After the long winter of no-baseball, this week returned us to the spring of sports: the opening of a new MLB season. It is time again to escalate, in earnest, our discussion of the game and its players, to pretend we know what we are talking about, and to judge the quick and the dead. Being a baseball fan is nearly as much a part of the tradition and trappings of baseball as the playing of the game itself. Players usually grow up as fans, and fans who grow up usually were players who didn’t quite make it. (My qualifications to write here include my little league .054 BA.) A natural result of this shared background is that players and fans hold a not-dissimilar reverence for the game’s historic greats. In their own ways, thanks in varying parts to experience and the gift of data, they come to appreciate the difficulty of sustaining success in the sport and the according fragile nature of that success when it comes.
Numbers alone do not tell the stories of success, but they can be useful tools for the examination and parsing of the mythology with which we drape and cast baseball’s best. Among that group, there are few larger in stature than Babe Ruth.
As babes, at least until the mid-1990s, it likely is Ruth’s name we first learn when encountering baseball. We know him for his home runs, and not unfairly so. Not long thereafter, we might also hear of his strikeouts, which is fine. Maybe you knew he began as a pitcher, and for Boston, of all teams. For today’s purposes, though, as we move past the seeded clouds of the latest offensively enhanced period, Ruth stands more as a symbol than a man who, at least on the diamond, did a lot of two things: hit home runs and struck out.
Critics of the statistically oriented sometimes contend that harsh, objective analysis serves as an attack on our love of certain players whom we’re convinced add value even if we can’t quite put our finger on the how, where, or why. In Ruth’s case, anyway, the opposite effect occurs. In short–which George Herman Ruth was not–a closer look at the numbers allows us to ditch the strikeout rap and keep the hitting. Not bad.
First, take a gaze over those career numbers. If you’ve been pressing to make it through your copy of the Baseball Prospectus annual before the season started, this should be fun. A career offensive line of .342/.474/.690 doesn’t exactly smell like a one-trick pony. If you want to get fancy with it, you might also observe that, as judged by fWAR, Ruth owns the three most valuable seasons in baseball history, and six of the top ten (minimum four hundred plate appearances). That seems good and well-rounded too.
Ruth was both good and well-rounded, of course, but what about those strikeouts? Surely he made the leaderboard for that fabled and dubious distinction too, right?
In fact, despite his reputation, the Babe is nowhere to be found. His highest K% in a season in which he saw at least four hundred plate appearances was 16.2%. Even eliminating the 2010-2015 seasons (nascent though the latter terminus is) to carve out recently elevated strikeout rates, Ruth’s name doesn’t appear on the list until season number 2,794. Is that one season, the 1922 season, in which he struck out 16.2% of the time in 110 plate appearances, in the top half of all qualifying seasons? Sure. But it’s a heck of a long way down the list, and his career-worst 16.2% rate looks a lot better than those of the leaders. For reference, Melvin Nieves’ 38.8% rate for the 1997 Tigers tops this list, and there are plenty of more familiar names between him and Ruth’s first appearance.
Baseball is back this week, and, thanks to a quick peek at some old numbers, we also can say hello to a slightly more accurate and improved image of one of the best who ever played. Enjoy.
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