The baseball playoffs are around the corner, and the Mets are looking like the only real choice to come out of the National League. The Cardinals are a disaster, the Dodgers are coming back to earth and the Reds and the Phillies have more holes than a block of swiss cheese (Philadelphia picked up ancient hurler Jamie Moyer in a vain attempt to solve their pitching woes, for example). The Mets may be the best choice, but they don't inspire much confidence. Unless something drastic happens between now and October, I won't be backing them in the playoffs.
There are many reasons to back this opinion, but here are my top three:
1) They're running out of players - Tom Glavine is out. He's going to be okay, but for a while he seemed convinced that his career was over. Pedro Martinez is out again, this time with a sore calf. Glavine and Martinez are the heart of the staff, and you don't win in the playoffs without pitching.
Cliff Floyd is hurt again, and hot prospect Lastings Milledge has shown he isn't ready for the primetime yet, so the team has problems in both corners of the outfield. To solve that problem they picked up Shawn Green in a trade on Tuesday and they are reportedly pursuing Moises Alou. With all due respect to both players, Green and Alou are no longer the solution to any problem you may have. If it was 1999 it would be a different story, but these guys aren't young anymore. Heck, they are barely middle-aged anymore.
2) They're in the National League - The NL has been bad for a while now, but it has reached a new low this year. The Mets are sitting at 76-48 as of Wednesday, but they went 6-9 against the American League this year. Twelve of the sixteen American League teams had winning records in inter-league play. How bad was it? The Mariners went 14-4 against the NL. They are 10-32 against their own division. That's ugly. The National League hasn't won a World Series game since 2003, and I have no faith that the Mets, or anyone else, is going to do anything about that this year.
3) They have a massive lead in their division - There are still more than five weeks left in the regular season, but the Mets have all but clinched the National League East. They are 13.5 games up as of Wednesday, and their closest competitor, the Phillies, don't even have a winning record at home. In other words, short of a monumental and unprecedented collapse, the Mets are on their way to the postseason.
That's good news for Mets fans, right? Well, not so much. A look at the playoffs since 1999 shows that the Mets aren't in for a smooth playoff ride. In those seven seasons there have been 16 teams that have run away with their division, winning by at least nine games. Only two of the teams made it as far as the World Series (the 2001 Yankees lost to the Diamondbacks in seven and the 2004 Cardinals were swept by the Red Sox), and both lost. Ten of the sixteen teams didn't even win a playoff series, falling in the divisional series.
It seems that a larger winning margin is actually a curse. The 1999 Cleveland Indians had the biggest margin of victory in this sample, with a 21.5 game cushion over the White Sox. They lost to Boston in the ALDS. Atlanta had a 19 game cushion in 2002, and they also couldn't get out of the divisional series, losing to the Giants. The 2003 Giants had a 15.5 games cushion and lost in the NLDS. The 1999 Diamondbacks couldn't ride a 14 game lead to a first round win. The Mets may want to shave a few games off their lead down the stretch to make sure they don't get too far ahead of the competition. That's obviously a curse.
It seems counterintuitive, but it may be better for the Mets to finish the season in a bit of a slow stretch. Both the Cardinals and the Yankees finished the season at a bland 5-5 pace before rolling into the World Series. The year after the Yankees went to the series, they again came in with a big lead, but this time they ended the season on a hot streak - 8-2. However, they got bounced by the Angels in the first round. Four of the six teams that finished the season with seven or more wins in their last 10 games got bounced in the first series.
History does give the Mets some hope. In 1998 their cross-town rivals won the World Series after cruising into the playoffs with a monster 22 game lead over the Red Sox. They managed to overcome the trend and win the World Series. It's not as remarkable as it may seem, though, because five of the six division winners fit our criteria that year. Only Texas was in a relatively close race. One of the runaway division winners was bound to win with odds like that.
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