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Was Babe Ruth Even Human? A Modern, Statistical Take on Baseball’s Best Player

Interesting

Babe Ruth, as you may have known, just had a birthday (February 6) and has since gotten a fair amount of attention online – including right here at Baseball is Fun.

For example, we recently watched and discussed Ruth hitting his historic 60th home run during the 1927 season:

And all of that attention on Ruth really got me thinking about his career.

After all, we so often take legends like Ruth (or Mantle, or Mays) for granted, because they’ve been a staple of our collective baseball memory for so long.

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In fact, that very notion is what originally sparked the idea for our Worst of the Best Series here at Baseball is Fun, wherein we take a look back at the worst seasons from the best players in baseball history (Ted Williams, Randy Johnson).

But when I tried to do apply our Worst of the Best model to the Great Bambino … I couldn’t. He was simply too good, for too long. So let’s just sit back and revel in the insanity that is Ruth’s career.

And let’s do it with a fresh, statistical take.

Babe Ruth debuted with the Red Sox in 1914, but got off to a slow-ish start. Through the first four seasons of his career, he was worth just a total of 3.8 WAR, but beginning in 1918, everything changed.


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In his second to last season with the Red Sox (1918), Ruth hit .300/.411/.555, while walking (15.3%) as often as he struck out (15.3%). He only had 11 home runs that season, but his 26 doubles and 11 triples sure helped his slugging percentage carry some weight. By the end of the year, he was worth a then-career-high 5.2 WAR.

But in reality, he wouldn’t dip as low as 5.2 WAR in a full season again until his final year with the Yankees in 1934.

Ruthian WAR Totals/Year:

1918: 5.2
1919: 9.4
1920: 13.3
1921: 13.9
1922: 6.5
1923: 15.0
1924: 12.5
1925: 3.6 (<100 games)
1926: 12.0
1927: 13.0
1928: 10.6
1929: 7.8
1930: 10.5
1931: 10.7
1932: 8.7
1933: 6.7
1934: 5.2

Is that all one career-long peak? How can someone possibly manage to continue playing at such a ridiculously high level for that long? One thing’s for certain, his MLB leading 168.4 career WAR is no longer surprising. He really was outstanding for a very long time.

But let’s look at some more of his peripherals.


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By the end of his career – which spanned over 2,500 games and more than 10,000 plate appearances – Ruth managed to walk nearly 7 percentage points more than he struck out:

Career Walk Rate: 19.4%
Career Strikeout Rate: 12.5%

For perspective, that walk rate would have led Bryce Harper’s league leading 17.2% rate in 2016 by a significant margin, while his strikeout rate would have made it into the top 20 for 2016. AND HE DID BOTH OVER HIS WHOLE CAREER. It’s just silly.


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And how about this, Ruth’s career .348 ISO would have lapped MLB’s league leader in 2016 (David Ortiz .305) and would have ranked among the top 30 for best in a single season since Ruth retired in 1936!

Ruth’s final career slash line, reads like the video game numbers you hope your favorite player can achieve in just one season: .342/.474/.690; .513 wOBA, 197 wRC+.

And that last stat – a career 197 wRC+ – is my favorite of all. Because that means during his career, Ruth was nearly 100% better than the average Major League hitter. The Sultan of Swat, indeed.


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Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami writes about MLB at Baseball Is Fun. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami.

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