“Baseball never has seen anything like this perverse magic: a living, breathing champion sawed in half before our eyes,” The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell wrote as the Marlins were in the midst of trading away Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, Devon White, Robb Nen, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Jeff Conine, the only starter remaining from their 1993 expansion season. “But here’s the trick: They’re not going to be put back together.”
By the trade deadline in 1998, the Marlins’ payroll was a paltry $13 million. Not surprisingly, the team lost a franchise record 108 games that season, finishing with a .333 winning percentage that remains the worst in baseball history by a defending World Series champion. Though it deserves a giant asterisk because the coronavirus-shortened season was only 60 games, the Nationals’ .433 winning percentage in 2020 ranks second on that list.
The Nationals aren’t just bad. They’re hard to watch.
Since the first World Series in 1903, 18 teams have finished below .500 the year after they won the championship. Five of those instances have occurred since the Marlins established the new low for post-World Series futility, most recently by Washington. The Atlanta Braves are in early danger of joining the club this season. Through 2020, the average winning percentage by a team the year after it won the World Series was .572.
A multiyear regression like the one the Nationals have experienced since their World Series triumph, which came after a 19-31 start, is even more rare. Barring another stunning turnaround, Washington is poised to become only the fourth champion to finish below .500 in each of its next three seasons. The group includes the 1918 Boston Red Sox and the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays, whose subsequent seasons were shortened because of World War I and the players’ strike, respectively, and the 1997 Marlins. The 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox are the only other MLB team to finish below .500 in their first two years after winning a title. By contrast, 69 World Series champions have finished .500 or better in each of their next three seasons.
Injuries and poor pitching doomed the Nationals’ hopes of repeating in 2020, while the prohibition against fans in the stands because of the pandemic denied the team the windfall normally afforded a World Series champion. Washington’s fire sale would come at the trade deadline a year later, when General Manager Mike Rizzo dealt away Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand, Yan Gomes, Daniel Hudson, Josh Harrison and Jon Lester. Washington finished the 2021 season with 97 losses and a .401 winning percentage that ranks fifth-worst among teams in their second year after a World Series title.
Two months into this season, the Nationals are on pace for a team record 108 losses. Their World Series championship, which fans never got the chance to celebrate in person in 2020, feels like ages ago. If Washington, which had a .397 winning percentage through Wednesday since winning the title, finishes with at least 98 losses in 2022, it will have a worse three-year winning percentage post-championship than the dismantled 1997 Marlins. (The Marlins’ .406 winning percentage from 1998 to 2000 ranks ahead of only Connie Mack’s 1914-16 Philadelphia Athletics, who were swept in the World Series one year after their 1913 championship and then, beset by defectors to the Federal League, won one-fourth of their games over the next two seasons for a three-year winning percentage of .382).
This year’s ugly start continues a precipitous fall for a Nationals franchise that posted the fourth-most wins in baseball 2010 through 2019. With the oldest roster in baseball the year they won the title, perhaps a World Series hangover was to be expected, but after last season’s teardown, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“The plan is to reboot this thing in a quick manner,” Rizzo said Wednesday on 106.7 the Fan.
Here’s a closer look at the three teams to finish below .500 in at least their first three years after winning the World Series — and when they returned to contender status.
Led by two-way star Babe Ruth, the Red Sox went 75-51 to capture the American League pennant by 2½ games over the Cleveland Indians in a season cut short by World War I. The Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs in the World Series for their fifth title. It would be their last until 2004.
1919 | Record: 66-71-1 (6th in AL) | GB: 20.5
Boston opened the season as the American League favorites, but failed to meet expectations. Pitching was primarily to blame, as Carl Mays and Sam Jones both struggled to repeat their 1918 success. In his final year with the Red Sox, Ruth hit 29 home runs.
1920 | Record: 72-81-1 (5th in AL) | GB: 25.5
After trading Ruth to the Yankees during the offseason, the Red Sox opened the year a surprising 10-2. By the end of June, they were 11 games back of first-place New York.
1921 | Record: 75-79 (5th in AL) | GB: 23.5
Ruth hit 59 home runs for the Yankees, who repeated as American League champs. The Red Sox hit 17 round-trippers as a team.
Things got worse before they got better. The Red Sox lost 93 games in 1922 and finished last in the American League eight times over the next nine years. Boston didn’t make it back to the World Series until 1946.
After winning 95 games, the Blue Jays defeated the Phillies on Joe Carter’s walk-off home run in Game 6 to capture their second straight World Series title.
1994 | Record: 55-60 (3rd in AL East) | GB: 16
Even before the strike ended the season in August, Toronto’s bid to become the first team in 20 years to win three consecutive titles was doomed. Starting pitchers Dave Stewart and Juan Guzman both struggled, finishing with ERAs of 5.87 and 5.68, respectively. Toronto suffered its first losing season in 12 years.
1995 | Record: 56-88 (5th in AL East) | GB: 30
The Blue Jays’ .405 winning percentage was their worst since 1980. Closer Duane Ward appeared in only four games after missing the entire 1994 campaign with a rotator cuff injury.
1996 | Record: 74-88 (4th in AL East) | GB: 18
Young slugger Carlos Delgado hit 25 homers and Ed Sprague hit a team-high 36, but Toronto scored the second-fewest runs per game in the American League.
The Blue Jays finished last in the AL East in 1997 before climbing back above .500 and posting their first of six consecutive third-place finishes the following year. Toronto didn’t return to the postseason until 2015.
In only their fifth season, the Marlins won 92 games and became the first wild card to win the World Series.
1998 | Record: 54-108 (5th in NL East) | GB: 52
The gutted Marlins’ team ERA was a league-worst 5.18.
1999 | Record: 64-98 (5th in NL East) | GB: 39
Florida’s pitching improved, but its offense was the worst in the National League.
2000 | Record: 79-82 (3rd in NL East) | GB: 15.5
The Marlins returned to respectability behind Cliff Floyd and a young lineup featuring Derrek Lee, Preston Wilson and Luis Castillo.
Florida won its second World Series title in 2003 as a wild card. The Marlins have made one playoff appearance since.
Neil Greenberg contributed to this report.