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Race to the Bottom: #5 1961 Phillies

Slugging first baseman Pancho Herrera couldn’t keep the floundering Phillies’ offense afloat in 1961.

The 2015 Phillies enter today with a 28-56 record, good for a 33.3% winning percentage, on pace for 54 wins. The last Phillies’ club to finish in the 50s in the W column in a non-strike shortened season were the 1972 squad who finished that campaign with 59 wins, led by 1972 Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton who accounted for 27 wins on his own.

If the season ended today, the Phillies would finish with their 13th worst winning percentage in the history of the team, putting them in the bottom 10% of Phillies’ squads in history by using just W/L%. With the possibility of trading Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, and others realistic, the Phillies could, in some regards, get worse before they get better. And yet, somehow, it is very unlikely that they end up among the worst teams in Philadelphia Phillies’ history.

This is the first of five articles taking a look at the five worst teams in Phillies’ history. The criteria for this exercise are pretty simple: the Phillies had to finish in last place in their division or league to be eligible and have played over 140 games, thus disqualifying the inaugural 1883 edition of the club that went 17-81-1, good for 17.3% winning percentage. Here is the first team on the race to the bottom.

Team: 1961 Phillies

Record: 47-107-1 (10th least wins in any season, 7th least wins in seasons with 140 games played or more)

Winning Percentage: 30.5% (8th worst winning percentage in any season, 7th worst winning percentage in seasons with 140 games played or more)

Run Differential: Minus 212

The 1961 Phillies were a rare case of a rock-bottom scenario getting even worse. The 1960 Phillies had won just 59 games and were beginning to jettison the final pieces of the Whiz Kids. Prior to the ’60 season, Philadelphia traded then 33-year old future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn and proceeded to release then 31-year old Curt Simmons mid-season. Both moves would prove to be mistakes for the Phillies: Ashburn would lead baseball in on-base percentage with the Cubs while Simmons would post a 2.66 ERA for the Cardinals across 23 appearances, 17 starts. For the 1961 season, there was even more turnover. While seeds were planted for future success in 1963 and 1964, growing pains were visible box scores and in the standings.

Four offensive starters changed for the Fightin’ Phils from ’60 to ’61. Jimmie Coker had the lion’s share of time behind the plate in ’60 but the job was firmly with  Clay Dalrymple  for the ’61 campaign. Third baseman Al Dark and outfielders Bobby Smith and Bobby Del Greco were gone for ’61 and replaced by Charlie Smith, Johnny Callison, and Tony Gonzalez, respectively. While the changes would wind up being net positives for the Phillies in the long haul, Dalrymple, Callison, and Gonzalez needed some Major League seasoning before becoming contributors just a few seasons later. Additionally, Pancho Herrera (second in 1960 ROY voting) and Tony Taylor, two standout offensive players for the Phillies in ’60, regressed in significant ways.

As a whole, the Phillies offense had almost no punch. Out of 18 Major League teams, the Phillies ranked 18th in runs scored, 17th in home runs, 18th in batting and on-base percentage, and 17th in slugging. The bright spot of the club was utility player Don Demeter, acquired from the Dodgers, who smashed a team-high 20 homers after spending time in left, center, and right field as well as first base while leading the team in slugging with a .482 mark.

The last remaining member of the Whiz Kids anchored the 1961 Phils’ rotation, anchor, unfortunately, being the operative word. Robin Roberts, who had won 233 games with a 3.38 ERA with the Phillies and had made seven-straight All-Star games in the 50’s, turned in the worst season of his career in 1961, posting a 1-10 record with a 5.85 ERA. His rotation-mates wouldn’t fare much better: the Phillies had eight players start 10 games or more and seven of those players lost 10 games or more, including future All-Star Art Mahaffey at 11-19, John Buzhardt at 6-18, and Frank Sullivan at 3-16. Comparatively, their pitching was among the Majors’ worst: the ’61 Phils ranked 17th in the Majors out of 18 in ERA and 15th in WHIP.

Level of Similarity to 2015 Phillies: Very high. Of the five worst Phillies’ teams of all-time, the 1961 squad is likely the most similar to today’s 2015 team. Eleven years out from a pennant-winning unit, the Phillies final cut the remaining cords that bound them to the Whiz Kids. Just like the ’61 Phillies, the current edition is at or near the bottom in standard stats MLB-wide: 27th in OBP and 28th in OPS while ranking 29th out of 30th in ERA.



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