For the last few years, Major League Baseball has been dominated by super-teams that have been, at least in the regular season, head and shoulders better than pretty much everybody else in the league. Since the Dodgers won 104 games in 2017, in fact, at least one team in the league has finished the season with at least 106 wins, with 2020’s pandemic-shortened season being the sole outlier.
Over the first 60 games of the season, this year’s Yankees squad looks to be this year’s most likely super-team. As of Tuesday night, their 45-16 record (a 120-win pace) led the league by a full five games, while their +127 run differential was more than 20 runs better than the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers. The team’s OPS+ (121) and run allowed/game (3.00) were both tops in baseball. For the first two-plus months of the season, they have been, hands down, the best team in baseball.
Nobody wins awards for the best team in baseball in the middle of June, however. Every year, teams get off to a hot start, only to fade down the stretch. What defines the teams that were able to keep it up all year? And how do the 2022 Yankees compare to those teams so far? To see where this year’s squad stands next to previous super-teams, I went back and put them next to the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers, the 2018 Boston Red Sox, the 2019 Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers, and the 2021 Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants — or rather, I put them next to where these teams were after 60 games.
The results are, to be blunt, rather surprising — in a good way.
The 2022 Yankees are not just outplaying the rest of the league right now, they are outplaying the first 60 games of the last six squads to win 104 games or more in a single season. Unfortunately, beside this historical note, this chart tells us little that we didn’t already know just by intuition: teams that go on to win this many games are very good at scoring runs and at preventing opponents from scoring them. The sole exception here seems to be the 2017 Dodgers, a team that even so would ultimately finish the year with a 103 OPS+.
Similarly, when it comes to the nature of their wins, there are very few things we can truly learn:
For all seven of these teams, we see a lot of very tall green lines, indicating wins by a large margin. We see very few losing streaks, and most of the time, they cap out at three games. The major exception is the 2019 Dodgers, who lost six in a row from April 8 to April 13, bringing their record from 8-2 to 8-8. Winning streaks, on the other hand, are obviously common.
All of this is fun to see and all, but in truth, to see how the current Yankees compare to these squads, we need to dive deeper. And so, let’s see how the rosters themselves compare, starting with the lineups.
This chart depicts all hitters from these seven squads with 90 or more plate appearances through the team’s first 60 games, along with their wRC+ at that point. Once again, we find some unsurprising trends. For starters, for every team except the 2017 Dodgers, the two hitters who came to the plate the most had a wRC+ well above 100. Additionally, the majority of the batters are well above average at the plate, with several players with a wRC+ upwards of 120.
In many ways, these Yankees are built rather similarly to most of these squads. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton form a dynamic duo akin to Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson, and Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford. Surrounding them in the lineup is a small army of hitters that have taken away most landing spots for opposing pitchers. In fact, of the few players with a wRC+ below 100, only one — backup catcher Kyle Higashioka — is a true black hole in the lineup, for despite their rough season-wide stat lines, Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks have each had hot stretches at the plate (in fact, as of the 60-day mark on Monday night, both have a wRC+ above 140 in the month of June).
It is this lack of a true landing spot that has contributed to the Yankees’ success at the plate and which has made their offense even more potent than any of these other super-teams through the first 60 games of the season. But as we know, the true force behind this team’s winning ways lies in a pitching staff that has outpaced the league in pretty much every way possible. In fact, of the other six teams we’ve been talking about, only the 2019 Astros, with a rotation headlined by Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander and Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole, was better, relative to the rest of the league, than the current Yankees staff.
So what gives these Yankees the edge over the other super-teams on the mound? In a word, consistency. Let’s take a look at the table below, which lists the five pitchers with the most innings through 60 games for the seven teams we’ve been discussing and their ERA-, along with the ERA- of their bullpens. Note that players who have asterisks next to their name are relievers, which suggests that the team had to tap into their rotation depth early on.
Two things stand out to me. First, and most importantly, the five Yankees pitchers with the most innings pitched so far this season are the same pitchers that the team intended to be in the starting rotation on Opening Day. That, as we all know, is extraordinarily rare in today’s game. The Yankees are, in truth, extremely fortunate that the only major injuries to the pitching staff have either been in Triple-A (Luis Gil) or in the bullpen (Chad Green).
The second thing is that this squad, at least so far, doesn’t have any real weak points; there is no 2017 Kenta Maeda or 2019 Collin McHugh who ate innings, but didn’t provide particularly effective ones, either. In fact, the closest thing the Yankees have had to that this year is official staff ace Gerrit Cole, who has inflated his stats thanks to two outings (May 23rd’s start in which he surrendered five runs in eight innings against Baltimore, and last week’s disaster against Minnesota). And if Cole is the biggest problem in your rotation, well, that’s a good sign.
I’ll admit, when I set out on this project, I had hoped to find some major differences between these ballclubs, some unique identifying features that might help us gaze into the crystal ball and see the future of the 2022 Yankees. At the end of the day, however, all we can do is return to the most basic tenet of baseball: to win, you have to score more runs than your opponent. To be a true super-team, you have to do that better than anybody, and that requires both top-flight lineups and pitching staffs.
At the end of the day, it really is that simple.