By next week, the St. Louis Cardinals or Texas Rangers will go down in the baseball history books as 2011 World Series champions. What neither will go down as: a particularly great team, at least from a historical standpoint.
That's the way it goes in baseball, as it does in all sports. One year a good but less-than- stellar club peaks at the right time and wins it all (see last year's San Francisco Giants), another year a team that tears through the season impressively enough to knock on history's door blows it in the playoffs or World Series. Our sports culture has a way of remembering champions and forgetting the rest, the only exceptions coming from those teams that have offered up dramatic moments in defeat (Ralph Branca serving up a home run ball to Bobby Thomson, Carlton Fisk pounding a homer off the foul pole to keep his team alive for one more day, and Bill Buckner booting a grounder). It's too bad, because some teams that performed to the level of true greatness over a full season are barely remembered.
So partly as a tribute to those teams, and partly just for fun, we're going to remember them now. Which are the greatest teams in baseball history that failed to take home a World Series title? Right at the top, by our analysis: the 1973 Cincinnati Reds of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan. Why that Reds club, whose 99-63 record was impressive but not the stuff of legends? Because all wins aren't created equally. A power ranking system, one that measures the degree to which a club stands out above the league in a given year, makes more sense than simply counting wins. Expansion, for example, brings weak clubs into the league and inflates the win totals of top tier clubs (or sometimes there are just more weak clubs anyway, without expansion).
The Reds really had to earn those 99 wins. In their division, the National League West, four of six teams had winning records in 1973, with a weighted schedule forcing Cincinnati playing a majority of its games – 90 of 162 – within that division. Over in the NL East, a season of parity had several teams clustered around the .500 mark, with the 82-79 New York Mets taking first place. What it all adds up to: with few true patsies to beat up on, the Reds' record was good for a standard deviation score of 2.86, meaning they were almost three times as good as a "standard," or average team (ok, standard deviation is kind of a stat geek term, but it tells a lot. There's no better tool for comparing different eras on an apples to apples basis).
No team in Major League history scores higher than the Reds did in the 1973 regular season – that means that had the club not floundered in the post season, they'd go down as the best team ever. Alas, they fell to an underdog but pitching-rich Mets club in a three-games-to-two-upset in the National League Championship Series, scoring just nine runs in the five games. Things had gotten so frustrating by Game Three that Rose tried to fire up his team by picking a fight with the Mets' scrawny shortstop, Bud Harrelson.
The '73 Reds lie in contrast with the 2001 Seattle Mariners, whose 116 wins tied for the most ever in a season. The Mariners lost to the Yankees in the ALCS that year, assuring them of a high spot on the list of top non-champions. But they still didn't impress quite as much as the Reds did. The unbalanced American League produced four teams (29 percent of the league) with 96 or more losses that year (there was only one such NL team in 1973), giving the Mariners a power rank /standard deviation score of 2.45, good for third on the list behind the Reds and the 2005 Cardinals (2.75), a team that took its division by 11 games and won 100 games during a season in which no NL team hit the 100-loss mark. Another renowned post season loser, the 109-win Baltimore Orioles of 1969 who dropped the World Series to the "Miracle Mets" (those pesky Mets again), also fall lower on the list than you might expect (No. 10) – the expansion that added two teams to the AL that year inflating their win total.
Others in the great-but-we-hardly-knew-ye club: Cincinnati's 1973 cousins, the 1970 Reds (2.39), who won their division by 14 ½ games and swept the Pirates in the NL playoffs before falling to Baltimore in the World Series, the 1973 Dodgers (2.35), a dominant team that didn't even make the playoffs thanks to the misfortune of playing in the Reds' division, and the 1995 Cleveland Indians (2.34), a power laden club led by Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez(notes) that finished thirty games ahead of the second place Royals on their way to the AL flag, only to drop a six-game World Series to the Atlanta Braves.
What really jumps out when looking into the greatest non-championship teams: the near-dynasty of Cincinnati during the first half of the 1970s. As much acclaim as the "Big Red Machine" did get, it was probably still underrated. Awhile back, we scored the 1975 version of the Reds, the first to break through and win the World Series, as the greatest ever (their 2.67 score, based on 108 wins, falls just slightly behind the 1973 club, and they didn't blow it in the post season). The Reds clubs of 1970, '73 and '75 all rank in the top eight all time for regular season play, while the 1976 team also won a championship. As the saying goes, anything can happen in a short series. A handful of wins is all that separates the Big Red Machine from being the greatest seven-year dynasty ever.
The top five: