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The Weirdest Playoff Teams of the Division Series-Era

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If they could do it, maybe the 2019 Mariners can? Nah, probably not. But read this anyway.

NLCS: Arizona Diamondbacks v Colorado Rockies - Game 3 Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Baseball, our shared collective interest, is very weird. As much as we might not want to admit it, all of us are a little weird for caring so much about it as well.

These 2019 Mariners that we’re about to devote some level of care to are shaping up to be extremely weird. Mitch Haniger may throw out his back from carrying the offense, especially if Edwin Encarnación leaves town. Marco Gonzales is the only bankable starting pitcher, and even he comes with some regression concerns. The bullpen looks…flammable. But fear not! There may be hope after all for our marooned Mariners; some slim chance of steering the ship through a hurricane and safely into port.

Since the postseason expanded in 1995, teams whose best position player was nearly twice as good as the next guy, or who had one legitimate starting pitcher, or employed a group of grifters disguised as relievers, have made the playoffs. Some have even done it with all three, as this list will demonstrate.

1995 Colorado Rockies

ROCKIES V BRAVES

Record: 77-67

Run Differential: +2 (785 runs scored, 783 runs allowed)

Pythagorean W-L: 72-72

Postseason Result: Lost 3-1 to Atlanta Braves in NLDS

Mariner Connections: Bill Swift, Quinton McCracken (my man got one plate appearance)

Just three years into their existence, the Colorado Rockies fielded their first playoff team. While the backs of their baseball cards were decimated by pre-humidor Coors Field, many of this Rockies squad’s best players were mound dwellers. According to bWAR, five of Colorado’s seven best players were pitchers, including four of the top five. While those five men—Kevin Ritz, Steve Reed, Curtis Leskanic, Darren Holmes, and Bill Swift—sound more like the Costco jeans-wearing table at your local trivia night than professional athletes, they will forever be a part of MLB history. As is typically the case with pitchers, bWAR was kinder to them than fWAR, but the band of incredibly dorky-looking pitchers still heroically willed the team to glory.

Kevin Ritz...
“Hey, I’m Kevin Ritz, and I sure would like to go home.”
Curtis Leskanic...
“You mean to tell me, Curtis Leskanic of little old Homestead, Pennsylvania, dear cousin to the lead singer of Katrina and the Waves, that we’re gonna make the playoffs?! Well I’ll be damned.”

True to their Colorado home, all six hurlers who made at least 10 starts posted an ERA above 4.20. Altogether, the 20 dudes who threw a pitch for the ‘95 Rockies combined to post the worst ERA of any National League team, while also allowing the most hits and earned runs. However, advanced stats will have you know that the staff’s ERA+ came in at 108, meaning they were actually 8 percent better than league average when adjusted for the deadly factors of their home ballpark.

Larry Walker was unquestionably the team’s best player. The Hall of Fame-worthy right fielder had a 129 wRC+ at the plate and 13 assists in the field, leading to a seventh-place finish in the MVP race. Writers voted Walker’s teammate Dante Bichette the second-most valuable player in the NL, as the mulleted slugger nearly won the Triple Crown but posted sub-2.0 WAR seasons by both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs’ metrics.

The reason for the poor Wins Above Replacement? Truly horrendous base running (Bichette was caught stealing nine times and worth -1.5 BsR), and an unfathomably bad -24.1 defensive runs above average. Not to be outdone, Andres Galarraga also undermined his powerful offense by playing defense with a frying pan. Somehow, someway, Galarraga managed to make 13 errors in a strike-shortened season. At first base!

The production featured cameos from some names you might recognize (Ellis Burks, Bret Saberhagen, and an actual man named Jayhawk Owens), as well as three future MLB managers (Craig Counsell, Joe Girardi, and Walt Weiss). But by all accounts, this was not a very strong outfit. They should have been perfectly average, but feasted on the lowly Expos, Giants, Padres, and Pirates, going 32-14 against that quartet of bottom feeders. At the end of the day, though, these weirdos lazily took the Wild Card with one more win than Scott Servais’ Houston Astros.

1996 Texas Rangers

Yankees V Rangers

Record: 90-72

Run Differential: +129 (928 runs scored, 799 runs allowed)

Pythagorean W-L: 92-70

Postseason Result: Lost 3-1 to New York Yankees in ALDS

Mariner Connections: Mark McLemore, Warren Newson, Dave Valle

One pitcher (Ken Hill), Juan González, and Iván Rodríguez. That’s it. That’s the team.

Ok, not really, Rusty Greer and old friend Mark McLemore had excellent seasons as well. But Pudge and González are the only big-ticket names you expect from playoff rosters. In the Rangers’ first taste of October, Juan Gone represented Texas like he was defending its barbecue against New York appropriation.

González stole the 1996 MVP from Alex Rodriguez through the power of counting stats and team success. The Puerto Rican outfielder walloped 47 home runs and drove in 144 runs, both out-pacing the Mariner prodigy. But González’s atrocious defense spawned a 3.5 fWAR, which was the 34th-best in the American League, ranking behind Dan Wilson. A-Rod, meanwhile, put up a preposterous 9.2-win season and won the batting title as a 20-year-old.

Outside of Pudge, González, Greer, and McLemore, the Rangers had only one other hitter cross the three-win threshold. Dean Palmer, a third baseman who I have totally heard of, had 38 absurd home runs and exactly 3.0 fWAR. The top-heavy offense bludgeoned American League pitching all season, and their Pythagorean record indicates that the Rangers should have won more games. However, a gang of no-name pitchers held the team back dramatically. Granted, 1996 was smackdab in the middle of baseball’s most offense-happy era. Still, Texas’ 2-5 starters had 5.19, 5.41, 4.66, and 5.22 ERA’s.

Kevin Gross, the club’s highest-paid pitcher, got demoted to the bullpen after a rough mid-summer stretch. In four starts from July 6 to August 8, Gross accumulated a 12.06 ERA in 15.2 innings while opponents knocked five home runs, drew 14 walks to just 12 strikeouts, and moved in with his wife probably. Gross was worth -.618 Win Probability Added in those games and went on to start just three more times in the majors. Had the Mariners cracked last year’s postseason, Gross and Félix Hernández might have drawn comparisons from astute baseball historians.

In another inspiring display of incompetence, Texas’ closer was also a complete catastrophe. Mike Henneman went 0-7 with a 5.79 ERA/1.38 WHIP/4.62 FIP, and 34 K/17 BB in 42 IP, but successfully completed 31 saves, making him one of three pitchers to save 30 games with a 5.75+ ERA in a single season. Homeboy was out of the league by 1997, seven saves shy of 200 for his career. Despite their pitchers playing the role of insect to every hitter’s windshield, the Rangers won the AL West by 4.5 games over the Mariners. Our guy Dave Valle had by far his best offensive season in the last year of his career, but the cowards wouldn’t play him in the postseason, directly leading to their ALDS loss.

2005 San Diego Padres

San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers
aloha mr playoffs
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Record: 82-80

Run Differential: -42 (684 runs scored, 726 runs allowed)

Pythagorean W-L: 77-85

Postseason result: Lost 3-0 in NLDS to St. Louis Cardinals

Mariner connection: Miguel Olivo

The ’05 Friars are easily the worst team of the last 25 years to make the playoffs, and it’s not particularly close. These fellas truly could not hit.

Brian Giles was their only regular hitter to bat above .300 and he did it by a whisker, clocking in at .301. Giles was also the only Padre with at least 300 plate appearances to record an on-base percentage north of .365. The starting first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, and shortstop were all below-average hitters, at least according to each of their < 100 OPS+. Ryan Klesko led the way with a paltry 18 home runs, in the same way a toddler leads a group of infants.

If not for the 2005 NL West being one of the worst divisions ever assembled, no one would ever think about this mediocre San Diego squad. You’d guess that surely a deep rotation propelled the team over its offensive shortcomings and into the postseason. Nope. They really had one starting pitcher—who was about as ace as an ace can be—and a dynamite bullpen.

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference

Against all odds, the Padres’ season was saved by the deadline acquisition of 36-year-old journeyman Pedro Astacio. Pitching for his seventh organization, Astacio allowed two earned runs or fewer in nine of his 10 starts with the Padres. He even won each of his last four decisions and got the nod in Game 2 of the NLDS, his first and only playoff start. The veteran pitcher had a decent performance that day against a stacked Cardinals lineup but got no help whatsoever from his offense or defense.

In the home half of the third inning, the Cardinals went walk, E6, sac bunt, fielder’s choice, walk, walk, resulting in two runs and essentially clinching the whole series. Khalil Greene booted a routine double-play ball to begin the unraveling, and the rest is tremendously dull history.

This wholly unremarkable unit won the NL West comfortably as its only team above .500. Then, they got rightfully bulldozed in the Division Series, getting outscored 21-11 by St. Louis. Is this more information than you needed? Absolutely. But if I have to know it then so do you. Unfortunately, the 2019 Mariners won’t have the benefit of a lousy division, but the roster’s offensive talent might not be too far below these deadbeat Padres.

2007 Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona Diamondbacks v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Record: 90-72

Run Differential: -20 (712 runs scored, 732 runs allowed)

Pythagorean W-L: 79-83

Postseason result: Won NLDS 3-0 over Chicago Cubs, lost NLCS 4-0 to Colorado Rockies

Mariner connection: Eric Byrnes, Jeff Cirillo, 43-year-old Randy Johnson, Bob Melvin

The only member of our list to actually win a playoff series was led by Eric Byrnes and Orlando Hudson, though hilariously, the highest wRC+ belonged to pitcher Micah Owings, who raked .333/.349/.683 with four home runs and a 152 wRC+. Owings was no slouch on the mound either, as the bat-flipping rookie posted a 111 ERA+ in his first season.

Of the qualified hitters, Hudson got the closest to a .300 batting average, finishing the season at .294. Byrnes, and I swear I’m not making this up, stole 50 bases. 50. 5-0. As in, one more than 49, and double the amount he’d had in any previous season. This acid trip season earned Byrnes an 11th-place finish in the MVP voting, which I’m sure he’s displayed nicely next to his bike.

Like their division rivals who limped into the playoffs two years prior, the 2007 Diamondbacks had a negative run differential, one elite starting pitcher, and a bunch of guys who were in over their head. Brandon Webb and his bowling ball sinker went 236.1 innings, generating a 61.8% groundball rate and a league-high four complete games. Please don’t ever forget how good Brandon Webb was.

His rotation mates included past-their-primes Liván Hernández, Doug Davis, and briefly, Randy Johnson, whose prime was so far gone that local authorities ordered a search party for it. Luckily, the trio of Owings, Édgar González, and Yusmeiro Petit—none older than 24—were around to make 49 combined starts. Somehow, someway, the Snakes charmed the Cubs in three games before getting sautéed by the red-hot Rockies in the NLCS. The lesson to be learned from the 2005 Padres and 2007 Diamondbacks is to always share a division with the team Frank McCourt owns.

* Honorable mention to the 1997 Giants, who gave Stan Javier 510 plate appearances, went 90-72 with a Pythagorean Record of 80-82, were outscored by nine runs during the regular season, and got swept out of the playoffs. On paper, though, they were menacing. Barry Bonds (8.9 fWAR) was over twice as valuable as Jeff Kent, who was also really, really good! The ’97 Giants had talented young players like Shawn Estes, Bill Mueller, J.T. Snow, and Kirk Rueter. Rod Beck was one of the game’s best closers. Yet fancy stats say they should have been a losing team. What happened?

They got blown out all the damn time, is what happened. Like, seven times by double digits, 23 times by five or more runs.