There aren’t any sports being played right now, and we don’t know when any in this country will start back up again. In the meantime, however, we are still looking for some sort of sports conversation in any way we can get it. We’re trying to be creative in ways to do that. To that end, SB Nation is going to be running some themed weeks moving forward, with this week being dedicated to teams that didn’t win championships. I did not realize this when I posed a recent roundtable question around this very topic, for whatever that’s worth.
Anyway, I was kind of racking my brain a little bit trying to figure out how I wanted to tackle this question, because if we’re being honest this is not my strong suit. I’m obviously aware of baseball history and Red Sox history specifically, but it is far from my area of expertise and I wouldn’t want to waste my time or yours trying to convince you why one of Ted Williams’s teams from the 1940s was better than another. I just am not the person to ask about that sort of thing. So, I went about this a different way and decided I wanted to find the most well-balanced Red Sox teams that didn’t win a World Series, which sort of works out to being the best by one measure.
My methodology was pretty simple. I looked at the entire team’s history and broke down each season by position player fWAR and pitcher fWAR and then just sorted from highest to lowest in franchise history. Then I combined the rankings of every season in team history and found the five rosters that had the lowest sums. I said above that this sort of works out to be the best, but I want to be entirely clear I am not saying that these are the five best teams to never win a World Series, so please don’t yell at me in the comments. For that reason, anyway.
I also have to acknowledge that WAR, while as good a summation as we have, is far from a perfect stat with modern players and those issues can be exacerbated as we go back further in time. All of that aside, I was still interested in these results, which were not exactly the teams I was expecting. Spoiler alert: None of the top four non-Series winners in team history by regular season win total make the top five.
1988 (89 wins)
10th in position player fWAR
25th in pitcher fWAR
So we start off with a total surprise and a team that, frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone talk about specifically. This was three years before I was born, for whatever that’s worth. Obviously I know about the ‘86 team, but in terms of pure production and talent, this team was better. The standouts this year were, of course, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens, and the outfield of Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks and Dwight Evans was one of the most productive in all of baseball. Throw in a solid number two in Bruce Hurst as well as a good bullpen led by new acquisition and future Hall of Famer Lee Smith, and this team really should have won more games than it ultimately did.
The main reason they didn’t is that they got off to a terrible start, eventually leading to a managerial change in the middle of the year that, in turn, led to Morgan Magic. The Red Sox won 12 in a row at one point in the second half, and while they tried their hardest to blow the division at the end of the year they did indeed hold on for the AL East title. They were then swept by the A’s, who were just a juggernaut at that point in time.
1948 (96 wins)
19th in position player fWAR
7th in pitcher fWAR
The pre-2004 Red Sox obviously had a lot of heartbreak and a lot of years when they probably should have or at least could have won, but the Ted Williams years were really the most regrettable period of franchise history in terms of losing. The second half of the 1940s featured some tremendously talented Red Sox teams surrounding the best player in franchise history. This 1948 squad is joined by one more on this list as well as the 1946 team, which I think many would argue is actually the best Boston roster to not win it all.
There’s really not a whole lot to say about this team beyond simply how good they were. Williams and Bobby Doerr were a dynamic duo in the lineup, Vern Stephens played very well in his first season with the team, and Joe Dobson and Mel Parnell were outstanding at the top of the rotation. They ended up going to a one-game playoff against the Indians — the first in American League history — and Joe McCarthy opted to pitch Denny Galehouse and Cleveland won 8-3. It was an incredibly criticized move and, well, we’ll soon learn it wasn’t his only one in that era.
2016 (93 wins)
3rd in position player fWAR
22nd in pitcher fWAR
This one was probably the most surprising to me on this list, because I think I forgot how good they were, though they were clearly propped up by their offense. We’ll obviously remember this season mostly because it was the last for David Ortiz, who didn’t go out on top as a champion but was as good as ever at the plate in his final season. This was also the first time we really saw the MVP-caliber Mookie Betts, and while he didn’t take home the award he solidified himself as a top-tier player. Also, while we knew at the time it was Ortiz’s final year, this was the last time we saw a very good and very healthy version of Dustin Pedroia. On the other side, the pitching didn’t quite hold up its end of the bargain but Rick Porcello did win the Cy Young, and while David Price was a bit disappointing he wasn’t the disaster it kind of felt like at times that year. Also, Koji Uehara was still on the team at that point, which I super don’t remember. In the end, the Red Sox won their first of three straight division championships — a first in franchise history — but they were swept by Cleveland in the ALDS.
2003 (95 wins)
8th in position player fWAR
8th in pitcher fWAR
In terms of teams I saw, this was the best team start to finish that didn’t win it all. (I say start to finish because at their best I think 2011 might be in that conversation.) This was the team that gave my generation their required heartbreak before the next season’s breakthrough. Before Aaron Boone and Grady Little did their thing, though, this roster was an absolute juggernaut that just ran into the Yankees in the wrong era. David Ortiz became David Ortiz this year. Manny Ramirez was at the peak of his talents. Pedro Martínez and Nomar Garciaparra were still thriving. Trot Nixon was a beast. Bill Mueller won the batting title. Jason Varitek was right in the middle of the best stretch of his career. That was a roster that was truly built to win a championship and they were absolutely built for it. They just had to wait one more year.
1949 (96 wins)
11th in position player fWAR
3rd in pitcher fWAR
According to this one measure, as it compares to other rosters in Red Sox history this 1949 club was the best overall roster on both sides of the ball to never win a title. As I mentioned above, it was just another year in which a Williams-led team just came up short. Speaking of Williams, he was even better this year than he was in ‘48, and he, Doerr and Stephens continued to crush it in the lineup. Parnell, meanwhile, had his best season at the top of the rotation. Like the ‘88 team mentioned above, this ‘49 squad fell down early and were as many as 12 games back in July, but stormed back against the Yankees, who they faced in the final two games of the year and needed to win just one to clinch the pennant. New York then came back from a 4-0 deficit in the first game, leading to the 162nd game to decide the pennant with the two teams tied atop the standings.
Once again McCarthy’s managerial abilities would come into question. He lifted his starter, Ellis Kinder, in the eighth for a pinch hitter with the Red Sox trailing 1-0. They didn’t score there, and then Parnell came in after pitching the day before and allowed a home run before Tex Hughson, who was prematurely taken off the DL, came in and gave up three more runs on a bloop triple that was said by the Boston Herald’s Arthur Sampson to be missed by “the width of a gnat’s eyebrow.” Critics said McCarthy should have left Kinder in for the eighth and let Boston’s powerful offense do their thing in the ninth. Hughson, meanwhile, retired after the season because he refused to play for McCarthy, who he called the only man in baseball he completely disliked. That all pretty much sums up the second half of the 1940’s for the Red Sox.