The Great Debate: Closing Arguments for the ’98 Yankees

Listen, I can’t sit here and pretend that the 2010 Yankees aren’t an excellent team. They are well-constructed from top to bottom and off to a very hot start. They have exactly one weak spot in their lineup, but that spot is more than balanced out by the excellent defense that Brett Gardner will provide in LF. Their starting pitching, despite the slow start by Javy Vazquez, is going to be strong. The bullpen, after Rivera, is a potential weakness, but one that is easily addressed midseason. Barring a string of key injuries, the 2010 Yankees are going to finish with more than 90 wins, and probably will be in the playoffs.

But Will’s making a lot out of a small difference on offense. Five points of weighted OBA is virtually nothing. And will the 2010 club perform better than the ’09 club? Through 18 games (yes, it’s a small sample size), the ’10 club has scored 96 runs. The ’09 club scored 100 through its first 18. If this is a demonstrably better offense this year, it’s not showing up yet. And we cannot ignore the fact that the Yankees’ 2010 defense is likely inferior to the ’98 team. Indeed, the ’98 Yankees boasted elite defenders at 1B, 3B, LF, and RF. The ’10 Yankees have elite defenders at 1B and LF, and an above-average CF. While we cannot rely on advanced defensive statistics from ’98, the team’s .280 allowed BABIP looms large as a testament to the club’s defensive excellence and its run prevention ability. Sure, the pitching itself may be roughly even, but the ’98 club’s defense will make that pitching far more effective.

Plus, while I expect Javy to come back from his rough start, let’s not get too worked up about Phil Hughes just yet. He’s started two games. In the first, he walked five batters in five innings. Yes, he dominated the A’s, but have you looked at the Oakland lineup in that game? The A’s have a team line of .253/.325/.370. Their cleanup hitter is Kurt Suzuki, who is protected by the husk of Eric Chavez. Hughes did not exactly dominate the ’27 Yankees. And tonight he faces a struggling Orioles team. I’m not saying he’s not going to be a good pitcher, I’m just saying we need more than 12 innings to dispel reasonable doubts about his performance this year.

Ultimately, Will is right that this is not a debate about which club will win more games. That’s a fairly easy case. After all, the ’98 Yankees won the most games in AL history. The ’10 Yankees would have to win 71% of the rest of their games to even match that mark. And it’s unfair to ask a team to match that kind of performance. Indeed, Will is right, we need to provide some context to those numbers and looking at the quality of their competition seems entirely appropriate. But Will is absolutely wrong when he says that the ’10 club will play “dramatically better” competition. Sure, the overall quality of the AL East has improved slightly. Tampa and Boston are both excellent clubs, and both should win around 90 games. That said, the Red Sox won 92 in ’98 and the Jays won 88, so the improvement may not be as impressive as Will seems to think it is. And while the Rays may have improved over their former selves, the bottom has fallen out for the Orioles so far this year, and Toronto figures to be a 75-80 win team. The ’10 Yankees’ opponents in ’98 had a winning percentage of .487, which makes a certain amount of sense. Given how dominant the Yankees were that year, their opponents would figure to play worse than .500 ball. But if we look at BaseballProjection.com’s anticipated standings for 2010, we find that the Yankees’ opponents are predicted to play .497 baseball, a difference of roughly a win and a half over 162 games. Why? Well, the Yankees play an unbalanced schedule now, meaning they play far more games against the Red Sox and Rays, but also more against the Orioles, and Jays, and far fewer against the strong AL West. Indeed, the Yankees are also helped by having to face the Twins and White Sox just 6 times each, while getting Cleveland and Kansas City 8 times. Likewise, the Yanks have a pretty favorable Interleague Schedule this year, with 6 games against the Mets, 3 against the Astros, 3 against the D-backs, and 3 versus the Dodgers. Only 3 games against the Phillies should present a challenge. So despite Will’s claims that the level of competition is so different in 2010, there’s no evidence of that. If anything, it appears that the teams’ schedules are directly analogous. If that’s the case, the teams’ performance against their competition becomes relevant in comparing the two clubs.

Even if we stipulate that the ’98 club had an easier road in the regular season (which they apparently didn’t), we need to look at how it did against elite competition. Against clubs who finished better than .500, the Yankees took 38 of 64 games, a .594 winning percentage (which projects to 96 wins). Indeed, if they had played only clubs who finished better than .500, the Yankees would have still won the AL East by four games. The club continued its dominance in the postseason, demolishing the Texas Rangers (who had won 88 games) in three, allowing them to score just one run and get 13 hits in the entire series. The Yankees had a little more trouble with the Indians, who took two games off them. But ultimately, they outscored them 27-20 and dominated in the last three games. And finally, in the World Series, they swept away a very good Padres team, outscoring them 26-13. It was a dominant performance against excellent squads. So while we may want to discount the performance of the ’98 team based on its competition (even though that competition is by no means demonstrably worse than the ’10 club will face), its excellence against the best each league had to offer (the club also went 3-1 versus a 106 win Braves team) demonstrates it was actually head and shoulders above its competition. It was an absolutely dominating club, which led its league in both runs scored and runs prevented.

So could the ’98 Yankees beat the ’10 club head-to-head? I think the clear answer is yes. Their level of competition is similar, and the ’98 team won 114 games in the regular season. The ’98 team boasts better pitching, better defense, and still has an excellent offense. We have a tendency to mythologize the past, believing it to be better than it was. But for Yankee fans, that hasn’t happened here. For some reason, many of you (Will included) seem to have forgotten just how exceptional the ’98 team is in your optimism for this year. Almost nothing went wrong for the Yankees in ’98. Everything they touched turned to gold. Sure, if you’re looking through rose-colored glasses at the current team, ignoring the legitimate questions regarding the bullpen, and age, and injuries, and the starting rotation, the Yankees may look like a 105-110 win team. But that’s just not realistic. Something is going to go wrong. The ’98 Yankees were as close to perfection as any team we have seen in our lifetimes, and it will likely be years before we see a team as good again.

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THE GREAT DEBATE!

Will and TCM will continue with their cases, each having made their Opening Statements:

For the next phase of this debate, we examined the infields of the 1998 Yanks versus the 2010 Yanks:

We’re now into the Outfielders and DH of the 1998 Yanks versus the 2010 Yanks:

And the pitching staffs can be debated here:

And the Closing Arguments: