A Contrary Position

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…related to Baseball Dynasties, but not included in the actual book.

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A Contrary Position

by Eddie Epstein

In the classic Monty Python sketch, Argument Clinic, John Cleese’s character argues basically just by saying, “No, it isn’t.” He does say at one point, however, “Look, if I argue with you I must take up a contrary position.”

It is a “given” that the 1961 Yankees were one of the very greatest teams of all time. Let me quote from The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball (a wonderful book, by the way), “The assault of the pitching and the tremendous hitting moved observers to place the 1961 squad in a class with the 1927 Yankees as the greatest clubs of all time.” I think that represents the feelings of many, if not most, baseball analysts.

Here is a fact: the 1961 Yankees did not lead the league in either runs scored or fewest runs allowed. Yes, Yankee Stadium was a pitcher’s park relative to the league, but the Yankees did not lead the league in runs scored in road games, either. They did not allow the fewest runs in road games. If a team is not the best in its league in scoring runs and/or preventing runs, its credentials as one of the ultimate teams in history are, almost by definition, compromised.

Their run differential (+215) and SD Score (+2.97) were good, but were not consistent with their record. Their Pythagorean record was 103-59 and their “predicted” record based on their SD Score was 100-62. Both of those projections differ significantly from their actual record (109-53, .673) and, Luis Arroyo or not, suggest the team wasn’t as good as its record. Perhaps that’s a slightly unfair criticism because few teams really are .673 teams.

The seasons around 1961 don’t quite match. In 1960, the Yankees played .630 ball; in 1962, their winning percentage was .593.

Yes, yes I know they hit a lot of home runs and their record lasted for 35 years, blah blah blah. I think history is very clear that power is a very valuable skill. However, power is supposed to be valuable because it translates into run production. The 1961 Yankees hit 60 more homers than the Tigers, but the Tigers outscored the Yankees. The Yankees hit 102 more homers than the White Sox, but the White Sox scored only 62 fewer runs than the Yankees. In the context of their competition of the day, this is not, perhaps, a major flaw. Nevertheless, when comparing them to the greatest teams in history, this becomes more important. Here is a little chart comparing their offensive output to the other Yankees teams in the book:

Year Runs (Rank) LG Avg SD Score
1961 827 (2nd) 734 +1.47
1927 975 (1st) 762 +1.85
1939 967 (1st) 801 +1.88
1953 801 (1st) 689 +1.54
1998 965 (1st) 812 +1.72

Compared just to the other Yankees teams in the book, the 1961 club is really the least productive offensive team.

Here’s the same chart on the pitching and defense side:

Year Allowed (Rank) LG Avg SD Score
1961 612 (2nd) 734 +1.50
1927 599 (1st) 762 +1.84
1939 556 (1st) 801 +1.63
1953 547 (1st) 689 +1.17
1998 656 (1st) 812 +2.16


Relative to their league, the 1927, ’39 and ’98 Yankees all had better performance than the 1961 club in keeping their opponents off the scoreboard.

How can the 1961 Yankees be considered one of the very best teams of all time when they clearly weren’t as good, either for one season or multiple seasons, as the 1939 Yankees? For one season, the 1998 Yankees were better than the 1961 Yankees.

I have enormous respect for the Yankees tradition and the 1961 team was a very good team, but objectively they were clearly not even the best Yankees team ever, so how can they be a candidate as one of baseball’s super teams of history? The facts just don’t support that conclusion. No, they don’t.

For a definition of SD Score, you’ll have to buy the book!

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