Life has not been good for Red Sox fans the past couple of months. Misery seems to follow manager Bobby Valentine. No matter what descriptor you choose to use, it hasn’t been pretty. And while the year is approaching historically awful territory for the franchise, it isn’t quite there yet, as there have been five other modern Red Sox seasons that were worse. What’s more, “historically awful” has a different meaning for the Red Sox than it does for other franchises.
When I say “modern,” I mean 1959 to the present. When I make historical comparisons, I tend to go back no further than 1947, as that was the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. But, as Howard Bryant recounts in his excellent book, “Shut Out,” Boston was the last team in the game to integrate, as they didn’t have an African-American player on its roster until Elijah “Pumpsie” Green in 1959. So we’ll ignore the years before that. If you do want to include them, there is certainly no shortage of candidates, as the team finished in either last place or next-to-last place in 11 of the 12 seasons from 1922 to 1933. I’m also going to ignore the strike-shortened 1981 and 1994 seasons — even though Red Sox fans had to endure eight starts of someone named Gar Finnvold during the latter — since those basically sucked for everyone (well, I guess except for the ’81 Dodgers).
I didn’t have any grand formula for this, but rather simply looked to combine the sabermetric and standard statistics to see which season sunk to the bottom. Initially, I thought the 2001 season would be on the short list, as that is the worst season of my adult life. But while that year was close, it didn’t quite make the cut. That season — which Red Sox fans will remember for things such as Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra being felled by injury and Jimy Williams’ firing — was bad, but at the end of the day the team finished second in the division and outscored its opponents.
We can do better — or worse, as the case may be. Without further ado, the five worst modern Red Sox seasons, presented in chronological order:
1960: 65-89, seventh of eight in AL; 34.0 WAR, 13th of 16 in MLB; 91 wRC+, 115 ERA-
In what would be the last of his 19 seasons, Ted Williams carried Boston. At 41 years old, Williams posted a .470 wOBA and 184 wRC+, but the team only had one other player who posted a 110 or better wRC+ (Pete Runnels). In Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Cody Ross, the 2012 Sox have four such regular players — and you could throw Will Middlebrooks into that mix, as well, if you like. But with Williams around, hitting is not what sunk this team — it was the pitching. Boston’s 115 ERA- stands as the second-worst mark of the ’59-to-present period. This team was one of six during that time to allow more than five runs per game, and its -.76 run differential per game is the worst in the period.
1965: 62-100, ninth of 10 in AL; 43.4 WAR, 12th of 20 in MLB; 99 wRC+, 113 ERA-
Outscored by their opponents by -.75 runs per game, this season was almost as bad as ’60 for Olde Towne teams that were so thoroughly trounced (the next worst-season was -.65). Truthfully, 1961, 1962 or 1964 would have fit just as well here, but ’65 gets the nod for being the last 100-loss Red Sox season. That will not change this season, as this year’s squad has 75 losses and only 24 games remaining. Carl Yastrzemski led the American League in wOBA, wRC+, OBP, SLG and OPS and the team was just eighth of 20 teams in runs scored. Imagine where they would have been without Yaz. There were two silver linings for this team, though: It was Jim Lonborg’s rookie season, and it was the first of what should have been many 30-home run seasons from Tony Conigliaro. Once again, though, pitching was the team’s undoing. The Sox allowed 791 runs — 36 more than any other team. The 36-run gap also was the biggest between any two teams, in terms of runs allowed that season. This year’s team may just allow 791 runs, but at the moment, there are still four teams that have allowed more runs than has Boston.
1966: 72-90, ninth of 10 in AL; 33.1 WAR, 15th of 20 in MLB; 89 wRC+, 106 ERA-
Are you noticing a theme here? There is a very good reason why the 1967, AL-pennant-winning team was dubbed “The Impossible Dream.” This season is the only one in the group in which the team’s wRC+ and ERA- — and for that matter, FIP- — were among the team’s five-worst. This team featured zero 200-inning pitchers and would see Dick Radatz traded. The deal, which netted the team Lee Stange — who was a big part of that ’67 team — actually worked out fine for Boston. But losing Radatz — fondly nicknamed “The Monster” — who many would say was one of the greatest relievers in team history, was likely a tough blow. The season also featured a randomly pedestrian year from Yastrzemski. In the year prior, and the two years following, Yaz would post plus-.400 wOBA’s, but in ’66, he logged just a .349 wOBA. He was still a six-win player thanks to his defense, but the club needed his offense.
1983: 78-84, sixth of seven in AL East; 38.7 WAR, 15th of 26 in MLB; 99 wRC+, 101 ERA-
Of all the seasons on this list, this one is the one 2012 is the most in danger of replacing. This is the weak sister candidate on the list, and perhaps another season from the early ’60s should have taken its place, but I think you get the idea by now — the early ’60s were a dark period for the Sox. Twenty years later, though, Yaz was still playing. Only now it was painful. Yaz would not have the swan song that Teddy Ballgame had. The ’82 season, which featured one of the greatest pennant races of all-time, was won by Milwaukee’s “Harvey’s Wallbangers” squad, and went down to the last day of the season. The Red Sox had won 89 — and finished with the fifth-best record in the AL — and it was enough to entice Yaz into the proverbial one more season, even though he hit just.275/.358/.431. He would hit a similarly paltry .266/.359/.408 in ’83, but he did much of his damage in the first half. He hit only .227/.326/.391 in the second half, and .195/.253/.247 in September. That might be have been alright if the team had built off ’82 and contended, but that was not the case. The Brewers hammered the nails into the coffin in mid-August when they swept a four-game set in County Stadium. The latter two Boston losses come in a doubleheader that saw the team fall 10 games back in the East for the first time all season. They would not get any closer the rest of the way, and would finish 20 games back. It must have been a pretty depressing send-off for Yaz. Luckily, I was only four, so I don’t remember it.
1992: 73-89, seventh of seven in AL East; 33.1 WAR, 19th of 26 in MLB; 80 wRC+, 86 ERA-
The last spot on the list goes to the most recent last-place finisher. This team, led by Roger Clemens and Frank Viola, led the major leagues in pitching WAR, and still managed to just rank 19th in team WAR. The club’s 80 wRC+ is easily its worst mark since ’59, as was the team’s 6.6 position-player WAR. Its 33.1 WAR overall ties with 1966 as the worst overall since ’59, as well. If the season ended today, the 2012 squad would also tie it for last place, as 33.1 is the 2012 team’s total. But of course the season isn’t ending today. The team’s leader in home runs that season, Tom Brunansky, hit just 15. He and John Valentin led the team with a .355 wOBA. This season was the first with Butch Hobson at the helm. Four years later, while managing Philadelphia’s Triple-A team, Hobson would be busted for possession of cocaine and was immediately fired. Red Sox fans could only lament that that didn’t happen sooner, as Hobson is still the only Red Sox manager since ’59 to last at least three full seasons and not post a winning record at least once.
While no one would want to experience these seasons, in ranking these seasons, one thing stuck out to me: Boston’s lows aren’t really that low. Take out the strike-shortened ’81 and ’94 campaigns, and from ’59 to ’11 you have 1,304 team seasons. Of them, the worst Boston season, by total team WAR, was in 1992, which ranks 896th. Boston is the only team to not have a season that ranked in the 1000s. The Cardinals had one, the Yankees had two, the A’s had 19 and the Padres led the pack with 20. The Red Sox had just one 100-loss season and two others with 90 losses in that period. They may add another 90-loss season this year, but contrast that against the Mariners, who have had five 100-loss seasons and eight other seasons with at least 90 losses, or the Mets, who have experienced six 100-loss seasons and 13 others with at least 90 defeats. Boston fans may not have numerous World Series trophies, but they have rarely been excruciatingly bad.
This season has not been one of Beantown’s finest, and if this list went five teams deeper, 2012 would likely be on it. But even when the team stinks, it has managed to do enough things well on the field to avoid being truly deplorable. This season has been no different, and while doom and gloom sells newspapers in New England by the truckload, things can be — and have — been worse. As the season winds down, those who encompass the privileged fandom known as Red Sox Nation should keep the complaining to a minimum.