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A look at MLB teams and their relationship with last place

Given that we're a mere four weeks away from Opening Day, there are a lot more important topics to discuss than what follows. Nevertheless, on the most recent episode of the Chirps Podcast, I brought up Willie McGee's 1990 batting title which was essentially won in absentia, given he was traded to the Oakland A's in the American League around the time of the deadline but still had the requisite plate appearances in the National League to qualify. It's not something that happens often or ever, and something else happened that season which is also rare: The Cardinals finished in last place. It was their first last place finish since 1918 and as we enter the 2019 season it has not been repeated.

Not everyone cares about this sort of stat or streak as much as I do and that's fine. But given we're in an era in which a team can be dreadful often due to lack of spending and alienate the fans to the point they're driven away from the ballpark yet this same team can still turn over a massive profit, I think it's aways something worth calling attention to. (For pieces mostly related to this issue, I recommend this from RJ Anderson of CBS Sports on the Pittsburgh Pirates, or checking out Jack Moore's essay on the Cincinnati Reds in the 2019 Baseball Prospectus Annual, which, to be fair, was likely written before the Reds made some very noble efforts this offseason to reverse course.)

Because following a dreadful club over the course of 162 games is a drag. We should always shame teams who finish in last even if - especially if - it was done by design. I don't like the idea of tanking or whatever you want to call it. I recognizing tanking is a product of an environment in which it's a valid and defensible strategy and always will be so long as pole position in the draft is directly linked to losing. But even teams who are rebuilding owe their fans some sort of baseline spending, to do what they can to put a worthwhile and watchable product on the field. There's wiggle room here in terms of what worthwhile and watchable actually means and I recognize that being average in perpetuity, like say, the Angels, doesn't serve the fans all that well either. So I don't want to give off the impression that I believe any of this to be as simple as it may seem. It most certainly isn't.

All of that out of the way and because this stuff interests me, here's a chart of all MLB teams (I didn't forget the Royals this time) sorted by the number of years since a last place finish.

*Cleveland tied for last with the Royals in 2009 (even though they're noted as finishing in fourth), but haven't had last place all to themselves since 1991.

(Why does this chart show halves on the y-axis, you may ask? Because I'm still pretty bad at navigating Pages for Mac but you should get the general idea.)

This chart is meant to be more informative than necessarily meaningful. Certainly even a tanking team can avoid last place when two awful teams reside in the same division (e.g., take a look at the 2012 NL Central standings when the Astros and Cubs only won eight more combined games than the 2018 Red Sox), and there's nothing all that grand about a fourth place finish when we're talking about a lot of them. Case in point, the Mets. The Brewers, too.

But a funny thing happened the last time the Cardinals finished in last place - the Yankees did it, too, and like the Cardinals they haven't done it since. That's 28 seasons strong, likely to be 29 for both at this time next year. They're followed by the Dodgers at 26 seasons without a last place finish, and then, perhaps surprisingly, the aforementioned Angels with 19.

Now here's a bit of an inconvenient truth: The owners of the last seven World Series titles (Giants, Red Sox, Royals, Cubs, Astros) all pretty much fall on the right side of the chart. If it wasn't for David Freese, we'd be talking about the last nine. Recent last place finishes, and in most cases, more than just one, haven't stopped these organizations from flipping the script and quickly becoming the best team in the league. In fact, as noted above, it's most certainly helped.

Is that a problem? I tend to think it is. Maybe not the biggest problem facing baseball today, but a problem anyway, and one that won't be solved with the next CBA but could certainly be improved upon with a few tweaks. Like by putting an end to obvious service time manipulation or taking another look at the current revenue sharing model. There is good news in that 2019 might be the most competitive season in a while. At least in the NL where by my count all but two teams (Marlins, Diamondbacks) are making a concerted effort to compete or at least improve. That's great. The AL isn't as rosy of a picture but we'll take the victories where we can find them. Six teams will still finish in last place in 2019, but it won't be for a lack of trying for all of them and that's a good thing.


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