Walk up to someone on the street and ask them if they’ve ever heard of Babe Ruth. Chances are, most people could tell you something about the prolific baseball player, even though he played his last game almost 80 years ago. Most could tell you that he was a great player, many know he once pointed to center field predicting he would hit a home run, and some may know about the curse his trade to the Yankees left on the Red Sox. What few can tell you, however, is that despite being the most famous player to ever step on a baseball field, he was almost criminally underrated as a player.
Baseball will never see another player like Babe Ruth, simply because of how dominant he was as both a hitter and a pitcher. Any novice fan can talk about some of Ruth’s achievements as a hitter (more on that later), but few remember just how great he was as a pitcher and all-around player.
Babe Ruth broke into the major leagues as a starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. He started at least 15 games every year from 1915-1919. Over 147 career starts, he had an ERA of 2.28, lower than Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, or virtually any other great starting pitcher you can think of. It’s even lower than Cy Young’s, the man whose name represents the award for the year’s best pitcher. In 1916, Ruth won 23 games, and lead the league with a 1.75 ERA and 9 shutouts. Since 1920, only 9 players have posted an ERA lower than 1.75 in a single season. In 1917, he won 24 games while posting a 2.01 ERA. In a 4-season span, from 1915-1918, he averaged 20 wins per season while posting a 2.05 ERA. For comparison, Pedro Martinez, whose 1997-2000 run is widely recognized as the greatest 4-year span for a pitcher ever, averaged 19 wins with a 2.16 ERA. Clayton Kershaw, who also compiled one of the greatest four-year runs from 2011-2014, averaged 18 wins with a 2.11 ERA. Even at the age of 38, long after he was a regular pitcher, Ruth was called on to make a spot start for the Yankees. He pitched a complete game and earned the win.
The Babe was even more dominant pitching in the playoffs. He was the ace of the pitching staff when the Red Sox won the World Series in 1916 and 1918. In three career World Series starts, he pitched 31 innings, including a 14-inning start in a game-2 win of the 1916 series. Over 31 innings he allowed three runs. That’s an ERA of 0.87. Ruth got the win in every game he ever started in the World Series. Major League Baseball has been around for almost 150 years, and no starting pitcher in history has a lower ERA in the World Series than Babe Ruth. A case can be made that Babe Ruth is one of the best left-handed starting pitchers in the history of baseball, and the numbers certainly place him in that category for his era.
But most people really remember Ruth as being a prodigious home run hitter, and rightfully so. He lead the league in home runs an astonishing 12 times. In both 1920 and 1927 Ruth finished with more home runs than every other team. He hit 714 in his career, a record which stood for 40 years, and was the first person to hit 50 and 60 home runs in a season. You could write a book on how great of a homerun hitter Ruth was, but most people know that. What gets lost sometimes is how great of a player Ruth was, and how many of his complete seasons are some of the best in history.
Ruth did much more than hit homeruns. He played 17 full seasons as a hitter in the major leagues, and hit over .300 in 15 of them. In the other two, he hit .288 and .290. His career batting average of .342 is in the top-10 all time. Close to 20,000 men have worn a major league uniform and only 9 have better batting averages than Ruth. Ted Williams, nicknamed “the greatest hitter to ever live,” posted only 2 points better at .344. In 1923 Ruth hit .393, the 9th best batting average in the American League in the last 100 years. He hit over .370 in six different seasons. Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn, each considered the greatest pure hitters of their respective eras, didn’t reach that total combined. Most of the other all-time greats have never done it once. He also got on base at an other-worldly rate. He lead the league in on-base percentage ten times, posting over .500 five times and .474 for his career. He owns 5 of the 13 highest single-season on base percentage marks in the history of baseball (four others are owned by steroid scandal-ridden Barry Bonds). Only Ted Williams got on base at a better career rate in the history of baseball. Over a 162-game average, Ruth averaged 133 walks per year. For comparison, Miguel Cabrera, the two-time reigning MVP and one of the most feared hitters today, has averaged 77. Willie Mays only averaged 79, with 69 for Hank Aaron.
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In today’s game, a player is seen as an all-around great (or triple crown threat), if they can achieve a .300 batting average with 30 home runs and 100 RBI. Ruth took this an incredible step further. In ten different seasons he surpassed a .340 average with more than 40 HR and 120 RBI. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriquez, Manny Ramirez, Frank Robinson (who won a triple crown), Ken Griffey Jr., and many other greats, never even accomplished this once.
In 1921, Ruth had arguably the great season ever compiled by a major leaguer. He hit 59 HR and 168 RBI with a .378 batting average and .521 on-base percentage. He scored 177 runs and drew 145 walks. Only 5 men have ever hit more home runs in a season (Ruth being one of them), and every other with the exception of Roger Maris has been implicated in steroids scandals. His 168 RBI is the 10th highest single-season total all-time. His 177 runs are the second most in a single season in the history of the game. In addition, he also stole 17 bases and had 16 triples. Only nine American League players over the last 65 years have hit more triples in a season, and none of them came close to 59 home runs.
Babe accomplished a few things in 1918 that are likely to never be equaled again. Ruth, who started as a pitcher, began getting more at bats on his off-days in 1918. As a pitcher that year, Ruth made 19 starts, while compiling a record of 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA. He was also the ace of the staff that won the World Series, winning both of his starts while allowing only 2 runs over 17 innings pitched. Those stats alone would be an impressive year. But Babe, playing part-time as a hitter, also lead the league in home runs. It is unlikely that we will ever see a pitcher win multiple games in the World Series, post a 2.22 ERA in the regular season, while also leading the league in home runs.
One thing that makes it difficult to compare the greats of one era against the legends of another is how much baseball has evolved. Changes like the increase in power numbers (ahem, steroids), the 5-man rotation, as well as changes in pitch count, make it difficult to compare a player from 1914 to one in 2014. But one thing that can be easily compared is how often a player from any era lead various categories among their peers.
When Hall of Fame voters make their determinations, they often look to how much “black” the player had in their stats. The term comes from Baseball-Reference’s blackening of a player’s numbers when they lead the league in that major category (e.g. home runs, on-base percentage, total bases, etc.) Miguel Cabrera, arguably the best player of this decade, has lead the league in 19 categories over 12 years. Albert Pujols, arguably the best player of the 2000’s, has lead the league in 26 categories over 14 years. Other players considered the greatest of their era/decade: Hank Aaron (37 categories over 22 years); Willie Mays (38 categories over 20 years); Joe DiMaggio (14 categories over 13 years); Mickey Mantle (41 categories over 18 years); George Brett (22 categories over 21 years); Ken Griffey Jr. (9 categories over 22 years). Each of these players are first-ballot hall of famers (or will be when eligible), and are generally regarded as some of the best to ever play the game. None of them came close to Babe Ruth who did it an astonishing 98 times. Babe Ruth lead almost as many categories as a pitcher as Ken Griffey Jr. did as a hitter.
When making any comparison, it is always helpful to know how good someone was at their best, and how bad they were at their worst. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera are four of the greatest players to ever hit a baseball. Not only are they considered the greatest of their eras, but they all hit for power (leading the league in home runs and RBI), and average (each has a career batting average of over .300). When you compare the best that each of them ever did in an individual category (HR, RBI, BA), it doesn’t even come close to Ruth. Ruth’s best batting average was .393. None of the other four ever got to .360. Ruth’s career high in HR was 60. Only Willie Mays ever even got to 50 (52). Babe once drove in 168 RBI in a season, and only Mays ever got to 140 (141). At no point in any of their careers did four of the best players in history come close to eclipsing Ruth in any category when he was at his best.
Ruth was better than anyone at his best, but what about at his worst? If you pulled his worst batting average, home run and RBI total from any season (that he played at least 130 games), he would be at a .301, 29 HR, 104 RBI. That type of season would get you MVP votes every year and a spot in the hall of fame. It is also worth noting that Ruth’s .301 was from his last season at age 38, and his 29 HR were in his first season as a hitter. In his prime (from age 25-35), he never hit fewer than 41 HR, 124 RBI, or less than .323 in a full season. He simply never had an off year. The Babe was also a winner. Ruth’s teams made it to the World Series 10 times, and Ruth came away with 7 rings. He posted a .326 average and .467 on-base percentage, along with 15 HR and 33 RBI in 41 games in the World Series.
Ruth will always be known as probably the greatest home run hitter in the history of baseball, but he was so much more. He was one of the greatest pure-hitters ever, and got on-base at a rate that only one other person in history could match. Babe was phenomenal in the postseason as both a pitcher and a hitter, and was arguably the greatest left-handed starting pitcher of his time. We will likely never see another man be both the best pitcher and hitter in the same era. Babe Ruth is one of the most celebrated athletes ever. The conversation of the best player in the history of baseball starts and ends with Babe Ruth, yet he is still vastly underrated in so many ways.