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Splitsville: Ruth vs. Relievers

The effect of relief pitching on the greatest hitters ever

by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
March 4, 2012

A reader's email regarding Tony's 2006 article comparing Babe Ruth to Ted Williams prompted more nostalgia: a trip to Splitsville.

Question: Pitchers are far more different than batters were during Ruth’s era. While I believe Ruth is the best of all time and has no peer, I wonder how Ruth would have done with so many more situational pitchers that arisen as baseball has continued. Any thoughts on that?

How would Ruth have done against Fingers, or Rivera? Possibly 33% of his at bats would have been against fresh pitching, not tired arms. Here’s a question…at what point in the game did Ruth hit his most homeruns? Looking at them by inning, did Ruth hit more HR’s in the latter parts of the game, or in the beginning?

Just wondering. Thanks.

--Don Wilber

Thanks for writing, Don.  Regrettably, the splits we have available for the Babe Ruth era aren't so comprehensive as to include inning-by-inning details, but that doesn't mean we can't examine the issue.

Obviously, in the case of Babe Ruth versus Ted Williams, relief pitching isn't much of a factor.  The only great relief pitcher Williams faced that Ruth did not was Hoyt Wilhelm, and Teddy Ballgame went 4-for-11 with four walks and only one strikeout against the Hall-of-Famer.  Bill Jenkinson, the country's foremost Ruthian scholar, contends that Ruth was so legendary that teams would use relief pitchers against him in ways they normally wouldn't.  Indeed, Lefty Grove - who was probably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time and typically a starter- was used as a closer against the Bambino more often than as a closer in any other situation.

If we assume that Ruth and Williams were similarly affected by the starter/reliever dichotomy of their respective eras, we can use Williams' (admittedly incomplete) splits to speculate on Ruth's:

Inning BA OBP SLG AB/HR OPS
1-3 .337 .485 .607 15.2 1.091
4-6 .348 .480 .637 13.6 1.117
7-9 .310 .445 .622 12.1 1.067
9 .251 .369 .543 11.7 .912

From this chart we can see that Williams actually got a little more powerful as the game went on.  His overall effectiveness remained pretty steady due to a steep drop in batting average in the later innings.  The ninth inning, however, is another matter entirely.  It's the only inning in which Williams had an OPS under 1.000 due to a very un-Williamslike .251 batting average.  This is pretty surprising, since he rarely faced what we would think of as elite closers during that frame.

So we would expect an even bigger discrepancy for a modern slugger.  Among modern hitters, only Barry Bonds can hang with Ruth and Williams, so let's examine his complete splits:

Inning BA OBP SLG AB/HR OPS
1-3 .306 .452 .629 12.2 1.081
4-6 .304 .440 .632 12.2 1.072
7-9 .283 .434 .557 14.8 .992
9 .251 .402 .520 14.1 .922

Coincidentally, Barry and Teddy had the same dismal batting average in the ninth inning.  Unlike Williams, Bonds saw his power numbers drop in the later innings rather than rise.  The biggest difference in the two sets of splits appears in the Innings 7-9 column.  Whereas Williams was almost as effective in innings 7-9 as he was in the first three despite his poor performance in the final frame, Bonds slugged a full 72 points less.  This suggests that it is not the closers, but the setup men who are defining the eras.

We can rationalize this.  Perhaps, as Jenkins suggests, in any era a manager would do everything in their power to negate a unique offensive talent such as Bonds, Ruth, or Williams in the ninth inning.  But prior to the modern era, the only pitchers they would face in the seventh or eighth innings were tiring starters or an innings-eater who had come in to relieve an ineffective starter.  Then in the 70s and 80s, you had your elite two-inning closers,  For the past two decades, we've had setup men making millions of dollars to match up against the best opposing hitters in the seventh and the eighth.

This is anecdotal evidence to be sure, and as you intimate in your email, I don't think its ramifications put Bonds in danger of surpassing Ruth as the greatest player of all-time.  Nevertheless, it is an illuminating way of viewing how baseball has evolved over the decades and I hope more research can be done on the matter.



Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com.

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