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How Good are the Yankees?

By Tom Tippett
August 16, 1998

I've been waiting all season for the Yankees to come back to earth. And they just keep on winning. And winning. And winning. They won their 90th game today, against just 30 losses, giving them a .750 winning percentage that puts them among the best teams in baseball history. So why do I find it so hard to believe this is one of the all-time great teams?

Perhaps it's because my expectations weren't that high coming into the season. Our pre-season projections showed the Yankees winning 92 games and the AL East by a comfortable margin over the Red Sox and Orioles.

There was a reason why our forecast wasn't higher, and that was Hideki Irabu. It was nearly impossible to come up with a solid projection for him, since (a) we had no idea how to interpret his Japanese stats, (b) he was horrible in the majors last year, (c) his 1997 minor-league performance was good but not outstanding, and (d) his spring training starts were a mix of awful and brilliant outings. We didn't really know what to make of him. Our formulas projected him to be a significantly-below average pitcher this year, but it was clear that if Irabu turned out to be even an average major-league starter, New York might win 98 or 99 games.

But I never ever thought the upside potential was any greater than that.

Now that three-quarters of the season is under our belts, it's time to give this team the credit they deserve and see where they place in the history of the game.

The All-Time Greatest Teams

Ask baseball fans to name the best teams in history and I'll bet the 1927 Yankees (100-44, .714) would come out on top. Others would nominate the 1939 Yankees (106-45, .702). Even though they lost the World Series, a compelling case can be made for the 1906 Cubs (116-36, .763). More modern examples include the 1961 Yankees (109-53, .673) and 1954 Indians (111-43, .721). Fans of the Orioles, Cardinals, Dodgers and others might want to include their franchise-best teams as well.

It's not my purpose here to try to settle the best-team-ever debate, but rather to see whether the current Yankees deserve to join these juggernauts on the short list. So I'm going to use the 1939 Yankees as my benchmark.

Why not the 1927 Yankees? Well, the Ruth/Gehrig team was better offensively, leading the league in just about every offensive category (.307, .383 OBP, 158 HR, 975 runs), their 1939 cousins were no slouches (.287, .374 OBP, 166 HR, 967 runs). Both teams led their league in staff ERA, with the 1927 club coming in .94 below the league and the 1939 hurlers a full 1.31 below the league average. Finally, the 1927 defense was only slightly better than average, while the 1939 defense fielded .978, a whopping nine points above the league.

Add up the batting and pitching performances and you get two truly outstanding teams that dominated their leagues by historic margins -- 376 runs for the 1927 champs and a record 411 runs by the 1939 team. Both ran away with the pennant and won the World Series. I think the 1939 team was better, though it's awfully close. For my purpose, the 1939 club is a better choice because they have more in common with today's edition.

By the way, the 1954 Indians had a run margin of (only) 242 runs. The 1906 Cubs outscored their opponents by 324, an astonishing total when runs were so scarce that the league ERA was 2.62. The Cubs record, coming in a low-scoring era, is probably more impressive than the 1939 record. But the game was so different then that I'm not sure a comparison of the 1906 Cubs and the 1998 Yankees would be all that meaningful. I think we can learn more by comparing the 1939 and 1998 teams.

So let's get to it.

Head-to-Head -- 1939 vs 1998

This year's team has outscored it's opponents by 726 to 456, a margin of 270 runs, or 2.3 runs per game. Projecting this rate to a full 162 games produces a margin of 360, one of the best ever. The 1939 club won by an average of 2.7 runs.

Using Bill James' pythagorean projection, which translates runs for and against into an expected winning percentage, the 1939 team was an underperformer -- it should have won 114 game, but it actually won only 106. This year's team is doing just the opposite -- it should have won 86 games so far but has actually put 90 in the win column.

Now let's go position by position:

Catcher -- Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi have combined for a .274 average, 16 HR and 76 RBI, putting them on pace to come pretty close to Bill Dickey's .302/24/105. Edge: 1939

First -- Tino Martinez is batting .293 with 18 homers and 93 RBI, easily outdistancing Babe Dahlgren, who needed a full season to come up with 15 homers and 89 RBI while batting .235. Edge: 1998

Second -- Chuck Knoblauch has had a subpar year only in terms of batting average. His .357 OBP is respectable for a leadoff hitter, and his 16 homers are a bonus. Joe Gordon topped him across the board with a .284 average, .370 OBP, 28 HR and 111 RBI. Edge: 1939

Third -- Scott Brosius is having a good offensive year at .290/14/74, but Red Rolfe was better in average (.329) and OBP (.404) while contributing 14 homers and 80 RBI. Edge: 1939

Short -- Derek Jeter's .325 average and 92 runs were just what the Yankees wanted out of the #2 spot, and his 14 homers and 61 RBI are a bonus. Frank Crosetti batted only .233 but scored 109 runs. Edge: 1998

Left -- Tim Raines has extended a lot of rallies with a .289 average and .396 OBP. George Selkirk contributed even more with an OBP of .452 on top of 21 homers and 101 RBI. Edge: 1939

Center -- Bernie Williams is the undisputed leader of this year's squad as he leads the AL batting race (.348) and has begun to hit for power (17 HR) after a slow start. Joe Dimaggio won the batting title with a .381 average and kicked in 30 homers and 126 RBI to boot. Edge: 1939

Right -- Paul O'Neill's .315/18/88 is typically good season for him. In 1939, Charlie Keller batted .334 with 11 homers and 83 RBI. Keller's on-base percentage was .447 with 81 walks in only 111 games. Edge: 1939

DH/Other -- Darryl Strawberry has an incredible 21 homers in only 236 atbats. Tommy Henrich was a respectable .274 with a .371 OBP and 9 homers in 347 atbats. Edge: 1998

Bench -- This year's squad has received some top-notch performances from two part-timers, Homer Bush (.342) and Shane Spencer (.310, .655 SPC). There were no similar debuts on the 1939 team. Edge: 1998

Rotation: Depth is the keyword for both teams. Just about everyone who took the mound for either team was able to get the job done, no matter how much or little was expected of them. Each staff was led a first-class righty (Cone, 17-4 and 3.46, Ruffing, 21-7 and 2.93) and lefty (Pettitte, 14-6 and 3.65, Lefty Gomez, 12-8 and 3.41). In 1939, six other pitchers were given at least 11 starts each, and that group went 66-22 with a collective 3.28 ERA. This year's starters have included David Wells, Hideki Irabu, Orlando Hernandez, Ramiro Mendoza have combined for a 42-13 record and a 3.28 ERA. Edge: none

Bullpen: Relief roles have changed a lot in 59 years, so it's hard to compare. But there was nobody on the 1939 club who can compare with the dominance of Mariano Rivera, who has 32 saves and a 1.39 ERA. Johnny Murphy unofficially saved 19 games in 1939 and posted a 4.40 ERA. Edge: 1998

Overall, the 1939 club is better, but it's closer than I thought it would be. And the similarities are striking. Both teams scored a lot of runs without a Ruth/Gehrig or Maris/Mantle homer tandem. Dimaggio led his club with 30 homers, a number that no Yankee is likely to match this year, but both teams had eight players in double figures. Both offenses featured long rallies, fueled by high batting averages and tons of walks, punctuated with timely homeruns from every spot in the batting order. Both pitching staffs led their league by a comfortable margin in ERA without having one of the league's dominant pitchers on board.

Here's a summary of some team stats, with the 1927 Yanks tossed in just for fun:

            1998    vsLg    1939    vsLg   1927   vsLg

Average     .287   +.015    .287   +.008   .307  +.022

On-base     .368   +.027    .374   +.022   .383  +.031

Slugging    .458   +.027    .451   +.044   .489  +.090

Runs/Gm     6.10   +1.07    6.36   +1.15   6.29  +1.37

ERA         3.60   -1.06    3.31   -1.31   3.20  -0.94

I'll say it again. This Yankee team doesn't feel like a juggernaut. I keep waiting for opposing batters to figure out the odd motions of Irabu and Hernandez. For the kids to stop hitting. For the team to start losing some of the close ones.

But I also wonder if the 1939 fans and writers had similar doubts. True, that team was coming off three straight World Series wins. But it was no longer Ruth's team. And Gehrig retired in June. Did anyone have reason to believe they were watching one of the all-time great teams? How long did it take them to realize that something special was happening before their eyes? I wish I had time to go back and read the 1939 papers and find out.

Maybe it's just harder to get excited about an offense built on singles and walks and just enough power from every spot in the batting order. Or a staff that lacks a Maddux or Clemens or Pedro Martinez but comes at you with a wave of very good pitchers. But if you like the concept of a team, one that is balanced and deep and fundamentally sound, I think you'd have to agree that we've been blessed with the opportunity to watch one of the best ever.

Copyright © 1998. Diamond Mind, Inc. All rights reserved.