The Yankees’ magic number is five. No matter where they are in the standings, that’s the number they live by year after year.
Unlike what we’re used to seeing at this stage of the season, the number does not reflect a combination of wins and losses that could propel the Yankees to the postseason. Instead, it’s the number of runs per game they must score to achieve the same goal.
Follow along by going to baseball-reference.com and calling up the Yankees’ all-time team statistics. The column that concerns us most for now is runs per game. Over 114 seasons, the Yankees scored five runs per game or more 51 times. Scroll a little further down to their 57th most prolific team, the 1958 World Champions at 4.90 runs per game. No team above that mark finished lower than third in its league or division, 39 of them finished first, and four more made the postseason on a wild card. Nine more finished second before there was one.
So we have 52 of 57 teams, half the number of seasons the franchise has been in New York, finishing first or second when they score more than 4.9 runs per game. Have they won scoring below the threshold? Sure, eight more first-place teams did. None lower than 4.32 runs per game, though, and that was the wartime 1943 World Championship team. Notably, the 1963 AL champ (4.43), the ’64 AL champ (4.45) and the 1978 World Champion (4.51) stand out as relatively low scorers, while the 1957 pennant-winners (4.69) and 1952 World Champs (4.72) join the 1960 AL champs (4.81) slightly below our cutoff point.
Our top run-scorers, those with six or more runs per game, all come after 1920 (end of the dead-ball era) and before 1940 (World War II). The late 1920’s and early 1930’s were known as a very hitter-friendly era, most of the single season offensive records being set around that time, beginning with Babe Ruth’s repeated inching up of the single-season home run record, peaking at 60 in 1927.
Murderers’ Row, by the way, is only the sixth-highest-scoring team in Yankee history at 6.29 runs per game. The teams ahead of it? All from the ’30’s, including World Champions in ’36 (6.87). ’32 (6.42), and ’39 (6.36). And yet, we still have two teams ahead of them.
Tops is the 1930 team, franchise record holder at 6.90 runs per game and batting average leader at .309, but it finished third, 16 games behind the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics. The following year, the Yanks piled up runs at a 6.88 clip, second for the franchise all-time, but still fell short, second behind the A’s, who boasted the AL’s best pitcher, Lefty Grove.
And that’s where we’re going next. Books have been written about the inflated stats of the time, which make some of the steroid era numbers look tame. Hack Wilson batted in 191 runs with the Chicago Cubs in 1930, a record that still stands. Lou Gehrig knocked in an AL-leading 173, Ruth 153 and Tony Lazzeri 121. That number for Gehrig matched his 1927 total, and he would set the bar higher still with 185 in 1931, the current AL record.
One reason why is that pitching at the time was terrible. That 1930 team may have scored a ton of runs, but they allowed nearly as many. In fact, it was statistically the worst-pitching Yankee team ever. Whether in terms of raw runs per game (5.83) or ERA (4.88), Yankee pitchers were hard-pressed to keep teams from catching up with Yankee hitters.
Sticking with the ERA column, however, reveals that the six worst Yankee staffs in those terms were, in order, the 2000 World Champion (4.76), the 2004 AL East champion (4.69), the 1996 World Champ (4.65), the 1995 Wild Card team (4.74) and the 2005 division winner (4.52). Of course, that was an era of inflated offense as well, but it proves that good hitting can often pick up a bad day on the mound, and needs to if a team is to win consistently.
Flipping the column the other way, we have to throw out dead-ball numbers from 1903-1920 and that 1968 anomaly. That year, the Yanks had a post-dead-ball best 2.79 ERA but batted a franchise-worst .214 as a team and scored a third-worst 3.27 runs per game. Only two teams scored less, dead-ball 1908 and 1967, both of which finished at or near the bottom. The 1968 Yanks went 83-79.
When we do start from the top down, we still see some success with the low ERA’s but they are nowhere near as consistent as the high-scoring teams in terms of overall success. The good-pitching teams are sometimes champions (1952, 3.14), runner-ups (1964, 3.15) and mediocre (1969, 3.23, 80-81. 5th place in AL East). None too bad, just not year-in year-out winners because the offense was up and down.
I will note that I used runs per game on offense and ERA on pitching because raw runs allowed per game figure takes defense into account, and further analysis will reveal that teams with large disparities between ERA and runs allowed usually don’t do well. And while those steroid-era Yankee teams with the high ERA’s certainly did not allow many unearned runs, those Hall of Fame hitters of 1930 had to overcome both bad pitching and bad fielding.
As an aside, all the Yankee 200-plus-homer seasons came in 1998 or later, save for the fabled 1961 season of Mantle and Maris. This is about runs scored, not homers. That 1930 team hit 152 home runs. Gehrig and Ruth accounted for 90 of them.
We come to today. The last Yankee team to break the magic 4.90 runs per game barrier was the 2012 squad, to date the last time the Yanks won a playoff series or even a playoff game. And sure enough, the 4.96 runs per game, though off from previous years, was still strong compared to the non-playoff years of 2013 (4.01) and 2014 (3.91), a drop-off of about 20 percent. How bad was the 2014 team offensively? Only one other team, from dead-ball 1904, finished as high as second scoring less than four runs per game. No one else has been higher than fourth, and the cellar-dwellers of 1966 and 1990 are down there as well.
The 2015 team rebounded to 4.72 and eked out a Wild Card, but today’s team is stuck at 4.24, taking into account, of course, their .500 first half.
Since the August 1 trade deadline, though, they closed out the month scoring at a 5.28 clip. At that point, the Yankees were scoring sufficiently to make a run at the postseason, and their 17-11 August record reflected it. Since then, though, scoring has dropped like a rock, falling back to 4.05 runs per game in September after Friday’s second straight shutout loss. The record since then? Right back to .500 at 10-10.
Dramatic walk-off losses and lost weekends in Boston notwithstanding, it’s actually commendable the Yankees have stayed in this race as long as they have. But it’s also a message for next year. Score five runs per game or else