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.]