The Greatest Team Ever

Any discussion of greatest teams is necessarily subjective.  As many objective measures are brought into the debate as possible, but there is little consensus on what is the appropriate measure of absolute greatness.  Yesterday the Yankees won their 102nd game, tying them for the 11th winningest team in Yankee history.  If they won out, which if unlikely given the rest they will be giving to their best players, 106, tied for 5th in Yankee history with the team that I think is the best ever to play the game, the 1939 Yankees.

The 1939 Yankees went 106-45 in 151 games (losing three to cancellation.)  106 wins ties them for 15th all time, and the .702 winning percentage puts them in 10th place.  However, half of the teams above them did not win the World Series, the 1906 Cubs, 1931 Athletics, 1954 Indians, and 2001 Mariners.  (The 1902 Pirates played before the first World Series, which they lost to the Red Sox the next season.)  That narrows consideration to the 1909 Pirates, the 1927 Yankees, the 1907 Cubs, and the 1998 Yankees.  The Cubs led the league in wins, ERA, and shutouts.  They were no more than an average hitting team.  To claim status as the best team ever, you need to excel in both areas.  The Pirates have the opposite problem.  They led the league in almost all hitting categories but trailed well behind the Cubs in pitching.  In fact, they only won the league by 6.5 games over the two-time defending champion Cubs.  They were certainly an outstanding team but not the greatest.

The 1998 Yankees have the third most victories in a single season.  The pitching staff lead the league in ERA, complete games, and shutouts, while the hitters lead in runs, RBI’s, and walks.  In both cases you see superiority, but not total dominance.  The fielded two regulars who will be Hall of Famers, Jeter and Rivera, and one other possibility in Tim Raines.  They also cruised through the postseason, 3-0, 4-2, and 4-0.  While this is an outstanding team, it is hard to call them the greatest ever.  They did not dominate as completely as the two ahead of them.

The 1927 Yankees are probably called the greatest ever more often than any other team.  They won the league by 19 games, slightly above the 17 game lead of the 1939 team and slightly behind the 22 game division lead of the 1998 team.  They lead the league in all major hitting categories except doubles and stolen bases, while also leading the league in shutouts and ERA.  They fielded six Hall of Famers, Ruth Gehrig, Lazzeri, Combs, Pennock, and Hoyt.  They swept the World Series.  The 1939 Yankees were the crowing achievement of one of baseball great dynasties, the 1936-1939 Yankees.  They fielded five Hall of Famers, DiMaggio, Dickey, Ruffing, Gomez, and Gehrig, though they lost Gehrig after 8 games.  They led the league in runs, RBI’s, slugging percentage, home runs, saves, complete games, shutouts, and ERA.  Their hitting was not as good as the 1927 team.  Ruth and Gehrig will do that to you.  Their pitching, in contrast, was substantially better than either the 1927 or 1998 versions.  The 1939 Yankees had a run differential (runs scored – runs allowed) of +411, better than 1927’s +376 or 1998’s +309, primarily because they gave up less runs (1927 – 599, 1939 – 556, 1998 – 656) than either of their competitors without being outscored. (The 1927 Yankees scored 975 runs, 1939 – 967, 1998 – 965)

None of these teams would be a bad pick as the best team ever.  However, I think that superior pitching gives the 1939 Yankees an ever so slight edge.

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5 Comments on “The Greatest Team Ever”

  1. tracking back The Greatest Team Ever… tracking back The Greatest Team Ever…

  2. verdun Says:

    There have been a lot of great teams in baseball history. I’d never want to claim this as the greatest team, but certainly the most overlooked quality team has to be the 1942-46 Cardinals.

    • sportsphd Says:

      That Cardinal team runs into three problems: It never repeats, even though it wins three pennants in a row from 1942-44. Second, it gets downgraded because of WW2; people just ignore the 1946 title. Third, all of the pitchers get hurt. None of them turn into Hall of Famers. Mort Cooper is outstanding, then he is done. Johnny Beazley, Max Lanier, Howie Pollet, all have the same problem. Only Murry Dickson has a full career, and he is the weakest of the lot. People forget how good that staff was.

      • verdun Says:

        Agreed on the pitchers. The outfield is good (Musial, Moore, Slaughter) and the left side of the infield ain’t bad (Kurowski, Marion), but the rest of the starters, and they change over the seasons aren’t much (Walker Cooper excepted). A big problem is no bench (except Schoendienst in 46). Still a quality team, but largely forgotten.

        Another is the 72-74 A’s that win 3 in a row and nobody cares.

  3. sportsphd Says:

    One additional thought on this topic, and the Cardinals in particular. Using batting average and ERA as our measures, only 5 teams have led the league in both while winning the World Series in the same season: 1927 Yankees, 1939 Yankees, 1944 Cardinals, 1955 Dodgers, and the 1986 Mets. That puts the Cardinals among the most elite company possible.

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