The 1927 New York Yankees are baseball’s gold standard, the default answer to the “greatest ballclub ever” question. They’re also a measuring stick for any would-be legendary team to gauge itself against: For instance, after the Chicago Cubs got off to one of the hottest starts in baseball history last season, my colleague Rob Arthur compared the Northsiders favorably to that storied Yankees team — and it was a fair comparison for a while, at least according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings (our pet metric for estimating a team’s strength at any given moment).1 The Cubs led the ’27 Yankees in Elo as late as the 72-game mark, though they eventually cooled off before season’s end, finishing with “merely” one of the greatest campaigns ever. Babe Ruth’s ghost could breathe a sigh of relief.
He might have more to worry about this season, however. Past the halfway mark, there isn’t just one team that basically equals those 1927 Bronx Bombers; there are two. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros have both torn through the majors like few teams in history, and each is much closer to all-time immortality than last year’s Cubs were at the same stage of the season.
Both clubs are red-hot going into the All-Star break, with a combined record of 31-9 over their past 20 games. Together, L.A. and Houston sent 12 players to Miami for the Midsummer Classic, and the wins above replacement (WAR)2 leaderboard is littered with representatives from each club — six of the game’s top 16 players3 wore either Astros or Dodgers uniforms in the season’s first half.
That’s why, in terms of Elo, Los Angeles and Houston are way out in front of the pack: Each team carries a rating at least 40 points higher than the No. 3 Cleveland Indians. (How much is 40 points of Elo? That’s a difference of about 10 wins over a full season.) With Elo ratings that, respectively, rank 16th- and 19th-best in the World Series era4 through 90 games,5 the Dodgers and Astros have crossed into territory where their only real competition lies in the dusty annals of history. Never before have two teams played at such a high level this deep into the same season:
|YEAR||TEAM||W||L||WPCT||RUN DIFF/G||ELO RATING|
|1||1939||New York Yankees||65||25||.722||+2.82||1617.3|
|2||1944||St. Louis Cardinals||64||24||.727||+2.36||1614.4|
|3||1998||New York Yankees||67||23||.744||+2.01||1604.5|
|5||1912||New York Giants||65||24||.730||+2.37||1600.3|
|6||1928||New York Yankees||66||24||.733||+1.76||1599.8|
|7||1937||New York Yankees||59||29||.670||+2.16||1598.6|
|8||1905||New York Giants||65||25||.722||+2.24||1598.2|
|11||1913||New York Giants||61||26||.701||+1.54||1596.6|
|12||1954||New York Yankees||60||29||.674||+1.56||1596.5|
|13||1927||New York Yankees||64||25||.719||+2.64||1595.9|
|15||1904||New York Giants||63||24||.724||+2.24||1594.2|
|16||2017||Los Angeles Dodgers||61||29||.678||+1.81||1593.8|
|17||1938||New York Yankees||57||30||.655||+1.62||1593.0|
|18||1943||St. Louis Cardinals||58||29||.667||+1.07||1591.7|
|. . .|
Whereas the 2016 Cubs hit a slump right before the All-Star Game, losing 34 points of Elo in the 20 games immediately leading up to the break, Houston and L.A. are each hitting their respective strides right now — and that’s scary news for the rest of baseball.
When our Elo-based prediction model simulates the rest of the season, it calls for the Dodgers to finish the season with 108 wins (which would tie for the ninth-most of the World Series era) and the Astros to end up with 105 (tied for 19th, two games better than last year’s Cubs). It would mark only the second time since 1903 that two teams crossed the 105-win barrier in the same season.
To be certain, there’s a lot of baseball yet to be played, and that means many more ebbs and flows left in both the Astros and Dodgers’ seasons. And though our model also says there’s a 49 percent chance either L.A. or Houston wins the World Series, an October collision course isn’t necessarily preordained. Want proof? The only other season with two 105-win teams was 1998, when both the Yankees and Atlanta Braves won big during the regular season. Come time for the Fall Classic, the Yankees were there (they won in a sweep), but the Braves were nowhere to be found, having been upset by the 98-win San Diego Padres in the NLCS.
Besides, even if the Dodgers and Astros surpass the 1927 Yankees, they probably won’t catch their less-heralded (but arguably better) descendants, the 1939 Yankees, who rank as Elo’s greatest team in baseball history. But for now, the ’27 version should be quaking in their century-old cleats.