by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
December 3, 2008
Last summer, Richard submitted an article entitled "The
Greatest Giant Ever." I immediately got excited about an issue I had
never before considered: which was greater, Barry Bonds' time with the Giants or
the entirety of Willie Mays' career? Bonds still has a significant edge in
batting runs when you subtract the Pittsburgh portion of his career - about 1134
to 844 - and was a more valuable hitter whether you use that difference of 190
batting runs or any other metric you like. But most of Barry's speed came
early in his career, giving Mays an edge of 338 to 263 stolen bases; the
"Say-Hey Kid" was clearly a more valuable defensive player; Mays missed almost
two full seasons while serving in the Korean War; and Barry Bonds has the
steroids issue hanging over his head.
Knowing Richard, a comparison between the two Giants would be extremely
in-depth and comprehensive, so I couldn't wait to delve into the submission.
Indeed, it was in-depth. Indeed, it was comprehensive.
Unfortunately, it had absolutely nothing to do with a comparison between Mays
and Bonds. Rich spent over 2,000 words going over Mays' extensive list of
accomplishments and lauding the type of player he was. Bonds was only
mentioned in passing, I suppose to let us know that he - not Christy Mathewson
or Mel Ott - was runner up to Mays for the title of "The Greatest Giant Ever."
Now, there is nothing wrong with spending 2,000 words praising Willie Mays.
He was one of the very best players of all time. Particularly in an era in
which many writers tend to focus on what is wrong with an athlete - and I am as
guilty of that as anyone - there is a place for focusing on the positives,
basking in his greatness, and even perhaps exaggerating his accomplishments.
I was only disappointed because I had expected something different: I already
knew that Mays was an exceptional player and have read many such essays praising
him nonstop, but I still don't know whether he or Bonds had a better career as a
Giant. I know what Rich's opinion is, and I believe him when he says that
the majority of Giants fans agree with him. But I haven't spent a whole
lot of time analyzing the issue myself, not being a Giants fan outside of the
Jose Uribe years,
and I have never seen a direct comparison between the two careers. That's
This summer, Gregory lent me a book written by baseball historian Bill
Jenkinson entitled, The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: Recrowning Baseball's
Greatest Slugger. That title would have you believe that this was a book
much like Richard's article: one that focuses on the positives of Ruth's career,
basking in his greatness, and even perhaps exaggerating his accomplishments.
The mistake that Jenkinson makes is that he writes an introduction to his book
portraying it as an objective, hard-hitting analysis of how well Babe Ruth might
have performed in the modern era and how he compares to the other great sluggers
in baseball history. He continues under this premise throughout the book,
but his biased analysis makes it little more than extensive praise for Babe
Ruth. Whereas Richard merely gave his article a somewhat misleading title,
Bill misleads the reader - and most likely himself - throughout 400 pages of
In his introduction, Jenkinson reveals that he had set out to determine who
the "Paul Bunyan of baseball" was - the player who hit the most balls the
furthest. That analysis naturally led him to the study of Babe Ruth.
He no doubt recounts this origin story to let us know that he has no vested
interest in portraying Ruth as any better than he actually was. Perhaps he
didn't - until he began doing his research. What I suspect happened is
that he became amazed by Ruth's accomplishments while studying him - and
rightfully so. But in falling in love with him, he then decided to do
everything in his power to make Ruth look even better than he was.
This is pretty evident from the get-go. Jenkinson labels Ruth as "one
of the best pitchers in the history of his sport" and a "superior baserunner" on
page four. He goes on to say that in 1923, Ruth "was running the bases
like Ty Cobb and playing the outfield like Tris Speaker." But it isn't
difficult to spot these statements as misleading exaggerations.
Ruth's career ERA of 2.28 is tied for 14th all-time, and his won-loss
percentage of .671 ranks 11th. We shall soon see Jenkinson spend nearly
400 pages factoring in playing conditions so as to make him appear a better
hitter than his stats show; it might have helped him to use some of that
analysis with regards to his pitching record. The two players tied with
him at 14th for career ERA are Will White and Ed Reulbach. No one
considers them among the best pitchers in the history of their sport, or even
borderline Hall of Famers, because of the length of their pitching careers and
the era in which they played. Ruth's career ERA relative to his league was
122, tied for 86th all time. His winning percentage indeed was good, but
not much better than his Red Sox teammates, who did not enjoy the luxury of
having Babe Ruth hitting in the lineup every time they pitched. Jenkinson
even gawks over Ruth's ability to throw complete games, even though pretty much
every pitcher in his era was doing so. He fails to mention that Ruth
walked nearly as many batters as he whiffed; a pity, because that's a pitching
stat that he could have adjusted in Ruth's favor given the conditions of his
Ruth was indeed a very good pitcher, and probably an underrated one as well.
Jenkinson would have been better off writing something along those lines than
blatantly overrating his pitching ability.
Defensively, Jenkinson cites first-hand accounts that praise Ruth's fielding
prowess and the fact that he finished with 378 putouts in 1923 as evidence that
Ruth was a terrific fielder in his younger days. Moderately convincing,
but on the other hand, we have the story that Ruth played right field in Yankee
Stadium to avoid the sun. If that legend is true, it makes his
barely-over-league-average fielding percentage less impressive, as he probably
lost fewer balls in the sun than the average outfielder of the pre-night game
era. If he actually played right field in Yankee Stadium because there is
less ground to cover there and left field on the road because his arm wasn't
that great, well, that doesn't bode well for our defensive ranking of Ruth,
either. Certainly, his assists, errors, and putout totals (other than in
the fluke 1923 season) don't suggest that Ruth was anything more than average
defensively, even in his younger days.
Jenkinson would have us believe that Ruth was a "highly proficient outfielder
and first baseman," even though his career fielding percentage at first base was
an atrocious .966. I can't imagine why he would go to such extraordinary
lengths to exaggerate Ruth's defensive ability.
The baserunning issue is the most ridiculous of the three. Jenkinson
spends excruciating amounts of space discussing each of Ruth's 450+ foot bombs
that weren't homers due to the vast outfield dimensions of his era. This
is an important issue, and the central point of the book in many ways.
Unfortunately, we have to ask that if Ruth keeps regularly hitting these
ridiculously long bombs that aren't caught and aren't homers, why he never even
finished among the top three in his league in triples. We also know that
Ruth barely stole bases more often than he was caught during his career, which
isn't the sign of a terrific baserunner in any era. The most important of
those caught stealings ended the 1926 World Series. Jenkinson is even an
apologist for that gaffe, writing that the man at bat "wasn't likely to get an
extra base hit against Grover Cleveland Alexander." That man was Bob
Meusel, who went 2-for-3 against Alexander with a double, triple, and walk in
the previous game. Should Meusel have only kept the inning alive but not
scored Ruth, two future Hall of Famers followed in Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri.
Babe Ruth drew 11 walks and hit four homers in that seven-game 1926 World
Series. Rather than focus on those accomplishments in lieu of the poor
decision to try stealing a base against MVP catcher Bob O'Farrell, Jenkinson
defends the maneuver on the premise that "if Ruth hadn't tried to steal that
base, the Yankees' chances of winning would have been reduced. If he
hadn't possessed the guts to take that chance, Babe Ruth would not have become
the game's greatest player."
Again, the central thesis of this book is how great of a home run hitter Ruth
was. So you could say that the fact that Bill Jenkinson exaggerates Ruth's
accomplishments as a pitcher, fielder, and baserunner is irrelevant to the main
point. I argue that it is precisely the biased, Ruth-can-do-no-wrong
analysis we see here that necessitates taking much of his home run analyses with
a grain of salt.
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at email@example.com.