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
Tm Year W L Win% Final W Final L Final Win% Result
SEA 2001 52 14 .788 116 46 .716 Lost ALCS
NYY 1928 50 16 .758 101 53 .656 Won WS
NYY 1939 50 16 .758 106 45 .702 Won WS
PHA 1929 49 17 .742 104 46 .693 Won WS
BRO 1955 49 17 .742 98 55 .641 Won WS
DET 1984 49 17 .742 104 58 .642 Won WS
NYY 1998 49 17 .742 114 48 .704 Won WS
NYY 2022 49 17 .742
BAL 1969 48 18 .727 109 53 .673 Lost WS
PHA 1931 47 19 .712 107 45 .704 Lost WS
NYY 1932 47 19 .712 107 47 .695 Won WS
BRO 1942 47 19 .712 104 50 .675 2nd NL
BRO 1952 47 19 .712 96 57 .627 Lost WS
PHI 1976 47 19 .712 101 61 .623 Lost 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
Tm Year W L Win% Final W Final L Final Win% Result
SEA 2001 52 14 .788 116 46 .716 Lost ALCS
NYY 1998 49 17 .742 114 48 .704 Won WS
NYY 2022 49 17 .742
CLE 1995 46 20 .697 100 44 .694 Lost WS
BAL 1997 46 20 .697 98 64 .605 Lost ALCS
CHC 2016 46 20 .697 103 58 .640 Won WS
ATL 1998 45 21 .682 106 56 .654 Lost NLCS
CLE 1999 45 21 .682 97 65 .599 Lost ALDS
ATL 2003 45 21 .682 101 61 .623 Lost NLDS
NYY 2018 45 21 .682 100 62 .617 Lost ALDS
LAD 2019 45 21 .682 106 56 .654 Lost 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
Team Year W L W-L% Dif/Gm pythW-L% Result
NYY 1939 106 45 .702 2.70 .734 Won WS
NYY 2022 49 17 .742 2.17 .731
LAD 2020 43 17 .717 2.27 .712 Won WS
NYY 1927 110 44 .714 2.43 .709 Won WS
NYY 1942 103 51 .669 1.91 .698 Lost WS
STL 1944 105 49 .682 1.80 .697 Won WS
STL 1942 106 48 .688 1.76 .696 Won WS
LAD 2022 40 25 .615 1.78 .687
BAL 1969 109 53 .673 1.62 .679 Lost WS
HOU 2018 103 59 .636 1.62 .675 Lost ALCS
SEA 2001 116 46 .716 1.85 .672 Lost ALCS
CLE 1948 97 58 .626 1.74 .672 Won WS
LAD 2021 106 56 .654 1.66 .672 Lost NLCS
CLE 1954 111 43 .721 1.55 .672 Lost WS
NYY 1998 114 48 .704 1.91 .670 Won WS
PHA 1929 104 46 .693 1.89 .668 Won WS
NYY 1953 99 52 .656 1.68 .668 Won WS
NYY 1936 102 51 .667 2.15 .666 Won WS
NYY 1937 102 52 .662 1.96 .666 Won WS
CHC 2016 103 58 .640 1.56 .665 Won 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
1998 5.96 6444 .288 .364 .460 116 36.1 3.6
2022 5.15 2496 .249 .328 .444 122 14.8 3.9
1998 4.05 1061.1 3.85 85 4.11 91 18.4 3.5
2022 2.98 366.2 2.80 73 3.26 80 8.0 4.4
1998 4.05 395.1 3.76 83 4.24 94 2.8 1.4
2022 2.98 225.2 2.95 77 3.20 79 3.4 3.0

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.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

I don’t expect the winning pace to continue for much longer, even if this team is really good. But an interesting aspect to me is that, perhaps more so than the 1998 team, there are really obvious areas in which they could upgrade. The Yankees hit their first HR out of SS only this weekend. CF (when Judge isn’t there) has been below average and LF is close to replacement level with Gallo’s play. I’d expect some of these issues to be addressed at the trade deadline, increasing the talent level for the last couple of months of the season.

1 year ago
Reply to  marechal

And that SS was Marwin Gonzalez, playing SS instead of IKF (who is injured right now and has no pop).

1 year ago
Reply to  marechal

I would expect that neither Jose Trevino and Joey Gallo will continue their current paces.

CF is tough to upgrade, and same with SS. Maybe they can enter the Michael A Taylor sweepstakes.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Aaron Judge is their CF. He’s started like 19 out of their last 20 games. They just really need a COF, and really Joey Gallo/Aaron Hicks isn’t the worst thing to have at the bottom of the lineup. But having three 90 wRC+ guys in one lineup isn’t ideal (though Gallo isn’t a 90 wRC+ true talent player), but if Judge/Stanton/Gleyber/Rizzo/DJLM keep it up, they should be alright.

Most likely they get a corner OF like Happ or Benintendi, send Gallo to whoever (Padres?), then ride into the playoffs with just two below average hitters (Trevino and IKF).

1 year ago
Reply to  marechal

The flip side is that an injury to Judge would hurt a lot more than an injury to one of the top players on the 1998 team would’ve hurt.