March is a month for college basketball’s Cinderellas. October can occasionally be baseball’s closest thing to it. Recently, thanks to more divisions, it’s happening with regularity. Dating back to 1990, 13 teams have gone from last place one year to first place the next.
Here are a few of the more improbable turnarounds which should give some hope to the present-day Red Sox, Royals, Reds, and Rockies.
1990-91 Minnesota Twins
Before 1991, no one had ever gone worst-to-first. In 1991 alone, there were two.
What was surprising about the Twins was that they were ever in last place. A team that won it all in 1987 fell to 74-88 three years later before storming back to capture their second title. Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek were the common denominators, but Jack Morris made the difference. Coming from Detroit, the Minnesota native solidified himself as a quintessential big-game pitcher — never more so than a masterful 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of an epic World Series.
1990-91 Atlanta Braves
Like the rest of the teams on this list, there’s at least one prominent difference affecting the sudden change For the Braves, it was the signing of Terry Pendleton coupled with the emergence of their pitching staff. The former Cardinal third baseman won the NL MVP with a league-best .319 batting average and a 139 OPS+ along with 22 homers.
Future Hall-of-Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz plus Steve Avery helped post the National League’s third-lowest ERA one year after finishing last.
Atlanta won its division and would win many more after. The revival carried into the postseason as it defeated the Pirates in the NLCS and came within a win of completing its turnaround with a World Series title. The only team that stopped them shared their journey from the bottom.
1992-93 Philadelphia Phillies
Their revival unveiled a most interesting bunch. Lenny Dykstra was the quintessential sparkplug, nearly taking the NL MVP by leading the league in hits and runs scored. He was joined by a group of veterans including catcher Darren Daulton and first baseman John Kruk as well as ace Curt Schilling fronting the staff.
The Phils never won any beauty contests, but they won 97 times to outlast Montreal for the division, then beat the 104-victory Atlanta Braves for their first pennant in a decade. Philly’s dream year came to an end thanks to Joe Carter’s World Series walk-off homer.
1997-98 San Diego Padres
San Diego made it the fourth straight year that a club went from last place to the World Series. Tony Gwynn, the mainstay of the Padres organization, never changes. Even when his team went 76-86, Gwynn hit .372. But while Tony’s production declined by his standards, it was the improvement of 50-homer slugger Greg Vaughn, Ken Caminiti, Trevor Hoffman’s 53 saves, and Kevin Brown’s 2.38 ERA that was vital.
The Padres beat two 100-win clubs in the postseason before running into the unstoppable Yankees. In fairness, the ’96 Padres were division winners, making 1997 a likely aberration for this group.
1998-99 Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks went from expansion team to division champs. After debuting with 97 losses, Arizona added a crop of veterans led by Randy Johnson. The former Mariner didn’t disappoint, pitching to a 2.48 ERA and winning the NL Cy Young. The offense was remarkably balanced, with newcomers Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley joining Devon White and Matt Williams.
No player had more than 22 homers, but four different D-backs had at least 20. Buck Showalter’s club went from 97 down to 100 up, an incredible 35-game turnaround, and took the NL West crown by 14.
2006-07 Chicago Cubs
Perhaps Chicago’s best acquisition was in their dugout. Lou Piniella restored control of the Cubs who suffered through a 96-loss campaign in 2006. Starting 22-31, they rallied in September to go 90-72 in his first season.
There were still plenty of significant changes on the field. Alfonso Soriano came from Washington and hit 33 homers and 42 doubles. Aramis Ramirez topped the club in bWAR (5.3) and RBIs (101). The rotation was balanced while the bullpen was anchored by Carlos Marmol. A converted starter, Marmol succeeded in a relief role with a 1.43 ERA in 59 appearances.
2007-08 Tampa Bay Rays
This wasn’t a one-year turnaround. Tampa Bay completely changed its identity — not to mention its name — with a run to the AL pennant. A franchise that finished last in nine of its first 10 years (and fourth the other year) began a string of four postseason appearances over the next six seasons.
Under Joe Maddon, the new-look Rays won 97 and beat the Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS. The glass slipper broke in Philadelphia in a five-game Fall Classic defeat.
AL Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria hit 27 home runs and drove in 85. The rotation, which had the AL’s worst ERA in ’07, was headed by Scott Kazmir and James Shields and posted the second-best ERA in ’08.
2010-11 Arizona Diamondbacks
The D-Backs are the only team in history to go from worst-to-first three times, and were just four years removed from doing the trick before. The ’07 D-Backs enjoyed a 14-game improvement. This version of Arizona rose by an incredible 29 wins.
The most remarkable aspect is that there were no significant roster changes, but it was more due to individual breakouts: namely Ian Kennedy and his 2.88 ERA along with Miguel Montero and a 121 OPS+. Justin Upton won the first of four Silver Sluggers and made his second All-Star Game with 31 homers. Under manager Kirk Gibson, the D-Backs won the NL West by eight but lost to Milwaukee in the Division Series.
2012-13 Boston Red Sox
While the 2016 Red Sox are the most recent worst-to-first story, this Boston version enjoyed the greatest success. In August 2012, Adrián González, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett were shipped to Los Angeles during a lost season. Within a few months, general manager Ben Cherington acquired Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and Koji Uehara, and hired manager John Farrell.
The accelerated rebuild paid off in a huge way. The Red Sox led the majors in runs scored behind David Ortiz. Boston went from 69 to 97 wins, claimed the AL East and defeated the Cardinals for their third World Series since ’04.
2014-15 Texas Rangers
After settling in the basement with 67 victories, the Rangers were dealt the added blow of losing Yu Darvish prior to the start of the 2015 season. But Texas overcame the year-long absence of their ace and won the AL West by two games.
Solidifying the rotation was Yovani Gallardo, who was picked up in an off-season trade with Milwaukee. Despite striking out batters less frequently than he did as a Brewer, Gallardo had the best ERA+ of his career (124) and limited the long ball. Adrian Beltre added to his Hall of Fame credentials, but the surprise in the lineup was Mitch Moreland with a 116 OPS+ as the Rangers were third-best in the AL in runs scored during an 88-win campaign.