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Why the 2003 Yankees are the best team to not win the World Series

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It was a difficult choice, but the 2003 Yankees stand out with their impeccable resume.

New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox - ALCS Game 7 - October 16, 2003 Photo by Allen Kee/WireImage

As Tyler introduced earlier today, this week at Pinstripe Alley we’re remembering the best Yankees team to not win the World Series. For a team like the Yankees, this is no simple task, as the franchise’s history is littered with excellent teams that fell short of the ultimate prize.

But choose a team we must, and choose a team we did. We’ve anointed the 2003 Yankees as the best squad in team history to fall short of a title. The team that came oh-so-close to championship glory, nearly made immortal thanks in no small part to the heroics of the club’s current manager, only to be cut down by the out-of-nowhere Marlins.

I must reiterate that this was not easy. There are several, perhaps dozens, of teams in Yankees history you could argue for. Maybe the 1942 Yankees, led by the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto, tickle your fancy. You may be partial to any of the three most recent iterations of the Yankees. You could go with the 2001 Yankees, who came even more agonizingly close to winning it all than the ‘03 group.

We settled upon the 2003 Yankees because they represent the best of all worlds. They are the most balanced selection in a group of tantalizing choices. Some Yankees squads have a leg up on the 2003 Yankees in certain areas, but fall short in others. The 2003 Yankees rank highly no matter how you splice them.

That’s because there are essentially three different ways to answer the question at the center of this exercise. When looking for the best team to never win it all, we could simply look for the team that won the most games. We could go a level deeper, add in a bit more complexity in hopes of finding a more accurate answer, and choose the team with the best underlying numbers. Or, we could add yet another layer of complexity, and search for the club that had the highest level of underlying talent.

Use any of those methods and you’ll likely come up with three different clubs, none of them the 2003 Yankees. Yet any of the clubs you chose would falter in terms of the other criteria. The 2003 Yankees, while maybe not the absolute best choice for any of those three methods, nevertheless rank near the top regardless of what tact you take.

Consider the straightforward, who-won-the-most method. The 1980 and 2019 Yankees won 103 games before falling in the playoffs. The 2003 Yankees rank just behind at 101, but have the added benefit of having won more games in total including the playoffs.

Let’s go a level deeper and look at, say, run differential. There are a few Yankees squads that outrank the 2003 Yankees in this department. The 2011 Yankees outscored their opponents by 210 runs, for example, while the 2002 Yankees did so by 200 runs. Yet the 2011 team “only” managed to turn those runs into 97 wins, while the 2002 Yankees flamed out in the ALDS against the Angels.

The most difficult measure to evaluate is that of true talent. I, for one, would argue that the 2019 Yankees had as a high a level of underlying talent as any team in recent memory. Yet an argument for that club withers when you consider how rarely that talent ever took the field at the same time. In the alternate universe in which Giancarlo Stanton, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances and the like all stayed healthy last year, that club may have been the best to not (?) win the World Series. In this universe, they didn’t, while also running a Pythagorean record that hinted at some good fortune, making their case all that more challenging to put forth.

The 2003 Yankees check all the boxes. They won a ton of games, won a pennant, put forth a strong +161 run differential, and consistently ran out a lineup of superstars. They had late-prime Jorge Posada and Jason Giambi running OPS figures well above .900. They had Derek Jeter hitting .325 and just generally being Derek Jeter. They had Hideki Matsui’s quality debut campaign, a stellar 35-35 season from Alfonso Soriano, and a scary rotation, four-deep with older but still excellent veterans in Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells. The bullpen, well, that was anchored by Mariano Rivera and his 1.66 ERA.

The ‘03 club may not have won quite as many contests as the 1980 club, put up as good a run differential as in 2011, or had as good a full-strength 25-man as last year. Those latter clubs had holes in their resume, however. The 2003 club had no holes in their record, except for, of course, that one big omission that inspired this whole series in the first place.

Let’s forget for a moment how the 2003 season ended, and remember just how good it was before it reached Game Six of the World Series. Let’s remember who got them there, and how they got there. I know I remember this: