Yankees history, trivia, and nostalgia often focus on legendary hitting performances both on the team and individual level, and rightfully so. With nicknames like “Murderers’ Row” and “the Bronx Bombers,” and with staggering individual performances from the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and Maris, the accolades and their role in baseball folklore is well deserved.
Yet you don’t win 27 World Series without also assembling pitching staffs and defenses that perform at elite levels as well. Although the Yankees have had some defenders who are considered among the best fielders of all time at their respective positions, like Don Mattingly and Graig Nettles, as well as 20 Hall of Famers who’ve taken the mound for them, they’ve generally all taken a back seat to the guys holding the bats (several of whom were profiled yesterday).
Let’s change that and look at some of the best Yankees teams in history at preventing runs. Although they may not get as much attention as their offensive counterparts (or have as many cool nicknames), these teams were as dominant on the mound and with the leather as they were in the batter’s box.
Obviously, there are many factors that go into measuring each team's run prevention capabilities, so let’s keep it simple. For today’s purposes, we’ll use runs allowed per game compared to the league average of that season. That will account for the run-scoring environment of the era and use the ultimate barometer of pitching and defense — runs allowed. We’ll also use ERA+, as it’s affected by both pitching and defense (despite the differentiation of earned and unearned runs) and is also adjusted for the run-scoring environment. Of course, as always, I’ll need to throw a little personal subjectivity in as well.
Enough of the preamble. Let’s get to the four best Yankees teams at preventing runs in their history, starting with number four and working our way to the best of all time.
The 1957 Yankees led the AL in runs scored and got one of Mickey Mantle’s best seasons, but their pitching and defense had as much to do, if not more, with them capturing the pennant as the bats did. The ’57 Yankees had five starting pitchers make at least 17 starts and all of them finished in the top 15 in the AL in FIP. Perhaps even more remarkably, Bobby Shantz, Tom Sturdivant, and Whitey Ford posted the best three ERAs in the league, while Bob Turley had the 5th-best and Johnny Kucks 15th-best in the AL. The defense, led by slick-fielding third baseman Andy Carey and plus defenders Mantle, Yogi Berra, Bobby Richardson, and Gil McDougald up the middle, led the AL in defensive efficiency.
All told, the ’57 Yankees finished with a staggering 120 team ERA+ and allowed 18 percent fewer runs per game than the AL average. Both numbers are the second-best in team history since integration; we’ll find out in a minute which team posted the highest disparity between their RAG compared to league average.
A team much better known for Ruth and Gehrig’s exploits was simultaneously one of the franchise’s stingiest in terms of run prevention. Led by Hall of Famers Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt, the staff had four pitchers finish in the top nine in the AL in FIP (minimum 150 IP), while former Browns ace Urban Shocker and surprise swingman extraordinaire Wilcy Moore joined Hoyt in posting the three lowest ERA’s in the league. Moore threw 213 innings mostly out of the bullpen and finished third in the league in bWAR with 6.6, just edging Hoyt who was fourth with 6.0. Led by defensive specialist Mark Koenig at shortstop, the staff was backed by Yankees fielders who turned batted balls into outs at a better rate than every AL team in 1927.
As a group, the ’27 Yankees allowed 21 percent fewer RPG than the AL average, while posting a team ERA+ of 122, which was the third-best in team history. Considering that level of domination was partnered with a Ruth and Gehrig-led lineup, it’s easy to see how the 1927 Yankees are still considered one of the best teams of all time.
Unlike the previous two entries on our list, the 1998 Yankees’ starting rotation didn’t boast any future Hall of Famers, but the consistency and depth were astounding. Andy Pettitte, David Cone, David Wells, and Hideki Irabu all made more than 29 starts with above-league-average ERA+ marks, while mid-season addition Orlando Hernández led the way with a 142 ERA+ and 3.53 FIP over 21 starts. (Even spot starter Ramiro Mendoza posted a better-than-league average ERA+ and FIP making 14 starts.)
The 114-win club received great support from Jeff Nelson and Graeme Lloyd as a righty/lefty one-two punch out of the bullpen while the best to ever close a game backed up all of them. Although they didn’t boast any all-time great defenders, like the other teams we’ve already discussed, Yankees fielders turned batted balls into outs at a higher rate than any other AL team. Their excellence came from their brutal efficiency.
All told, the ‘98 Yankees posted a 116 team ERA+ and allowed 19-percent fewer runs per game than the AL average, the best team performance in that regard since integration. Yet despite the collective dominance of the ’98 Yankees pitchers and defenders, neither they nor the ’57 or ’27 teams can compare to the last and clearly best entry on our list.
The 1939 Yankees, also considered one of the best teams of all time, dominated when they were in the field to an extent that makes this a very easy decision — they were better at preventing runs than any Yankee team, before or since.
Led by Hall of Famers Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez, the rotation boasted four starters who made at least 15 starts and posted a 128 ERA+ or better. (Slacker Atley Donald only managed a 117 ERA+ in his 20 starts.) The bullpen was anchored by swingmen Steve Sundra (158 ERA+) and Marius Russo (181 ERA+), who posed a highly problematic lefty/righty one-two punch for opponents, and the defense led the AL in defensive efficiency by a very wide margin with All-Star Frankie Crosetti and Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey and Joe Gordon manning the up-the-middle positions.
Hopefully, you don’t think that I was being blasé when I wrote that they are “clearly” the best or that this was an “easy” decision to crown them the best run preventing team in Yankee history. But if you do, consider this: The 1939 team ERA+ of 132 is not only the best in franchise history, but it beats the next best (123, for the 1937 team) by a good margin. Also, they allowed 30 percent fewer runs per game than the AL average in 1939 – no other Yankee team has been ever better than 23 percent above AL average. If we take it one step further, no AL team at all in the over 100 years of the live-ball era has ever posted at least a 132 ERA+ while allowing 30 percent fewer RPG than league average.
As I said yesterday, there’s a ton of subjectivity in discussions like this, which to me, is partially what makes it interesting. For example, it’s interesting that what are likely the best Yankee teams of all time – 1927, 1939, and 1998 – are on this list but only one made the best offense list I wrote yesterday. (To be clear, I’m 99 percent sure that’s part coincidence and part simplification, but an interesting nonetheless.)
Also, the eight Yankees teams with the best ERA+ also ranked first in defensive efficiency that season – does defense have more to do with ERA and run prevention in general than we give it credit for? Again, perhaps an oversimplification and coincidence but still interesting. Lastly, I have to mention the 1981 team that received too many individual phenomenal performances from both starters and relievers to list, but as a group, they produced the second-best ERA+ in team history (124), and a RAG 21 percent better than league average. Alas, they were not included thanks to the strike-shortened season.
If I take anything from this discussion, it’s this (and I hope you did as well): Although we know that Red Ruffing, Whitey Ford, Catfish Hunter, and Ron Guidry were great, they’re not the pitching equivalents of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle or A-Rod. That shouldn’t cloud the fact that the Yankees have produced some pitching staffs and defenders that collectively were every bit as dominating as their more famous slugging counterparts.