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The Yankees Are Keeping Pace With Their 1998 Powerhouse

the yankees are keeping pace with their 1998 powerhouse
© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees lost a rollercoaster game to the Blue Jays in Toronto on Sunday, bringing their nine-game winning streak to an end. The streak — the team’s second-longest of the season — helped the Yankees open up a double-digit lead in the American League East; even with the loss, New York is 49-17, 11 games ahead of Toronto (38-28). Two and a half months into the season, the Yankees’ performance has called to mind those of other recent powerhouses, including their hallowed 1998 squad. Given that they’ve matched the 1998 team’s record through 66 games, it’s worth taking a closer look.

The Yankees not only have the majors’ highest winning percentage (.742) and largest run differential (143), they’re miles ahead of the competition. Their winning percentage is 95 points higher than that of the second-ranked Mets (.647), who are playing at a 105-win clip, while their run differential is 29 runs better than the second-ranked Dodgers (114). Through 66 games, they’re tied for the fourth-highest win total of the live-ball era (since 1920):

Best Records Through 66 Games Since 1920
TmYearWLWin%Final WFinal LFinal Win%Result
SEA20015214.78811646.716Lost ALCS
NYY19285016.75810153.656Won WS
NYY19395016.75810645.702Won WS
PHA19294917.74210446.693Won WS
BRO19554917.7429855.641Won WS
DET19844917.74210458.642Won WS
NYY19984917.74211448.704Won WS
BAL19694818.72710953.673Lost WS
PHA19314719.71210745.704Lost WS
NYY19324719.71210747.695Won WS
BRO19424719.71210450.6752nd NL
BRO19524719.7129657.627Lost WS
PHI19764719.71210161.623Lost NLCS
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that just two weeks ago I noted that the Yankees’ start was the best since those 2001 Mariners. Of the other 13 teams with at least 47 wins through 66 games, 12 made the postseason and 10 the World Series, with seven winning the Fall Classic. But as you can see, most of those teams precede the expansion era, with its 162-game seasons (which began in 1961-62) and postseason playoffs (which began in 1969). For a more modern perspective, here’s a look at the best 66-game starts from the Wild Card Era (which began in 1995):

Best Records Through 66 Games Since 1995
TmYearWLWin%Final WFinal LFinal Win%Result
SEA20015214.78811646.716Lost ALCS
NYY19984917.74211448.704Won WS
CLE19954620.69710044.694Lost WS
BAL19974620.6979864.605Lost ALCS
CHC20164620.69710358.640Won WS
ATL19984521.68210656.654Lost NLCS
CLE19994521.6829765.599Lost ALDS
ATL20034521.68210161.623Lost NLDS
NYY20184521.68210062.617Lost ALDS
LAD20194521.68210656.654Lost NLDS
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

All 10 teams besides these Yankees made the playoffs, but only two won the World Series, which is either an argument that many of these teams peaked too early or an indictment (or at least an acknowledgment) of the tournament-like nature of the period’s postseason, where five games mean more than 162. It is nonetheless worth noting that those 10 other teams finished the year with a collective .650 winning percentage, the equivalent of a 105-win season. These were some kick-ass squads.

The current Yankees may not have the top spot on either of those lists, but they’ve matched the 1998 Yankees to this point. Their .742 winning percentage puts them on pace to win 120 games, which would surpass the 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs for the single-season record. Some other hypotheticals:

  • If the Yankees go 48-48 (.500) the rest of the way, they would finish 97-65 (.599).
  • If they go 55-41 (.573) the rest of the way, they would finish 104-58 (.642), their best record since 1998. This is one win ahead of the record that we have them forecast for via our Projected Standings.
  • If they go 60-36 (.625) the rest of the way, they would finish 109-53 (.673), surpassing the 2018 Red Sox (108-54) for the best record for any team since the 2001 Mariners.
  • If they go 66-30 (.688) the rest of the way, they would finish 115-47 (.710), surpassing the 1998 Yankees for the highest win total in franchise history, while if they go 67-29 (.698), they would finish 116-46 (.716), surpassing the 1927 Yankees (110-44, .714) for the highest winning percentage in franchise history.
  • If they go 68-28 (.708) the rest of the way, they would finish 117-45 (.722), surpassing both the 2001 Mariners in wins and the AL record-holding 1954 Indians in winning percentage (.721, via a 111-43 record).
  • If they go 75-21 (.781) the rest of the way, they would finish with a .765 winning percentage (124-38), topping the 1906 Cubs’ .763 (116-36) for the all-time record.

I don’t advise holding your breath in anticipation of any of this beyond perhaps the first couple of bullet points. That said, I will note that only the last of those scenarios listed above would require the Yankees to improve upon what they’ve already done.

Prior to losing on Sunday, the Yankees had won 16 of 17 games and 42 of their past 52, with that longer streak bookended by their winning streaks of 11 games (April 22–May 3) and nine (June 9–18). Their 40-10 record over a 50-game stretch has been surpassed by only a small handful of teams in the Wild Card era, namely the 1998 Yankees (41-9), 2002 A’s (41-9), ’13 Dodgers (42-8), ’17 Cleveland (42-8), and ’17 Dodgers (43-7). The 1997 Yankees, 2001 Mariners, ’02 Giants, and ’01 and ’05 A’s all topped out at 40-10 over their best 50-game stretches. Note that most of these teams had several overlapping stretches with the same record.

Lest anyone think that the current Yankees have been playing only the majors’ dregs during those runs, their two long winning streaks have included three-game sweeps of the Guardians and Rays, and series wins over the Blue Jays (twice) and Twins — all teams in playoff positions now. They’re 18-7 against those teams; they have yet to play the Astros, the other AL team occupying a playoff slot. Overall, they’re 20-8 against teams with a .500 or better record, and 24-11 within the AL East, a division that has three other teams with a .537 winning percentage or better, two of which would qualify for the playoffs.

The Yankees can win all types of ways. They’re 14-3 in blowout games, those decided by five or more runs; their .824 winning percentage in that context is the majors’ best, though both the Dodgers (16-4) and Twins (16-14) have more wins (and losses) in such games. Meanwhile, they’re 14-5 in one-run games, where their .736 winning percentage is again tops, though the Blue Jays (17-8) have more wins (and losses) in such games.

In terms of run differential, the Yankees have outscored opponents by 143 runs, 2.17 per game, the fourth-largest margin of the live-ball era, and they have the second-best Pythagorean record of that period:

Highest Pythagorean Winning Percentages Since 1901
NYY193910645.7022.70.734Won WS
LAD20204317.7172.27.712Won WS
NYY192711044.7142.43.709Won WS
NYY194210351.6691.91.698Lost WS
STL194410549.6821.80.697Won WS
STL194210648.6881.76.696Won WS
BAL196910953.6731.62.679Lost WS
HOU201810359.6361.62.675Lost ALCS
SEA200111646.7161.85.672Lost ALCS
CLE19489758.6261.74.672Won WS
LAD202110656.6541.66.672Lost NLCS
CLE195411143.7211.55.672Lost WS
NYY199811448.7041.91.670Won WS
PHA192910446.6931.89.668Won WS
NYY19539952.6561.68.668Won WS
NYY193610251.6672.15.666Won WS
NYY193710252.6621.96.666Won WS
CHC201610358.6401.56.665Won WS
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Since I’m comparing a team that has played 66 games against ones that played 154 or 162, I left the 2020 Dodgers in the mix, as they serve to remind that extremes can be reached in smaller samples. That said, the second-highest Pythagorean winning percentage from that pandemic-shortened season belonged to the Padres, whose .633 is just 64th among all teams since 1920, so it’s not like the leaderboard was overrun due to my choice or that those Dodgers’ dominance was illusory.

(Note that Baseball Reference, from which all of this data was culled, uses the 1.83 exponent in its Pythagorean formula [(RS^1.83 + RA^1.83)/(RS^1.83)], whereas our site uses the PythagenPat formula, in which the exponent is derived from the league’s per-game scoring environment via the formula X = ((RS + RA)/G)^.285. By the latter formula, the Yankees’ Pythagenpat winning percentage is .730, though when I started writing this the difference was a few points larger. No matter; by either formula, they’re only about one win shy their actual record, which is to say that whatever they’re doing isn’t particularly fluky.)

Inevitably, since they’ve matched the 1998 Yankees’ record to this point, the comparisons have already begun, particularly in a YES Network broadcast booth that often features David Cone and/or Paul O’Neill. Yes, it’s hard to set aside what we now know about the way that the careers of the “Core Four” — Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera plus Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada — as well as the memorable supporting cast (including Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre), turned out. While all but Posada had played critical roles in the team’s championship two years earlier, the Core Four and the rest of their roster had not yet solidified their places in history circa 1998. Those Yankees were merely on their way to becoming the dynasty that would win four titles in five years, with some even bigger campaigns and legend-defining October performances awaiting them individually.

Keep in mind that in 1998, AL teams averaged 5.01 runs per game, whereas this year, they’re averaging 4.17 per game, so any comparison of raw statistics is misleading; one needs to adjust for the scoring context. With that, the numbers tell us that so far, the current Yankees have been better on both sides of the ball relative to the league — particularly on the run prevention side.

1998 Yankees vs. 2022 Yankees

On the offensive side, the 1998 squad was certainly more balanced, with left field (where Chad Curtis shared the job with Tim Raines, with Ricky Ledee, Darryl Strawberry, and Shane Spencer also making notable contributions) the only one without a regular with a wRC+ of 100 or better. Bernie Williams (158 wC+) led the way on the offensive side but played in just 128 games due to a knee injury. Behind him were a quartet of full-timers in the 122-129 wRC+ range in O’Neill, Jeter, Scott Brosius, and Tino Martinez, as well as a roster with incredible depth, with Torre able to call upon the likes of Strawberry, Raines, and later in the year Spencer and Chili Davis. Jeter topped the team with 6.2 WAR, with O’Neill (5.4), Brosius (5.0) and Williams (4.9) not far behind.

That team didn’t have anybody performing in the stratosphere of Aaron Judge, who’s hitting for a 189 wRC+ and is currently on pace for 61 homers and 9.3 WAR. Three other full-timers have a wRC+ of 135 or higher in Anthony Rizzo (142), Giancarlo Stanton (140) and Gleyber Torres (137), and catcher Jose Trevino (132) has been nearly as good in part-time duty. Yet this lineup has gotten underwhelming offensive contributions from left field (Joey Gallo‘s 96 wRC+) and shortstop (Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s 86 wRC+), and center fielder Aaron Hicks (90 wRC+) struggled so much early that Judge has started there 30 times.

As for the pitching, I wrote about the current Yankees’ rotation recently. The unit has been the key to the Yankees’ success thus far, consistently turning in good-to-great starts. All five starters — Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, and Luis Severino — currently have an ERA- ranging from 51 (Cortes) to 87 (Severino), and a FIP- ranging from 70 to 92 (same guys), which is to say that they’ve been substantially better than league average. The 1998 Yankees’ big three (Cone, David Wells, and Orlando Hernandez) were every bit as good, but Pettitte (95 ERA-, 95 FIP-) was not at his best that year, and Hideki Irabu (88 ERA-, 115 FIP-) and fill-in Ramiro Mendoza (85 ERA-, 97 FIP- in 14 starts) were solid but more erratic. The older group averaged almost a full inning more per turn (6.55 vs. 5.56), but on a per-inning basis, the younger group has been stingier — and more valuable, at least as measured by our version of WAR.

That’s true of the bullpen as well, where it’s important to note that for as good as Rivera had already become, the 1998 season was not his best; his 77 FIP-, as strong as it was, would stand as the worst of his career besides his rookie season, 15 points higher than his eventual career mark. Lefty setup man Mike Stanton (120 ERA-, 103 FIP-), whose 79.1 innings was second among the relievers, was uncharacteristically subpar, and righty Jeff Nelson (84 ERA-, 87 FIP-) was only healthy enough to throw 40.1 innings; he missed over two months due to lower back woes.

While this year’s unit has lacked a dominant Aroldis Chapman, Clay Holmes (7 ERA-, 38 FIP-, and no, those aren’t misprints) has been ungodly thanks to his incredible sinker; in fact, his streak of consecutive scoreless outings (29) and innings (31.1) recently surpassed Rivera’s franchise records, set in 1999. Michael King (63 ERA-, 45 FIP-) has been dominant in a multi-inning role thanks to his four-pitch mix. The real question is whether the unit can continue to withstand the losses of Chad Green to Tommy John surgery and Jonathan Loaisiga to a shoulder strain, and whether Chapman is past his Achilles woes. It may take more than what’s on hand to keep this unit afloat.

It’s a long summer, and the season still has nearly 100 games to go. Regression lurks around every corner for a team playing at such a blistering clip as these Yankees; a losing streak or a couple of sluggish weeks at any point could put an end to the type of history-minded comparisons I’m making. On the other hand, continued play at this pace could invite more detailed comparisons than the thumbnail sketch I’ve provided. These Yankees’ pace and performances to date tell us that they have a chance to join the pantheon of great ball clubs. Solidifying their spot will be another matter.

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