What if Babe Stayed on the Mound?
As most baseball fans know, Babe Ruth started his baseball career as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. He was a good one too, winning eighteen games at age twenty, going 23-12, 1.75 at age 21. He could also swing the bat a bit, and was utilized as a pinch hitter while heading Boston’s staff, and later gradually transitioned to be primarily an outfielder. In December 1919 Babe was sold to the Yankees who made him a full-time outfielder starting in 1920, and we all know how that worked out for him and the Yankees.
It’s sometimes fun to consider what could have happened if the Babe was kept on the mound. To do this, I took a look at other pitchers of his time who had comparable early success on the mound.
Babe’s first three full seasons were as follows: 1915 (age 20): 18-8, 2.44, 2.4 WAR 1916 (age 21): 23-12, 1.75, 8.8 WAR 1917 (age 22): 24-13, 2.01 6.5 WAR That’s 17.7 WAR combined. This certainly wasn’t common success at his age. In fact, I found only four pitchers of the Deadball Era with similar success during their age 20-22 seasons:
Christy Mathewson 22.9 WAR Noodles Hahn 22.7 WAR Walter Johnson 19.5 WAR Smokey Joe Wood 17.3 WAR Mathewson and Johnson of course are baseball legends. Hahn had won 100 games by age 24 and looked destined to have a marvelous career until injuries derailed him and he was out of the game by age 27. Wood’s early career featured a combined 57 wins in his age 21 and 22 seasons, including a 34-5, 1.91 ERA season for the ages in 1912, but he too was dogged by injuries and eventually transitioned to the outfield. From age 23 to the end of their careers, Johnson averaged 7.6 WAR per season, Mathewson 5.8. Would the Babe had a similar career? One certainly couldn’t predict with certainty, but it isn’t a stretch to say that had he stayed healthy, he had an excellent chance of a Hall-of Fame career as a pitcher. His three years of exclusive pitching rendered an average season of 22-11, 2.02 ERA, 5.9 WAR. At age 23 he already had an impressive body of work and was at the top of his profession. The average WAR of a pitcher in the Hall of Fame is 69, with pitchers Rube Marquard (35) and Jesse Haines (36) the lowest WAR among starters. Ruth had half of that by the time he was only 23. On May 6th, 1918, Babe played first base and batted sixth in the lineup for the Red Sox against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds. This was the first time he played a position in the field besides pitcher, and the first time he batted in the order somewhere besides ninth. He ripped a two-run home run. The next game he batted fourth and hit another homer.
Thus was the start of transition from ace pitcher to legendary, sport changing outfielder.
Could he have done both? During the 1918 season he started nineteen games while playing 72 games between the outfield and first base, and led the team to the World Series championship. In 1919 he set an MLB record with 29 home runs while going 9-5, 2.97 in fifteen starts. Despite the success, Ruth was no fan of double duty, saying in 1918 “I don’t think a man can pitch in his regular turn, and play every other game at some other position, and keep that pace year after year.” That being said, the Babe occasionally liked to toe the rubber even during his Yankee career, starting four games…and winning them all.