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It’s time to make some 1998 comparisons

Yes, this year’s Yankees squad could be that good, but they’re good in different ways.

1998 MLB All-Star Game: American League v National League Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Well, we’ve come to that time of the year.

Everyone around here has been winking and nodding towards the 1998 team, perhaps the single greatest Yankee team of all time, when talking about the 2022 Yankees and their 51-18 start. That .739 win percentage works out to 119 wins over 162, so they have a few games to give if they want to meet or exceed the 114 wins that the peak dynasty squad put up.

To keep things constant, we’ll look at the first 68 games of both teams, where this year’s group has a +144 run differential, 16 runs better than ‘98. That’s driven almost entirely by a much, much better pitching staff, as the ‘22 team has allowed 81 fewer runs, while scoring 65 fewer. However, this is where comparing across eras makes things a little tricky. 1998 was a huge offensive season, with league average OPS at .770. Although offense has picked up across baseball, league average OPS in 2022 is just .698.

Ergo, everyone was just scoring more 24 years ago, and when we use adjusted metrics to compensated for different run environments, this year’s offense is actually better by wRC+, 120 to 116.

More interesting to me is the roster breakdown of both teams. The 1998 Yankees were depth, depth, and more depth, with just four players accruing more than 5 fWAR across the whole roster, but 13 notching at least 2 wins, the cutoff at which we consider a player “average”. A dozen hitters were at least league average, and even if you discount low plate appearance totals from Chili Davis and Homer Bush — not to mention Shane Spencer’s 231 wRC+ in 73 PAs —, everyone in the lineup could hurt you in some way. However, of the regulars, league batting champion Bernie Williams notched a 158 wRC+ and nobody else was above 130.

The 2022 team, while not a “stars and scrubs” roster, is somewhat more top heavy. Aaron Judge is in the middle of an MVP-type year, and has already accrued more fWAR than all but four hitters on the ‘98 group. This year’s “regular” lineup features four hitters above 130 wRC+, but every game you’ll see two or three of the five guys that are below-average hitters.

However, that top-heaviness really only applies to the sticks. It’s hard to compare pitching 24 years apart, since philosophies and practices have changed so much. Davids Cone and Wells and Andy Pettitte all threw more than 200 innings, but only Pettitte was in the top 30 in innings pitched across the league. The best starter in the rotation, El Duque, had a 69 ERA- (once again, era-adjusting matters), and the five guys who got more than 100 innings as starters were all between 69-95, Pettitte being the high man.

In 2022, the Yankees have so far looked like a real throwback team, with five quality starters all able to pitch into the sixth inning. Where they differ from the ‘98 team, aside from their stuff just straight up being more dominant, is that ERA- band, where this year’s rotation fits between 60-85. So we have a better rotation right now, one with both depth and more dominant performance.

So who would you rather have?

The 2022 team feels like a sledgehammer. Yes, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Aaron Hicks have had a couple big hits for the team, but so much of the scoring really comes down to those 4-5 elite hitters at the top of the lineup. The ‘98 offense doesn’t have the pure explosive power of an Aaron Judge, but running out a lineup every single day where every player is at least a little better than average, in a high scoring environment at that, must have been nearly impossible to gameplan for.

But, I would prefer the 2022 rotation, every single day. Wells and Cone and Hernandez and Pettitte and Irabu, there’s nothing wrong with running one of those guys out every game. But at least so far this year, the modern rotation is just a step ahead, likely due to the advances in pitching tech available.

There’s a lot of baseball left, and guys are going to slump. The 1998 Yankees aren’t going to slump, their performance is set in stone and we know exactly what the 2022 team has to do to match them. If we think about those two era-adjusted metrics, the 114-win ‘98ers logged a 116 wRC+ and 84 ERA-, compared to a 120 and 75 for the modern squad. I’m willing to bet the pitching will outperform the 1998 Yankees, but I think even this week we’ve seen that a cold stretch from Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton could probably keep the offense from eclipsing their forebearers.

Either way, we have to just wait and see. We can revisit this again in September if 114 wins is in sight. Until then, this is at least the best Yankee team since 1998, and that’s worth taking joy in too.