Can anyone score on the Yankees? Why this might be their toughest team … ever

Can anyone score on the Yankees? Why this might be their toughest team … ever post thumbnail image

There are a lot of best-ever queries floating about regarding this year’s New York Yankees. You can understand why: A 52-18 start tends to draw some attention, particularly when it comes from one of baseball’s glamor franchises.

There’s a lot to be excited about: Aaron Judge is on pace to hit 60-plus homers. The Yankees boast a dynamic, five-man rotation that is a combined 27-7 with a 2.88 ERA through Wednesday, among other pitching exploits that have made headlines.

But outside those main headliners, we haven’t heard as much about New York’s run prevention as a whole — and that might be its most impressive stat of all. Through Wednesday, the Yankees were on pace to give up just 488 runs this season. That would be their lowest total in a full season since 1918. We are far enough into the season that it is worth asking: Have the Yankees ever fielded a better run prevention club?

We’re going to focus on the present, but to contextualize what you’re about to read, let’s flash way, way back in Yankees history — back before they were even the Yankees.

The year is 1904. It’s Oct. 10, the last day of the regular season, and the New York Highlanders are hosting the Boston Americans in a doubleheader at long-gone Hilltop Park, located in Washington Heights overlooking the Hudson River, where a hospital now sits.

The Highlanders need to win both games to overtake Boston for the American League pennant, but their hopes are dashed when the Americans win the first game, defeating New York ace “Happy” Jack Chesbro 3-2 when the winning run scores on a famed wild pitch.

Chesbro won 41 games that season, a record for the modern era in baseball among extant leagues that stands little chance of ever being eclipsed. It’s an absurd number but, at the same time, it was a product of the times — the deadball era, when runs were so hard to come by.

How hard? The Highlanders posted a 2.57 team ERA in 1904, a franchise record that still stands. But that figure ranked just fifth of the eight AL teams that season. The league’s aggregate ERA was 2.60, the fifth lowest in the history of the junior circuit.

Here is why we harken back so far in time to bring a little context to what the 2022 Yankees are doing. That Highlanders team gave up a lot of unearned runs, as most teams did back then, so it actually allowed an average of 3.39 runs per game. Still really good — the fifth-best average in Highlanders/Yankees history.

But get this: So far, the 2022 Yankees are giving up 3.01 runs per game, through their win over the Rays on Wednesday. And forget league context for now, where we adjust for era or ballpark or weather conditions or strength of opponent or the alignment of the planets or anything else. That raw figure — 3.01 — is on pace to make this the stingiest run prevention team in the history of the Yankees.

Sure, there is more than half the season to go — but right now, it’s not even that close.

Fewest Runs Per Game Allowed

Yankees Franchise

  1. 2022 (3.01)*

  2. 1981 (3.21)

  3. 1968 (3.24)

  4. 1942 (3.29)

  5. 1904 (3.39)

  6. 1963 (3.40)

  7. 1972 (3.40)

  8. 1957 (3.47)

  9. 1943 (3.50)

  10. 1914 (3.50)

* Through Wednesday

The years listed here tell us something about how amazing this is. Deadball era teams, teams from the World War II years, the squad from a weird strike/split-season year, and several teams from the late 1960s and early 1970s, often called baseball’s second deadball era in the AL.

Some have referred to this season as the “new deadball era,” but it’s kind of silly. Yes, scoring is down, but the rate of runs per game ranks in the 43rd percentile among all seasons of the modern era, which isn’t that extreme. But it might have helped the conditions for something like New York’s extreme stinginess to happen.

In fact, if you look at ERA+ from Baseball Reference, which does adjust for context, this year the Los Angeles Dodgers have been even stingier, with a 147 ERA+, through Tuesday. That, if maintained, would rank among the best figures of all time. The Yankees are at 133. But the Dodgers’ number leans on a good bit of contextualization — L.A. has actually given up about a quarter of a run more per game than New York. And while the Dodgers have been at 140 or better since 2020, the Yankees were at just 114 a season ago.

That now much-improved ERA+ figure — again, if maintained — is another stat that puts this year’s team in the running for stingiest in franchise history.

Highest ERA+

Yankees Franchise

  1. 2022 (132)*

  2. 1939 (132)

  3. 1981 (124)

  4. 1937 (123)

  5. 1927 (122)

  6. 2017 (121)

  7. 1957 (120)

  8. 1942 (119)

  9. 1922 (118)

  10. 1938, 1955, 1997 (117)

*Through Wednesday

You might notice that we keep using the term “run prevention” rather than just referring to the Yankees’ pitching staff. To be sure, the rotation has been great. The bullpen has shined, with Clay Holmes emerging as a premier closer. But these stats are about more than pitching and more than defense — it’s both.

Let’s try to consider this holistically by looking at how this year’s Yankees rate against their predecessors in several categories — some pitching, some fielding.

Strikeouts

The Yankees’ 10 best seasons in strikeouts per nine innings have come since 2012, with this year’s team ranking sixth. That doesn’t tell us much — we all know we are in the midst of baseball’s most intense strikeout era — but it’s worth noting.

Fangraphs publishes a suite of “plus” stats that adjust numbers for context and compare them to league average, much like Baseball Reference does with ERA+. The Yankees’ K/9+ so far is 110, a solid number but one that ranks just 39th in franchise history.

Of the top 10 clubs in Yankees history by runs allowed per game, only the 1981 group ranks among the top 10 by K/9+. This year, the Yankees do rank among the top five clubs in strikeouts, but this isn’t a staff as reliant on whiffs as their past few groups. They still get the strikeouts, but they do a whole lot more than that.

Walks

Here is where this season’s pitchers really start to stand out. The Yankees’ 2.5 walks allowed per nine innings ranks sixth in team history. Their BB/9+ (81) ranks eighth. Among their other top-10 run prevention teams, only the 1914 and the 1942 staffs rated better here.

Home runs

Even after they encountered some trouble in keeping the ball inside the field of play at the Tropicana Dome this past week, the Yankees — by HR/9+ — are on track to put up one of the 10-best adjusted homer-allowed rates in franchise history.

Ratio

In terms of strikeout to walks, the 2022 squad’s 3.64 ratio through Wednesday is not only the best in the majors, but the best in New York history. Among the Yankees’ other top-10 run prevention teams, the second best was the 1904 club at 2.25. This is another statistic that has improved at the league level through time as strikeouts have risen — New York’s six best seasons by this measure have all occurred since 2014. Still, this season is the apex.

BABIP

Here we start to work the defenders into the mix. This is another area in which there have been era-related fluctuations. BABIP is way down this season at the league level — the .288 aggregate mark is the lowest in the majors since 1992. The Yankees are at .265 through Wednesday, third in the majors behind the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays.

That raw figure isn’t elite in franchise history, but according to BABIP+ at Fangraphs, once you put it in context, it ranks among the team’s top 10. Yankee pitchers account for a lot of this, ranking second in the majors in hard-hit percentage allowed, per Statcast, which also measures the expected average allowed by the hurlers at .228 — tied for the best in the majors.

But the fielders have helped. Statcast has the New York defense at roughly league average overall, but Sports Info Solutions has them second in defensive runs saved.

Errors

Like strikeout percentage, fielding percentage is another measure that has gotten persistently higher over time. It’s not a great measure of overall team defense, but it does capture something about the collective sure-handedness of a club.

With that in mind: This year’s Yankees have a .989 team fielding percentage through Wednesday. The team record is .988, set by the 2010 Yankees.

That rotation

We already talked about what the group has done collectively, but it’s not just a matter of their numbers overall — it’s that each of the core five has been outstanding. Whether it’s Luis Severino, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Nestor Cortes or Jordan Montgomery, the Yankees have had the opportunity to get a strong outing from a starter in virtually all of their contests this season. New York’s average game score (58) is tied with the Dodgers for the best in baseball.

It’s hard to compare rotations from today to those of the past, given how much starting pitching has evolved over time, but let’s give it a shot. All five members of that core quintet own an ERA+ of 116 or better while throwing 66 or more innings. Let’s prorate that innings total for a full season and call it a 150-inning minimum. Have the Yankees ever featured five starters that effective, with that kind of a workload?

The question is kind of unfair because five-man rotations used to be unheard of, but, still, the answer is no. The Yankees have had only three seasons in which they’ve had even four starters post ERA+ figures of 116 or better, with a minimum of 150 innings: 1920, 1927 and 1939.

But that barely captures what this New York rotation is doing.

Using those parameters, you have to go back to 1973 to find a Yankees team that had even three pitchers that qualified — Lindy McDaniel, Doc Medich and Mel Stottlemyre. During the five-year span from 2017 to 2021 (and yes, 2020 was truncated), New York had only five pitchers in total who met those standards. Last season, only Cole did it.

There was actually one recent club that had five starters reach a 116 ERA+ with at least 150 innings. The 2017 Arizona Diamondbacks did it with Patrick Corbin, Zack Godley, Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker. Before that, you have to go back to the 1947 St. Louis Cardinals.

What does all this mean for the 2022 Yankees?

So here we have a team having a historically great season with pitching and defense performing at a level we have rarely, if ever, seen out of the denizens of the Bronx.

The Yankees have done everything well and, in many categories, have performed as well as nearly all of their franchise predecessors. And it’s not just a small group of players doing the heavy lifting — it has been a collective effort.

Is this the Yankees’ best run prevention team ever?

Not yet. We can’t make that proclamation with more than half the season to go. But it’s time to take notice, because if they keep doing what they are doing, that title is there for the taking.



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