Greatest Yankees team ever? Stay tuned

It's been a superlative start to the season for the Yankees. But what does it mean after just 3½ weeks?

Originally Published: April 24, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

They're rampaging through April like no Yankees team ever has. They've chewed up playoff teams. They've won series in three time zones, five cities, four states and Canada. They never lose. They never trail. They never sweat.

"They're like Tyrannosaurus Rex," Torii Hunter said the other day after the Yankees had finished wiping out the Twins for the seventh straight game by a combined score of 49-13. "Get them out of here. I'll get them a cab."

Jason Giambi
Jason Giambi whiffed a career-high 140 times in 2003.

You know, Tyrannosaurus Rex could never find a cab when he needed one, either. But traffic was lighter then. Tickets were cheaper. And George Steinbrenner-saurus had yet to roam the earth.

Nowadays, though, Joe Torre's favorite owner-saurus has assembled the best team $152.7 million can buy. So it's time once again for one of the most ridiculous, but entertaining debates, we could possibly toss out there in the fourth week of April:

Could this be (gulp) the best Yankees team of them all?

We'll pause now to allow Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to roll over in their graves. Now we'll move on with our topic du jour.

"It's way too early to make any statements like that," said Gordon Blakely, the Yankees senior vice president for baseball operations. "We've played (21) games. It would be one thing if we'd played 100 games. But you know, I can remember a team a few years ago (i.e., the '98 Yankees) that won 125 games (counting the postseason). I don't know if this team -- or anybody -- could ever come close to doing that."

Well, if that's true, somebody had better tell these Yankees before they look up in a month or so and find themselves 50-6. Because they've got a chance. Consider some of their outrageous credentials so far:

  • Through Wednesday, they were undefeated (9-0) against the two teams that went on to play in last year's ALCS without them -- the Twins and Angels.

  • These Yankees lost as many times in their first 21 games (three) as the '98 Yankees lost in their first FOUR games.

  • All three of this team's losses were by one run. And in those three losses, the Yankees had the winning run on base in the ninth inning of one, and the go-ahead run in scoring position in the eighth inning in the other two.

  • This is where Jamie Langenbrunner would no doubt be wondering: What's their plus-minus ratio? Whew, the Yankees were outscoring their opponents through Wednesday, 151-65. Which comes to more than four runs a game. Or 663 runs for the season. To put that in perspective, the '98 Yankees and 2001 Mariners finished a combined 136 games over .500 -- and didn't outscore the opposition by that many runs COMBINED. Those two were plus-609.

    The Yanks ... and the rest
    How the Yankees' starting pitching stacks up against the major-league average for starters:
      NYY Avg.
    IP 146 120
    W-L 16-0 7-7
    ERA 2.53 4.47
    SO 122 81
    HR 4 14
    Through 4/23    

  • It doesn't matter when you turn on a Yankees game. It's always safe to ask: How much are they winning by? In their first 18 wins, they trailed for a total of five innings. They never trailed in those games by more than two runs. And only twice in those games did the other team manage to hold a lead for more than a half-inning.

  • To pull that off, it helps to take a lead early. And these Yankees are the kings of that. They've taken the lead in the first inning in 12 of their first 21 games.

  • Through Wednesday, the Yankees still had as many homers as the Tigers had runs (43). But the Yankees also have more home runs from every spot in their batting order than the Tigers have from any spot in their order, except for the No. 9 spot (from which the Yankees have gotten just one homer).

  • By the way, did we mention the Yankees' starting pitchers? They were the first rotation to start a season 16-0 since the 1884 St. Louis Maroons of the late, great United Association, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. If you toss out the Red Sox's big three (Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield), the other starting pitchers in the AL East had a TOTAL of 17 wins.

    We could go on like this all week. But that would evade the big question -- which is: What does all this mean?

    Well, most years, with most teams, we'd say not much. Our first-month rule of thumb is this: April tells us what a team can be, but doesn't always tell us what a team WILL become.

    Last year, for example, it sure didn't tell us much about the team that won the World Series -- those Angels were 11-14 last April. And this year, we know we haven't heard anyone start debating whether this is the best Royals team ever. Because we know that in the six-month march to October, stuff happens. And ALWAYS does.

    But there is something about the Yankees in general -- and something about these Yankees in particular -- that makes this debate worth having. Such as:

    Who they're missing

    Derek Jeter
    Shortstop
    New York Yankees
    Profile
    2002 SEASON STATISTICS
    G AB BA HR RBI SB
    157 644 .297 18 75 32
    "The most amazing thing about this team," said astute Elias historian and analyst Steve Hirdt, "is that if you'd said this winter, 'Who are the Yankees' three most important players?' almost everyone would have said (Derek) Jeter, (Mariano) Rivera and (Jason) Giambi. But two of them (Jeter and Rivera) essentially haven't played at all. And the other one (Giambi) is hitting, what, .190?" OK, actually .200 on the nose.

    Frightening. Nevertheless, we're announcing right here, right now, that no one will be permitted to say that when all these guys get rolling, the Yankees will be better -- because that's impossible. But it's also true that at shortstop, Erick Almonte has proven he's far from ready for the big leagues. And the no-Mo bullpen is 20th overall in ERA at 4.89 -- higher than the Tigers.

    So it will be permissible to say, as Twins GM Terry Ryan does, that when those two get back, this team "will be some kind of good." You can start practicing that one now.

    The lineup
    This offense is averaging more than seven runs a game. It has been held under five runs only five times. It has out-homered the opposition, 43-6. But those are just numbers. It's more than that, even.

    Bernie Williams
    Outfielder
    New York Yankees
    Profile
    2003 SEASON STATISTICS
    G AB BA HR RBI SB
    21 82 .390 5 22 2

    "I think some things have become very apparent," Blakely said. "When a guy of the calibre of Raul Mondesi is hitting eighth, it tells you something. And this lineup goes right-left, right-left all the way down the order, with two real quality switch hitters (Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada) in the middle."

    We won't even get into comparing this lineup with the '27, '39 or '61 Yankees. But compare it to 1998 and you would take this one.

    That 1998 lineup went: Chuck Knoblauch, Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Williams, the DH (mostly Chili Davis or Tim Raines), the left fielder (Chad Curtis or Shane Spencer), Posada, Scott Brosius.

    Compare that to this team. Alfonso Soriano is an upgrade on Knoblauch. Hideki Matsui blows away Curtis or Spencer in left. Posada is better than he was five years ago. Robin Ventura and Brosius are close. The only edge the '98 Yankees get is O'Neill over Mondesi. Scary.

    The rotation
    Presenting the only team in the big leagues with five No. 1 starters -- the 2003 Yankees with Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, David Wells, Andy Pettitte and Jeff Weaver. Which explains how a team kicks off the year with 16 straight wins by its rotation (and we won't even mention two other potential wins blown by the bullpen).

    Mike Mussina
    Starting pitcher
    New York Yankees
    Profile
    2003 SEASON STATISTICS
    IP W-L H BB SO ERA
    29.0 4-0 21 7 33 1.86

    "We never saw Weaver," Ryan said. "But we never even put a dent in Clemens, Wells, Mussina or Pettitte. And I really don't think it's because we're not hitting. They're that good. They made that many good pitches. They got their changeups over and their knuckle-curves over and their splitters over. They were on their game."

    Unless you're a Wilcy Moore fan, you'd have a tough time arguing the '27 Yankees had a rotation this deep and this good. Unless you think Steve Sundra was every bit as great as his 11-1 record, you'd be hard-pressed to claim that after Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez, the back end of the '39 rotation was this dominating.

    And Clemens-Pettitte-Wells-Mussina-Weaver is certainly no worse than the '98 rotation (David Cone-Pettitte-Wells-Hideki Irabu-El Duque). Oh sure, the records look spectacular on all these staffs -- but "they're the Yankees," Hirdt said. "SOMEBODY had to get the win every day."

    Before we continue, though, we want to reassure you here that we haven't totally lost our minds. We recognize that the last team to start a season 18-3 was the '87 Brewers, who went on to finish third in the AL East. We recognize that when a team has two key starters as old as Clemens (40) and Wells (40 next month), there is no assurance they'll spin off five more months (plus October) just like this one.

    We recognize the one constant in all the Yankees' title runs from 1996-2000 was the bullpen -- and this is the shakiest of the bunch. Although, as Hirdt helpfully points out, you would give this bullpen the edge over the 1927 bullpen, "because I don't think bullpens were invented yet in '27."

    We recognize that only six members of this team were around the last time the Yankees won a World Series, so we have no idea how they'll respond if they have to head into October with the pressure of HAVING to win to validate their greatness.

    It's one thing to have hot streaks. But to maintain it for 3 weeks -- and not just against Tampa Bay, but by going 9-0 against Minnesota and Anaheim -- is kind of a signal.
    Steve Hirdt, Elias Sports Bureau

    Nevertheless, when any team goes 18-3 the way this one has -- when it dominates real, live major-league teams the way this one has -- there comes a point when you conclude it's no fluke. Well, if we haven't reached that point yet, it's not many exits ahead.

    "Sometimes in baseball," Hirdt said, "you'll see something so overwhelming that you regard it as a special measure of a special talent. Like Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game. Nobody has a game that good unless they're something special. And these Yankees have had 3½ weeks like that.

    "It's one thing to have hot streaks. But to maintain it for 3½ weeks -- and not just against Tampa Bay, but by going 9-0 against Minnesota and Anaheim -- is kind of a signal. You begin moving away from saying this is an isolated case to where you say, 'This is significant.' "

    Hmmm. So how significant? Only the 140 games to come -- and the month after that -- will tell us. But this team has done more in 3½ weeks than make it safe to start printing playoff tickets. It has put itself in position to be a team of this, or any, century.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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