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Doomed by history: Record-setting in the modern age

What to do when your franchise has broken baseball over and over and over.

Top Men Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Babe Ruth kinda sucks.

Let me explain myself. I started this post as a light and fun way to look at Yankees who were off to record paces in the first week of the season. I write a lot of deeper analytical stuff, so I thought that it would be fun to say hey, look how high so-and-so’s on-base percentage is, it’d be a record if he could keep it up!

But it wouldn’t be a record, because Babe Ruth had a .545 OBP season.

Anthony Rizzo is crushing the ball to start the year. He won’t maintain his .688 slugging percentage, but that would be a crazy season, right? That mark is 70 points higher than Bryce Harper put up during a 2021 NL MVP season, and 40 points higher than Freddie Freeman’s MVP campaign the pervious year (in a COVID-shortened 60-game sample, no less). Remarkable power from a guy who I wasn’t super high on at the time of signing!

But it wouldn’t be a record, because Babe Ruth had an .847 (!) SLG season.

Hell, even getting out of the small sample size of 2022, Aaron Judge’s 2017 is a god-tier campaign. By fWAR, it was statistically better than any season from Derek Jeter, Don Mattingly, and Graig Nettles. But if you pull up the all time Yankee leaderboard on FanGraphs, Judge isn’t even on the first page:

This has really got me thinking about how we talk about modern baseball, especially modern Yankee baseball. Babe Ruth broke the sport; Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Rickey Henderson — these guys are all absolute slam-dunk, no-question, inner-circle parts of baseball history, and none of them come particularly close to anything the Babe did.

So how do we think, talk, and write about the accomplishments of the current Yankee squad? We can’t just take Ruth, Gehrig, and the rest out of Yankees history, and putting qualifiers like “best Yankee season since 1976” (or something like that) makes me feel like I’m covering the Mariners.

I think the answer is letting the history — and the head-and-shoulders dominance of the greats from a century ago — live, breathe, and exist in parallel to what we see every single day. Aaron Judge is never going to be as good as Babe Ruth; hell, he’s not likely to ever be as good as Mickey Mantle, and that’s okay.

Effectively Wild has covered how we’re in a trough period for baseball record-breaking in general. The talent variation is just lower than it’s ever been before. One of the reasons why we don’t see 15-win seasons anymore is because “replacement level” is better than it was a hundred years ago. Not only is Judge not going to do what Ruth did, but Juan Soto won’t do what Ruth did. Shohei Ohtani kinda did what Ruth did last year by being an elite hitter and very good pitcher all at once, and he had an eight-win season, not a 12, 13, or 14-win season.

And that’s why my prescription stands. Celebrate Yankee history and marvel at the accomplishments of the ‘20s and ‘30s, the DiMaggio-to-Mantle dynasty, and all the rest, but allow that to exist on a parallel line to the current product. At three or four distinct periods in Yankees history, the club or its best player simply broke the game, and the rest of the sport was left to adapt, pick up the pieces, and pull the game back together, kintsugi over 154 and then 162 games.

There’s less of the game to break now. Anthony Rizzo had a very fun start to the season, and if nothing at all changed and he kept hitting like this, he would be lucky to have a top-10 all-time Yankee season. That’s okay. Yankee players, especially Yankee hitters, are doomed to fall short of the expectations more than a century of achievement will place on them. Disregard those expectations, enjoy the players we have now, and accept that they’re not going to have a 12-win season. Not taking that track means that you’re doomed to be disappointed in the on-field product, every bit as much as Rizzo is doomed to underperform the standard of a hundred years ago.