Calling this season in Boston a nightmare may be an understatement. The Red Sox shocked nearly everyone by winning the 2013 World Series, a year after losing 93 games and finishing in the cellar of the AL East for the first time in 20 years. After the club raced to 97 wins a year ago, the misery has once again surfaced in Beantown – the Red Sox are ten games under .500 and last in the division on July 29th. All signs point to them opening their team up to the trading block this week, and that’s probably the best course of action, given the organization’s wealth of young talent and abundance of attractive veterans on the major league rosters.
But dialing all of that back for a second, I’m curious about where the 2014 Red Sox rank among disappointing World Champions in recent history. When a team wins the World Series, there’s a prevailing belief that they’ll come out guns blazing the next year and contend for another championship. That hasn’t really taken place this year for the Sox.
I decided to pull back the last 35 World Champions to see just where exactly Boston’s futility in 2014 ranked. The results may surprise you.
2013 Red Sox: 48-58, fifth in AL East in 2014.
2012 Giants: 76-86, third in NL West in 2013.
2011 Cardinals: 88-74, second in NL Central in 2012. Lost NLCS to Giants.
2010 Giants: 86-76, second in NL West in 2011.
2009 Yankees: 95-67, second in AL East in 2010. Lost ALCS to Rangers.
2008 Phillies: 93-69, first in NL East in 2009. Lost World Series to Yankees.
2007 Red Sox: 95-67, second in AL East in 2008. Lost ALCS to Rays.
2006 Cardinals: 78-84, third in NL Central in 2007.
2005 White Sox: 90-72, third in AL Central in 2006.
2004 Red Sox: 95-67, second in AL East in 2005. Lost ALDS to White Sox.
2003 Marlins: 83-79, third in NL East in 2004.
2002 Angels: 77-85, third in AL West in 2003.
2001 Diamondbacks: 98-64, first in NL West in 2002. Lost NLDS to Cardinals.
2000 Yankees: 95-65, first in AL East in 2001. Lost World Series to Diamondbacks.
1999 Yankees: 87-74, first in AL East in 2000. Won World Series.
1998 Yankees: 98-64, first in AL East in 1999. Won World Series.
1997 Marlins: 54-108 in 1998, fifth in NL East in 1998.
1996 Yankees: 96-66, second in AL East in 1997. Lost ALDS to Indians.
1995 Braves: 96-66, first in NL East in 1996. Lost World Series to Yankees.
1993 Blue Jays: 55-60, third in AL East in 1994.
1992 Blue Jays: 95-67, first in AL East in 1993. Won World Series.
1991 Twins: 90-72, second in AL West in 1992.
1990 Reds: 74-88, fifth in NL West in 1991.
1989 Athletics: 103-59, first in AL West in 1990. Lost World Series to Reds.
1988 Dodgers: 77-83, fourth in NL West in 1989.
1987 Twins: 91-71, second in AL West in 1988.
1986 Mets: 92-70, second in NL East in 1987.
1985 Royals: 76-86, third in AL West in 1986.
1984 Tigers: 84-77, third in AL East in 1985.
1983 Orioles: 85-77, fifth in AL East in 1984.
1982 Cardinals: 79-83, fourth in NL East in 1983.
1981 Dodgers: 88-74, second in NL West in 1982.
1980 Phillies: 59-48, third in NL East in 1981. Lost NLDS to Expos.
1979 Pirates: 83-79, third in NL East in 1980.
1978 Yankees: 89-71, fourth in AL East in 1979.
Looking at that data, it seems clear that the 2014 Red Sox aren’t *the* most disappointing defending champion ever – but they’re up there. The 1998 Marlins clearly take the cake, but their fire sale shortly after winning the Series kept expectations tempered a bit and also created a ready-made excuse for their struggles.
Boston is just one of nine teams in our sample to have a record under .500 the year after winning the World Series, which includes a pair of strike-shortened years (1981 Phillies, 1994 Blue Jays). Of the nine clubs with records under .500, only four teams other than the 2014 Red Sox finished ten games under .500 – the 1986 Royals, the 1991 Reds, the aforementioned 1998 Marlins, and the 2013 Giants.
All four teams had very different paths from World Champions to mediocrity. The Royals brought back a nearly identical roster from 1985 to 1986, but were doomed by injuries to both George Brett and Bret Saberhagen. The Reds were only outscored by two runs in 1991, but finished 14 games under .500, suggesting their struggles were based more in bad luck than anything else. Hell, from August to September, the Reds had a -3 run differential, and somehow went 25-39. That’s absurd. The 1998 Marlins were obviously a smoking crater of a franchise, and the only starter left from their 1997 team to get substantial playing time in 1998 was Livan Hernandez.
The 2013 Giants were just an odd exercise in how quickly things can change for a franchise. The only changes they made from 2012 to 2013 were having Marco Scutaro at second base all year instead of just for the second half and giving Gregor Blanco more playing time in left field after the departure of Melky Cabrera. Everything else was pretty much the same. Of course, some players struggled, and the Giants saw their run differential flip from +69 to -62.
The 2014 Red Sox made some moves this winter, most notably letting both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury walk as free agents and not re-signing Stephen Drew until June. Their replacements, A.J. Pierzynski and Grady Sizemore, both played badly and were released. Young players Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. have struggled offensively. Shane Victorino has been hurt for a good bulk of the year. Veterans Dustin Pedroia, Jonny Gomes, and David Ortiz have all been worse offensively this year. The rotation has been a mess past Jon Lester and John Lackey, but then again, it wasn’t so hot past those two guys last year.
And here we are on July 29th, with the defending champions sitting in the strange position as sellers at the trade deadline. Maybe Boston won’t find a suitable package for Jon Lester in the next three days, keep him in the fold, and rally to a .500 finish to maintain some form of respectability as Victorino, Ortiz, and Pedroia all play really well in the second half. Or maybe the Red Sox will move Lester, Lackey, and several relievers to contenders, and be left with a team that flirts with 90 losses – a mark that only the 1998 Marlins have hit among defending champions since 1978.