This article was originally published on July 11, 2023.
1 1998 New York Yankees
Record: 114-48, 22.0 games ahead of Boston, 25.0 ahead of Cleveland, 26.0 ahead of Texas and Toronto. Their 114 wins are the most wins in franchise history, second only to the 2001 Mariners in the expansion era. The what-could-have-been of all this is that the Yankees slowed in the season’s final quarter, their winning percentage dropping from .750 to a relatively pedestrian .571. The Yankees started the season with three straight losses to the Angels and the A’s. After the team’s early exit from the 1997 postseason, this seemed to suggest that the team’s 1996 championship would be a one-off. “Everybody in here feels like we’re going to come back,” David Cone said as the newspapers tried to stir up the usual Bronx drama. The relentless winning soon began. The Pedro Martinez/Flash Gordon/Nomar Garciaparra/Mo Vaughn-powered Red Sox kept pace early on, but they lacked New York’s extraordinary depth and consistency. By the season’s one-third mark the Yankees had a division lead of 8.5 games. Their lead reached double figures for good on June 24 (game no. 71), and the Yankees clinched on August 29, the earliest date in team history. (53 points)
Postseason: Won the Division Series over Texas, three games to none. Won the Championship Series over Cleveland, four games to two. Won the World Series over the San Diego Padres, four games to none. In his memoir The Yankee Years co-written by Tom Verducci, manager Joe Torre remembered that the team mood was very tense going into the postseason because there was an awareness that if it didn’t win its regular-season performance would somehow be discounted—much as the 1954 Cleveland and 2001 Seattle teams were before and after them, respectively. As such, it’s notable that many of the team’s veteran hitters performed relatively poorly in the World Series. It was characteristic of this particular roster that it had a fallback position. Rookie outfielder Ricky Ledee would prove to be a replacement-level player in a 10-year career, but no one can take the World Series away from him. Left off the Division Series roster and 0-for-5 in the ALCS, Ledee played in all four games of the finals and went 6-for-10 with three doubles. The Series MVP, though, was third baseman Scott Brosius, who combined outstanding defense with a .471 average (8-for-17) and two home runs, those hit in back-to-back at-bats in Game 3; the latter, a three-run shot hit in the top of the eighth against future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, erased a 3-2 Padres lead. In contrast to the more experienced ace, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera allowed six hits and no runs 13 ⅓ postseason innings. (25 points).
Runs Scored/Allowed: Scored 5.96 runs per game, 10th-most ever, most in the league. Allowed 4.05 runs per game, fewest in the league, nearly a half-a-game fewer than the second-best Red Sox. Run differential 1.91 runs per game, 10th-highest in a full season, second-highest (behind the 2022 Dodgers) since World War II. Despite the first manifestation of the throwing yips that would eventually force second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to the outfield, the Yankees also led the league in defensive efficiency. (29 points)
A number of times now, baseball has seemingly aired its final episode, wrapping up all its major plot lines and coming to a natural stopping point. The 1998 season, in which the sport’s most cherished record was obliterated and a plausible candidate for the greatest team of all time won the World Series, seemed to be one. The show went on anyway, because like Batman or Spider-Man comic books the demand for new content is too great to let the story end, even though all stories require an ending to have meaning. This turned out to be a good thing, because to finish the baseball saga with 1998 would have been to conclude on a kind of lie. The latest chance came in 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series. Watching something that had been so long stuck become unstuck provided the game’s last available catharsis. Once again, baseball went on, this time with a new theme—naked rent-seeking from its owners. It will continue on in this vein until it finds some new purpose, be it the reintegration of its ranks with Americans of color, the shattering of its final barrier, that of gender, or its final exportation to, and flowering in, some other heretofore unimagined country, where gradually it will cease to be primarily American as an exhausted Rome was superseded by Byzantium.
The 1998 season, billed as the greatest season ever at the time, not just for the Yankees but the totality of it, the one that would bring Americans back to the game after Bud Selig’s 1994-1995 march of folly, is now at least partially toxic. Like the land around Chernobyl, it has been sealed off. The question, then, is whether the 1998 Yankees are immune to the disillusioned sadness that so much of the rest of that season now invokes.
The good news is that, aside from Andy Pettitte’s admitted dabbling with human growth hormone, the team has been exempted from subsequent revelations about juicing. It would be naïve to assume that just because no one has spoken up the Yankees were somehow removed from the culture in which they existed. That said, this was a team with a refined approach that wasn’t built around brutalizing baseballs. The Yankees hit over 200 home runs, but that wasn’t outsized power for the time. Nor did this team try to overawe hitters with power pitching. In our last entry we quoted a contemporary reflection on the 1927 Yankees: “They don’t just beat you; they break your heart.” Compare that to what Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said after the Yankees had swept his team in the World Series: “New York’s not a team that blows you away. They just play baseball and beat you any way they have to.” Oakland’s Billy Beane put the same idea in a more elegant framework to Verducci: “They did it with class. It was as if they beat you in rented tuxedos.”
Again, classy does not equal drug-free. There were likely at least a few Yankees with needles in their posteriors, but this wasn’t a roster of big, muscle-bound sluggers. Players like Derek Jeter, Scott Brosius, Bernie Williams, and Paul O’Neill were versatile and athletic, and Torre emphasized what was then called a National League style of play, with a focus on the hit and run. The Yankees were fourth in the AL in homers (207) but first in on-base percentage, first in walks drawn, and second in stolen bases. In a season in which home-run records were obliterated, first baseman Tino Martinez led the club with 28 home runs. The Yankees were just the second team ever (following the 1991 Reds) to have six players reach double-figures in both home runs and stolen bases. Or, to put it another way, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez weren’t there yet.
The Yankees worked the count, rarely swung and missed (with the lowest percentage of swinging strikes in the league) and, barring the days Torre pets/character guys Joe Girardi and Luis Sojo were in the lineup, they had no soft outs. Aside from the left field congeries of Chad Curtis, Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry, Shane Spencer (who slugged .910 in one of the hottest cups of coffee ever), and Ricky Ledee, which was just adequate, every spot in the lineup was at least above-average, and generally a good deal more. At the time, it was common for the mainstream press to wonder at how the team was so good despite its absence of an MVP candidate. This was just sclerotic, pre-analytic thinking on the part of old-school writers. First and foremost, the Yankees had a shortstop, Derek Jeter, who hit .324/.384/.481, led the league in runs scored, stole 30 bases, and hadn’t yet become incorrigible in terms of lateral defensive movement. Center fielder Bernie Williams won the AL batting title at .339/.422/.575, although he missed five weeks due to a sprained knee. By WAR these were not the best players in the league. We ranked Albert Belle and Ken Griffey Jr. as being roughly equally worthy of that title, with Williams seventh and Jeter 11th, while Baseball-Reference placed Alex Rodriguez in the top spot, Jeter second, right fielder Paul O’Neill (.317/.372/.510) fifth, and Williams 18th, yet any of them would have been worthy winners.
As has been true of most of the Yankees pitching staffs described throughout this survey, the quality of the pitching was exactly good enough for the team to get where it wanted to go. That said, the overall stats don’t do an adequate job of describing the team’s depth, which kept it winning at a high level throughout the season. Pitchers like Andy Pettitte and Hideki Irabu had two seasons, with the former going 10-5 with a 3.90 ERA in the first half and 6-6 with a 4.67 ERA in the second, while the ill-fated Irabu went 6-3 with a 2.91 ERA before the break and 7-6 with a 5.21 ERA after. Yet, the Yankees didn’t suffer too badly for these slumps because other pitchers stepped forward to pick up the slack. Southpaw David Wells looked like a sack of dirty laundry on the mound, and early in the season often had results worthy of one. On May 17 he pitched a perfect game against the Twins, and from then on he was transformed, going 14-3 with a 2.93 ERA the rest of the way. He demonstrated exquisite control, walking only 15 batters in 162.2 innings from the perfect game on. He went on to dominate in October, going 4-0 with a 2.93 ERA in four starts and being named the ALCS MVP.
The Yankees also received a rather odd break—more literally an odd bite—when David Cone (20-5, 3.55 ERA) had to miss a June start because he had been bitten on the pitching hand by his mother’s terrier. That led the club to call up an unknown quantity, Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez. Livan Hernandez’s older (by 10 years) brother was in the minors trying to get into game-shape after an 18-month layoff due to his perilous escape from his home country. El Duque was already 32 (though at the time he claimed to be younger) and an unusual pitcher, a dancer on the mound who, though he didn’t break radar guns, had a leg kick higher than the Flatiron Building that disguised his pitches. On June 3, Hernandez made his major league debut against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He allowed just one run in seven innings (a Fred McGriff homer) while striking out seven. In the rotation the rest of the way, he went 12-4 with a 3.13 ERA. His addition allowed Torre to push underpowered ground-baller Ramiro Mendoza to the bullpen, where he compiled a 1.93 ERA in 42 innings (as a starter he was a very solid 6-1 with a 3.87 ERA, offsetting his lack of strikeouts with a low walk rate).
In short, though we might look back and note the absence of a Cy Young Award candidate in the rotation (Toronto’s Roger Clemens was a unanimous winner of the first-place vote; Wells and Cone were very distant third and fourth place finishers), this misses the point, which is rather that the staff may have lacked height but had breadth and depth. The league-average starting pitcher had an ERA of 4.77; Yankees starters had an ERA of 3.85. When Cone had his canine encounter, Pettitte slumped, and Irabu reverted to disappointing form, the Yankees were able to supplement them with a near Hall of Fame talent in Hernandez. (Note that, depending on the system, El Duque had a roughly 22-WAR career despite that covering only his age-32 through age-41 seasons. While we can’t know what Hernandez might have done had he appeared in the majors when he was 22 years old, this kind of career downslope compares favorably to the vast majority of pitchers; of the pitchers who exceeded him in this same period of their careers about half of them received plaques.) This same depth extended to the bullpen, which early on had to cover for Rivera while he spent three weeks healing a groin strain. When the primary setup relievers showed strain, with lefty Mike Stanton becoming homer-prone and righty Jeff Nelson succumbing to a back injury, the emergence of Hernandez allowed Mendoza to shift to relief and bolster the unit.
In the issue of Sports Illustrated that followed the World Series, Tom Verducci wrote, “No wonder the television ratings for this Series wound up the worst ever. Too many people were trying to find the games on The History Channel, what with the Yankees being compared to the 1906 Chicago Cubs, the 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees, the 1975 and ’76 Big Red Machine from Cincinnati, and other great teams of yore. Are the ’98 Yankees the greatest team ever?” [Italics in original.]
This is a slightly different question than we have asked in this series. One certain lesson from this survey is that to compare great teams across eras is an exercise in contrasting dinosaurs to birds: We understand that at some fundamental level they are the same thing, but the comparison is not terribly informative. (For more on this aspect of the ranking, see Rob’s comment below.) What we can say here is that as good as this team was, the perfect team remains elusive. Having coveted Knoblauch for years, the Yankees spent four prospects to acquire him only to find out that they received not an all-star but a prodigious producer of harmless fly balls who was psychologically unable to play defense (and whose egregious mental error in Game 2 of the ALCS, when he turned to argue with the umpire while a play was still in progress, cost the team a potentially disastrous loss). Girardi, who we aptly characterized as a “wildly overrated out machine” in our 1999 annual, was still siphoning too many plate appearances away from fellow catcher Jorge Posada, and Torre’s primary first base substitute, Sojo, was a career .265/.302/.356 hitter to that point and would only get worse. A number of players also lost time to injury. In addition to Williams, Rivera, and Nelson, Raines was slowed by a sore knee, intended designated hitter Chili Davis missed much of the season to ankle surgery, and Strawberry, who had one of the best home-run to at-bat ratios by a part-time player in team history with his 24 homers in 295 at-bats, missed the postseason because the stomach pains he’d been quietly suffering throughout the year turned out to be colon cancer.
In ways big and small, this team was able to cope. One secret to winning in baseball is never tolerate a replacement-level player in the lineup for long. The Yankees were able to do that. Curtis (a disgusting person), who played nearly every day while subbing for Williams and Raines, didn’t hit much, but did take 75 walks, steal 21 bases in 26 attempts, and play excellent defense. Brosius, who departed the A’s having hit .203/.259/.317, was such a good fielder that when he hit he became an All-Star-level player, and 1998 he averaged .300/.371/.472. Even the last man on the roster, infielder/pinch-runner Homer Bush, was extraordinary, hitting .380 in extremely limited playing time.
What makes all of this exquisite is that it can’t be bottled or even credited as the master plan of a sole author. Brian Cashman was the titular general manager as of February, but former GM Gene Michael was still in the organization, and owner George Steinbrenner’s vice-president of player development and scouting, Mark Newman, had a heavy say, as did Steinbrenner himself (Strawberry was one of his impulses, half charitable intention, half rich man’s acquisitiveness) and other longtime Yankees advisors. Certainly Cashman has proven over and over again in the quarter-century since that he can do less with more than almost any executive in history. It took the entire often dysfunctional back-biting village to make a great team.
This version of the Yankees would win another three pennants and two championships before returning to the World Series in 2003 with a substantially different cast of characters, players like O’Neill, Martinez, Brosius, and Cone having aged out. The Yankees have posted another six 100-win seasons since 1998, and, in 2009, another championship team that was nearly as good as the 1998 squad, and suffers in comparison only because it existed in a league not distorted by the effects of expansion. Still, despite that championship and 20 additional postseason appearances since 1998, they have been unable to recreate whatever magic animated that particular season, which is another way of saying that perhaps the story of baseball did end then after all. —Steven Goldman
Why the 1998 Yankees, and not the 1927 or 1939 Yanks, or, for that matter, the 1906 Cubs, 1942 Cardinals, 1902 Pirates, or any of the other teams we’ve profiled?
Part of the reason is the title of the series. We purposely chose to look at the most dominant teams, not the best. Both are subjective measures, but it’s easier to quantify dominance than quality. The 1998 Yankees had by far the best record in a 15-team league. The 1927 Yankees had by far the best record in an eight-team league. That’s quantifiable.
Determining the best requires a sort of sport-specific amnesia. The shortstop with the highest career bWAR (his entire career preceded WARP) is Honus Wagner. If you were to ask me who was the greatest shortstop ever, I’d say Wagner, not Ripken or Jeter. It’s true that Wagner generated considerably more wins above replacement than the modern duo. It’s also true that Wagner played at a time when the sport was competed solely among native-born white men, most of whom had to take offseason jobs rather than work out. Wagner never saw a slider or a 100-mph fastball. Sports medicine was…well real medicine didn’t have antibiotics. In 1908, arguably Wagner’s best season, America’s Melvin Sheppard won the Olympic gold medal in the 1,500 meters with a time of 4:03.4. In 2022, the top high school boy at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships, George Stark, ran 3:59.26. The athleticism of today far outstrips anything in the past.
So on one hand, we can say that Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player of all time. On the other, given the passage of time and the evolution of the sport and the world, we can also say that Adam Ottavino was probably not far off when he said, “I would strike out Babe Ruth every time.”
(For whatever reason, other sports don’t have this problem. You don’t hear people insisting that Otto Graham was the best quarterback, or George Mikan the best center, or Maurice Richard the best winger in history.)
Further, scouting and player development were nascent skills a century ago. The best pitcher on the 1927 Yankees, Wilcy Moore, was in pinstripes because team president Ed Barrow noticed he’d remade his repertoire in 1926 and the Yankees had $3,500 to spare to buy him from the Class B South Atlantic League. The minor leagues in 1998 were no longer independent and were ubiquitously scouted.
But dominance is easier to measure. The 1927 Yankees ran the table playing against native-born white guys who were part-time athletes. The 1998 Yankees ran the table playing against a diverse group of full-time international athletes. They both dominated. So the question isn’t which team would win if the 1927 Yankees played the 1998 Yankees, it’s which team was more dominant in their time.
The case for the 1927 Yankees, whom I described last week as the most famous team ever, is pretty clear. They were wire-to-wire AL champions. They waltzed to the pennant, with a lead of 10 games before June was over. They scored 131 more runs and gave up 103 fewer than any other team in the league. They swept the Series.
The 1998 Yankees, as noted above, stumbled out of the gate before taking control of the division, winning by a greater margin than the ‘27 club. They led the league in scoring, but by only 25 runs, and in run prevention, but by only 74. And they not only played in an expansion year–1998 was Tampa Bay’s inaugural season–but they had them in their own division, going 11-1 against the Devil Rays.
All true. But the second-best team in the American League in 1998, by won-lost record, was Boston. Cleveland was third, but Toronto tied the Rangers for fourth-best. So the Yankees had to regularly face two of the top four teams other than themselves. More to the point, even with the 63-99 Devil Rays, the American League East was a tough division. In interdivision and interleague play, the division had a winning record (235-221) excluding the Yankees. Those 114 wins came against a tougher-than-average intradivisional schedule.
And the 1927 Yankees? They didn’t face the Devil Rays, but they did play 22 games against the Red Sox, whose 51-103 record was their best in three years. The Browns were 59-94, barely worse than they were in 1926, when they were 62-92. Cleveland was 66-87 and would win four fewer games in 1928. Those three teams had a combined winning percentage of .383, and the 1927 Yankees played 43% of their games against them. The 1998 Devil Rays had a winning percentage of .388, and the 1998 Yankees played 7% of their games against them.
The 1998 Yankees had to play 14 American League and five National League teams. The 1927 Yankees played against the same seven teams, over and over. In 1927, Babe Ruth faced 64 opposing pitches. In 1998, Derek Jeter faced 190.
The 1998 Yankees played 162 games over 180 days. The 1927 Yankees played 155 over 173 days. The 1998 Yankees had to play three postseason rounds, the 1927 Yankees one. In the World Series, the 1927 Yankees outscored the Pirates by 13 runs. The 1998 Yankees outscored the Padres by the same margin.
Granted, none of these factors enter into our calculations, which are based solely on the methodology described in the first link at the top of this article. But they give us confidence in our rankings. The 1927 Yankees were, for their time, a phenomenal team, totally dominant. The 1998 were the same. But even a little bit more so. —Rob Mains
The series so far
97-101: 1917 Giants, 1951 Yankees, 1988 Mets, 1998 Braves, 2017 Dodgers
86-87: 1925 Pirates, 2021 Dodgers
81-85: 1911 Giants, 1915 Red Sox, 1922 Giants, 1941 Dodgers, 1949 Yankees
72-73 1952 Yankees, 1967 Cardinals
53-57 1920 Cleveland, 1950 Yankees, 1931 Cardinals, 1971 Orioles, 2019 Astros
49-52 1923 Yankees, 1930 Athletics, 1956 Yankees, 1960 Pirates
47-48 1935 Giants, 1946 Cardinals, 1995 Cleveland*
43-46 1917 White Sox, 1935 Tigers, 1958 Yankees, 2004 Cardinals
41-42 1910 Cubs, 1955 Dodgers
38-40 1903 Americans, 1912 Giants, 1943 Cardinals
35-37 1947 Yankees, 1969 Orioles, 2022 Astros
34 1976 Reds
30-33 1942 Yankees, 1953 Yankees, 1954 Cleveland, 2022 Dodgers
24 1975 Reds
19 1984 Tigers
17-18 1911 Athletics, 1928 Yankees, 2020 Dodgers*
15-16 1905 Giants, 2001 Mariners
14 1909 Pirates
13 1912 Red Sox
11-12 1944 Cardinals, 1970 Orioles
10-9 1937 Yankees, 1929 Athletics
6 1942 Cardinals
5-4 1936 Yankees, 1906 Cubs
3 1939 Yankees
2 1927 Yankees
*Honorable mention due to short season
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