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Every so often, I like to pull out my old Abstracts and re-read an essay or two. My very favourite is the Kansas City Royals essay in the 1986 Baseball Abstract, in which Bill James recounts the history of major league baseball in Kansas City. His life has spanned that era, and the essay concludes with the local nine climbing to the pinnacle of the baseball world, beating the Blue Jays and Cardinals in two thrilling playoff series in 1985.

Before the Royals built their championship-calibre teams, James' youth was spent rooting for a ballclub named the Kansas City Athletics, a team the city inherited from Philadelphia and bequeathed to Oakland. In between, the A's spent 13 seasons in Missouri and never came close to a .500 record. They won just over 40% of the ballgames they played in those seasons - no team since then has been worse over a 13-year stretch. As Bill James reached the age of majority, Charles O. Finley packed up the Athletics and took them to the Bay.

In honour of the great sabrmetrician, I devised a futily scale and named it after the team of his youth. I used 13 consecutive years of data of a given franchise (apart from being the number of seasons the A's spent in Kansas City, it's also a number considered unlucky by many), calculated the overall winning percentage during those years and compared it to the Kansas City A's. The formula is:

KCA Futility Score = (.4038 - WinPercentage) * 1000 + 100

The KC A's, 1955 to 1967, score 100 on the scale; a team with a .5038 winning percentage scores zero. It is (of course) possible to score over a hundred (and less than zero) - several pre-WW II franchises scored over 100 on the KC A's Futility Scale year in and year out. But with the advent of the amateur draft, it has become difficult to approach those levels of wretchedness. Nevertheless, one modern day franchise is giving it a go.

Here is a complete list of teams that were worse that the 1955-67 A's (overlapping teams excluded) over 13 seasons:

Worst 13-Year Stretches, 1901 to 1966
YearsTeamLgWPCTFutility Score
1933-45Philadelphia PhilliesNL.349155.0
1919-31Philadelphia PhilliesNL.371133.3
1934-46Philadelphia AthleticsAL.372132.3
1921-33Boston Red SoxAL.374130.2
1901-13Boston BravesAL.382121.7
1953-65Philadelphia/K.C. A'sAL.394110.2
1902-14Saint Louis CardinalsNL.397107.1
1946-58Stl. Browns/Balt. OriolesAL.398105.9
1930-42Saint Louis BrownsAL.401102.9
1919-31Boston BravesNL.401102.4

The modern fan, unless he/she is a senior citizen, probably can't comprehend the length and depth of futility achieved by these clubs. Think of the 2001-2003 Tigers, add 23 years of the same and you end up with the Phillies, the #1 and #2 entries in the above chart. From 1919 to 1945, the Phillies posted winning percentages lower than .400 TWENTY TIMES (in 27 years), and poked their noses above .500 only once.

It's a wonder that baseball survived in Philadelphia considering the Phillies played wretched baseball for the majority of the first half of the 20th century. The nadir was 1936 to 1940, during which neither Philadelphia club posted a single season with a winning percentage above .400. The Athletics had two glorious periods under Connie Mack and a lot of heartache in between and after in Philadelphia. The Phillies won the war of attrition when the Athletics decided to move west for greener pastures.

It didn't turn out to be all that green: the Athletics continued to lose and eventually wore out their welcome in Kansas City. As I noted earlier, no team since the 1955-67 A's has reached 100 or better on the KCA Futility Scale. Here are the worst 13-year stretches since then (overlap teams excluded):

Worst 13-Year Stretches, post-Kansas City A's
YearsTeamLgWPCTFutility Score
1961-73Wash. Senators/Tex. RangersAL.40896.2
1969-81San Diego PadresNL.40896.1
1977-89Seattle MarinersAL.42084.3
1991-2003Detroit TigersAL.42579.1
1962-74New York MetsNL.42776.3
1955-67Chicago CubsNL.43964.8
1977-89Atlanta BravesNL.44558.9
1981-93Cleveland IndiansAL.44855.8
1988-2000Philadelphia PhilliesNL.45548.4
1990-2002Kansas City RoyalsAL.45647.5
1991-2003Milwaukee BrewersAL/NL.45846.2
1963-75Houston AstrosNL.45845.8
1968-80Chicago White SoxAL.45845.7

The Tigers overtook the Braves a few years ago for the highest non-expansion team futility score since the KC A's (the Cubs teams in the table were the precise contemporaries of the A's). If Detroit loses 100 games in 2004, their score will climb to 89.9, leapfrogging the expansion Mariners.

Perhaps there is hope for the Tigers. Some of these franchises emerged from hibernation to build very successful teams. The Braves and Indians built a strong foundation of youth, added useful veterans and rode solid management to success; the Phillies, and perhaps the Royals, appear to be following their lead. Then again, maybe we shouldn't be optimistic about the Tigers' future - I can't see very many quality youngsters in their organisation at the moment.

The Kansas City Athletics Futility Score | 6 comments | Create New Account
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Joe - Friday, January 02 2004 @ 11:38 AM EST (#19695) #
If my math is right, the Tigers posted a win percentage of 0.2654 last year; this works out to a Futility Score of 238.4. That's mindbogglingly bad, but I really don't think that the Tigers can aspire to such depths for 13 straight years. You've got to expect that they'll crack .300 at some point in the next decade.
Mike Green - Friday, January 02 2004 @ 12:18 PM EST (#19696) #
Happy new year, Robert. Dombrowski had a good record with the 'Spos and with the Marlins, but it's hard to understand the rationale for some of the recent decisions made by the Tigers, making Bonderman skip his pitching education, for instance.

One piece of good news for long-suffering Detroit fans has to be the winter league performance of Omar Infante (I'm assuming that it's the same Omar Infante) in Venezuela. He came off a poor season in Triple A, and won the starting role over Sequea as shortstop for Oriente, and hit for average with some power and good strike zone judgment. He's young too.
_John Neary - Friday, January 02 2004 @ 01:48 PM EST (#19697) #
Yeah, but losing Sequea in the minor league rule 5 draft and then seeing him hit .292/.372/.412 for New Haven/Syracuse/Oriente at age 22.9 must be kind of depressing.

Incidentally, I doubt Sequea was really in the running for that shortstop job -- between his three teams this year, he played 65 games at 2B, 27 at 3B, 23 at SS, and 1 at 1B, making a total of 27 errors. To me, he looks like a 2B/3B who can play short in a pinch but who'll hurt you with the glove if you leave him there for too long. Mind you, that opinion is based on very little evidence.

Nice job as always, Robert.
Mike Green - Friday, January 02 2004 @ 02:11 PM EST (#19698) #
John, you're right. It was a puzzle to me how Sequea was left unprotected. Add that to the list of unusual Tiger decisions over the last few years.
Coach - Friday, January 02 2004 @ 07:18 PM EST (#19699) #
In 1991 and 1993, the Tigers had winning records, so they haven't reached their nadir yet. For the last ten years, they have a Futility Score of 103.3, truly horrible. If they average less than 70 wins over the next three seasons, which seems quite likely to me, they will stand alone as the worst team over a 13-year stretch since the K.C. A's, 40 years ago.

The lowly D-Rays have a 101.1 FS in their first six seasons, and barring a move to the AL Central, they don't appear close to a .500 season any time soon. Of course, the Mets were even worse in their first seven years of existence (105.5 FS) before winning 100 games and the World Series in 1969 -- that really was a miracle. Maybe all Tampa (or Detroit) needs is the next Tom Seaver, but last time I checked, young Mr. Prior was a Cub.
_Jack Friedman - Monday, June 28 2004 @ 09:37 PM EDT (#19700) #
I grew up in KC during the incredibly depressing sports' era you aptly described. It left a cynical streak in me that I still retain. From N.Y.Yankee Farm club (unofficial but accurately termed) to Charles O. Finley's plaything - the KC Athletics "The Fighting A's!" as they derisively were called - stunk as bad as the K.C. stockyards...
The Kansas City Athletics Futility Score | 6 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.