On May 18, 1998, a new edition of Sports Illustrated hit the shelves. With Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Tino Martinez on the front cover, the magazine’s lead article by Tom Verducci highlighted a Yankees squad that had gotten off to an electric start. On the day of publication, they had a 28-9 record. Coincidentally, after their 3-2 victory over the Orioles on Wednesday night, the 2022 Yankees also had a record of 28-9 after their first 37 games.
Of course, if you read every bit of Yankees news like I do, you probably already knew that: Bryan Hoch highlighted this exact fact in his Yankees Beat Newsletter earlier this week. And he’s not the only one who has made comparisons between this year’s team and the 1998 super squad. Ian O’Connor penned an article on Tuesday titled “Spirit of 98: Yankees have chance for all-time special season.” Gabe Lacques declared the ‘22 team “in lockstop” with the ‘98 squad. And while Verducci warned against making the comparison, saying “Don’t go putting these Yankees in the same category yet as the 1998 Yankees, one of the greatest teams of all time,” but the fact that he even makes this warning subtly begs the comparison he is outwardly warning against.
The reasons for the comparison are obvious. Beyond the same record, these teams have a lot in common. The 1998 Yankees had a dominant lineup capable of battering teams into submission, led the AL with 5.96 runs/game and a team OPS+ of 116; a quarter of the way into the season, the 2022 team are second in the AL with 4.89 runs/game and lead the AL with a 121 OPS+. Both teams kept runs off the board better than anyone else, with the 1998 squad averaging 4.05 runs against/game and the 2022 team a minuscule 2.86 runs against/game. The 1998 team saw a homegrown outfielder in Bernie Williams have an absolutely incredible year, slashing .339/.422/.575 (a 160 OPS+) while winning a batting title; Aaron Judge fills that role this year, slashing an otherworldly .306/.373/.672 (a 204 OPS+).
I could keep going, but I’m going to stop there. At this point, it’s clear that the tremendous start that the 2022 team has gotten off to has reminded fans who remember the dynasty years of the 1998 squad. I’d like to caution us to be very careful with this narrative, however.
Journalism in general — and sports journalism in particular — thrives on narratives, and “How does this team compare to one of the greatest teams of all time?” is certainly a fun story for everybody involved. The players love it because it means the team is winning a lot. The fans love it because it means the team is winning a lot. The media loves it because everyone loves to argue over who the “greatest” is, whether we’re talking about the greatest player overall, the greatest player at a particular skill, or greatest team in general (we already know the Yankees are the greatest franchise in sports, so nobody argues that one). And early in the season, in that space between “overreacting to the first week of the season” and the “All-Star and Trade Deadline previews,” it’s very enticing to find previous seasons that serve as good comparisons to the current squad.
And yet ... we’re only one-quarter of the way into the season. In my mind, it’s patently unfair to both teams to make this comparison at this point in the year. The 1998 team was one of the greatest teams of all time. It won 114 games in the regular season, then proceeded to go 11-2 in the postseason en route to a World Series title; their 125 wins are more than any other team in baseball history. To hold the 2022 team up to this standard in the middle of May is to hold them up to the closest thing that Major League Baseball has ever seen to a perfect season. It is a standard that is almost impossible to live up to — after all, not even the 116-win Mariners could.
And it’s also unfair to the 1998 team to think that any team should be spoken of in the same breath as them when we’ve only gotten through a quarter of a season. Thirty-eight games into the 2018 season, the Yankees and Red Sox were on pace for 110 wins, while the 2017 Astros were on track for 112 wins; the 2016 Cubs, 122 wins. All these teams won 100 or more games, but only the Red Sox came closest to their early-season pace (they won 108 games). Teams get off to hot starts all the time; what separated the 1998 team was that they never slowed down — their worst month, September, saw them maintain a 96-win* pace!
*As a reminder, a 96-win pace might not seem dominant, but remember that multiple Yankees World Series champions — like the 1996 and 2000 editions — never hit that mark.
If by the time September rolls around, the Yankees still have over 110 wins in sight, then by all means, let’s make these comparisons. I for one desperately want for that day to come. I was too young to remember the 1998 team, and I have spent the last few years watching the 2021 Dodgers and Giants, the 2019 Astros and Dodgers, and the 2018 Red Sox put up more than 105 wins in a season with more than a little envy. The only thing I want more than a Yankees team to have this level of in-season dominance is a World Series title.
When we reach that point, then I’ll be one of the first to step up and discuss where they rank next to the 1998 team, the 1927 Murderers’ Row, and all the other Yankees squads that go down as the greatest of all time. But until then, let’s instead keep our focus not on where they might stand in history, but on the journey along the way.