For the first time in an ordinary Major League Baseball season, a team with a losing record could make the playoffs.
Halfway through their season, the Minnesota Twins lead the AL Central with a 40-41 record. Behind them are the Cleveland Rangers (38-40) and the Detroit Tigers (34-44). Someone has to win the division, and whoever does will qualify for the playoffs, even if that team has lost more games than it has won.
Unlike. all five teams in the AL East are at .500 or higher, even the last-place Red Sox (40-40), who may be a little aggrieved by the low bar in the Central.
One factor that helps weak teams lead divisions is the balanced schedule that started this season. Teams now play just 13 games against division rivals, up from 19. In the past, the heavy dose of division games meant that even in a weak division, the winner, bolstered by games against their shaky rivals, could at least achieve a winning record.
Losing teams make the playoffs in many sports. In most cases it’s a situation similar to what’s happening in baseball this season, where the postseason format, and the rigidity of divisional play, leads to a team qualifying despite better options available. In other cases, the quirks of an individual season can lead to the anomaly.
In MLB, three teams reached the playoffs with losing records, all of which came as a result of unusual seasons.
In 1981, after a mid-season strike, a split-season format was instituted. The Kansas City Royals had struggled in the first half, going 20-30, but then went 30-23 and were crowned second-half champions in the AL West, qualifying for the playoffs at despite a combined record of 50-53. .
In 2020, the season was shortened to 60 games due to the pandemic, and the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams. That allowed the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros (both 29-31) to qualify. While the ’81 Royals and ’20 Brewers lost their first series, the ’20 Astros won two straight series and advanced to the ALCS before losing to Tampa Bay in seven games.
No MLB team in a standard season has qualified for the playoffs with fewer than 82 wins.
While the playoffs in the other North American professional leagues are hardly packed with losing teams, various quirks sometimes let one or two slip by.
Six NFL teams have reached the playoffs with losing records. The first time this happened was in the 1982 strike season, in which only nine games were played. The Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions qualified for the expanded playoffs with 4-5 records; both lost their starters.
The 2010s were the glory years for losing teams in the NFL playoffs. The 2010 Seahawks (7-9) and 2014 Panthers (7-8-1) did it and both managed to win their first games.
The playoffs expanded to 14 teams in 2020, opening the door for more losing teams to sneak in. So far, the 2020 Washington football team (7-9) and the 2022 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9) have qualified. Both lost in their first playoff games.
Losing teams in the playoffs are not uncommon in the NBA, where eight teams qualify from each conference. Last season, the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder entered the tournament with losing records, though neither made the playoffs properly. A year earlier, the New Orleans Pelicans reached the playoffs with a 36-46 record.
But those teams surpassed the 1953 Baltimore Bullets, the worst NBA playoff team of all time. Under the rules at the time, four of the five teams in the East made the playoffs. Three of the division’s teams turned out to be excellent. Two were not.
As a result, the Bullets qualified for the playoffs with a horrible 16-54 record, thanks to the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers were even worse off at 12-57. Baltimore was swept in a two game first round series against the Knicks.
With eight of the 12 teams making the playoffs under current rules, the losing teams are WNBA playoff regulars, with at least one making it every year since 2012.
The most extreme example, however, may be the United States Soccer League, where two of this year’s four playoff teams had losing records. The league, in only its second season, found itself in a mess due to poorly balanced divisions. In the South, all four teams were .500 or better. In the North, none of the four teams was. Under USFL rules, the playoff semifinals match the top two in each division, putting two losing teams into the playoffs and leaving two winning teams out.
Thanks to that format, the Pittsburgh Maulers (4-6) played a postseason game against the Michigan Panthers (4-6) on Saturday. The Maulers won in overtime, 31-27, putting them into the final on July 1 against the Birmingham Stallions (8-2).
Could a team with a losing record win a professional title? The Maulers are 60 minutes away.