Babe Ruth’s Most Impressive Statistic
by Paul Semendinger
January 11, 2021
After enjoying some playoff football games (I am a fair weather fan), I needed to get back to the sport I love.
There is an article I want to write about Babe Ruth. I won’t spoil it here, but if there is a reader that can help me find the Yankees’ all-time leaders in games played by position, I’d be greatly appreciative. I’m having trouble finding the Yankees’ top ten leaders in all-time games played at each position.
But, as I dug through various databases, I discovered something exciting.
I discovered Babe Ruth’s most amazing statistic – the one that clearly puts him at the top of all other players. It is this statistic that cements the Babe’s place as the greatest of all-time.
But, before I share that specific statistic, we must begin with a story.
This is the story of the first greatest player of all time, a player you probably never heard of. And also a player that probably never even knew he was the greatest ever.
That player was George Zettlein.
In 1871, George Zettlein was the greatest player in the league. Zettlein was a pitcher who had stats that would look pretty normal by today’s standards and in today’s game. That year he went 18-9, 2.73. He made 28 starts and threw 240.2 innings. He had other numbers, like 25 complete games and only 22 strikeouts that are way out of place today, but if we look at just the first stats I shared, I think we could reasonably expect an excellent pitcher to put up numbers similar to those.
I would assume that ol’ George probably knew how many games his team won when he pitched. He might not have known about the statistic called a “win” and he certainly didn’t know about ERA, but he led the league in ERA that year, at least according to Baseball-Reference.
In 1871, the only WAR George Zettlein would have known was the Civil War, but had that stat been around then, he would have known that, because 1871 is the first year on Baseball-Reference’s Progressive Leaders & Records for Wins Above Replacement chart, he was the all-time lifetime record holder in lifetime WAR.
In 1871, with a lifetime WAR of 4.5, George Zettlein was the greatest in the history of the sport.
Sadly, at least for Zettlein, he didn’t hold that lifetime record very long.
The next year, in 1872, there was a new king. His name is more familiar to baseball fans. The new king was another pitcher, Al Spalding.
In 1871, Spalding’s 3.6 ranked behind Zettlein’s. But after a season in which Spalding went 38-8, 1.85 over 404.2 innings and raking up 11.3 WAR, he vaulted to the top of the All-Time WAR list.
Those 38 wins for Spalding were the fewest he would record over the next several seasons. His yearly win totals after 1872 were: 41, 52, 54, and 47. In just six seasons, he won 251 games.
And from 1872 through 1878, Al Spalding was baseball’s All-Time Career WAR leader. By the end of the 1878 season, he had accumulated 60.3 WAR.
But in 1879, there was a new king and his name was Bond.
Tommy Bond was another pitcher. He won 234 games over his first eight seasons. He never had a 50-win season, but he did win 40 or more games for three consecutive years.
With 62 WAR, Bond was the All-Time WAR leader until 1883.
That’s when Jim McCormick, another pitcher (do you notice a trend?) took over the lifetime spot with a WAR of 63.6. (He won 265 games over ten seasons.)
In 1889, Tim Keefe, yet another pitcher, took over the top spot with a lifetime WAR of 77.7. Keefe won 342 games in his 14 year career. (Want to talk about a pitcher who threw a lot? In 1883, Keefe threw 619 innings.)
Keefe was baseball’s greatest until Cap Anson took over in 1894 with a lifetime WAR of 88.9. Anson played for 27 years and accumulated 3,435 hits. But even with that he didn’t hold the top spot for long. He was replaced by Kid Nichols in 1899.
Kid Nichols was another pitcher. He never won 40-games in a season or even threw 500 innings in any single season (“The ballplayers nowadays are soft, I tell ‘ya”) but he won, a lot, and by 1899 he had accumulated 95.7 WAR which made him baseball’s All-Time Greatest Player.
But it was short-lived.
in 1902, with a WAR of 113.7, another pitcher, this one named Denton True Young (you know him better as Cy), took over. And Cy Young being Cy Young held the top spot for a long long time. He was the greatest of all from 1902 to 1925.
You can see where this is going…
By the time we reach 1925, there comes a new king.
You know his name.
It’s not a secret.
In 1925, with a lifetime WAR of 164.3, Walter Johnson became the greatest ever. “The Big Train,” Walter Johnson, out WAR’d Cy Young. (I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming.)
Let’s review the progression of baseball’s All-Time Career War Leaders and how many years each held the top spot:
George Zettlein – 1 season
Al Spalding – 7 seasons
Tommy Bond – 5 seasons
Jim McCormick – 5 seasons
Tim Keefe – 5 seasons
Cap Anson – 5 seasons
Kid Nichols – 3 seasons
Cy Young – 24 seasons
Walter Johnson – 6 seasons
This is normal and as it should be. As the game changed, different players assumed the top spot. As players’ careers lasted longer, their lifetime WAR totals accumulated to new heights.
Different players brought different skills, but it was clear that the pitcher was baseball’s most valuable position. Of the nine greatest players of all-time, eight were pitchers. Note also that Ty Cobb never reached the top spot on this list.
This was all true until 1932 when George Herman “Babe” Ruth took that top spot.
By the end of the 1932 season, Babe Ruth bested Walter Johnson with a lifetime WAR of 171.3.
The Babe only played a few seasons after 1932. By the end of the 1935 season, his career was over. That was it. During his playing days, the Babe was the greatest of all-time (by WAR) for only his final three seasons when he looked far from the greatest ever.
After the 1935 season, Babe Ruth’s lifetime WAR was 182.5.
After 1935, the game changed many times and in many ways. There was the breaking of the color-barrier (the one Cap Anson created), there was expansion, west coast baseball, night games, longer seasons, equipment enhancements, new technologies, the designated hitter, a lower mound, better fitness, steroids, HGH, and so much more.
Some of the greatest players of all-time played after 1935… legends of the game, inner-circle Hall-of-Famers: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial…
There are so many.
And think of the great pitchers who dominated for ages: Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson…
There are so many.
And think of how the players accused of performance enhancers shattered baseball’s record books making a mockery of so many cherished records and lifetime statistics.
But none of those players, and none of the changes, have been able to unseat Babe Ruth from the spot at the top of baseball’s All-Time Lifetime WAR list.
Babe Ruth has been at the top of that list for 88 years. 88 years!
And it’s not even close.
The closest any player could get to Babe Ruth was Barry Bonds who accumulated 162.8 lifetime WAR. It would have taken Bonds at least two more of his better seasons to catch the Babe. The highest Bonds reached on the lifetime list, was fourth.
The active leader in the game today is Albert Pujols. He is in 30th place all-time.
Here are baseball’s All-Time Top-10 Lifetime Leaders in WAR:
BABE RUTH 182.5
Walter Johnson 164.5
Cy Young 163.8
Barry Bonds 162.8
Willie Mays 156.2
Ty Cobb 151.0
Hank Aaron 143.1
Roger Clemens 139.2
Tris Speaker 134.2
Honus Wagner 130.8
In sum – Babe Ruth was, and is, the greatest player ever to play the game of baseball.