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 American League Central with a 40-41 record. Behind them are the Cleveland Guardians (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.
In contrast. all five teams in the A.L. East are at .500 or above, even the last-place Red Sox (40-40), who may feel slightly aggrieved at the low bar in the Central.
One factor helping weak teams lead divisions is the balanced schedule that kicked in this season. Teams now play only 13 games against divisional rivals, down from 19. In the past, the heavy dose of division games meant that even in a weak division the winner, bolstered by games against its shaky rivals, could at least manage a winning record.
Losing teams make the playoffs in many sports. In most cases it is a situation similar to what is happening in baseball this season, where the postseason format, and the rigidity of division play, leads a team to qualify even though there are better options available. In other cases, quirks of an individual season can lead to the anomaly.
In M.L.B., three teams have made the playoffs with losing records, and all came as a result of unusual seasons.
In 1981, after a midseason strike, a split-season format was instituted. The Kansas City Royals had struggled in the first half, with a 20-30 record, but then went 30-23 and were crowned the second-half champions in the A.L. West, thus qualifying for the playoffs despite a combined record of 50-53.
In 2020, the season was shortened to 60 games because of the pandemic, and the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams. That allowed the Milwaukee Brewers and the Houston Astros (both 29-31) to qualify. While the ’81 Royals and the ’20 Brewers lost their opening series, the ’20 Astros won two straight series and advanced to the American League Championship Series before losing to Tampa Bay in seven games.
No M.L.B. 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 in.
Six N.F.L. teams have made the playoffs with losing records. The first time it happened was the 1982 strike season, in which only nine games were played. The Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions qualified for the expanded playoffs with 4-5 records; both lost their openers.
The 2010s were the glory years for losing teams in the N.F.L. playoffs. The 2010 Seahawks (7-9) and the 2014 Panthers (7-8-1) both made it, and both managed to win their opening 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 N.B.A., where eight teams qualify from each conference. Last season, the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder both made the play-in tournament with losing records, although neither made the playoffs proper. A year before, the New Orleans Pelicans made the playoffs at 36-46.
But those teams towered over the 1953 Baltimore Bullets, the worst N.B.A. playoff team ever. 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 horrid 16-54 record, thanks to the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers were even worse, at 12-57. Baltimore was swept in a two-game first round series against the Knicks.
With eight of 12 teams making the playoffs under current rules, losing teams are regulars in the W.N.B.A. playoffs, with at least one having made it every year since 2012.
The most extreme example, however, may be the United States Football League, where two of this year’s four playoff teams had losing records. The league, in just its second season, found itself in a mess because of poorly balanced divisions. In the South, all four teams were .500 or better. In the North, none of the four teams were. Under U.S.F.L. rules, the playoff semifinals match the top two in each division, which put two losing teams in the playoffs and left 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, which put them in the final on July 1 against the Birmingham Stallions (8-2).
Could a team with a losing record actually win a professional title? The Maulers are 60 minutes away.