The Yankees vs. the Rest of the American League

No one doubts that the Yankees have been the dominant team in the history of American League. Just how dominant? An obvious measure is the percentage of league championships won by the Yankees: 35 percent (40 of the 114) in the 1901-2015 seasons (no champion was declared for the 1994 season, which ended before post-season play could begin). More compellingly, the Yankees won 45 percent of the championships from their first in 1921 through their last in 2009, and 43 percent since their first in 1921.

Of course, not all championships are created equal. From 1901 through 1960 there were 8 teams in the American League, and the team with the best winning percentage in a season was the league’s champion for that season. The same arrangement prevailed during 1961-1968, when there were 10 teams in the league. After that there were two 6-team divisions (1969-1976), two 7-team divisions (1997-1993), three divisions of 5, 5, and 4 teams each (1994-2012), and three 5-team divisions (2013 to the present).

Since the creation of divisions, league champions have been determined by post-season playoffs involving division champions and, since 1994, wild-card teams (one such team in 1994-2011 and two such teams since 2012). Post-season playoffs often result in the awarding of the league championship to a team that didn’t have the best record in that season. (See this post, for example.) A division championship, on the other hand, is (by definition) awarded to the team with the division’s best record in that season.

Here’s how I’ve dealt with this mess:

The team with the league’s best record in 1901-1960 gets credit for 1 championship (pennant).

The team with the league’s best record in 1961-1968 gets credit for 1.25 pennants because the league had 1.25 (10/8) as many teams in 1961-1968 than in 1901-1960.

Similarly, the team with the best record in its division from 1969-2015 gets credit for the number of teams in its division divided by 8. Thus a division winner in the era of 6-team divisions gets credit for 0.750 (6/8) pennant; a division winner in the era of 7-team divisions gets credit for 0.875 (7/8) pennant,; and a division winner in the era of 4-team and 5-team divisions gets credit for 0.500 (4/8) pennant or 0.625 (5/8) pennant.

The Yankees, for example,won 25 pennants in 1901-1960, each valued at 1; 4 pennants in 1961-1968, each valued at 1.25; a division championship in 1969-1976, valued at 0.75; and 14 division championships in 1977-2015, each valued at 0.625. That adds to 43-pennant equivalents in 115 seasons (1994 counts under this method). That’s 0.374 pennant-equivalents per season of the Yankees’ existence (including 1901-1902, when the predecessor franchise was located in Baltimore and the several seasons when the team was known as the New York Highlanders).

I computed the same ratio for the other American League teams, including the Brewers — who entered in 1969 (as the Seattle Pilots) and moved to the National League after the 1997 season — and the Astros — who moved from the National League 2013. Here’s how the 16 franchises stack up:

Pennant-equivalents per season

The Red Sox, despite the second-best overall W-L record, have the fifth-best pennant-equivalents/season record; they have had the misfortune of playing in the same league and same division as the Yankees for 115 years. The Athletics, on the other hand, escaped the shadow of the Yankees in 1969 — when divisional play began — and have made the most of it.

There are many other stories behind the numbers. Ask, and I will tell them.