Babe Ruth Vs. Shohei Ohtani
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Two-way baseball star Shohei Ohtani is often said to be doing something nobody has done since Babe Ruth, so it’s worth comparing Ohtani’s statistics in 2021-2022 to Ruth’s in 1918-1919, the only two years that Ruth did a substantial amount of both pitching and hitting.

Ruth was a full time pitcher and occasional pinch hitter in 1914-1917, then started to play the field in 1918. After 1919, he only pitched a total of five times, usually as part of a promotion. (Being Babe Ruth, he won all five games, but he didn’t have much of fastball anymore, striking out only 5 batters in 5 games.)

In contrast to Ohtani, who came from Japan in 2018 audaciously intending to both pitch and hit, Ruth was trying to transition from pitching to full-time hitting. He peaked as a pitcher in 1916 but in 1917 became slightly less dominant. Lots of pitchers have a few great seasons but then fade due to arm troubles, so it wasn’t unique for Ruth to transition from pitching to hitting.

Around that time, Smoky Joe Wood and George Sisler moved from big league pitcher to player, as had Cy Seymour around the turn of the century. Bob Lemon did it in the 1940s and Rick Ankiel in the 2000s. But pitching and playing the field while resting your arm is basically Ruth and Ohtani.

Keep in mind that Ruth was outspoken about how you couldn’t do both at the same time, so Ohtani is actually doing something that Ruth said couldn’t be done regularly. Even in the two seasons when Ruth regularly pitched and took his place in the lineup, the several years younger Ruth took far more days off than Ohtani, who has missed only 12 out of the last 324 games.

The top line pitching stats make Ruth’s and Ohtani’s two seasons look highly similar. Over 1918-1919, Ruth went 22-12 with a 2.55 ERA, while Ohtani was 24-11 with a 2.70 ERA, with both pitching just under 300 innings. But Ruth was pitching in the Deadball Era, so Ohtani is much better in perspective. Here is their average season for the pairs of years:

Ruth 1918-1919 BOS 11 6 0.647 2.55 150 137 2 54 35 112 3.12 8.2 0.1 3.2 2.1 1.6
Ohtani 2021-2022 LAA 12 6 0.686 2.70 148 111 15 44 188 156 2.89 6.7 0.9 2.7 11.4 5.1

Ruth was only 12% better than the American League’s average ERA (adjusted for playing in a pitcher’s park), while Ohtani has been 56% better than the AL. Ruth’s fading arm was getting by on guile, striking out only 2.1 batters per 9 innings (down from 4.6 SO9 in 1916), while Ohtani blows down 11.4 hitters per nine innings. Ohtani’s Wins Above a Replacement Pitcher of 10.2 is more than three times better than Ruth’s (although Ruth was hurt by both 1918 and 1919 being shorter seasons than normal due to the Great War).

As a hitter, Ohtani looks a little better from the traditional topline stats: .265 batting average, 40 homers per season, 98 RBIs vs. Ruth’s .312 BA, 20 homers, and 87 RBIs:

Ruth 1918-1919 BOS 113 375 77 117 30 12 20 87 7 80 58 .312 .438 .614 1.052 207 6.9
Ohtani 2021-2022 LAA 156 562 97 149 28 7 40 98 19 84 175 .265 .364 .554 .918 151 4.2

But this was during the Deadball Era when home runs were few. Because Ruth was a pitcher, nobody told him to knock it off when he started trying to hit home runs. The coaches didn’t care like they would have about a position player fooling around with an uppercut swing. So, relative to all the choke-up batters of his time, Ruth was a revelation when he hit a record 29 homers in 1919 (followed by 54 and 59 the following two seasons when he’d switched to playing the field full time). So, Ruth’s relativistic batting stats are much better than Ohtani’s (and got incredible after he stopped pitching in 1920).

Ohtani has hit 51% better than the American League over the last two years, which is outstanding, but Ruth hit 107% better, which is Aaron Judge in 2022-like.

The Designated Hitter didn’t exist when Ruth played, so he gets some credit in his hitting WAR for his fielding (which was pretty good — the popular image of Ruth as a fat man is mostly wrong — he let himself get out of shape in 1925 but then hired a personal trainer and worked out all winter to stay in decent shape until he hit 40). Ohtani is a DH and has played only a few innings in the outfield, so he gets held to the high standard of a DH in measuring his offensive WAR.

Ruth was a surprisingly fast base runner, while Ohtani is very fast. But both get thrown out a lot on the basepaths because they both have the self-confidence that comes with being a living legend.

Overall, Ruth averaged 8.5 WAR for these two seasons (but as high as 14.2 WAR in 1923 after he quit pitching). Ohtani has averaged 9.3 WAR.

So is Ohtani really a better two-way player than Ruth?

One argument for Ruth was that he played in shorter seasons. While Ohtani’s Angels play 162 games per years, Ruth’s Red Sox played only 126 in 1918 and 137 in 1919 due to war-shortening.

On the other hand, the level of competition is gigantically higher in 2020 than in 1919, in part due to Ruth revolutionizing the game in 1919 with his power strategy.

The argument for Ruth’s pre-eminence is less that he was relatively better than his competitors (although he was) but that he single-handedly increased the level of competition enormously by smashing through the restrictive realism of his trade and showing the world what could be done by swinging for the fences.

Ruth was enormously influential on his age, and it’s not impossible that the USA’s extraordinary mid-century run up through Apollo 11 had something to do with the example set by its most famous athletic hero.

An interesting question is whether Ohtani will turn out to be a unique phenomenon or, like Ruth, a revolutionary innovator. Perhaps in 20 years, there will be a number of two-way players in baseball simply because Ohtani showed it could be done.

Or perhaps not.

All that said, I’d still vote for Aaron Judge over Ohtani as the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

But it’s fun to have two historic seasons to argue over.

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