The Mets’ playoff hopes are alive, despite a rocky summer. Although the division title looks out of reach, the Mets’ 66-64 record puts them 2.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot with five weeks left in the regular season.
Before 2012, it was rare for a team with such a mediocre record to be so strongly in the playoff mix at this point in the season. Under the previous format, the Mets would be 5.0 games out of the Wild Card, with four teams to leapfrog for the lead. The addition of a second Wild Card has expanded the opportunity of postseason play to a number of teams that would otherwise have stopped thinking about October baseball around this time of year.
We thought it would be fun to look back on previous Mets teams and see how many would have made the playoffs under the current format. This is not an exact science, as each league had different numbers of teams and divisions at various times. For example, prior to 1994, each league had only two divisions: an east and a west.
During that time, there are a few ways that MLB could have achieved its current goal, which is to have about a third of each league (five out of 15 teams) make the playoffs. Given that each league typically had 12 or 13 teams at the time, four teams would have had to make the playoffs to match the current ratio.
One way to do that would have been for each division’s runner-up to make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, so that each league had two division champions and two Wild Card winners. Alternatively, the Wild Card winners could have been each league’s two best non-division-winning teams, even if they were in the same division (as is the case in the current system). A third possibility would have been for each league to have three divisions of four teams each, with the winners of each division plus one Wild Card team making the playoffs.
Each of those formats closely mirrors the current playoff structure and the current ratio of playoff-to-non-playoff teams. Obviously, teams' regular-season records might have been slightly different, as a different division structure would have required a different schedule. With that caveat, let’s dive into some alternative history and see which of the Mets' non-playoff teams would have made the postseason under any of these formats.
In one scenario, the Mets could have made the playoffs in every year from 1969 to 1973. The team’s World Series appearances in 1969 and 1973 book-ended three seasons in which the Mets finished 83-79, 83-79, and 83-73, respectively.
The Mets were no better than a third-place team in the NL East, nor were they one of the league’s two best non-playoff teams in any of those seasons. However, that was under a two-division format. Under a modern three-division format, the Mets would have won the NL East in 1970, 1971, and 1972 by virtue of having better records than the Braves, Phillies, and Expos.
It’s interesting to consider how differently Mets history would look in this scenario. Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, and Tug McGraw are already beloved figures in franchise history and members of the Mets Hall of Fame. But imagine what their legacies in New York would have been as the leaders of five consecutive playoff teams.
Could a Mets team with Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman at the top of their rotation have won another World Series with three more bites at the apple? Would two more playoff appearances and perhaps another World Series ring have earned Gil Hodges (who passed away prior to the 1972 season) a ticket to Cooperstown?
The mid-to-late-eighties was clearly the most successful period of Mets history. After winning the World Series in 1986, the Mets won the division title and came within one game of returning to the Series two years later.
What made the eighties Mets unique was that they were consistently excellent, even in the years in which they missed the postseason. The team finished in second place in the NL East in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989, and 1990. The Mets’ records in those seasons were 90-72, 98-64, 92-70, 87-75, and 91-71, respectively. Under any of the playoff formats mentioned earlier, the team would have made the playoffs in each of the seven consecutive seasons from 1984 to 1990.
It’s another fun what-if scenario to consider. While the eighties was a golden era of Mets baseball, there is a lingering sense of disappointment that those great teams only reached the postseason twice.
Had those Mets teams made seven straight playoff appearances and perhaps won multiple championships, Darryl Strawberry’s and Dwight Gooden’s legacies would likely be very different. Rather than being remembered in large part for their unfulfilled potential, both players would probably have their numbers retired at Citi Field. With such an illustrious playoff pedigree, Keith Hernandez might have earned a much stronger look by Hall of Fame voters. For that matter, perhaps more people would be seriously discussing Davey Johnson as a Hall of Fame manager.
The 1997 Mets were a fun and sometimes overlooked team. In Bobby Valentine’s first full season as Mets skipper, the team finished second in the NL East with an 88-74 record. It was the team’s first winning season since 1990 and officially ended the franchise’s dreadful early-nineties run.
MLB had a three-division format by then, and that year’s Marlins team became the first Wild Card champion to win a World Series. Under the current playoff format, the Mets would have had the chance to take on the Marlins in the one-game Wild Card play-in game.
The Marlins won the Wild Card by virtue of having the best record of any non-division-winning team. The Mets and the Dodgers were tied with the next-best record. Therefore, under today’s rules, the Mets and Dodgers would have had to play a one-game tiebreaker to determine who would play the Marlins in the one-game playoff.
This would have created an interesting scenario in which Mets pitchers faced Mike Piazza, the best hitter in baseball that year. The Dodgers’ lineup featured another future Met, Todd Zeile, who also enjoyed a career year in 1997.
In all likelihood, the Mets would have tasked Rick Reed with the difficult assignment on short rest. Reed had his best season in the majors and was the Mets’ best starter that year, going 13-9 with a 2.89 ERA (72 ERA-) and a 3.73 FIP (90 FIP-). New York could have also gone with Bobby Jones, who had a solid year at 15-9 with a 3.63 ERA (90 ERA-) and a 4.44 FIP (107 FIP-). The Dodgers would have probably countered with their best starter, Ismael Valdez, or one of their second-tier starters like Hideo Nomo or Chan Ho Park.
Given each team’s record and personnel, it would have been an evenly matched game. And, depending on what the winner did in its playoff game with the Marlins, that one-game tiebreaker could have altered the course of baseball history.
It might surprise some readers to hear that, even under the current format, the 2007 Mets would have missed the playoffs. The 88-74 team infamously finished a game out of the division lead and 1.5 games out of the Wild Card. Had there been two Wild Card spots, they would have gone to the Rockies and the Padres, who had the same record and ultimately played a one-game tiebreaker to determine the Wild Card winner.
The second Wild Card would have helped the Mets in 2008. That year, the team posted a strong 89-73 record and another second-place finish in the division. Had the current format been in effect, the Mets would have won that second Wild Card spot and taken on the Brewers in the one-game playoff.
Both teams finished ahead of the next-best team, the Astros, by a comfortable margin. As a result, both managers would likely have arranged their rotations in the last week of the season to ensure that their aces started the Wild Card game. This would have set up an epic matchup between lefties Johan Santana and CC Sabathia, who both had Cy-Young-caliber seasons in 2008. When people talk about the excitement and drama that a one-game playoff creates, they could have pointed to that game as a prime example.
The current playoff format clearly has its benefits. Looking back, it’s remarkable how many additional opportunities for a championship the Mets could have had under the modern rules.
On the other hand, does a team like the 1971 Mets—a mediocre team with a mediocre record—really deserve to be in the postseason? Shouldn’t teams’ performances over 162 games be enough to determine which one or two teams in each league deserve to compete for a World Series?
Two things are certain. First, the new format makes playoff competition far less exclusive than it used to be. That can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. Second, as we just learned from our journey into baseball's Twilight Zone, the new playoff format will alter the course of baseball history in a profound way.