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Winning with pitching has never been the Yankees’ style

What was the greatest Yankees team ever? There’s no single correct answer. Whether you favor 1927, 1961, or 1998, every legendary Yankees roster had one commonality: sluggers were the stars of the show. All the classic Yankees teams featured good pitching, but absolutely monstrous offense.

The 2021 Yankees have flipped that script— at least so far. The offensive production, on the whole, has been mediocre. Their 3.93 runs per game is near the bottom of the American League, ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, and Detroit Tigers— all of whom will finish well below .500. Their .228 team batting average is their lowest since 1968. Offense is down all over MLB this season, but the Yankees’ bats have grown colder than most.

The reason the team remains afloat is their incredible pitching. Their 3.5 runs allowed per game and 470 strikeouts are tops in the AL. They’ve shut out their opposition eight times— better than once every six games. Gerrit Cole is the best pitcher in the league right now and Aroldis Chapman is compiling one of the greatest seasons ever by a reliever, but virtually every other pitcher who takes the mound in pinstripes has been phenomenal.

This is a historical anomaly. The Murderers Row Yankees were all about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, not Waite Hoyt and Urban Shocker. Just how rare is a pitching-forward Yankees team, exactly?

Finding a balance

Before digging into how well each Yankees roster pitched and hit, it’s important to adjust for run-scoring context. Both the 1978 and 1999 clubs won the World Series, but scoring was much lower across MLB in Reggie Jackson’s heyday than it was in Derek Jeter’s. Looking at a pure counting stat, such as runs scored, doesn’t allow for accurate comparisons across eras.

An adjusted stat, such as wRC+, compares overall offense relative to the rest of the league in any given season. Reggie’s 1978 slash line of .274/.356/.477 is pretty similar to Paul O’Neill’s .285/.353/.459 from 1999, but Reggie had a 138 wRC+ and O’Neill’s was 108. Their context-independent numbers were very close, but because Reggie accomplished it in a less hitter-friendly era, his overall production was 38 percent better than league average whereas O’Neill was only 8 percent above the mean.

If we want to compare 2021 to 1999, 1978, and every other Yankees team going back to 1903, we have to use adjusted stats. For pitching, we’ll use FIP- and R-, two adjusted stats that show how much better FIP and runs allowed were than league average. On the offense, we’ll use wRC+ and R+ (runs scored compared to league average) to achieve the same goal. Averaging our two pitching stats and two hitting stats will give a pitching and offense score for every Yankees season.

Putting 2021 in context

The 2021 Yankees have a pitching score of 118 so far, which is 18 percent better than the league average. If they can maintain it for the full season, this will be the best in team history, surpassing the 1981 Yankees’ 117 mark. Their offense score this year is 95, or five percent worse than the league average. This is their lowest since 2016 when they finished in fourth place in the AL East.

This disparity is unprecedented in the history of the club. Their pitching score is 23 points higher than their offense score. Usually, it’s the other way around— especially when they’re winning.

Their previous high for pitching dominating offense was 17, set in 1903, 1914, and 1969. Those aren’t exactly the M&M Boys or Core Four clubs. In those years, they finished 72-62 (fourth place), 70-84 (sixth place), and 80-81 (fifth place).

During their four-decade dominance of MLB from the 1920s through the early 1960s, the graph stayed below the midpoint. Clearly, this confirms how offense-skewed many of those great Yankees clubs were. The 1931 Yankees were 39 percentage points better at scoring runs than preventing them. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led a lineup that featured six Hall of Famers in the starting eight, as they finished in second place with a 94-59 record. (To be fair, three of the top four Yankee pitchers that season are also in the Hall, but Red Ruffing and Herb Pennock had down years.)

Of their 27 World Series championship seasons, only two times did their pitching outpace their offense— and only just barely. Both the 1978 and 1996 Yankees’ pitching were two points above their hitting. Really, this just shows these two clubs were well balanced instead of just bludgeoning opponents to death as they did in Joe DiMaggio’s day.

The 2021 Yankees’ goal is to bring home trophy number 28. To succeed, they’ll probably need the lineup to contribute more than they have so far. Their stellar pitching might not be sustainable either. Even still, they’re winning ballgames with a formula that none of their predecessors could sustain.