The Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals meet Friday night in Baltimore for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, and they’re no strangers to the ALCS. The Orioles will be making their 10th ALCS appearance — only the New York Yankees (15 appearances) and the Oakland A’s (11) have made it more often. Kansas City will be appearing for the seventh time.
But both franchises’ glory days came long ago. The Orioles last made the ALCS in 1997 and averaged a 73-89 record between 1998 and last season. The Royals last made the ALCS in 1985 and were respectable for the next few years, but Kansas City had an average record of 68-94 from 1996 to 2013.
How unusual is it for two such moribund franchises to get their act together and meet in the League Championship Series?
In baseball, there’s a precedent for pretty much everything — so there are some other examples like this, such as the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians in 1995. Still, the Orioles-Royals series qualifies as being as underdog-y as any other since the ALCS and NLCS began in 1969.
To identify cases in which two franchises with long losing track records met in the LCS, I took a weighted average of each team’s loss totals for the 20 seasons prior to the year it appeared in the championship series. We can call this figure WALT, for Weighted Average Loss Total. In calculating WALT, the most recent prior season is given a weight of 20, while a season from 20 years ago is given a weight of one. (Loss totals are prorated to a 162-game schedule.)
Then I took the harmonic mean of the WALT score for the two teams to appear together in each LCS. The harmonic mean places more emphasis on the lower of the two values. What this means is that a series will rank higher if both teams have been bad, as in the case of the Orioles and Royals, rather than if one has been awful while the other has been OK.
Here are the 10 most underdog-y championship series as rated by this measure:
10. 2007 NLCS: Colorado Rockies (87.8 WALT) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (81.8 WALT); harmonic mean 84.4. The 2007 NLCS featured the novelty of two 1990s expansion teams facing each other. But the Diamondbacks had gotten off to a quick start, winning the World Series in 2001. The Rockies had struggled more, having reached the playoffs just once before 2007.
9. 1982 ALCS: California Angels (85.1) vs. Milwaukee Brewers (83.7); harmonic mean 84.4. The Angels had been mediocre rather than awful for most of the 1960s and 1970s; they’d reached the ALCS only once before (in 1979) but also never lost more than 95 games in a season. The Brewers were terrible from 1969 (when they began as the Seattle Pilots) to 1977 but were due for a breakthrough by 1982, having posted winning records in each year from 1978 to 1981.
8. 1989 NLCS: San Francisco Giants (86.3) vs. Chicago Cubs (83.0); harmonic mean 84.6. The Cubs have appeared in the NLCS three times — in 1984, 1989 and 2003 — and all three of those cases appear on this list. However, the 1970s and 1980s, what gets factored into their 1989 WALT score, weren’t quite as bad as some other eras for the franchise. The Giants had reached the NLCS in 1987, but that had come after awful play in the early 1980s.
7. 2002 ALCS: Minnesota Twins (86.7) vs. Anaheim Angels (83.7); harmonic mean 85.2. The Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, but they were terrible for most of the intervening seasons before making the playoffs again in 2002. The Angels had been following their usual Atlanta Hawks-esque pattern of being slightly below .500 and never making an impact in the playoffs. In fact, 2002 was their first postseason appearance since their classic series against the Red Sox in 1986.
6. 1991 NLCS: Atlanta Braves (91.0) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (81.0); harmonic mean 85.7. Atlanta and Pittsburgh would meet in the NLCS again in 1992, which is remembered for Francisco Cabrera’s walk-off single. But their 1991 series also went to seven games and featured four games decided by one run. It ranks slightly higher according to WALT since the Braves made the playoffs for just the second time since 1969 — and after having averaged 96 losses per season from 1985 through 1990.
5. 2003 NLCS: Florida Marlins (88.1) vs. Chicago Cubs (85.6); harmonic mean 86.8. Between 1909 and 2002, the Marlins and Cubs won only one World Series between them, and that went, in 1997, to Florida, who had come into existence as an expansion franchise only four years earlier. But the Marlins blew up their roster a year later and had a losing record for the next five seasons before winning the World Series again in 2003. The Cubs, meanwhile, missed their moment in 2003 in about the most painful way imaginable. But don’t worry, bleacher bums: Your team is going to win the World Series in 2015, according to “Back To the Future Part II.”
4. 1969 NLCS: New York Mets (104.5) vs. Atlanta Braves (75.1); harmonic mean 87.4. Before 1969, the Braves hadn’t made the postseason since 1958, when they did so in Milwaukee. But they had been a winning team for most of the 1960s — the high rank of this series is despite them rather than because of them. Instead it was the “miracle” Mets, who had averaged a record of 56-105 between their inaugural year in 1962 and 1968, who went on to win the NLCS and the World Series.
3. 1995 ALCS: Seattle Mariners (90.0) vs. Cleveland Indians (87.2); harmonic mean 88.6. If I were ranking the series subjectively instead of by a formula, this one would stand out along with Royals-Orioles. The 1995 ALCS fits the template of two notoriously terrible franchises hitting their stride at the same time. The Indians had a winning record just once from 1982 to 1993, and 1995 was their first postseason appearance since 1954. The Mariners had posted a winning record just twice in franchise history and had never made the playoffs before.
2. 1984 NLCS: San Diego Padres (91.7) vs. Chicago Cubs (87.2); harmonic mean 89.4. This has been a painful list for Cubs fans. The ball that went through Leon Durham’s legs in the decisive fifth game of the 1984 NLCS is not remembered as well as a similar play by Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series (or the Steve Bartman incident in 2003). But it was every bit as consequential; the error improved the Padres’ probability of winning the series by 20 percent — about as much as Buckner’s play did given that the Mets and Red Sox still had a seventh game to play. However, the Padres rank as the slightly worse team by WALT: 1984 was their first playoff appearance and just the second time they finished with a winning record.
1. 2014 ALCS: Kansas City Royals (92.1) vs. Baltimore Orioles (87.7); harmonic mean 89.8. It’s almost certainly just a coincidence, but the other series on this list have given us more than their fair share of extraordinary moments. Here’s hoping the Orioles and Royals will give us a few more.