A Bronx Tale
The last time both the Yankees and Mets led their divisions on May 21 was May 21, 1988.
That’s quite a while ago, and there’s a story just in that little nugget – about the trials and tribulations of two teams that have gone to the World Series more than once since that date, and yet only one of which has been victorious in their multiple attempts. But we’ll leave that story for another day.
For now, we’ll just focus on the 2022 Yankees — because so far this season, they’re doing something pretty similar to what they did in 1998, which at the time broke the record for wins in a regular season. In 1998, the Yankees won 114 games. Three years later, the Seattle Mariners won 116 games in the regular season, which is the current MLB record for wins in a season. If the 2022 Yankee team stays on their current win pace throughout the regular season, however, they could once again end up with a record of 105-115 wins this year.
Not too shabby.
Because it struck me that comparing the two teams might have some merit, when I pulled up the 1998 team’s stats, the first numbers I looked for were total errors and American League rank in errors. And I was not disappointed. The 1998 Yankees had a team total of 98 errors, which ranked third in the AL that year. As of May 21, the current Yankee team had 17 errors, which ranked third in the AL, to date, this season. And as I explained in “In Defense of the Yankees” (BallNine), attacking their fielding challenges was one of the priorities for the Yankees this past off-season, and so far — it’s working.
I don’t expect the comparison of the two teams’ statistics and personalities to be one-for-one by any means, so it’s somewhat coincidental that the current team ranks third in the AL in errors at this point; but it is indicative of the fact that a solid fielding team has a greater chance of winning than does a poor fielding team. And we’re only about six weeks into the season, so the percentage and ranking could still change, in any event.
The 1998 Yankees pitched to a team ERA of 3.82 over the course of the season. That ranked first in the AL. As of May 21, 39 games into the season, the current Yankee team was pitching to a team ERA of 2.86, which also ranked first in the AL. Interestingly, in 2022 a team ERA of 3.82 would likely not rank first even by season’s end, given how much pitching has changed over the years. Pitchers are throwing harder, they have more types of pitches in their arsenals, and teams are carrying more pitchers in their bullpens. The art of pitching management is a completely different enterprise than it was 24 years ago.
The 1998 Yankees finished fourth in the AL with 207 home runs and second in the AL with 1625 hits; meanwhile, about 25 percent into the season, the 2022 Yankees are second in the AL with 55 home runs and fourth in the AL with 309 hits. The current Yankee team is definitely more of the power-hitting variety, which has become a trend overall in baseball. The 1998 Yankee who hit the most home runs was Tino Martinez, with 28. And yet 39 games into the 2022 season, Aaron Judge had already hit 14 home runs. In terms of total runs scored, however, the 1998 team had 965, ranked first in the AL, while 39 games in, the 2022 Yankees had 187 runs scored, second in the AL. So even if they’re achieving those runs a little differently, the level of production ranks similarly.
The personality of the 1998 team was, perhaps, a bit different from the personality of the current Yankee team. Those were the days of “the core four” — Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada. You can throw Bernie Williams into the mix, as well; he came up through the Yankee system but because he arrived on the scene a little before the others, he was never included in the category of “the core four.” Other major contributors were Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez; as well as David Cone, David Wells, Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, Joe Girardi, Tim Raines, and Darryl Strawberry.
(L-R) New York Yankees Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter casual during photo shoot at St. Regis Hotel. San Francisco, CA 4/21/2010 CREDIT: Michael Zagaris (Photo by Michael Zagaris /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
The core four won not only a lot of games together, but a lot of World Series together. They, plus Bernie Williams, really formed the core of the team for a very prolific era of Yankee baseball. One could argue that although Paul O’Neill came to Yankees from the Reds, he was almost part of that core — and that’s one reason the Yankees are retiring his number this summer. The personality of the late 1990s-early 2000s Yankees was one of a team just conducting its business; everyone seemed to know their role and Derek Jeter, though only named team captain in 2003, was, to all appearances, the team leader.
The 2022 Yankees do not have a core four. In what seemed like it was an attempt to recreate that era, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and several others were brought up to the majors by the Yankees in the 20-teens to form the core of a team being rebuilt. The plan didn’t really work, however, and the result now is a team that has been rebuilt several times and in different ways. The present recipe seems to be working, though; and for now, that’s all that matters. This Yankee team could use the experience of winning together that the 1998 team had already had for a couple of years — but they seem to be growing into it.
Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates with Gary Sanchez #24 after defeating the Houston Astros in Game Three of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 16, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The New York Yankees defeated the Houston Astros 8-1. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
We could compare all the team stats or even do a breakdown and comparison of individual player numbers; but the rough outline is that if the 2022 team stays on its current pace, the potential to have season record either individual or team stats is there (barring injuries and their impacts).
Just for fun, who led the 1998 Yankees in hits? “The Warrior,” Paul O’Neill, with 191. Leading the current Yankee team in hits, 39 games in, was Aaron Judge, with 42 — who seems to be raising his upcoming contract value by the day. In 1998, O’Neill was 35. That’s some pretty good productivity for a 35-year-old baseball player. Aaron Judge is 30. Though that’s not young for an MLB player, we may not yet have even begun to see his ceiling.
Outfielder Paul O''Neill of the New York Yankees in action during a game against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California. The Yankees defeated the Athletics 9-7. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Carlick /Allsport
One other factoid about the 1998 Yankees is that Paul O’Neill was second only to Tino Martinez in RBI for the season: Martinez with 123 and O’Neill with 116. They were the only two team members who cracked the 100 mark that year, back in a day when hitters like Manny Ramirez were hitting over 125 RBI on the regular. That tells us the 1998 Yankees’ 114 wins were a team effort, much like the success we’re seeing from the 2022 Yankees so far this year.
39 games in, there remained 123 MLB games for the Yankees this season — and one really can’t either logically or statistically compare the successes of a 39-game segment to that of a full 162-game season. But we live in a world in which sports trends matter; fantasy sports and legalized sports betting have changed the timbre of how each segment, each game, even each player is analyzed and has an impact. And besides, why not have a little fun dreaming — and projecting along the way about what might be possible?