the year before. And it makes sense that it's these two franchises, right? To pull this off, you would think you need to string together at least two seasons of very good baseball while winning the World Series at some point during that time. And no one has had longer sustained periods of success since the playoffs expanded than the Yankees and the Cardinals so they've had greater opportunity.
Plus, the Yankees and Cardinals each have seasons where they won a whole heck of a lot of games. The Yankees have won 100 or more games five separate times since 1996. The Cardinals have done that three times. And if a team is looking to win a World Series in a season in which they won fewer games that the previous year, it sure helps to have a 100+ win season in the rearview. As you see, the Yankees won the World Series while winning fewer games than the prior year two seasons in row because they were working off the scaffolding of a 114-win season in 1998.
To that end and per above, the Yankees won 98 games in 1999, won the World Series, and still dropped -16 games from the previous year. But that's one fewer than the 17-game slide the Cardinals took from 2005 to 2006. It's doesn't quite avenge the 27 versus 11 titles thing, but, hey, it's something.
Going in, I assumed this feat would be more common in the Wild Card era for the simple reason that it's easier to make the postseason now. For example, in the old NL East days, the 2006 Cardinals would have finished 14 games behind the Mets and would have stayed home, denying them the opportunity. They would have been a few games behind the Phillies, too. However, be it a product of small samples, or fewer teams in the pre-Wild Card era, this just isn't the case. (EDIT: I removed an earlier sentence from the original version because after re-reading it in the morning, it didn't quite make sense and likely stemmed from staying up late typing without really thinking.) From 1962, when the schedule was expanded to 162 games, up to 1993 (had to leave out 1994 since there wasn't a World Series that season), the following eight teams (25 percent) won the World Series with a smaller win total than their year prior.
1962 Yankees (-13)
1963 Dodgers (-3)
1970 Orioles (-1)
1972 Athletics (-8)
1974 Athletics (-4)
1976 Reds (-6)
1989 Athletics (-5)
1993 Blue Jays (-1)
Not surprising, I suppose, as all of these teams were a part of at least a modest dynasty, were on the second half of consecutive titles, or both. None had as big of drop as the 2006 Cardinals though.
Taking it further, and I won't bore you with all of the details this time, but for curiosity's sake I went back to the first World Series in 1903 and confirmed that there were more teams who pulled off this feat but a loss of 17 wins in a World Series year is the MLB record. So there you go. The 2006 Cardinals: Winners of only 83 games, winners of the World Series, winners of our hearts.