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Thursday, September 06, 2001

Bonds and the Babe / Giants slugger’s season rivals Ruth’s prodigious 1920 output, statistical analysis shows

A good sabermetric view of Bonds’s place in history.  Palmer now has him #2 all-time using TPR.  And I would wager that if he retires at the right time, he will end up surpassing Babe Ruth as the greatest player of all-time (as measured by TPR).  Hell, he might pass him next year, the way he is going.

Sean Forman Posted: September 06, 2001 at 02:00 PM | 14 comment(s) Login to Bookmark

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   1. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 06, 2001 at 05:31 PM (#72419)
Maybe so, but can he pitch?
   2. The Original Gary Posted: September 06, 2001 at 06:01 PM (#72420)
Sorry, Sean, but you lose me there. The Babe was a Ruthian figure (adjective intended) in a dead ball era. He hit more homeruns than entire teams. His numbers must be taken in that context. This is not a knock on Bonds at all. That'd be some insult: "Hey Bonds! You are not as good as Babe Ruth so there!"
   3. Fadeaway: The Baseball History Podcast Posted: September 06, 2001 at 10:35 PM (#72421)
Here's the dumbest comment in the article:

"Among current home-run hitters, McGwire's career OPS stats reflect his time on the disabled list."

Uh, no. His career OPS is not affected one iota by the time he spent on the disabled list. It is, however, affected by all the time he spent as a bad baseball player early in his career.
   4. Darren Posted: September 07, 2001 at 02:44 AM (#72422)

You seem in the loop on these things. Why do people still use TPR? The defensive stats are flawed!
   5. Colin Posted: September 07, 2001 at 05:33 PM (#72424)
Here's a question on philosophy of judging players - Ruth had incredible offensive edge, in large part by being the first and best hitter to take advantage of new conditions. To some extent, then, he benefited from facing pitchers who hadn't yet adjusted to the new conditions. This doesn't devalue what he accomplished relative to his hitting peers in the league, and I don't penalize him for it - other hitters weren't doing so, and that's their problem. But it is part of a context that should be considered in comparing him to other players across the history of the game.

No real point here, except that I often see people compare other players to Ruth based solely on, say, OPS. But if Barry comes close to Ruth's SLG mark this year, then I'll be more impressed with that than with Ruth's, because Barry will have done it in an era when one hitter couldn't really have a significant advantage by adjusting to a drastic change in conditions better and faster.
   6. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 07, 2001 at 08:25 PM (#72426)
Apples and oranges. Ruth was the trailblazer, and Bonds isn't, but Ruth's competition (through no fault of his own, it goes without saying) was second rate. Ruth undoubtedly would have done better than anyone else of his ML generation if the best black pitchers had replaced the worst white pitchers on the ML rosters of the time. But his statistics still would have had to suffer, unless you subscribe to the old Dixiecrat concept of racial superiority.

Nobody believes more than I do in the idea of not judging the past by present standards. But in simply debating the raw statistics of Ruth vs. Bonds, without remembering that it was a Jim Crow league, you're setting up a rather curious comparison.

Try removing all the black pitchers of whatever country of origin from today's Major Leagues, and replacing them with the best white pitchers from the minors---then pretend Bonds is white and give him a crack at all those newly reformulated "Major League" mound staffs, and you'll have a fairer basis for comparing the two.
   7. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 08, 2001 at 01:39 AM (#72428)

No question that there's more than one adjustment to make, but the absolute numbers in the talent pool, no matter how you add for population expansion and for foreign talent, and subtract for whatever loss of percentage of kids who used to play baseball in Ruth's era and don't today---you still can't get around the fact that Ruth's competition was articficially and unnaturally limited in a way that had nothing to do with anything but sheer bigotry. And much as it's hard to accept, and no matter that (again) it was absolutely no fault of Ruth's, his records are, in a word, tainted. I happen to believe that in spite of that, that he was probably the greatest player ever, since (a) he towered so far above his ML contemporaries, and (b) unlike any great power hitter other than Dihigo, he could also pitch. But it's pretty hard to claim that as a fact when the ML mores of his time forced him to duck much of what would have been his strongest opposition.
   8. Colin Posted: September 13, 2001 at 01:41 PM (#72429)
Eric - I explicitly said I don't penalize Ruth for it. Rather, I'd give Bonds extra credit for pulling off a Ruth-like season in an era not characterized by rapid change not yet adjusted to by his opposing pitchers.

ruth deserves credit for taking advantage of new conditions, and he maintained his incredible performance in years beyond the initial transition. But Bonds' feat is, to me, perhaps more impressive, because he doesn't have that advantage going for him.
   9. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 14, 2001 at 02:53 AM (#72431)

Since that was my quote you quoted, let me respond.

The answer is no, in the sense that the moral taint isn't there for the Negro Leaguers in the way it was for the Major Leaguers. It wasn't the Negro Leaguers who were scared to play the Major Leaguers, it was the other way around---at least many of the Major Leaguers were afraid (notably Cobb), if not all, and all of the owners before Rickey were part of the conspiracy of exclusion.

But in another sense, the answer is yes, in that in both cases there was no true testing of talent on a regular basis the way there is today. Cobb and Ruth never had to bat against Williams and Paige, and Gibson and Charleston never had to hit against Grove and Mathewson. If that doesn't taint their records, I don't know what would.

But if anything, the ML records are more tainted, since (a) the exhibition game records gave a rather pronounced edge to the Negro Leaguers when they went up against the Major Leaguers; and (b) since the myth of the Major Leaguers' records is more embedded in the public consciousness, the taint is correspondingly greater. Besides (and once again), it wasn't the Negro Leaguers who were ducking from real competition---it was the Major Leaguers, and especially their owners. This is a rather impossible point to evade or ignore, unless you swallow the garbage that somehow the Major Leaguers "weren't really trying" when they lost all those exhibition games. (Of course I'm not saying that you, JoelShoe, believe that, only that I've read it in various forums.)
   10. Darren Posted: September 17, 2001 at 02:57 PM (#72433)

You've done nothing here to show that racial segregation had a stronger effect on the talent pool than A) a smaller number of teams, and B) the greater popularity of baseball in the 20s vs today.

You've just gone off on some moral diatribe against 'cowardly' players like Ruth. It seems to me that you haven't separated the 2 issues that Joel posted above: the moral implications of segregation of baseball vs. the performance implications of such.

To imply the records of Negro Leaguers are not tainted by segregation is ridiculous. You have no idea if Negro Leaguers were afraid of playing whites, or vice versa. Even if they weren't, they racked up ridiculous numbers against a tiny, tiny talent pool. Their records are 'tainted' by this fact.
   11. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 17, 2001 at 09:20 PM (#72434)
JoelShoe and Darren...

I was out of town, and hence my slow reply. Sorry.

First, Darren. I never said that Ruth was cowardly, but clearly many players such as Cobb were. Look at his reaction after his relatively poor performance against the Cuban teams which included many blacks. And the overall size of the talent pool has little to do with anything. The fact is that Bonds is today competing against a talent pool which is not artificially restricted, whereas Ruth and Cobb benefitted by not being forced to do likewise. You can't blame Ruth for this on a personal level, OF COURSE, OF COURSE, YES, YES, I KNOW THAT, but in practical terms he was not competing against ALL of the best. In that sense his records ARE tainted. How could they not be?

And if you read my post, I DO say that the records of the Negro Leaguers were ALSO tainted. I don't know why I should have to spell this out a second time. It's right there. Read it. I only said that the MORAL taint was not equivalent. And it wasn't, and isn't.

And JoelShoe...

Both points you raise are fair ones. To the first, white players had little or no influence on the Jim Crow policy, given the overall racial climate of the times, but in fact there are many players who were quoted at the time on both sides of the issue. Dean was one of the more prominent "let em play" proponents, Cobb one of the bigger rednecks. And then there were the bullshitters like Clark Griffith, who would privately tell blacks "Gee, I wish I could sign you boys," but never lifted a finger to do so---and who profited handsomely by renting out Griffith Stadium to the Negro Leagues.

As for the sample size of the exhibition games, it's hard to say exactly how statistically significant they are, but when one side wins about two-thirds of the contests, and when stars of both sides played in many or most of those contests, it's pretty hard to dismiss them. I have never claimed that the Negro Leagues were better than the MLs. Given the respective population bases, that would be ridiculous. But I don't see what's unreasonable about assuming that roughly the same proportion of blacks would have played and starred in the 1920's as they did in the 1960's and 1970's, when baseball was still being played by black youngsters on a fairly widespread level, unlike the case today. The tragedy is that thanks to the chickenshit policies of ML baseball prior to Jackie Robinson, ALL records back then---ML as well as Negro Leagues---really belong to the great Unknown and the great What If. They are totally skewered by segregation. The fact that many people deny this is either amusing or a sign of latent bigotry, depending on your point of view. For my part, I think most people just haven't really thought the issue through to its logical conclusion. You simply can't exclude much of your best potential competition on the one hand, and then pretend you've competed against "the best" on the other hand. To believe that you can is to escape into another world of some kind of illogical logic.

And again, for the sake of Darren and Future Darrens, I fully realize that Babe Ruth did not personally enact the informal but 100% enforced laws of baseball segregation. Cap Anson was the one who supposed said "Get that ###### off this field," and that was before good old Jidge was even born.

And by the way, one of the favorites taunts thrown the Bambino's way by opposing bench jockeys was---what else?---"######." Probably for his big broad nose or something.

John Holway, by the way, has addressed both of these points many times in his many books on the subject.
   12. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 18, 2001 at 02:52 AM (#72435)
Dinner called. Posted without complete proofreading. Dumb typos. That's what you get. Sorry.
   13. Robert Dudek Posted: September 18, 2001 at 08:25 AM (#72436)
We don't know how strong the competition was those days relative to the present or virtually any other era.

Andy and I had this type of discussion when discussing Williams vs Bonds as the greatest LF of all time some months ago.

My guiding assumption has always been to compare players to their contemporaries. If we want to discuss whether Cobb was better than Lajoie, there is a lot of evidence that can be brought to bear on that question.

The moral taint issue is a non-starter. If you took Bonds and made him white and dropped him into the 20s, he'd be similarly "tainted". Those policies had nothing to do with the individial players in question. As for any other kind of taint, we don't know the extent of it. What about expansion ? One could say that Bonds' performance is tainted because expansion has diluted the talent pool.

No. Bonds has clearly been the best player of his generation, as Ruth was of his. Let's leave it at that.
   14. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: September 18, 2001 at 09:49 AM (#72437)

No real argument here. The moral taint, of course, has to do with MLB's overall policies, and has nothing to do with Ruth as a person, only Ruth's records, for reasons I go into above. I personally think that the recent expansion of the worldwide talent pool far overrides the percentage of white youngsters in the US who no longer take up the game vis-a-vis pre-1947, and the talent-diluting effects of expansion. But this point has been aired out at great length in presvious threads, and in any case has llttle to do with this discussion per se.

As to which is the "greater" player of the two, no question: Ruth. Even if I assume (which I do) that all segregation era records are tainted (Negro Leagues as well as MLB) by the lack of complete competition, and even if I discount Ruth's (or Gibson's) records somewhat for that (which I do---sorry, boys), and even if I grant Bonds' defensive and baserunning superiority (which I do), I am still left with this: Ruth was also one hell of a pitcher. And this closes the case for Ruth vs. any other player in history, black or white.

With one possible exception: Martin Dihigo. To me, this will always be the most interesting hypothetical baseball debate of the twentieth century: Was Ruth better than Dihigo? And here is one debate where---thanks to good old MLB and its lily white policies---there is no way of ever really knowing the answer. I wouldn't even want to make an educated guess, as there simply isn't enough real information to base it on.

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