162 games down, who knows how many more to go? The day between the end of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs is a day filled with equal parts anxiety and optimism as fans. Whether your team cruised to a postseason berth with the best record in the league or squeaked into the playoffs as a Wild Card on the last day of the season, you spend the day dreaming of hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy while simultaneously fretting over how it could all come crashing down.
For the 1998 Yankees, the hard part was done. They’d won 114 regular season games, setting the record for most wins in a regular season. What came next, though, remained the monumental task of winning the 11 games necessary to make that record worth it — because as the 2001 Seattle Mariners and 2007 New England Patriots can tell you, nobody cares about your regular season success if you don’t cap it off with a title.
With the 1998 baseball world quiet today to prepare for the Division Series, let’s take a quick journey through the other seven teams that made the postseason that year, and see how they got there.
AL Wild Card: Boston Red Sox (92-70)
Top position player: Nomar Garciaparra (7.1 bWAR)
Top pitcher: Pedro Martínez (7.1 bWAR)
Most seasons, the Boston Red Sox would have been counted among the favorites for the American League pennant. Their 107 OPS+ ranked fourth in the Junior Circuit, and their 113 ERA+ second. They boasted the runner-up for both the MVP, Nomar Garciaparra, and Cy Young, Pedro Martínez. On top of that, their 92 wins represented, thanks to the Yankees serving as such an outlier, as the second-best record in the league.
Even so, the 1998 Red Sox had shades of the 2022 Yankees, not so much in team makeup (they had a good mix of youth and veterans) but in a top-heavy roster construction. Boston only had three hitters with more than 500 plate appearances and an OPS+ over 100, Garciaparra (140), Mo Vaughn (153), and John Valentin (101). While catcher Scott Hatteberg also had an OPS+ of 107 in 410 plate appearances, Boston had a revolving door at DH that, while successful (Reggie Jefferson, Mike Stanley, Jim Leyritz, and Midre Cummings each posted an OPS+ above 120 in 150-250 plate appearances apiece), nonetheless demonstrated a lack of organizational satisfaction with the lineup.
Similarly, the starting rotation was headlined by Martínez and an electric bullpen led by closer Tom Gordon, both of which contributed to the unit’s overall dominance. But again, Boston struggled to find a good mix behind them. The Red Sox employed ten different starters, a number that sounds even higher when you realize that Martínez, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, and veteran Bret Saberhagen each made 30+ starts apiece.
AL West Champion: Texas Rangers (88-74)
Top position player: Iván Rodríguez (6.4 bWAR)
Top pitcher: Rick Helling (3.6 bWAR)
The 1998 Texas Rangers were an enigma. 1998 AL MVP Juan González, catcher Iván Rodríguez, and first baseman Will Clark headlined a lineup that ranked third in OPS+ (108), second in runs/game (5.80), and first in hits (1637). Reinforced by a midseason trade for Todd Zeile (106 OPS+, replacing Fernando Tatis’ 70), they were able to build a lineup that was a veritable championship contender.
But that pitching staff was something else. Their 5.38 runs/game was the third-worst in the AL, behind the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals — two teams that finished under .500 in the lackluster Central division. While Rick Helling and Aaron Sele gave them a decent, albeit unspectacular, 1-2 punch atop the rotation, the parade of arms that followed them wouldn’t look out of place on the 2023 Oakland Athletics, a team that lacks an above-average starting pitcher. It was only thanks to a midseason trade for Todd Stottlemyre, acquired from the Cardinals, that Texas had something resembling a respectable postseason rotation at all.
Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t be too harsh to judge them. They did, after all, come face-to-face with the Yankees in the Division Series.
AL Central Champion: Cleveland (89-73)
Top position player: Kenny Lofton (6.0 bWAR)
Top pitcher: Bartolo Colon (4.4 bWAR)
Following a script that wouldn’t seem out of place in the mid-2010s, Cleveland coasted to the AL Central title as the only team to finish above 80 wins. Despite their easy path to the postseason, however, they were no joke. Just look at their lineup in Game 1 of the ALDS:
Kenny Lofton, one of the best leadoff hitters of his generation, who boasted a .371 OBP and 54 steals in 1998. David Justice, a veteran outfielder whose best days were behind him but who was still capable of changing the game with one swing of the bat. Jim Thome, the future Hall of Famer who was already in his eighth season at age 27. Brian Giles, who would go on to have a .400 OBP over his 15-year-career. Manny Ramírez, a player Yankees fans unfortunately need no introduction to. Although their regular season performance collectively led a lot to be desired — they finished the year with a team OPS+ of just 103, eighth in the AL — there were few resting spots for a pitcher and many danger zones.
On the mound, Cleveland’s pitching staff was filled with names that either already were or would become familiar to Yankees fans. Their best starter was unquestionably Bartolo Colon, who posted a 3.71 ERA (128 ERA+) in 31 starts in an All-Star sophomore season. Offseason signing Dwight Gooden had spent the previous two years in the Bronx, earning a ring in 1996. And Jaret Wright, then a 22-year-old youngster with promise who had tortured the ‘97 Yankees, would spend two seasons in pinstripes towards the end of his career, part of Brian Cashman’s attempt to rebuild the rotation after the disaster that was 2004.
Arguably the most impressive player on the staff, however, was closer Michael Jackson, whose 1.55 ERA earned him down-ballot votes for the AL MVP.
NL Wild Card: Chicago Cubs (90-73)
Top position player: Sammy Sosa (6.5 bWAR)
Top pitcher: Kerry Wood (3.8 bWAR)
The 1998 season was an important year in the history of the Chicago Cubs organization. Prior to spring training, renowned broadcaster Harry Caray passed away; he had been broadcasting games in Chicago for more than 25 years. Then, rookie pitcher Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in his fifth major league start, giving him a share in a record that still stands today. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, playing on rival teams in the divisions, chased — and eventually surpassed — Roger Maris’s single-season home run record. The breakout star Sosa would end up with 66 dingers and the NL MVP. Lastly, by clinching a Wild Card berth, the Cubs returned to the postseason for the first time since 1989.
Of course, this being the Cubs, this wasn’t exactly a straightforward trip to the postseason. As one could tell from the section heading, Chicago did not win the Wild Card outright. Thanks in part to a Brant Brown disaster, they required a one-game playoff against the San Francisco Giants, a “Game 163,” that actually took place on September 28th. They would win 5-3, holding off a ninth-inning rally by San Fran to earn a trip to the postseason.
Unfortunately for them, that trip would be short-lived, as they would get swept in three straight by the Braves due to their lack of quality pitching besides Wood and the Braves’ ability to shut down their potent lineup.
NL Central Champion: Houston Astros (102-60)
Top position player: Craig Biggio (6.5 bWAR)
Top pitcher: Mike Hampton (4.4 bWAR)
Oh, how I pine for the days when the Astros were the National League’s problem, not ours! Houston represented, on paper, the best chance at knocking off the potent Atlanta Braves, who had been to the World Series in two of the previous three years. The Killer B’s — Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, plus Sean Berry and Derek Bell — gave the Stros the best lineup in the Senior Circuit: their 109 OPS+ led the league, as did their 5.40 runs/game.
Although they boasted one of the league’s better pitching rotations heading into the trade deadline, headed by Mike Hampton, it nonetheless paled in comparison to Atlanta’s star-studded staff. And so, the Houston front office went out and acquired the biggest fish on the trade market: Seattle Mariners starter Randy Johnson, who already had one Cy Young and three more top-three finishes to his name. It would go down as one of, if not the best, trade deadline acquisitions of all time, at least when only the regular season is considered. The Big Unit made 11 starts for Houston, and only once did he not go at least seven innings, spinning four complete game shutouts along the way. Despite being on the team for just two months, he put up 4.0 bWAR, the second-most on the team among pitchers.
NL East Champion: Atlanta Braves (106-56)
Top position player: Andruw Jones (7.4 bWAR)
Top pitcher: Greg Maddux (7.1 bWAR)
No matter how you put it, the Braves were on paper head and shoulders above the rest of the National League. Do you like looking at numbers? Their 107 OPS+ and 5.10 runs/game ranked third in the NL, and their 128 ERA+ was ten points better than the second place Astros (118). Their lineup contained five players with at least 130 games played and an OPS_ above 115, and their starting rotation contained three pitchers with an ERA+ of at least 144 and 26+ starts; for comparison, the Yankees did not have a single pitcher with an ERA+ that high.
Do you like looking at legacy? The Braves had been to the NLCS in each of the three previous seasons, including two trips to the World Series, and they had not won fewer than 94 games in any full season since 1990. Their starting third baseman, Chipper Jones, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz would join him. Kevin Millwood, their No. 4 starter, would go on to have a 16-year career and would finish third in the Cy Young vote in 1999. Their No. 5 starter, Denny Neagle, had come in third in 1997. Andruw Jones would win ten Gold Gloves. These guys brought home a lot of hardware.
And yet, baseball’s a funny thing. Despite their dominance in the regular season and their breezy sweep of the Cubs in the NLDS, the Braves would not get a rematch of the 1996 World Series, because of the...
NL West Champion: San Diego Padres (98-64)
Top position player: Greg Vaughn (6.3 bWAR)
Top pitcher: Kevin Brown (9.1 bWAR)
The 1998 Padres were a very good team, make no mistake about it. They won 98 games, taking the NL West by 9.5 games. A veteran lineup, led by future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, left fielder Greg Vaughn, third baseman Kevin Caminiti, and first baseman Wally Joyner, powered an offense that chronically underperformed — they finished with just a 100 OPS+ as a team despite containing four players with at least a 124. Kevin Brown and Andy Ashby carried a pitching staff that included a lot of dead weight at its end, and Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman ensured that anything close wound up as a Padres win.
And yet, in a year dominated by superteams, when the Yankees won 114 games and coasted to a World Series win, when the Braves and Astros each topped the century mark in wins, it was the Padres — a team whose run differential says they should have only won 93 games — who would represent the National League in the World Series.