It’s still easy to win 100 games when most MLB teams aren’t trying

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The 2022 MLB season was nearly a historic one in ways other than the performances of Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani. There were four 100-win teams, and four 100-loss teams, which equaled the records set and most recently matched, respectively, in 2019. In 2019, it was an issue, as I described at the time in a piece headline “Winning 100 games is easy when most MLB teams aren’t trying.”

With the Dodgers securing their 100th victory on Sunday, 2017-2019 became the first-ever three-year period where three teams per season won at least 100 games.

The reasons for all of those 100-win teams are less worthy of your admiration. The problem is the flip side of those dominant teams: for the first time since 1912-1913, there have been seven 100-loss teams between 2018-2019, with the newest of those the Royals following a defeat on Sunday. Today’s MLB isn’t just full of dominating 100-win teams that beat up on everyone: the competition itself is lesser, due to the tanking, the lack of trying, and so on, and it has created an environment that spawns teams at the extremes at historic rates.

The outcome might not be intentional, but the design is, and it comes from teams at the top stopping their spending push (Yankees, Dodgers, Nationals, soon to be joined by the Red Sox) at the same time the middle teams, those that should be investing to try to climb to that next level, instead deciding they are not going to do that. And the clubs at the bottom are as bad as they’ve ever been in MLB history, if not worse because there are more of them, and it’s all because they’re losing on purpose in order to win later. Or, more accurately, to tell you the plan is to win later, when in reality it’s to preach about the importance of financial flexibility teams don’t intend to use, or how now is not a good time to try, not yet, even when it seems like the not trying is at its end.

In 2022, it was nearly even worse than this, a continuation of what’s come before taken to even more of an extreme. A couple of things occurred to keep this from going down like it could have, however: the Twins and White Sox were both significantly worse than expected, due to injuries and well, probably Tony La Russa, which helped the Tigers and Royals lose “just” 96 and 97 games instead of joining the 100-loss club. It’s not hard to imagine a better-run and healthier White Sox club doing better than 9-10 against the Royals, or for a Twins club that actually managed to play to their projections demolishing both the Royals and Tigers instead of going a pretty respectable 23-15 against the top closers of the division.

On the other side, the Yankees ended up winning 99 games thanks to a midseason collapse, which I know sounds like a weird sentence to type, but they posted a 56-21 record over the season’s first three months, prompting the question of whether they’d be able to a new record for wins in a season, before a .500 July and a 10-18 August quashed any followup queries outside of a few “and then what happened?” quote tweets of MLB’s social media artwork made for the initial question. A couple of better teams to help make another pair worse, and one more Yankees win, and the 2022 season suddenly has five 100-game winners and maybe five or six 100-game losers. An entire third of the league finishing with triple digits in their records, which is basically unfathomable, and yet, not that hard to fathom here!

You might find it to be a stretch to think we were that close to historic infamy, but 100 losses is something of an arbitrary benchmark, too, a round number to behold. The Royals didn’t lose 100, but they still took the L in 97 games and were terrible; the Tigers 96, and same. The Rangers and Rockies 94 a piece. The Marlins lost 93 games despite playing in a division with the 107-loss Nationals — in fact, the Marlins only avoided losing 100 games because of the Nats, a team they went 15-4 against while posting a combined 19-38 record against the rest of the NL East.

That’s… a lot of terrible baseball. The Dodgers are a special team, sure, but the Yankees won 99 games despite having issues, the Guardians barely played anyone over .500 all season long, the only Wild Card team that seems more legitimately good than flawed is the 101-win Mets, the Cardinals owe much to playing in a division with a pair of 100-loss teams and also the Cubs, and so on. Twelve of MLB’s 30 teams made the postseason this year, with another nine losing at least 93 games. There were just two teams with a winning record to not make the postseason, and one of those, the Brewers, arguably wouldn’t have gotten there without the same NL Central benefits the Cardinals had. It’s pretty clear the problems of 2019 remain and are maybe worse now, which shouldn’t be a surprise given that an expanded postseason was only going to exacerbate existing issues related to a lack of effort.

Reducing intradivision play will certainly help, but that’s only if teams decide there is shame to be found in the records they produce without it. If clubs from the AL and NL Central feel comfortable winning their division with 83 or 85 wins or what have you, or being out-won by every wild card club in a given year, then what are you going to do? They get their postseason shares just the same, can roll the dice in October once they’re there like everyone else, and don’t have to invest heavily in their clubs for the opportunity. About all you can do is hope that the loss of the charade will change things — otherwise, it’s just one more thing to figure out how to bargain over in 2027.

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