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Tale of the tape: '18 Red Sox vs. '98 Yankees

How does Boston stack up against New York's juggernaut?
October 29, 2018

The 2018 Red Sox are more than just another World Series championship team; they're a pantheon club. Winning 108 games in the regular season and then dropping just three games in October will earn that kind of praise.But with the season in the books and a day to reflect, it's

The 2018 Red Sox are more than just another World Series championship team; they're a pantheon club. Winning 108 games in the regular season and then dropping just three games in October will earn that kind of praise.
But with the season in the books and a day to reflect, it's time to start pondering just how high Boston ranks among baseball's greatest teams. And, as Chris Sale was recording the Fall Classic's final outs against the Dodgers, minds naturally began wandering toward one team in particular.

It's only fitting that the timeless Red Sox-Yankees rivalry engulfs yet another debate, and while we could just point to these teams' season win totals (a record 125 for the Yankees 20 years ago, and 119 for this year's Red Sox), there's ample room to look deeper into the underlying statistics. Boston and New York fans might debate this forever, but in the meantime, here's a tale of the tape to try to determine who's better: The '98 Yankees or the 2018 Red Sox?
The case for the Red Sox
• The gauntlet the Red Sox just rolled through ranks among the toughest for any World Series champion in history. By overcoming the 100-win Yankees and 103-win Astros, Boston became the sixth team to defeat two 100-win clubs in a single postseason, joining the 1988 Dodgers, '98 Padres, 2001 Yankees, '03 Marlins and '04 Red Sox. Like the '98 Padres and '01 Yankees, Boston needed to beat two 100-win opponents just to reach the Fall Classic. But the Red Sox are the first team to defeat each of the previous year's World Series participants in a single postseason. Oh, and those two teams -- the Astros and Dodgers -- led their respective leagues in staff ERA during the regular season.

• You might remember the Red Sox beginning the season 17-2, and yet they still had to fight off the Yankees in the American League East until the start of July. But despite having another 100-win club in its own division, the 26 calendar days in which Boston was "under threat" -- that is, either tied for the lead or trailing in the AL East -- was actually three fewer days than the 1998 Yankees endured. Both clubs entered three postseason games either behind or tied in a series.
• There's a decent chance that this year's Red Sox could claim both the AL MVP (Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez) and Cy Young Award winner (Chris Sale) in addition to their World Series championship. Only eight teams have previously combined all three feats into one season, the last being the Dodgers in 1988.

World Series champions with MVP and Cy Young Award winners
1988 Dodgers (Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser)
1984 Tigers (Willie Hernandez)
1980 Phillies (Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton)
1968 Tigers (Denny McLain)
1963 Dodgers (Sandy Koufax)
1961 Yankees (Roger Maris and Whitey Ford)
1960 Pirates (Dick Groat and Vern Law)
1957 Braves (Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn)
The '98 Yankees featured two third-place finishers in each award in Derek Jeter and David Wells, but neither player came as close to winning as Betts, Sale and perhaps even Martinez figure to this winter. This year's Red Sox also featured baseball's best player (Betts) and the AL's second-best pitcher (Sale) in Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement (WAR) metric. Jeter's 7.5 bWAR was fourth-best in the Majors in '98, while Wells was the eighth-best pitcher in the AL. The Red Sox we just saw likely featured better top-end talent than the Yankees club they'll be compared to.
The case for the Yankees
• Boston put up historic team numbers this season, including a 112 OPS+ by its hitters, 117 ERA+ by its pitchers and a +229 run differential overall. But the '98 Yankees (116 OPS+, 122 ERA+) topped this year's Red Sox in both league- and era-adjusted metrics, and their +309 run differential remains the best of any team since both leagues fully adopted a 162-game schedule in 1962.

• The Red Sox were swept in a series of at least three games just once in 2018, and it came at the hands of the Rays from Aug. 24-26. But the '98 Yankees bested them in this regard too, as they remarkably avoided a sweep in any series of three games or longer and only suffered 11 losing "streaks" of at least two games during the entire season (Boston suffered 14).
The '98 Angels went 6-5 against the Bronx Bombers, going down as the only team to post a winning record against the juggernaut. This year's A's, Astros, Indians and White Sox all captured their season series against the Red Sox.
• New York and Boston each compiled 11 wins in the postseason, but the '98 Yankees lost one less game in October. They swept their ALDS matchup against Texas while allowing just one run over three games, and swept the Padres in the World Series while overcoming a 2-1 deficit to Cleveland in the ALCS. This year's Red Sox dropped one game in each of their three October matchups.
The case against the Red Sox
• Boston took advantage of some historic competitive imbalance, particularly within its own division. The Red Sox went 16-3 against the 115-loss Orioles and outscored Baltimore by an astounding 61 runs over their 19 matchups. The Red Sox also took 15 of 19 matchups against fourth-place Toronto, and went a combined 19-4 against the Marlins, Rangers, Royals and Tigers -- who all lost at least 95 games.

• Unlike the '98 Yankees, the Red Sox were not the top team this year by run differential. That distinction belonged to the Astros, whose +263 total ranks only behind those Yankees and the 2001 Mariners in the 162-game era. Houston also bested Boston in runs allowed per game and in base runs (BsR), a metric designed to estimate how many wins a team should have based on their component statistics. The '98 Yankees paced the AL in both runs scored and allowed per game.
The case against the Yankees
• Like this year's Red Sox, that celebrated Yankees club took full advantage of the expansion Devil Rays by winning 11 of 12 matchups and outscoring Tampa Bay, 60-22. We've seen outlier performances in expansion years, including Roger Maris' 61-homer season in 1961 and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's celebrated home run race in the summer of '98, and so you might include the Yankees' 114 regular-season wins in that trend as well. New York also swept its series against the Marlins, who were selling off many pieces of their defending World Series championship club.

• New York went 21-10 in one-run games and 9-2 in extra-inning games, pacing the Majors in both categories by win percentage in '98. Those dynastic Yankees often came up big in clutch situations, but records like those suggest they might have enjoyed some good luck, too.
And the better team is … ?
This year's Red Sox absolutely deserve mention among the greatest teams in history, and they were arguably at their best in October while defeating what was likely the three other best teams in baseball. But the '98 Yankees still get the edge here based not only on their higher win total, but their higher level of dominance from wire to wire. While those Bronx Bombers probably weren't as loaded atop the depth chart, their balance helped them appear unstoppable to opponents at nearly every point of the season.
Of course, our opinion is far from the final word on the matter. Like everything Red Sox-Yankees, the debate will rage on for years to come.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.