Babe Ruth: He was also a Hall of Fame calibre pitcher

Babe Ruth quit pitching only a few seasons after reaching the majors. But the data indicates he had already established potential Hall of Fame credentials

If the Hall of Fame had only one inductee, it would be Babe Ruth.

His home run records, his dominance, his cultural impact and his transformational effect on the game make that presumption a virtual no-brainer.

To many historians, however, the truly fascinating part of Ruth’s resume lies in the belief that he almost certainly would have been a Hall of Famer even if he had never swung a bat.

For the first five seasons of his career, Ruth was primarily a left-handed pitcher with the Boston Red Sox and a very good one. He twice won more than 20 games, he led the league in earned run average at age 21, and in 1917 as a 22-year-old he completed a league-leading 35 games.

Ruth pitched in both the 1916 and 1918 World Series, compiling a 3-0 record and a 0.87 post-season ERA. He threw 13 shutout innings against the Dodgers in 1916, then added another 16 to his record string against the Cubs in 1918. His record of consecutive post-season shutout innings stood for more than 40 years.

There was no such statistic as ERA+ in Ruth’s day, but if there had been, the Babe would have won that title as well in 1916. His numbers that season translates to an ERA+ of 158 on a scale where 100 equals average.

Was Babe Ruth actually on a Hall of Fame pitching track when he was shifted to the outfield? Since we can’t guarantee what Ruth would have done had he spent the remainder of his career on the mound, the question can’t be answered with certainty. We can, however, compare his stats both with contemporaries who were subsequently elected and with widely recognized Hall of Famers to get a sense of how Ruth might have been viewed by pitching history.

Aside from Ruth, five future Hall of Fame pitchers debuted in the second decade of the 20th Century. Two provide poor comparisons. Although Dazzy Vance did throw his first pitch in 1915, he then kicked around at various minor league levels for several seasons until returning and blossoming with Brooklyn in 1922. By then, however, Vance was a 31-year-old rookie, more than a decade older than Ruth was when he debuted.

The data set for Waite Hoyt is also problematic. Hoyt debuted as an 18-year-old in 1918 but didn’t break his rookie status until 1921…squarely in line with the emergence of the lively ball. For comparison purposes, that colors some of Hoyt’s data.

Three others, however, are valid comps. The table below shows how Ruth’s mound performance through the first five full seasons of his career compares across several meaningful categories with those three contemporaries – Grover Cleveland Alexander, Burleigh Grimes, and Red Faber – for their first five seasons.

Pitcher (seasons)             Wins        ERA         IP            ERA+     WHIP     WAR

Alexander (1911-15)        25.4        2.35        342.86   145.0     1.11        8.10

Ruth (1915-19)                  17.4        2.28        233.14   124.8     1.18        4.16

Faber (1914-18)                14.2        2.08        202.72   143.8     1.18        2.80

Grimes (1917-21)             15.4        2.84        250.78   116.0     1.22        3.58

The first thing the table establishes is that Alexander deserves his recognition among the greatest pitchers of all time. Even in his early seasons, he was a superior force. Compared with his contemporary future Hall of Famers, he won far more games with a far higher workload and a better WHIP. That, in turn, led to an advantage in ERA+, and to a nearly two-to-one advantage in WAR.

So let’s concede that Ruth was not on course to be Pete Alexander. The table also makes clear that he was on course to be a Hall of Fame pitcher. In every category, his numbers approach or exceed the average of the Hall of Fame quartet…and that’s with Alexander skewing the overall data.

So we’ve established that the pitcher Babe Ruth would have been a Hall of Famer. But there is a vast, unoccupied space between Alexander – among the game’s all-time elite – and Faber or Grimes, a pair of rank-and-file Hall of Famers. What part of that space would Ruth have occupied?

To answer that question, let’s perform the same test, but substituting five pitchers with more contemporary resumes – and unquestioned Hall of Fame credentials – for Ruth’s contemporaries. The five each got their start in the 1960s, a dead-ball era not unlike the one in which Ruth pitched. They are Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver.

Here’s the table

Pitcher (seasons)              Wins      ERA          IP            ERA+     WHIP     WAR

Carlton (1967-71)             14.8        2.09        237.48   116.8     1.26        3.96

Gibson (1961-65)              17.0        3.11        256.92   129.0     1.24        4.92

Marichal (1961-65)           19.8        2.85        266.48   131.4     1.10        5.96

Ruth (1915-19)                  17.4        2.28        233.14   124.8     1.18        4.16

Ryan (1968-72)                    9.6        3.26        158.06   106.8     1.33        1.86

Seaver (1967-71)              19.0        2.35        275.68   152.2     1.05        7.20

The table illustrates that Ruth’s pitching record fits in comfortably with the early careers of this group of indisputable Hall of Famers. Among the six, he ranks third in wins, second in ERA, fourth in ERA+, fourth in WHIP and fourth in WAR. His only real relative weakness involves workload, a statistic that is influenced by the transition to the outfield that was underway by the fourth and fifth seasons of his data period.

Based on the two numbers viewed as most objective by modern number crunchers – ERA+ and WAR – Ruth would fairly be viewed as a better pitcher in his youth than either Carlton or Ryan, and a close parallel to Gibson, although not on course to be as good as either Marichal or Seaver.

Does that mean that, left alone on the mound for the length of his career, Babe Ruth would have amassed Gibsonian numbers…251 wins, two Cy Youngs, an MVP and first-ballot Hall of Fame status? Obviously that’s impossible to say with certainty. What can be said is that through his positional shift at age 25, he was solidly on that track.

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That’s merely a further testament to his surpassing greatness.

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