Chase Utley: One of the Best Ever

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Thoughts on Babe Ruth

 George Herman Ruth, known colloquially as Babe Ruth, is considered by many to be the greatest baseball player of all time. He was the original home run hitter, breaking the single season home run record 4 separate times in his career. 

While he is statistically the most productive hitter of all time, there are some things to consider. For one, in the 1920s, African Americans were not allowed to play in the MLB. Naturally, this shrunk the talent pool. With fewer players getting the opportunity to compete for playing time in the league, the overall talent level of the league would decrease. This means that Ruth's era adjusted metrics, which compare him to the league average player at the time, were comparing him to a lesser league average player than that in later years. His 197 wRC+, while still impressive, isn't nearly as shiny.

Babe Ruth also enjoyed another distinct advantage that he wouldn't benefit from today: the knowledge that home runs are good. Ruth put up home run totals that would be insane even today. In the 1920s, however, they were otherworldly. As I said earlier, he broke the single season home run record 4 separate times. The first time he broke it was in 1919 with the Red Sox, slugging just 29 home runs.  29 home runs in the modern MLB might not even net you a top 10 MVP vote. The year before, he lead the league with 11 home runs, although that didn't break any records.  He followed that league leading stretch with a 54 home run season, and then a 59 home run season in 1921. These days, he would no longer had the strategic advantage that he held today. 

I do not buy into the idea that athletes today are greek gods compared to athletes of the past. The notion that humans have evolved significantly over just a couple generations is strange to me. One advantage athletes of today do have over athletes of the past is information. Information has a big impact on performance, but it just isn't something that is inherent to the athlete themselves. Here is a relevant example:

Pitchers in the 1920s pitched complete games with regularity. This mean that one individual pitcher had to alter his game in order to consistently get through all 9 innings. An obvious downfall of this strategy is that pitchers will get tired, batters will get familiar with them, and chaos will ensue. People running baseball teams have realized how detrimental it can be to keep a pitcher in just for the sake of it. You will still see workhorses like Zack Wheeler pitching some complete games, because he is good enough to do so on occasion, but that is an exception to the rule. I personally don't love the death of superstar inning eating starting pitchers. Unfortunately, that is not a part of the game that can be fixed with a reasonable rule change, and the fact of the matter is that managing pitchers' workloads is very much the right strategy. This strategy suppresses offensive output, and the lack thereof would make it easier to hit.

While it is true that pitchers today are more difficult to hit than the hurlers of yore, I heavily disagree with the claim that Babe Ruth wouldn't hit today's pitching. Granted, he would certainly have an adjustment period, but he would figure things out eventually. It's not like he didn't face hard throwers in his day. He absolutely shredded Walter Johnson, who was estimated to have thrown in the mid to high 90s. Mid to high 90s back then was even more impressive given the fact that pitchers were putting more effort into their control. Again, it's not like Ruth held his own against the great Walter Johnson. He dominated him, as if he were just another pitcher. Adam Ottavino would strike out Babe Ruth the first time he sees him. Give Ruth a couple months to acclimate to modern pitching, and he would be back to dominating. He probably wouldn't produce at a rate double the league average, but he would still be one of the best hitters in baseball.

If I were to compare Babe Ruth to any modern player, it would be Joey Gallo. Gallo, like Ruth, is a guy who tries to have the best possible approach at all times. Since Ruth became a full time hitter, only 13 hitters with over 2000 plate appearances have a higher era adjusted strikeout rate. Ruth struck out 90% more than the average hitter. The only guys ahead of him that I recognized were Dave Kingman, Bo Jackson, and Hack Wilson. Gallo, who is often associated with being a strikeout machine, only struck out 67% more than the league average hitter. Some might question using such a method to compare hitters over eras, but I'm using it for the sake of simplicity. Babe struck out so much because he was aiming for the fences. Maybe he was just an egomaniac who wanted to statpad his home runs, or maybe he knew what he was doing was the optimal strategic approach. Either way, Ruth and Gallo have a lot of similarities. Insane home run power, incredibly high strikeout rate, and an approach that emphasizes them both. Babe was a better "pure hitter" than Gallo, at least in terms of just getting hits, and that's about it in terms of big differences. Gallo is a more physically appealing athlete, although Ruth wouldn't do terribly in that department if he weren't such a pleasure seeking fellow. 

Interesting fact: Babe Ruth put up 80 outfield defensive runs in his career, per some very accurate defensive metrics. This includes a 19 run season in 1923.

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