The 1998 Yanks: Great or Lucky?

There was something magical about the Yankees 1998 campaign; indeed, it seemed special long before they clinched the division with their astonishing 114-48 record, and long before they steamrolled through the playoffs on an absurd 11-2 run. From the very beginning of the year they seemed blessed. They won all the time. They came from behind. When they needed a bloop hit to win, they got one. A homer or a strikeoout or a defensive play? Those came, too. Their greatness took on an almost moral dimension: they had no single star, no dominant player—here, finally, was the team that was indisputably greater than the sum of its parts.

Or maybe it was just all luck. That, at least, is the suggestion of a facsinating new study by Phil Birnbaum in SABR‘s Baseball Research Journal. Factoring in a number of criteria (cumulative ERA, runs created, etc.), Birnbaum has calculated just how much luck—and we all know there is luck in baseball—has played in Major League seasons from 1960-2001. Among his conclusions: the 1998 Yankees were the second luckiest team in that span (he calculates their luck-adjusted record at, gulp, 92-70). The luckiest team of all? Lou P’s 2001 Mariners. (Yeah, they were lucky, and it showed in the playoffs.) Also extremely lucky: Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 Pirates, who Yankee fans know were lucky indeed. The greatest team in this period, with luck is adjusted out? The 1969 Orioles, followed by the team the 1996 Yanks beat in the WS, the Braves. The unluckiest team? The 1962 Mets. Now that’s adding insult to injury.

Make of it all what you will. This much we know: lucky or not, 1998 sure was fun.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post originally appeared with 2 awful factual inaccuracies, those being that the Yankees went 11-1 in their 1998 playoff run, and that the team they beat in the WS was the Braves, and not the Padres. We apologize for these gross errors. We know better. It was a long day. Thanks to Dave Pinto for pointing out the mistakes, which we dutifully acknowledge and have repaired.]

14 comments… add one
  • That ’98 Yankee team, and this is coming from one of the most die-hard Sox fans walking aroung Connecticut, was one of the greatest teams ever put together. They had what every team, in every season strives for, and that’s chemistry. They pleayed for each other every day. They did not care about the money (unlike say, everyone on that team now) but they got dirty an played for the pride of the man batting or pitching next. As a Sox fan, or even as a fan in general, that team goes down as one of the best teams ever in my book, and luck has absolutely nothing to do with it.
    As a person who has played on several teams in my life, luck is what the team makes of it. If a team gets a good bounce, they still have to make it work for them in the end; if a batter owns a pitcher, he still has to go out and do what he’s done in the past – and those things are exactly what that team did.
    Much like the 04 Red Sox (and I’m not starting a comparison) those guys loved each other and they had a common goal, and that’s why they were great. They all wanted the same thing, and aside from winning the game, they wanted to pull through for the next in line. Yankees or Red Sox, those are beautiful moments in our lives as fans, and we should cherish them for what they are –
    and it has nothing to do with luck.

    Brad January 29, 2006, 6:07 am
  • Yankees fans, living in the past. The worm has turned.
    Just kidding – nice posts.

    SF January 29, 2006, 7:20 am
  • I just wanted to correct a couple of factual errors. The 1998 Yankees were 11-2 in the post season, losing games 2 and 3 to Cleveland in the ALCS. The Yankees played the Padres, not the Braves in 1998. The Yankees swept Atlanta in 1999.

    David Pinto January 29, 2006, 8:04 am
  • This is one of those cases where stats are doing what the statistician tells them to.
    For years, Bill James said clutch hitters were a myth. But he’s changed his mind: look here.
    There are players like Jeter and Willie Mays who are winning players, who put themselves in those turning points that determine the outcome of many baseball games and make the winning play. When Willie was old and playing first he still did it.
    Do any Sox fans think Ortiz’s clutch hitting last year was just luck?

    john January 29, 2006, 11:05 am
  • Is Damon also a winning player? It will be interesting to see how this plays out this year. Crisp is a good player, but Johnny D may have the advantage in the intangibles.

    john January 29, 2006, 11:19 am
  • much as this post makes me gag as a red sox fan, as a pats fan i’d have to say the run of great teams is probably both–greatness AND luck.
    now i have to go scrub out my brain with some clorox and steel wool.

    Beth January 29, 2006, 11:39 am
  • Beth,
    Not to point out the obvious to you, but there was nothing GREAT about any of those Pats teams. That’s what made them special: their willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other and play together for a common goal. The chemistry is what makes them good. Well, that and guys like Vrabel, McGinnest, Law, Bruschi, and a host of other defensive juggernauts that somehow turn Billy boy into a “defensive mastermind”.
    It’s not a knock aginst them or anything, but the Pats are probably the least special, uninteresting team to ever have a run like that. They just did their job in a bad division, and got the ball to bounce their way. So winning 115 baseball games in a year can’t ever be put in the same catergory as squeezing out 18 game winning field goals in three years (not to mention in some of the biggest games)
    The only thing remotely special about the Pats is Adam V, and it’s that simple.
    Just give the credit where it’s due.
    Oh, and good luck with the steel wool thingy.

    Brad January 29, 2006, 11:52 am
  • “Not to point out the obvious to you, but there was nothing GREAT about any of those Pats teams.”
    As a Wesleyan grad, I wanted to point out the obviously great part of the Pats: He wears a baggy grey hooded sweatshirt and his last name ends in “chick”.

    Nick January 29, 2006, 12:14 pm
  • Wesleyan? I’m an Eph, Nick. Class of ’90.
    As for the Pats, I disagree with Brad. Not only is their coach truly great, but so is Rodney Harrison (pre-injury), Brady, Bruschi, Seymour, I could go on. The false premise that the Pats were not stocked with “great” players but were merely a great assemblage of role players demeans many of the guys who would be stars anywhere, and it’s an argument that is a phony slap by those who can’t stand their success. YF himself thinks very little of Brady.

    SF January 29, 2006, 12:40 pm
  • The estimable Dave Pinto points out two inexcusable errors. Apologies. That’s what happens when we post at 11:30, after an exceedingly long day. Mea Culpa.

    YF January 29, 2006, 3:39 pm
  • I think very little of Brady? I think Brady is a fine, fine quarterback. Put him in Canton. I won’t object. It’s just that he’s no Joe Montana. (Or Marino, for that matter.) I’d compare him to Aikman, and does anyone seriously think of him as the game’s greatest ever?
    Getting back to the subject at hand, I quote Branch Rickey: “Luck is the residue of design.”

    YF January 29, 2006, 4:16 pm
  • What’s an Eph?
    Williams, SF? I guess we’re just natural rivals. Though I’m 10 years your junior (a little older than Coco Crisp, and younger than Damon). I offer greater roster and payroll flexibility. In turn, you’d be the youngest pitcher on either team’s staff.

    Nick January 30, 2006, 12:39 pm
  • Put the Pats teams up against say the Steelers teams of the 70’s and you’ll see the difference between luck and greatness.
    How many HOFers did the ’78 Steelers have in the starting lineup?

    lp January 30, 2006, 4:31 pm
  • Eph, SF, HOF — sounds like a Dr. Seuss book in the making.
    Scroll down here to the article about the 1999 Braves and Yankees: “”It’s a team plan,[Smoltz said]. They attack the pitcher with the same plan no matter who’s there. They are so disciplined. They don’t go up free-hacking. The Yankees play like a National League team. They do all the things they have to do to win. I don’t know in 1996 if I felt this way. I thought we should have won. You can’t say we should have won this Series. You can’t feel we were the better team — no way.”
    Jones, especially, was overwhelmed by the Yankees’ pitching staff, which held the Braves’ hitters to a desperate .200 batting average. He likened Clemens’s pitches to a chainsaw slicing through the strike zone, and paid homage to a team that had had to battle the long shadow cast by last year’s record-setting season.
    “I played that team they had last year,” Jones said. “I didn’t think I’d ever seen a ball club stronger from 1 to 25 than they were. If it’s possible, I think this team is better. They didn’t win as many games in the regular season, but they were just as dominant in the post-season. It was their pitching. We’ve got some guys who are capable of swinging the bats and they shut us down. Roger Clemens was as good as I’ve ever seen him. It’s a dominant performance by the staff that earned them the sweep.”
    Greg Maddux joked that the Braves had to be pretty good to lose so many World Series — four of the five they played in the 1990’s. But he was more impressed with the Yankees’ phenomenal number: 12 straight victories in World Series games, dating to the four games in a row the Yankees won from the Braves in 1996 after the Braves had taken a 2-0 lead in the Series. The Yankees have not lost in the World Series since and have lost just three playoff games in the last two seasons.
    “It’s amazing that they’ve won 12 straight,” Maddux said. “It’s hard enough just to play in 12 games, let alone win them all. That’s something I would stick my head up really high about, if I had that number on my side.”

    john January 30, 2006, 5:34 pm

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