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Whadda ya Think?


1961 was a good year for the Yankees. However, they were not a great Yankee team, according to Steven Goldman.


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1 Shaun P.   ~  Sep 4, 2009 10:55 am

Steven's right - the attention the '61 team gets is because of Mantle-Maris and the HR chase.

On the flip side, the most under-appreciated Yankee team is certainly the '39 bunch, which are arguably the greatest of them all.

2 thedmondsjr   ~  Sep 4, 2009 11:26 am

I tend to agree with Goldman. The '61 team won it all, but those last few years of the dynasty now seem hollow compared with other, earlier teams and eras. In discussions of the best teams, the Yankee teams of 1949-53 don't seem to come up too often. I am not the historian to nominate them, but I do find it surprising that the group that put together the sport's longest championship streak doesn't have one year that most everyone recognizes as one of the best.

A comment on Steven Goldman's site did want to disqualify the 1998 team from the conversation because of steroids, and sadly, that does seem to be a likely contributor to that team's success. Perhaps asterisks do have a place in the record book?

3 williamnyy23   ~  Sep 4, 2009 11:35 am

The premise is likely correct, but there were a few sloppy arguments. For example, it probably would have been better to compare the Yankees' offense to Detroit's using OPS+ instead of runs. The 1961 team led the AL with an OPS+ of 109, while Detroit finished 2nd at 102 (versus a league rate of 93). That's a pretty impressive record.

4 williamnyy23   ~  Sep 4, 2009 11:36 am

[2] Steroids on the 1998 team? Why does that seem to be a likely contributor to the team's success? What about greenies on the all the teams from the 1950s-1970s? That's a bogus argument, IMHO.

5 monkeypants   ~  Sep 4, 2009 11:43 am

[1] Grrr...you beat me to! The '36-'39 dynasty was probably the greatest of them all, even better than '26-'28, '49-'53, and a litany of non-Yankee dynasties.

[2] They never won 100 games (though it was shorter season, and '43 won 99 games), and only once did their offense crack 900 runs. Their run differentials were 192, 223, 177, 170, and 235. That's very good, but compare to the '36-'39 club: 334 (!), 308 (!), 256, 411 (!!!).

For underrated seasons, what about the 1954 team: 103 wins and they came in second to an insane Indians club. If not for the Indians, the Yankees would have gone to 10 consecutive WS!

6 Rich   ~  Sep 4, 2009 11:44 am

Plus, did steroids really confer a competitive advantage if the competition was doing them as well, as seems likely.

7 monkeypants   ~  Sep 4, 2009 11:48 am

[4] Since Goldman (et al) essentially discounted the Yankees teams of the 1950s and 1960s from the discussion of the all time great teams, that doesn't really help your case. Once could respond: yes, let's put an asterisk next to the greenies teams of the 1950s and 1960s, and next to the steroids clubs of the 1990s and 2000s. That still leaves, for example, the 1936-1939 Yankees dynasty in the discussion, with the '39 club as standard bearer.

8 williamnyy23   ~  Sep 4, 2009 11:56 am

There probably is no definitive way to determine the better team. Do you have to win the World Series? Does the number of HoF'ers count? How many wins? Did you lead in batting? pitching? both? By how much? All of these factors come into play. One thing I like to look at is run differential per game. On that basis, 1961's level of 1.32 ranks as the 20th best team in Yankee history. Below are the top-10 with some notables added:

Rank Year Diff.
1 1939 2.70
2 1927 2.43
3 1936 2.15
4 1931 1.98
5 1937 1.96
6 1942 1.91
7 1998 1.91
8 1932 1.78
9 1953 1.68
10 1938 1.63
20 1961 1.32
34 1977 1.11
36 2009 1.09
39 1930 1.06
78 2000 0.35
105 1990 -0.90
109 1908 -1.64

By this method, the 1939 team is the clear winner, followed by Murder's Row. I think the other criteria I mentioned spit out these two teams as well. The 1998 team ranks very highly here as well.

In the top-10, only the 1931 (finished 2nd) and 1942 (lost WS). The "worst team" to win the WS was the 2000 team, which ranked 78 out of 109. The "best team" to not make the playoffs was the 1931 squad.

In total, only 19 Yankee teams have been outscored and only 2 by more than 1 run. Conversely, 41 Yankees teams outscored their opponent by more than 1 run per game.

9 Shaun P.   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:00 pm

[2] [4] Its all part of context. After all, its not like the '98 Yanks were the only team with guys who might have/were using some sort of illegal substance.

I also seem to recall more than a few laughs at the not-disputed notion that a certain "Chairman of the Board", from time to time, performed some surgery on the ball before he threw it . . . seems like that would be very relevant to the 1961 team, among others . . .

PEDs are just a red herring.

[3] The problem, as ever, with using OPS+ for anything is that it undervalues OBP and overvalues SLG. So, of course its going to show the Yanks (and their superior slugging, .442 vs Detroit's .421) as being "better" than the Tigers (who had the superior OBP, .347 vs .330 for the Yanks).

Since nothing correlates with scoring runs like OBP, I have no problem with Steven's argument there.

Now, if you want to tell me that the '61 Yanks' team EqA was .278, versus the Tigers' .273, and ergo the Yanks were the better offensive team - that I'll go along with.

10 williamnyy23   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:01 pm

[2] The 1949-1953 team ranked 26, 16, 31, 35 and 9 in run differential. The 1953 team probably belongs in the second tier after 1927 and 1939.

[5] 1936 to 1939 was a ridiculous squad. All four teams ranked among the top-10 in terms of run differntial.

11 monkeypants   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:02 pm

[8] Good stuff! I was a little surprised to see the '98 Yankees so "low" on run dif per game--I would have guessed they were #3. Goddam, '27-'32 and '36-'39 (or '41) were smoking runs of dominance.

12 Shaun P.   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:06 pm

I would also like to point out that the first source to teach me that the '39 Yanks may have been the best Yankees team of all team - and indeed, it argues that the '39 Yanks may have been the best MLB team of all time - was this book, Baseball Dynasties, co-authored by Rob Neyer.

Remember that, folks who proclaim Mr. Neyer as a "Yankee hater" - he's on the record as saying a Yankees team is the greatest team in the history of Major League Baseball.

As for the book, because it was written back in 2000, it doesn't quite have all the more advanced metrics and knowledge we have today. Still, its an outstanding read, and IIRC, the argument about the '39 Yanks is ridiculously convincing.

13 rbj   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:08 pm

[7] Heck, we could put asterisks next to every pre-1947 team, as segregation excluded some talented ballplayers, so there were some highly talented players playing against inferior competition.

Asterisks are a mess.

I would say that 1961 was the last, best gasp of a strong dynasty. And while not the greatest team, it was a fairly solid team. But the late 1930s, 1927, and the 1950s teams were better.

14 williamnyy23   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:09 pm

[9] Fair enough, although I wonder if OBPs correlation to runs scored is the same from era to era.

15 monkeypants   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:10 pm

[12] Complaints by Yankees fans about Neyer, whom I used to read religiously when he was free, are definitely exaggerated and usually unwarranted. However, with regards to the statement:

Remember that, folks who proclaim Mr. Neyer as a “Yankee hater” – he’s on the record as saying a Yankees team is the greatest team in the history of Major League Baseball.

This doesn't really say much about whether or not he is a "Yankee hater."

16 Shaun P.   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:10 pm

[8] That is some fine data, william.

[11] If the Yanks hadn't slipped in 1940 - wasn't that the year of the "you can't trade with the team that won the World Series last year" rule? - it would have been 8 straight World Series appearances, and possibly 6 straight wins ('36-'41) (assuming, of course, they would have won the Serious in 1940).

That is just sick.

And only one of those would have been lessened, just a bit, by the folks missing because of WWII.

17 Shaun P.   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:13 pm

[15] monkeypants - Neyer is free once again. Has been for a while, actually.

The arguments about Neyer being a Yankees hater are (in my experience) that he can't be objective when it comes to the Yankees - hence why my statement, that he's written a book that argues the '39 Yanks are the best team of all-time, would refute such baloney. I was thinking primarily of the Mauer-Jeter MVP bantering from a couple weeks back.

Of course he's always going to be a little bitter that his Royals lost to our Yanks so much in the 70s. Are we not bitter about 2001, 2003, 2004 etc? I know I am, just a little.

18 monkeypants   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:16 pm

[13] That's even more bogus than asterisks for PEDs, IMO. All the teams in the pre-1947 era competed under the same rules against the same talent pool (albeit a weaker one). Regarding segregation, no subset--no individual or group of individuals--was enhancing their performance relative to the rest of the league (no team, as far as we know, was dressing up a black guy as one of their players or the like), which would be the comparable behavior to players taking PEDs, etc.

19 monkeypants   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:17 pm

[17] That shows you how long it's been since I looked at ESPN.com!

The arguments about Neyer being a Yankees hater are (in my experience) that he can’t be objective when it comes to the Yankees...

Yes, good point.

20 Shaun P.   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:21 pm

[6] Rich - BTW - Will Carroll tweeted me back late last night. The reason the overlay TJ is so infrequently done is because usually the tear in the UCL is so complete, there's no reason to leave it there.

So that gives me a bit of hope, that Betances's UCL wasn't torn as horribly as most people's.

21 Shaun P.   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:22 pm

[19] I can't blame you. I only go there for Simmons and TMQ, and Neyer and Law's chats. (I read Neyer's blog through an RSS reader.)

22 williamnyy23   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:22 pm

[12] Only the 1906 Cubs have a better run differential per game (2.73 to 2.70) than the 1939 Yankees (although the 1902 Pirates have a higher Pyth WInning % despite having a lower differential/game).

23 williamnyy23   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:28 pm

[18] I disagree. Limiting the talent pool dispropotionately favored better teams who could afford to sign all the top "white talent". Everyone really wasn't impacted in the same way because the better teams could still skim the top players. The PED era is a more equal playing ground because it is likely that players from all teams were using. Unless there is evidence that some teams encouraged their use, it would be hard to believe that there was a disparity of users among teams (unless you argue player + steroids = star = free agency = concentrated among top teams).

24 rbj   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:32 pm

[18] No, it's that the best players, for example Ruth, were sometimes facing inferior competition, such as a pitcher who only had a job because, say Satchel Paige wasn't allowed to play. Did that enhance Ruth's homerun total? I believe so. It doesn't mean it isn't valid, just that there were different circumstances in different eras, such that I do think comparisons across time are not as easy as we once thought.

I am not actually arguing for all the asterisks, just that there are arguments for them on a number of factors.

And given the widespread use of PEDs, it seems there was a fairly level playing field in the steroid era. Sadly, it looks like Jose Canseco is the most believable person out there. As distasteful as it is to write that.

25 williamnyy23   ~  Sep 4, 2009 12:39 pm

[22] Check that...the 1906 Cubs do not have a better differential per game. The 1939 team is the best ever.

Also, for perspective, the worst in MLB history was the 1932 Boston Red Sox, which had a run differential/game of -2.27. That means the 1939 Yankees made their opponents look like the worst teams to every play the game...WITH HALF A RUN TO SPARE.

26 Rich   ~  Sep 4, 2009 1:37 pm

[20] Thanks. That reminds me. Humberto Sanchez's ligament was supposed to be a total mess.

27 monkeypants   ~  Sep 4, 2009 2:08 pm

[23] [24] These are not analogous situations. Yes, Ruth played in the days when the talent pool was smaller and artificially restricted. But he played under the same conditions and restrictions as everyone else in the league at the time. Ruth did not benefit from breaking a rule (written or unwritten) or doing something that not all of his competitors did. It wasn't like he somehow got to play against only white guys, but other players had to play against some non-white opponents. To use your example [24], it is not as if Ruth did not face Paige but other players in the league did.

So, yes, Ruth played against inferior talent. The best player at any given time is always playing against inferior talent.

This is not the same thing as a subset of players in the league gaining (theoretically) an unfair advantage over other players in that same league.

I agree that it is not worth putting asterisks all over the place. But I disagree strongly that the problems raised by the PED era (or the Greenie era) are analogous to those of the segregation era, unless it can be demonstrated that every single player in the league used greenies or PEDs.

28 monkeypants   ~  Sep 4, 2009 2:17 pm

[23] Limiting the talent pool disproportionately favored better teams who could afford to sign all the top “white talent”.

I'm not sure this follows entirely. The talent pool is always limited, inasmuch as the entire universe is not scouted and teams can only sign a finite number of players. Plus, teams with financial advantages always have an advantage in signing the best talent available at the time.

I guess you are arguing that the disparity in talent in MLB is less now than in the old days, but I am not convinced that desegregation had as much of an impact on that as is often posited. Unless one believes that non-white players are inherently better athletes, desegregation of the league only increased the potential talent pool by around, say, 10 or 12%.

A more significant expansion of the effective talent pool has resulted from more systematic scouting, both within and outside the US. Though here to, it follwos that teams with more money can afford to scout and sign more widely.

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