Throughout the long history of Major League Baseball, there have been special teams — groups of players that are so much better than the rest of the league that they deserve distinct recognition.
There are plenty of contenders in this bunch, even a couple others from Yankees history who won’t be discussed today. All were terrific; all come with a caveat or two. The 1906 Chicago Cubs and the 2001 Seattle Mariners both won a record 116 games, but weren’t crowned World Series champs. The 1929 Philadelphia Athletics were unbelievable, but they were a bit top-heavy, with Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, and Lefty Grove carrying the rest of the squad. The 1970 Baltimore Orioles were amazing, but pitching stood out way more than hitting. And so on.
This all brings us to the 1998 New York Yankees., who we’ve chronicled throughout 2023 as a special 25th anniversary celebration. They were, quite simply, one of the best baseball teams ever assembled. Among World Series winners, they hold the record for most regular season wins in history at 114-48, and with an 11-2 record in postseason play (also among the all-time greats), they finished at a tidy 125-50. This was a talented, cohesive unit in which everybody knew its role and fulfilled it to perfection.
In 1998, the Yankees had the sixth-best ERA in baseball at 3.82, but led the league in runs scored with 965. The Texas Rangers had 940 and then the rest of the teams were below 880. The offense was very, very deep, as they had seven players with at least 300 plate appearances surpassing the .800 OPS threshold: batting champion Bernie Williams, AL MVP contender Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martínez, Scott Brosius, Jorge Posada, and beloved clubhouse leader Darryl Strawberry. They also got important contributions from Tim Raines, Chuck Knoblauch, and of course that magical 27-game run from Shane Spencer, with 10 homers and a 1.321 OPS.
Pitching-wise, the Yankees had a solid rotation: Andy Pettitte, David Wells, David Cone, Hideki Irabu, and a rookie in name only: Orlando “El Duque” Hernández. Cone won 20 games, surpassed 200 strikeouts (209) and posted a 3.55 ERA. Wells earned fame for his perfect game, but he was steady all year long and money in the playoffs, winning ALCS MVP. Ramiro Mendoza was a valuable swingman and a good bullpen led by Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton set things up for the legendary Mariano Rivera (1.91 ERA, 36 saves).
The 1927 Yankees
The 1927 Yankees were known as the “Murderers’ Row” for a reason. It is considered by plenty of historians as the greatest baseball team in the history of the game and it’s easy to see why.
For starters, the Yanks led the league with 975 runs scored in 155 games. The second placed team, the Detroit Tigers, had 845 (!). New York’s 158 home runs were far more than the 109 that the New York Giants, the closest-ranked squad, accumulated.
Babe Ruth (60) and Lou Gehrig (47) alone each had more homers than seven of the 16 teams, but it wasn’t just them, though: Tony Lazzeri, Bob Meusel, and Earle Combs were also fantastic, and they had a good supporting cast around them. For those curious, to compare the two squads offensively in such different offensive environments, we will use wRC+. The 1927 Yanks had a 125 mark, and the 1998 unit checked in at 116. Both led the league.
The Yankees also had the best ERA in the league at 3.20 that year. Wilcy Moore, Waite Hoyt, Urban Shocker, and Herb Pennock all had at least 200 innings pitched and a 3.00 ERA or better. Dutch Ruether and George Pipgras were also important contributors. No one ever gives the pitching on the 1927 team much credit, but they were a lights-out bunch, too.
The 1927 Yanks went on to sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, while the 1998 Yankees also took out the brooms in both the Division Series and the Fall Classic. They found themselves down 2-1 against Cleveland in the ALCS, but won three straight and earned the right to advance to the World Series.
Although the ’27 Yanks were a bulldozer, Ruth and Gehrig were so ahead of the pack that it might not be entirely fair to compare them to a modern squad. It’s an entirely different ballgame, especially since they weren’t facing off against all the best players. It was an integrated game, so the likes of Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell were all ineligible. As an extra thought, conditioning is not what it is now, where players are finely-tuned engines compared to the guys who used to have offseason jobs. There’s no denying the dominance of Murderers’ Row; it’s just tricky to match them up.
The 1975 Cincinnati Reds
The “Big Red Machine” of the seventies reached its peak in 1975, when they won 108 games and took home the World Series trophy. Take your pick between them and the ‘76 club that repeated by sweeping the Yankees in their return to the Fall Classic, but this one takes the cake for us.
Led by NL MVP Joe Morgan (.974 OPS, 67 SB) and an impressive collection of talented hitters that included Johnny Bench (28 HR, 110 RBI), Pete Rose (.317 AVG, 47 2B), Ken Griffey Sr. (.305 AVG, 95 R), George Foster (23 HR, .875 OPS), Tony Pérez (20 HR, 109 RBI), and Dave Concepción (23 2B, 33 SB), the Reds finished the regular season just 54 losses. They were loaded with Hall of Famers and the man with more hits than anyone in MLB history.
On the mound, Don Gullett had the best ERA at 2.42, in 159.2 innings. Gary Nolan, Jack Billingham and Gullett all won 15 games, and Rawly Eastwick led the team in saves with 22.
The Reds then swept the Pirates in a three-game Championship Series, but did encounter resistance in the Boston Red Sox in one of the best World Series of all time. Carlton Fisk and company made it an arduous road and seven games were necessary. Nonetheless, the Big Red Machine revved on, came back in Game 7, and Rose was crowned as the Fall Classic MVP.
The Yankees’ 116 wRC+ in 1998 compares favorably to the Reds’ 111 mark, but the Reds had the edge in collective ERA, 3.37 to 3.82. The 1998 Yanks were in a much tougher run-scoring environment, though – in the peak of the steroids ERA – thus “penalizing” their wRC+ and increasing their ERA. By the adjusted ERA-, the ‘98 Yanks were at 78 while the ‘75 Reds were up at 94.
The ’75 Reds were, appropriately, a well-oiled machine and measure up to the ’98 Yanks. They were both dominant in almost every aspect, but the Bombers squad from 25 years ago had that aura of invincibility (and a little bit better pitching) that gives it a slight edge in our book.
The 2018 Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox had a marvelous season in 2018, compiling a 108-54 record behind a truly majestic individual campaign by Mookie Betts. The AL MVP that year hit .346/.438/.640 with 32 home runs, 129 runs, 47 doubles, 81 walks, and 30 stolen bases.
J.D. Martínez was still at the peak of his abilities, hitting .330 with 43 bombs and 130 RBI; while Xander Bogaerts homered 23 times and drove in 103 runs. Jackie Bradley Jr. was superman in center field and a very young Rafael Devers helped with 21 homers and 24 doubles, albeit with a .731 OPS.
That was also Chris Sale’s last truly great campaign, with a 2.11 ERA and 237 strikeouts. Former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi became a monster in postseason play, David Price had a 3.58 regular season ERA in 176 frames while exorcising some playoff demons, and Craig Kimbrel saved 42 games in a high-wire act that took your breath away (for better or for worse).
The Red Sox were magnificent in the postseason, too. In addition to the 16-1 thrashing of the Yankees in Game 3 of the Division Series, they won all series by leaving the foes with just one victory: 3-1 against the Bombers, 4-1 against the Astros in the ALCS, and 4-1 vs. the Dodgers in the World Series. Even for the Fall Classic loss, it took the Dodgers 18 innings to beat them, and Boston dispatched them in Games 4 and 5 anyway.
While the 1998 Yanks led the league with their 116 wRC+, the 2018 Sox finished fourth with a 111 mark. ERA-wise, they were eighth at 3.75. The 2018 Red Sox team was good and deep, but a small group of players contributed the most, whereas the 1998 Yankees were more of a collective effort.
First of all, this exercise does not necessarily mean these are the four best teams in MLB history. It’s just to see how the 1998 Yanks measure up to some top squads, and truth be told, they compare favorably to most, if not all of them.
All four teams are very close, but in terms of regular season and postseason dominance, depth, talent, and intangibles, the 1998 Yankees take first place in these specific rankings. They were just such an overwhelming, well-rounded force each night, you could have a different hero delivering the game-winning hit or the start of his life.
1. 1998 New York Yankees
2. 1927 New York Yankees
3. 1975 Cincinnati Reds
4. 2018 Boston Red Sox