My impression of the 1998 team has always been that it had dominant pitching and an evenly distributed, deadly from top-to-bottom lineup. The results speak for themselves, but this all got me wondering what a similarly talented team would look like today, specifically if it had played in 2009, the last season with complete data.
Even years later, the 1998 team continues to intrigue me. I remember watching Sports Center just before that season began and hearing Peter Gammons predict that no one would stop the Yankees, 0r even come close. This surprised me. I knew the team would be good, but I wasn't as informed a baseball fan then. I didn't understand how anyone could predict how good the team would be. I wanted to use this exercise to see if a comparably dominant team in 2009 would jump out at me the way the 1998 team didn't in the preseason.
For the exercise, I tried to find players who performed to a similar level in 2009 as the pitchers and position players had performed on the 1998 Yankees. First, I compiled key statistics for the Greatest Team of All Time. For position players on the '98 Yankees I looked up the number of games they played, their OPS+, and their WAR. The bench played a key role on the team so I included Joe Girardi and Tim Raines. For pitchers I did the same thing, only selecting innings pitched, ERA+ and WAR. I didn't match relievers because there can be only one.
Once I had data on how well each key player performed on the 1998 Yankees, I tried to find players who played a similar number of games (or pitched a comparable number of innings for a pitcher) and produced a comparable value in 2009, at the same position as his 1998 counterpart. I used either OPS+ or ERA+ as a check, to make sure I was at least coming close to matching players who not only provided similar value, but also produced that value in similar fashions, to the extent a match existed. Two players, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, actually played for the 1998 Yankees and produced similar value in 2009. It was a no-brainer to include them on the updated team. The rest of the players are my best effort at trying to imagine what a team as dominant as the 1998 Yankees would look like, if you could draft any player from any team in 2009.
The results are a team that would compete with the 1998 squad:
Chad Curtis and Bernie Williams were the most difficult position players to match. A 2009 match doesn't actually exist for either player. I selected David Murphy as a match for Chad Curtis because, although he's a better hitter than Curtis, he produced less value. This worked because I actually needed to weaken the 2009 team a bit since Derek Jeter was better in 2009 than he was in 1998. In Bernie's case, he was a better hitter than 2009 Matt Kemp, but worse defensively. They come in at nearly identical value at the same position. I ran with it.
Starting pitchers were fairly easy to match in terms of innings pitched and WAR, but not ERA+. I went with the best matches I could find. Orlando Hernandez and Ramiro Mendoza were impossible matches, and a testament to the 1998 squad's incredible pitching depth. Rather than try to match them I just went with pitchers who produced similar value without eating up too many innings.
The end result is a phenomenal team, but not the 1998 Yankees. As strong as the hypothetical 2009 team is (110 wins, for sure), it doesn't have an answer for El Duque or Mendoza. WAR is a counting stat. Hernandez and Ramiro produced incredible value in limited innings, meaning they were more dominant in any given inning in 1998 than either Max Scherzer or Jonathan Sanchez was in 2009. If those guys only tossed as many innings as either Hernandez or Mendoza did in 1998 it would have cost the 2009 version a couple wins.
This exercise has shown me why the 1998 team remains the gold standard for all baseball teams (with all due respect to the 1927 Yankees). The hypothetical 2009 squad is certainly a juggernaut. Given my current knowledge of the game, this 2009 update passes the "wow" test that didn't register for me when I was younger, and less informed about baseball stats. (Hindsight being 20-20, today I fully understand not only how good the 1998 team was in aggregate, but I also understand exactly how good the individual parts were.) It is certainly a well-rounded roster with serious talent, but I don't think this 2009 squad wins 114 games. It would have to settle for 112 or so, and serve as one more reminder as to how incredible the 1998 team was, and how lucky we were to watch it.