BASEBALL’S GREATEST HITTER: BABE RUTH OR TED WILLIAMS
This, of course, is one of the hallmark questions of sabermetrics…perhaps the classic question.
To begin our discussion, we must consider our question from a number of perspectives. Are we limiting ourselves to pure hitting, and to whatever that might mean? How much weight should be given to power numbers? Are we now talking about complete hitting, by taking these power numbers into consideration? Should there be a “cut off” figure; for example, should any player with a lifetime batting average (BA) below .300 be automatically eliminated from the discussion? Recall that BA is equal to hits (H) divided by at-bats (AB).
The greatest batter should be dominant: is the career BA of .366 for Detroit’s Ty Cobb more dominant than the .402 BA put up by the Cardinal’s Rogers Hornsby over the five year stretch from 1921 through 1925?
Transcendence is another word which comes to mind. When Yankee outfielder Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs (HR) in 1920, he hit more HR than 14 of the remaining 15 teams and actually out-homered 11 pairs of teams that year. No one has ever approached that feat.
And what if Boston’s Ted Williams, baseball’s last .400 hitter, had not lost nearly five years due to serving his country during World War II and the Korean Conflict? What might he have accomplished? Most likely, instead of garnering 521 career HR, his total would have approached 700.
Some greats played in four different time zones, other were limited to two. Some stars used air travel to cross the country, others rode on trains. Some sluggers played night games, many others played only during the day. Centerfielder Tris Speaker, who had a .344 lifetime BA, never played a Major League game against a player of Color, something certainly not true when considering the career of Brooklyn’s Duke Snider, the only player in the 1950’s to have five consecutive seasons with 40 or more HR.
Consider the technological and medical advances, and how these have impacted on the art of hitting a baseball. Not to mention Steroids…or Performance Enhancing Drugs...or Human Growth Hormones.
At this point one is almost tempted to throw up their hands and cry out that the question has too many variables and nuances…too many “What ifs?”…to level the playing field, in any meaningful way.
But precisely here is the beauty of sabermetrics! It is not meant to provide “proofs” which have the same absolute certainty of mathematics. The most it can do is give plausibility.
And for that, we are grateful.
So, let me give the reader one man’s opinion regarding this question. I will try to put the numbers in context and attempt to determine whether factors like dominance and transcendence apply to these hitters.
Let me begin with paraphrasing two sayings given to us by the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, himself. These will kind of serve as “axioms” or a backdrop for the treatment of our question as to greatest hitter of all time. The Thumper said,
• Hitting a baseball is the most difficult individual act in all of sports.
• The On-Base-Plus-Slugging (OPS) measure is the “bottom line” in hitting. That is, On-Base-Average (OBA) plus SLG is OPS. We can write this equation as
OPS = OBA + SLG. Note that OPS is also called Production.
Finally, before eliminating all but two candidates from our discussion, for reference I point out to the reader the lifetime leaders in the OPA, SLG and OPS categories:
• OBA: Ted Williams (.482) followed by Babe Ruth (.474)
• SLG: Babe Ruth (.690) followed by Ted Williams (.634)
• OPS: Babe Ruth (1.164) followed by Ted Williams (1.116)
During the first half of the last century, shortstop Honus Wagner was considered by many to be the greatest player ever. Before the advent and popularization of sabermetrics, either Wagner or Cobb was given precedence over all other players, including Babe Ruth. But Wagner played part of his career prior to the Modern Era (which most baseball historians date 1901 as its inception).
Regarding Wagner’s hitting, although he won eight National League batting titles, his lifetime BA was .328. While he hit 101 HR, a “passable” figure for his era, his slugging percentage (SLG) was only .467. I would have loved to have Wagner on my team, and I do believe he will always be rated as the greatest shortstop ever, but I don’t believe he was the greatest hitter ever.
Ty Cobb was dominant; no question about it. He was said to have “ruled the field with awe”. He won 12 batting titles over a 13 year stretch. He hit below .300 only once, and during his career he accumulated over 4000 hits (H). He hit over .400 three times. However, he had rivals. Outfielder Joe Jackson, second baseman Nap Lajoie and Tris Speaker, all batted nearly as high as (and sometimes higher than) the Georgia Peach. Also, approximately three-quarters of Cobb’s hits were singles, he hit 117 HR and had a career SLG total of .512.
One might argue very strongly that Cobb ranked with the “purest” hitters ever, based on these totals, but his lack of power statistics takes Cobb out of the discussion regarding “complete” hitters.
Perhaps with the exception of Lou Gehrig, the Yankee Hall of Famer, to eliminate Rogers Hornsby from the list is very difficult to justify. His .358 lifetime BA ranks second only to Cobb and his lifetime OPS is 1.010 is the eighth best of all time. Yet, he hit only 301 HR (topping the seasonal mark of 40 HR just once) and had a SLG of .577. Had he hit 400 HR and slugged .600, he might very well have been included in the discussion with Ruth and Williams.
American League first basemen Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg were all super sluggers. In the end, though, they were just a notch or two below Babe Ruth. On the OPS list they rank third, fifth and sixth, respectively. Had Gehrig not be stricken with the fatal illness which killed him before his 38th birthday and instead declined “normally”, he would have had 600+ HR and 2500+ runs batted in (RBI). These numbers, combined with his .340 BA and .632 SLG, would certainly have put the Iron Horse in to the “Williams or Ruth” debate.
Stan Musial of the Cardinals was great, but slugged “only”.559. The Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, had a lifetime BA of .325 and a .579 SLG. Great players?…certainly. But neither one was the greatest hitter ever.
Rightfielder Henry Aaron had 755 HR, the most ever until Barry Bonds of the Giants broke his record. Bad Henry batted .305 lifetime and slugged .555. His slugging was two points less than centerfielders Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, but he out hit Willie by three points and Mickey by seven points. Regarding OPS, Henry ranks 41st, Willie is 29th and Mickey is 10th. As great as they were, none of them can really be considered as the greatest hitter ever.
Outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. had a career OPS of .907, ranking him 57th on the all-time list. This statistic, and a lifetime BA of .284, really place Junior out of the running.
Sammy Sosa of the Cubs and Mark McGwire of the Cardinals just don’t cut it based on their averages and surrounding controversies. McGwire, in particular, was hitting home runs at such a clip toward the end of his career that he was raising his lifetime cumulative HR percentage to surpass even Ruth’s ratio of HR to AB. Given Ted Williams’ statement about the difficulty of hitting a baseball, for a player – a .263 hitter, no less – to hit so many HR at such an advanced age in incredulous!
Controversies have long surrounded both retired Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez and HR leader Barry Bonds.
Before the turn of the century, Bonds was a very good hitter. In the early part of the century, Bonds had a few seasons which were virtually unparalleled in the history of the sport. These seasons occurred upwards from the age of 35. Even so, he bested the 50+ HR seasonal mark only once in his career (albeit with 73 homers in 2001). His lifetime BA is under .300. And he has never had a 140+ RBI season. Bottom line: Bonds is not the greatest hitter ever, with or without help.
Some people felt Rodriguez would break the 800 HR mark; of course, he didn’t even reach 700 circuit clouts. With a dismally low OBA (ranking about 125th), and a lifetime BA of .295, A Rod has nevertheless accumulated some remarkable numbers. And to his credit, he has (somewhat?) admitted to using “substances”. In some ways, his totals can be/will be compared with those of Henry Aaron (sans the controversies and the substances). I suspect, when the dust settles, and even with the tarnished image, he will be considered as one of the all-time greats. But, never as the greatest – hitter or player.
My own feeling is that Albert Pujols of the Cardinals was by far the greatest hitter a decade ago. While old age is creeping up, he will most probably be considered as one of the top ten greatest hitters ever.
And so we come to Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.
Relatively speaking, they had short careers. Williams batted around 7700 times, Ruth had about 8400 AB. The both walked over 2000 times. We have already mentioned that Williams lost nearly five seasons while serving in the Armed Forces. But we have not pointed out that Ruth, because he began as a pitcher, can be considered to have “lost time” as well, although not in the same way or the same amount of time.
In Understanding Sabermetrics (McFarland publishers, 2008) the idea of the Equivalence Coefficient was put forth. With this model, the authors attempted to answer the question of “What might have been?” had careers been given their expected “normal duration”. An essential part of the instrument was to incorporate a “kicker” – that is, a way to factor in special circumstances. For example, they did not extrapolate batting totals for Williams’ missed years, but assumed that The Thumper would have been even better for the years he was missing.
Without reprinting and repeating the arguments, it was pretty clear that Ruth would have bested Williams in virtually everything but BA and OBA. And these conclusions were based on the assumptions that Williams would have been 5% or 10% better than he “normally” was, while Ruth would have been 5% worse than he “normally” was.
Both were dominant figures. Both transcended the game. Both were heroes even to their contemporaries.
But Ruth also changed the game. People started hitting home runs more frequently because of Ruth. They swung the bat differently. He made an essential change to baseball. He not only dominated the game…he transcended it.
Ruth outhomered teams ninety times in his career. He still holds the seasonal records for total bases (457), extra base hits (119) and runs scored (177). And this was in 1921, a 154 game season.
Counting ties, Babe Ruth won a dozen HR titles.
Babe Ruth had seven seasons where he drove in 140+ runs.
Ruth is the only player in history to reach the 2000+ mark in walks, runs and RBI.
Before the emergence of the older Barry Bonds, Ruth was the only player to have seasonal SLG marks of .800+, reaching them in 1920 and 1921. He won 13 SLG titles during a 14 year period.
Ruth was the first player to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 HR in a season.
By the way, Ruth had an OPS of 1.211 while appearing in ten World Series.
While Williams outhit Ruth by 2 points in BA, Ruth outslugged Williams by 56 points with respect to SLG.
A final thought. I saw Ted Williams the first time I went to a Major League game. It was in early September of 1960 at Yankee Stadium. Teddy Ballgame hit a home run. The Yankee crowd gave him a standing ovation. Needless to say, I have remembered that day…and will remember it for the rest of my life.
Even though I was 12 years old then and Williams was in his last year, I can truthfully say that Ted Williams was the greatest hitter I ever saw.
But I never saw Ruth.