The ’11 Rangers and ’98 Yankees – Equals? by Dave Cameron October 19, 2011 As I wrote briefly yesterday, I think the Rangers have shown that they are probably the best team in baseball this year whether they win the World Series or not. What I didn’t realize yesterday is that this Rangers team might be historically good. The 1998 Yankees are generally considered the best team in recent baseball history, as they won 114 regular season games and then went 11-2 in the playoffs, capturing a World Series title with ease. Combining the regular season and the postseason, they had a .714 winning percentage, a mark just shy of the .721 winning percentage posted by the legendary 1927 Yankees. The ’98 pinstriped squad outscored their opponents during the regular season by a stunning 299 runs, ranking #1 in the AL in both runs scored and runs allowed. For modern era teams, they essentially set the benchmark. The 2011 Rangers can’t stack up next to that Yankees team in terms of winning percentage or even run differential, but an interesting thing happens when you begin to break down the roster into various components – the two teams end up looking very, very similar. Let’s start with offensive production. The ’98 Yankees hit .288/.364/.460, good for a .361 wOBA. The ’11 Rangers hit .283/.340/.460, which equals out to a .348 wOBA – the average and power are pretty similar, but that Yankees team walked a lot more often, and thus, produced more runs. However, the run environment in 1998 was quite a bit higher than in 2011, and once you adjust for era and park effects, the Yankees advantage ends up being a bit smaller than you might think – a 117 wRC+ for NYY versus a 113 wRC+ for TEX. That Yankees team had a better offense than this Rangers team, but it’s actually pretty close. So, what about pitching performance? The ’98 Yankees posted a 3.82 ERA, which given the offensive levels of the time, translates into an ERA- of 85. The ’11 Rangers team ERA is slightly lower at 3.79, but that advantage goes away when you adjust for offensive levels of the time – their ERA- is 88, again slightly worse than what the Yankees put up. What’s more interesting to me is how similar the underlying pitching metrics are; the Rangers FIP- of 93 was basically equal to the Yankees FIP- of 94. Breaking it down further: BB%: ’98 Yankees: 7.6% ’11 Rangers: 7.7% K%: ’98 Yankees: 17.7% ’11 Rangers: 19.6% HR/9: ’98 Yankees: 0.96 ’11 Rangers: 1.06 BABIP: ’98 Yankees: .277 ’11 Rangers: .278 Their walk rates and batting average on balls in play are basically identical, while the Rangers are slightly better at striking out opposing hitters and the Yankees slightly better at keeping the ball in the park. Still, the margins here are really small, and it’s tough to say that one staff was demonstrably better than the other. Of course, not all run prevention is pitching, so we have to talk about the relative defensive merits of each team as well. Unfortunately, we don’t have batted ball data for 1998, so we can’t calculate UZR for that Yankees team. Total Zone, which is built off of data that is available for years prior to 2002, rates the ’98 Yankees as a good-but-not-great defensive team, putting them at +26 runs above average with the glove. UZR has essentially the same opinion of the ’11 Rangers, rating them +28 runs above average this season. Given that both teams posted basically the same BABIP, it’s not overly hard to believe that they were similarly effective defensively, though an eyeball test may suggest that the Rangers roster (with Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus especially) looks better on paper than the Yankees roster that featured Derek Jeter at shortstop and Bernie Williams in center field. Still, Scott Brosius was a good glove guy, and there’s nothing definitive to say that one team was obviously better defensively than the other, so the reasonable conclusion here is probably that it’s something of a push. In looking at hitting, pitching, and fielding, we essentially come out with a slight advantage for NYY in run production and something pretty close to a draw in run prevention. Overall, these two teams look very similar, and that’s how total team WAR sees it as well. The +61.9 WAR put up by the ’98 Yankees is the best of any World Series team in the last 20 years, but the Rangers are right on their heels at +60.7, the only other team to post +60 WAR and make the World Series since 1990. Still, it’s hard to get away from the fact that the Yankees won 18 more regular season games, right? How did that happen if the difference between the two is just an offense that is marginally better at drawing walks? It essentially comes down to timely hitting. Here’s their respective offensive batting lines with the bases empty, men on base, and runners in scoring position: No one on: ’98 Yankees: .818 OPS ’11 Rangers: .821 OPS Men on base: ’98 Yankees: .832 OPS ’11 Rangers: .774 OPS RISP: ’98 Yankees: .860 OPS ’11 Rangers: .805 OPS The two teams hit essentially the same with the bases empty, but the Yankees turned their game up a notch with men on base, and then really pounded the ball with men in scoring position. This is pretty normal, by the way – most teams hit better in those situations than they do with the bases empty. The 2011 Rangers didn’t follow that model, however – they did their best work against pitchers working from the wind-up, and then failed to perform as well when they had chances to drive them in. If the Rangers had received the standard boost while hitting with men on base, they would have scored significantly more runs than they actually did. That 110 run advantage in runs scored that the ’98 Yankees have over the ’11 Rangers greatly exaggerates the actual difference between the two teams offensive prowess – timely hitting is generally not something that shows any predictive value, and we shouldn’t expect that the Rangers will continue to struggle with men on base relative to their bases empty performance going forward. Of course, those timely hits did actually happen, and in terms of historical retrospectives, the ’98 Yankees do deserve credit for doing what the ’11 Rangers did not do. I’m not trying to argue that this Rangers team had as good of a season as that Yankees team did, but I will suggest that, going into the World Series, the Cardinals should probably understand that their opponent performed pretty similarly to one of the best teams of all time. This Rangers team might not have won 100 regular season games, but they showed all the markings of a true juggernaut, and it’s going to be a significant challenge for the Cardinals to knock them off. The 96 regular season wins almost certainly underestimates just how good the 2011 Rangers really are.