A 60-game baseball season is without precedent — almost. If every team plays its full schedule in 2020, it would tie the 1877 season for the shortest in MLB history. In 1877, the league consisted of six teams, and its home run champion, Lip Pike, finished with a total of four round-trippers.
History also says there is a chance that the best team in baseball might very well miss the postseason in 2020. Four eventual World Series champions were .500 or below in the first 60 games of their title-winning season:
1914 Boston Braves (25-35, eighth in eight-team National League)
The “Miracle Braves” of 1914 remain the unlikeliest World Series champion of all time. They posted 11 consecutive losing seasons from 1903 to 1913 and started 1914 with a 12-28 record, failing to climb out of the National League basement until July 20.
But from that point forward, Bill James and Dick Rudolph combined for a 33-3 record (and a 1.61 ERA), pitching in front of the finest defensive infield in baseball (anchored by second baseman Johnny Evers and shortstop Rabbit Maranville). The Braves breezed past John McGraw’s Giants, winners of three consecutive pennants, and finished the season atop the NL standings by 10½ games. As a heavy underdog (+145 odds), Boston recorded the first sweep in World Series history, beating the Philadelphia Athletics, who had won the championship in three of the previous four years. The Braves went from 16 games below .500 to World Series champs, something no other team has accomplished.
2019 Washington Nationals (27-33, fourth in five-team NL East)
The Nationals famously started the 2019 season with a 19-31 record, but played at a torrid pace the rest of the way (74-38, tied for best in MLB) to secure a berth in the NL wild-card game. It would be the first of a record five elimination-game wins for Washington in the postseason, and the Nats trailed in every one of them.
The Nationals’ upset (+195 odds) of the Astros was the largest in World Series history for a team without home-field advantage, and made Washington the first team to beat multiple 105-win teams in a single postseason (they beat the Dodgers in the National League Division Series). The Nats also became the first team to win the World Series without winning a single game at home and the first team in World Series history to overcome a multirun deficit in the seventh inning or later to win Game 7 on the road. In total, the Nationals went 10-0 in postseason games started by Stephen Strasburg (World Series MVP) or Max Scherzer, the best mark ever in games started by a pair of teammates in a single postseason.
2003 Florida Marlins (27-33, fifth in five-team NL East)
This club is best remembered for the Steve Bartman play and the Cubs’ subsequent collapse, but reaching the postseason was considered a pipe dream when the Marlins fired manager Jeff Torborg in May. Torborg was 16-22 when dismissed, at which time pitcher Josh Beckett said, “I haven’t wanted to cry over anything for a long time. And it made me want to cry.” Torborg was replaced by 72-year-old Jack McKeon, for whom Florida went 75-49 over the rest of the season (second-best record in MLB behind the Braves).
In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field, the Marlins erased a 3-0 deficit with an eight-run eighth inning (which included the Bartman incident), then won Game 7 to secure the team’s second pennant in seven seasons. The heavily favored Yankees (-230) took a 2-1 lead in the World Series, but Florida won Games 4, 5 and 6, with Beckett winning the clincher with a complete game on three days’ rest. He became the first pitcher to throw a complete game in a World Series-clinching win since Jack Morris in 1991, and nobody has done it since.
1964 St. Louis Cardinals (29-31, eighth in 10-team NL)
In the first season after Stan Musial’s retirement, the Cardinals sat three games below .500 on June 15 when they pulled off one of the great heists in baseball history. General manager Bing Devine, who was fired later that season, traded for underperforming Cubs outfielder Lou Brock, who batted .348 with 33 stolen bases over the remainder of the season. St. Louis trailed the Phillies by 11 games on Aug. 23, but proceeded to win 28 of its final 39 games to win the NL pennant on the season’s final day, edging out Philadelphia (and Cincinnati) by one game.
Bob Gibson won nine of his last 11 regular-season starts (with a 1.77 ERA) to set up a World Series clash against a Yankees team that had reached the Fall Classic in 12 of the previous 14 seasons. Gibson lost Game 2, but won Games 5 and 7 (both complete games) and became the first pitcher to record at least 30 strikeouts in a single World Series, a feat he repeated in 1968.