Bad baseball teams come and go, but one ballclub has stood the test of time to be generally regarded as the worst in all of baseball history: the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who lost 134 of their 154 games during the franchise’s final season of existence. Among their many statistical “feats,” the Spiders had six separate double-digit losing streaks (including one lasting 24 games) and lost 40 of their final 41 games to close out the season. In the more than 120 years that have passed since, no other MLB team has challenged Cleveland’s incredible record of ineptitude.
But the 2022 Cincinnati Reds are trying. With just three wins and 19 losses to kick off the new season, Cincinnati’s winning percentage (.136) is shockingly close to the Spiders’ .130 mark from 1899. Almost all of the team’s top players are having horrible starts to the year — and that’s when they’re playing at all. If the Reds aren’t able to turn things around soon, they could be looking at the worst season in the history of a franchise that traces its roots to the earliest era of the major leagues.
Competitive balance was a huge concern back then, as 19th-century teams litter today’s all-time lists of best and worst seasons by winning percentage. We may lament our present era of tanking, but it’s impossible to imagine a modern executive being allowed to do what Spiders owners Frank and Stanley Robison did before the 1899 season: They bought a second team (what would eventually become the St. Louis Cardinals) and traded practically all of Cleveland’s best players to St. Louis, theorizing that the latter was a stronger market for attendance (and would allow them to play on Sundays).
The resulting Spiders roster was as bad as it gets. In fact, it was so unwatchable that, after a few sparsely attended homestands in Cleveland during the first half of the season, the Spiders had to play almost all of their remaining games on the road. (Opponents refused to come to Cleveland because their share of the gate revenue was so low.) As if this nomadic existence didn’t guarantee enough failure, the Robisons stopped paying the Spiders’ salaries in the second half of the season.
Up against all that, who could blame Cleveland’s so-called Misfits for suffering so many losses?
Since the start of the modern two-league structure in 1901, the worst AL or NL teams are at least 17 wins (per 162) better than the Spiders’ prorated record. Hard as it is to believe there could be a team that many games worse than, say, the expansion New York Mets — “Can’t anybody here play this game?” Casey Stengel asked in 1962 (the answer was, “No”) — the Spiders’ futility was all too real. These days, it’s well-accepted wisdom that no contemporary team could ever approach that type of cursed season.
The Reds are unlikely to, either, by the time everything is said and done. Consider that, during its abysmal 3-19 start to the season, Cincinnati has a -3.0 runs-per-game differential. Although that is very bad (it ranks last in MLB by a considerable margin), it’s still far better than Cleveland’s -4.7 mark in 1899. Relatedly, the 1899 Spiders’ Pythgorean winning percentage was .169, which equates to 27 expected wins per 162, while the Reds’ Pythagorean winning percentage is .227, good for around 37 expected wins per 162 — still terrible, but at least somewhat better than Cleveland’s. And in more good news for Cincinnati, outlier records early in an MLB season tend to regress strongly to the mean over the rest of the year.
Just by starting the season 3-19, however, the Reds are in a rough club (one that also includes, you guessed it, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders). Since 1871, across the whole history of the various non-Negro League major leagues — our Elo data doesn’t contain Negro Leagues gamelogs yet — only 16 teams ever had three wins or fewer in their first 22 decisions of a season:
|Record Through 22 Games|
|1875||New Haven Elm Citys||2||20||.091|
|1936||St. Louis Browns||3||19||.136|
|1992||Kansas City Royals||3||19||.136|
At 3-19, Cincinnati has started this season exactly like the Spiders. But both at least have avoided the ignominy of the 1988 Baltimore Orioles, who found a way to lose 21 straight games to begin the season. (Amazingly, the O’s had been above .500 just a few seasons earlier, and they would return to being good again the very next year. But in 1988, nothing much went right in Baltimore — something Cincinnati can relate to this season.)
The Reds can relate to the Spiders on another level. Though owner Bob Castellini didn’t siphon off his best players to another team he owned, he did watch as Cincinnati parted with many of them (including Nick Castellanos, Eugenio Suárez, Jesse Winker, Sonny Gray, Wade Miley, Tucker Barnhart and Amir Garrett) over the offseason. Adding insult to injury: Castellini’s son Phil, who serves as team president, went on a radio interview and threatened to “pick up [the team] and move it somewhere else.”
“Be careful what you ask for,” Phil Castellini said. “I think we’re doing the best we can do with the resources that we have.”
Again, it wasn’t exactly the Robison brothers saying they would run the hapless Spiders as a “sideshow” and then complaining about a lack of attendance. But Cincinnati’s team-gutting moves were enough to motivate Reds fans to protest outside the Great American Ball Park. As Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal put it, the Reds’ offseason “[left] longtime first baseman Joey Votto with little more than a glorified Triple-A squad around him.”
Votto is one of the best players in franchise history, but he is also 38 years old and having his worst season at the plate. With him struggling, there isn’t much left to keep Cincinnati competitive anymore. Sophomore second baseman Jonathan India, the NL’s reigning Rookie of the Year, has frequently been injured, while outfielder Tommy Pham is several seasons removed from his best years. Starters Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo (who is also rehabbing from injury) may or may not be trade bait, and while rookie pitcher Hunter Greene is electrifying to watch, his fireballing has not yet translated into superior statistics. (Greene’s ERA and fielding-independent pitching are both more than 40 percent worse than average.)
Despite all this, the Reds will doubtless finish the season better than the 1899 Cleveland Spiders did. Modern baseball may have brazen tanking, but there are enough competitive-balance guardrails in place to prevent current teams from flirting with a .130 winning percentage. But the fact that, 22 games into the season, we can even make a comparison between the two speaks to just how far the Reds have fallen — and how rough things can still get for baseball fan bases 123 years after the Robison brothers ran one of their franchises directly into the ground.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.