The Yankees’ path to the all-time wins record

The Yankees are 51-18. They’ve scored the most runs in baseball (tied with the Mets, but they’ve done it in two fewer games), and they have allowed the fewest. Whatever your expectations were for this club entering the season, they’ve exceeded them – and then some.

It’s tied for the third-best start in team history through 69 games – the 1928, ’39 and ’98 editions all won the World Series, it’s worth noting – and that means a lot more for this club than it might for others , given the long and endless litany of Yankee success dating back a century. Forget just New York history, though; it’s tied for the ninth-best start through 69 games by any AL or NL team, ever. All of the teams ahead of them made the playoffs. Four of them won the World Series.

Given that we’re deeper into the season than you think – about 43% of the Yankees’ schedule is already played – it’s really not too early to ask the question that Yankees fans either anticipate or dread, depending on where on the fan spectrum you fall:

Is the all-time win record of 116, held by the 2001 Mariners, in play? What will it take to get there?

Well, sure. Anything is possible. After beating Tampa Bay 5-4 on Wednesday night, they’re on pace for 120 wins. Of course, “on pace” isn’t really the right way to look at this, because you can’t assume that what has happened is what will happen. Those ’01 Mariners, for example, started out 53-16 through 69, two games better than these Yankees. They didn’t get to 120.

It’s important to think through what that means. For one thing, the Yankees to date have been extremely healthy; while the bullpen has suffered some blows, particularly losing Chad Green for the year, the only notable position player trips to the injured list have been a pair of short 10-day stays in May from Giancarlo Stanton (ankle) and Josh Donaldson (shoulder) . How long does that last, for the oldest lineup in the Majors?

For another, it’s not terribly likely that Aaron Judge, as great as he’s looked, is actually going to hit 62 homers. Anthony Rizzo probably won’t make it to 45, as he’s on pace for. There’s absolutely nothing in Jose Trevino’s history to suggest that a 137 OPS + is a reasonable expectation for him over a full year.

That works the other way, too, of course; you might reasonably expect more from Aaron Hicks and Joey Gallo than you’ve seen. You imagine Brian Cashman will make some kind of Trade Deadline acquisition we can’t foresee yet. Then again, if they’re still holding a massive lead in the AL East come September, you can also see them focusing more on rest for pitchers like Nestor Cortes Jr. and Jameson Taillon than they are in breaking any particular records.

Think about it this way: We’ve really learned two things about the Yankees, so far. We’ve learned a little about the players on the roster… and a lot about the fact that they’ve already banked 51 wins through 69 games. Those don’t go away, no matter what else happens. If you think of the remainder of the 2022 season as having a new Opening Day, today, the Yankees aren’t 0-0. They’re 51-18. It’s an incredible place to start from. So: what’s next?

What do they need to get to 116 – or above?

At 51-18, a .739 winning percentage, the Yankees have 93 games left. To tie the 2001 Mariners’ record of 116, they’d need to go 65-28, a .699 winning percentage. To set a new record of 117, they’d need to go 66-27, a .709 winning percentage.

That, to be honest, doesn’t sound unreasonable. Since 2000, a team has had a 93-game run within a single season with a winning percentage of at least .700 plenty of times, depending on how you want to count overlapping spans. The 2017 Dodgers did it. So did the 2004 Cardinals, and those ’01 Mariners, and the A’s in both 2001 and ’02, and so on. The Yankees themselves did it in 1998 and 1997, and several other times. It’s rare, but not unprecedented.

Here’s the catch, though, and it’s a big one. Only four teams in the last 50 years – the 2001 A’s, ’93 Braves, ’77 Royals and ’75 Reds – have done it to end a season. That’s likely for all the reasons we stated above, about late-season rest and injuries. It’s hard to start a season that well. It’s even harder to end a season like that.

The best Yankee finish over 93 games was the legendary 1927 Bombers, who finished 66-27 (.710). So to break the all-time wins record, they don’t just need a historic start. They need a historic finish, too.

What happened to other teams that started like this?

There’s one catch in looking at other teams who have started 51-18 (.739) or better through 69 games, and that’s a simple one: Very few teams have ever done that! Just a dozen, and several of those came in a pre-integration era that barely seems comparable to today’s game. That’s especially true if you remember that until 1969, finishing first meant you went right to the World Series. There were no pre-Series playoffs at all, which today’s Yankees team will not be able to take advantage of.

So, rather than worrying about postseason success, let’s just look at those 12 teams, comparing how they did in the first 69 games, and then after. (Remember that until 1961, the season was only 154 games long.)

The 1912 Giants
.809 through 69 // .578 rest of year // -.231

The 1902 Pirates
.779 through 69 // .704 rest of year // -.075

The 2001 Mariners
.768 through 69 // .677 rest of year // -.091

The 1907 Cubs
.765 through 69 // .655 rest of year // -.110

The 1939 Yankees
.754 through 69 // .659 rest of year // -.095

The 1929 A’s
.754 through 69 // .642 rest of year // -.112

The 1928 Yankees
.754 through 69 // .576 rest of year // -.178

The 1904 Giants
.742 through 69 // .655 rest of year // -.087

The 1998 Yankees
.739 through 69 // .677 rest of year // -.062

The 1984 Tigers
.739 through 69 // .570 rest of year // -.169

The 1955 Dodgers
.739 through 69 // .560 rest of year // -.179

The 1913 A’s
.739 through 69 // .536 rest of year // -.203

So: Every single one of the dozen teams that got off to a start that great played worse for the remainder of the year, by an average of -.133 of winning percentage, which is a good reminder of just how difficult this all is. The good news, of course, is that every single one of them still played winning baseball; cumulatively, they played to a .624 winning percentage, or a 101-win pace over a 162 game season.

If the Yankees did exactly that – play .624 ball the rest of the way – they’d win 109 games. It wouldn’t set any records. It would still be an extremely impressive regular season.

What do the projections say?

We like the projections – systems like ZiPS, or Steamer, or the Bat – because they take into account a player’s past performance. Again, using Trevino as an example, you can’t assume the 124 plate appearances he has this year are just “what he is now,” ignoring the 519 below-average plate appearances he’d posted entering the season. (Although we do find evidence of changes he’s made to be compelling.)

The projections are not, of course, perfect. They can’t know what future injuries are coming, or what trades will reshape the roster. Then again, neither can we. As a 2017 study at FanGraphs found, at least at the 50-game point of a season, looking at pre-season projections to predict rest-of-season winning percentage almost always performed better than the team’s winning percentage to date.

Of course, we can do better. We don’t need preseason projections. We know what the Yankees have done so far, and it matters. So do the projections. And so, here’s what they currently say:

If the Yankees keep playing exactly as they have, they’ll be a 120-win team. If they finish like all those other Great Start Teams, they’d be a 109-win team. If they finish like the projections say they will, they’re at 103. We, the human, using the gut test, think they’ll finish strong, but that at least one of the injury-prone hitters will miss a lot more time than they have to date. They’ll fall short of the all-time win record, by a decent amount.

It won’t matter. They’ll get one of the two first-round byes in the playoffs, positioning themselves well for a run to that 28th championship, their first – if they get it – since 2009. That, ultimately, is what will define the success (or not) of the 2022 Yankees. A record-setting win total probably won’t matter without that ring. Just ask, after all, the 2001 Mariners.

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