Friday over at his blog, Michael Leggett wondered why people were making a comparison between the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and the 1969 New York Mets. Back last July when everyone was waiting for the Rays to collapse and return to the AL East cellar, I knew that they weren't going to do that, and to me they did indeed remind of me of the Mets club that shocked the baseball world and won the World Series that year. So I decided to take a closer look at both teams.
Granted, the Rays didn't win the World Series this year, but a comparison to the Mets of 1969 showed many similarities. (And this is a comparison of the teams, not the fans, as New York and Tampa Bay fans are as different as night and day.) Going into '69, the Mets had never won anything in their previous seven years, finished out of the cellar just twice, and lost 100 or more games in the other five years. The Rays in their first ten years as an expansion club had finished last every year except 2004, and that was also the only year they won as many as 70 games (exactly that many). They lost 100 or more three times, and 99 in two others.
Both teams were laughingstocks, and had known nothing but ineptness. Only the most cockeyed of optimistic fans expected the team to finish anywhere around .500 in their amazing turnaround years.
The Rays nearly joined the 1991 Minnesota Twins as the only clubs to ever finish last one year and win the World Series the next. The Rays did make history as the only club to ever have the worst record in MLB one year and go to the World Series the next.
The 1969 Mets finished ninth in 1968, the last season before divisional play started. Few gave them a chance in 1969 to compete with the big boys of the NL East: St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh. The Mets did however, and finished 27 games in the standings better in 1969 than they did in 1968, one of the best improvements in MLB history.
But the Rays topped that, winning 31 more games in 2008 than they did in 2007. And they did it in a similar way that the Mets did it: with pitching and defense. The Rays were second in the AL in overall ERA, 4th in MLB in bullpen ERA, and were the only team to have five starters win 10 or more games. Tampa Bay was second in the AL in overall defense. The Rays also did it with speed, as they led the AL in stolen bases with 142. But offensively, they were in the middle of the AL pack in runs scored and batting average (and incredibly they were last in the league in BA with runners in scoring position).
And the 1969 Mets were also second in the league in ERA, and second in team defense. And like the Rays, they weren't an offensive juggernaut either, and actually were one of the weaker offenses in the NL. They were ninth or lower (in a 12-team league) in runs scored, home runs and batting average. They actually set a record for the lowest team BA for an NL pennant winner: .242. They were in the middle of the NL pack in stolen bases.
But the Mets had two excellent starters in Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Seaver won 25 (and the Cy Young Award), while Kooz won 17. Tampa Bay did not have two starters near either one in terms of overall numbers, but they had a better back end of the rotation. The Mets had only one other ten-game winner in Gary Gentry (with 13), and their other two main starters, Don Cardwell and Jim McAndrew, only won 14 between them.
Both teams also had solid bullpens. The 1969 Mets didn't have a "closer" per se, but Tug McGraw and Ron Taylor handled those duties well. They combined for 25 saves and 18 wins, and both had ERAs under 2.80. One of Tampa Bay's biggest strong points was their pen, and they got incredible years out of guys who never really scared anyone before, like J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Chad Bradford. They were dead last in ERA by the pen in 2007, and did a marvelous turnaround in '08.
And to make the comparison that much closer, Las Vegas oddsmakers made the Mets a 100-1 favorite to win the Series in 1969. The Rays had the same odds, 100-1, going into 2008.
Many baseball pundits thought the Rays would not finish last this season, as most had the Orioles in the AL East basement (and they were proven correct). Most predictions I saw had them winning around 75 games, and some had them closer to .500. And most also had the Mets not in last place going into 1969 also, as most thought that would go to the expansion Montreal Expos (and were also correct, as Montreal dropped 110 that year).
The Rays in 2008 proved as resilient as the 1969 Mets were, and got stronger as they closer to the finish line, like the Mets did. Tampa Bay held off the Red Sox, who were the second best team in MLB after August 1, for the division title.
So I believe that the Rays came very close to doing what the 1969 Mets did: win a World Series out of almost nowhere. The 2008 Rays are a great story, one of the best feelgood stories of this past year. They nearly made history the way the Mets did, but the parallel to that beloved team is indeed striking.