Saturday, June 05, 2004

Ruth vs. Bonds, Who is the Greatest?

The Bambino; The Greatest of All-Time
Ray Flowers

Who is the greatest player ever? Some say Ted Williams, but of course he was much more of a hitter than a player. Others say Willie Mays, and for all around excellence he seems to be a great choice. But of the modern day player 3 names are always mentioned: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.. Griffey has been too injured the past three years to really belong in this discussion, and while Arod is a tremendous ballplayer, his career is just too short at this point to be considered the best ever. So of all the current players we would say that Barry Bonds is the most likely choice for a discussion of the greatest player ever (see Laura Nist’s article on this topic: But before we anoint Mr. Bonds we would like to throw out the name of the greatest ballplayer who ever lived… George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Barry LaMar Bonds, by fantasy standards, is one of the greatest player ever (though a strong case in this respect can also be made for Rickey Henderson). No one has ever combined power and speed like Bonds, i.e. the oft repeated fact that he is the only member of the 500 HR and 500 steal club (in fact no others have even entered the 400/400 club). Bonds has also won 8 Gold Gloves, an unprecedented 6 MVP’s, and set all-time single season records for HR’s (73), on-base average (.582) and slugging percentage (.863). his greatness is beyond question…the question is how does he compare to the Babe?

Babe Ruth revolutionized the game of baseball. During the dead-ball era where double digit HR’s were unheard of, out came the strapping young man from Baltimore to re-write the record books. His total of 714 HR’s was a record for 40 years until Hank Aaron finally broke it in 1974. We all know that its just a matter of time before Bonds eclipse’s Ruth’s 714 career HR’s (he currently sits at 659, one behind Mays for third all-time), but how do the accomplishments of each player stand in their own eras?

If one looks at the career of Bonds one sees that he has lead the majors in homers but twice: 46 (1993) and 73 (2001). In fact, Bonds has led the majors in the Triple Crown categories of average , HR, and RBI on just these 2 instances. The Babe? Well he led the majors in homers 11 times! He also led in the majors in the Triple Crown categories, ready for this… a total of 17 times! Now if that wasn’t impressive enough, wait until you read the charts below. First we will list the HR total for Ruth, followed by the next highest player and his total.

1919 Ruth 29 / 12 Cravath

1920 Ruth 54 / 19 Sisler

1921 Ruth 59 / 24 Meusel/K.Williams

1922 Ruth 35 / 42 Hornsby

1923 Ruth 41 / 29 K.Williams

1924 Ruth 46 / 27 Hauser

1926 Ruth 47 / 21 Hack Wilson

1927 Ruth 60 / 47 Gehrig

1928 Ruth 54 / 31 H.Wilson/Bottomley

1929 Ruth 46 / 43 Klein

1930 Ruth 49 / 56 H.Wilson

1931 Ruth 46 / 46 Gehrig

1932 Ruth 41 / 58 Foxx

*In 1922 Ruth was injured and only played 110 games.
* In 1925 Ruth was “injured” and played in only 98 games.

So in the following years Ruth more than DOUBLED his next closest pursuer: 1919, 1920, 1921, and 1926. That means that Bonds, in his own era, would have to effectively hit 100 homers a year to be comparatively as great as Ruth. In fact, in 2001 when Bonds hit his record 73, his next closest pursuer was Sammy Sosa with 64…meaning Bond would have had to hit 128 HR’s to double his closest challenger.

Want more proof about the prodigious nature of the Sultan of Swat’s HR records? Here is a table which list Ruth’s total followed by the highest TEAM total for the same season (of course not including the teams that Ruth played for).

1919 Ruth 29 / 42 Phil.
1920 Ruth 54 / 64 Phil.
1921 Ruth 59 / 88 Phil.

Yes that’s right, in 1920 Ruth hit more homers than any other American League team! Take a look, in 1919,1921 he wasn’t that far behind either. The average team hits about 175 homers in our era so lets see Bonds would have to hit…well you can do the math so I won’t even waste my time with that calculation.

How about a comparison of career stats in the traditional 5 categories used in fantasy baseball. These career totals are in the following number of at-bats, lest you think one has the advantage over the other:
Bonds 8725, Ruth 8399.

Avg. HR RBI Runs SB
Bonds .297 659 1742 1941 500
Ruth .342 714 2213 2174 123

A last comparison between the two, lets look at their career OBP and SLG marks, the very marks that make Bonds a legendary performer.

Bonds .433 / .602
Ruth .474 / .690

Still think Ruth isn’t the greatest player of all-time? Oh you could say Bonds was a much better fielder and an immeasurably better baserunner, but we have left out one major category…pitching. And we aren’t talking about the state of pitching in the different eras. Oh yeah that’s right didn’t the Babe pitch? Well actually, he did more than that (his stats from 1915-1918).

18 8 2.44 (2.78) 1.15
23 12 1.75 (2.75) 1.07
24 13 2.01 (2.58) 1.08
13 7 2.22 (2.69) 1.05
* Number in ( ) in the ERA column is the League average for ERA.
* He also pitched over 300 innings in 1916-1917.

For his career Ruth went 94-46, with 4 saves, an ERA of 2.28 and a WHIP of 1.16 in 1221.1 innings (for a modern day comparison think Tim Hudson: 80-33, 3.26, 1.21 in 1052 innings). So in essence Ruth was Bonds AND Hudson in his career…think about that…he was an all-star performer pitching AND hitting.

We have no doubt that there will be some out there that don’t buy what we’re selling, and that’s alright.

However, we think that we have laid out ample proof that the Babe Ruth is not merely the penultimate figure in American sports history, he is also the greatest player ever to lace up a pair of spikes. Sure arguments can be offered for players such as Bonds an Arod, but have either of these players changed the game the way that Ruth did? Has anyone ever dominated the sport both on the mound AND in the batters box? Let us know when Barry Bonds turns in his bat for the pitchers mound and makes a couple of all-star teams. When he does get back to us and we’ll consider him. Til then, remember the man all the great ones should be compared to, George Herman “Babe” Ruth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ruth is hands down the better of the two players. Bonds has of course changed the game as we know it in modern times. But Ruth changed the landscape of the game for eras to come. By his power coming at a time when others didn't exhibit such raw strength, he was able to hit more homeruns than certain teams, which allowed for the popularity of the game to grow exponentially. What would baseball of been like without such figures as Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Sure they weren't the typical ball player with Ruth being grossly overweight (and smoking and drinking himself to death) and Cobb being racist. But these figures weren't just great, but the best of all time. The statistics are comparable for Ruth and Bonds even during a time when people weren't hitting homreuns and knocking in 120 runners a year (which is done by the better power hitters of 2000 on). Ruth should, and will, go down in baseball history as one of the best, if not the best, player of all times.

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Blogger james said...

Your statistical analysis is incapable of factoring the quality of the competition; without question, Bonds did what he did amidst bigger, stronger, faster players. How many pitchers were throwing even 90 mph in Ruth's era? Not many. Furthermore, Bonds has been competing against the best players in the world-- all Americans plus Latin Americans and Asians; Ruth wasn't even competing against the best players in the U.S. Of course I have no scientific means to create an appropriate analogy, but I believe Ruth was the equivalent of a college player playing with little leaguers... he outstripped his competition in an era where baseball was a sideshow, athletics was not a true professional endeavor, and segregation kept some of the best players in the country out of his way. Your statistical analysis is compelling when taken on its own, but it does not capture the true contexts in which Ruth or Bonds performed. And if Bonds is to be excoriated or made to carry an asterisk, then so should Ruth for playing in a segregated era. If anything, despite being the biggest names in their respective eras, both men proved incapable of truly changing the game, whether the foe was racism or illegal drug use.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's laughable that anyone with an iota of logic can label Bonds as a greater player than Ruth. Statistics don't lie, and in that regard Ruth far outstrips Bonds in virtually every major category. OK, he didn't steal as many bases, but he did steal home 10 times. How did Bonds fare in that respect? You think the additon of black and Hispanic players has made a major difference in the comparisons. To some extent, yes. But in the big picture -- no way Jose. There were 8 teams in the American league and 8 in the National. How many have we got now -- 32? I lose count. That means that the talent pool is severely "watered down" to the extent that there are major league players now who couldn't have gotten in sniffing distance of "The Show" in Ruth's era. One other thing that isn't mentioned much. I have analyzed the dimensions of the various ballparks where Ruth played in opposition to those where Bonds played. The dimensions from home plate to specific points of the outfield walls is significantly different. Today's yards are way smaller than the ones Ruth played in. Translation: Ruth probably would have hit well over 800 home runs if he had played in the modern era. Eat your heart out Barry Bonds.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good comparison, the only thing I would add is OPS+, which is a stat which measures a players offensive ability versus a league average player, who's score is set at 100. Bonds has the 3 highest single season OPS+ in history, but Ruth has a much higher career OPS+ total , 207 vs 181, meaning throughout Ruth's career he was 107% more productive offensively than an average player. That is unreal.

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