Over the past few weeks, there have been rave reviews of the latest phenom to come to the MLB from Japan, Shohei Ohtani. In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Angel’s new player is both a wizard at pitching and hitting, and has started his MLB career on fire both at the plate and on the mound.
There is no doubt that Ohtani is a 2-way star, and what makes it even more remarkable is the stat about the last player to do what he is doing, who was around was back in the 1920s and 30s.
George Herman Ruth Jr. is arguably the most famous baseball player of all time. Starting as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, he was notoriously sold to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season, and proceeded to break pretty much every record going. By the time he was finished in 1935 he led MLB in Home Runs (714), RBIs (2213), Slugging Percentage (.690) and OPS (1.164). His SLG and OPS marks still stand today. He also had a 94-46 win-loss record as a pitcher, and had a career ERA of 2.28. All around then, he is rightfully regarded as one of the best (if not the best) players to have ever played the game.
So far, this season Shohei Ohtani has pitched to a 4.10 ERA, and has a 3-1-win-loss record. He does have 4 home runs in only 64 plate appearances, and has 14 RBIs. In terms of his SLG and OPS, they sit at .627 and 1.018 respectively. Those last two are almost comparable to the Bambino, but obviously with a much smaller sample size.
By the numbers, Shohei is clearly nowhere near the marks of Babe, but does that mean Babe was a better baseball player than Shohei is? Absolutely not.
Put the two players against each other today in a 1v1, I-pitch-to-you-and-you-pitch-to-me contest and the winner would be Ohtani. It wouldn’t even be that close.
The main reason for this is that Shohei Ohtani is by far a better athlete than Babe Ruth, in fact, all baseball players these days are better athletes. Intensive training regimes, more focus on nutrition, debates around “other” kinds of “nutrition” and increased appreciation of rest days needed have led to the modern player being fitter, stronger and faster than their 1920s counterpart.
Let’s do some rudimentary analysis on fastball speeds. In 2017 in NPB, Ohtani threw his fastball on average at 97.5mph. That’s quick. Using this analysis from the 2014 season from Red Leg Nation, you can see that very simply, the harder you throw these days, the fewer runs you allow.
It’s extremely difficult to put figures as to where Ruth’s average fastball sat at, as the radar gun wasn’t invented until 1947, however we can be certain that is wasn’t near 97.5mph. Back in the 1910s and 20s, pitchers saw it as a badge of honour to throw a complete game, and so would pace themselves accordingly, thus not throwing at maximum effort. It has also been said that Babe didn’t have the greatest fastball, but relied on his fantastic curveball.
Common consensus on the internet estimates him to pitch in the low-to-mid-80s on his fastball. Referencing that against the graph from the 2014 players, we can see that his ERA would have been much higher than the 2.28 he finished with, had he been throwing the same stuff against them. There is obviously a difference in standard of hitting from Ruth’s day to modern times, as today’s hitters would have tucked in to Ruth’s offerings. Shohei wins the pitching round then.
Using the same graph but flipping it to the perspective of a hitter, we can see that Ohtani has a much tougher time of it with regards to the pitchers he faces than Ruth. The average fastball speed in 2017 reached 93.1mph. That means there are a lot of pitchers who pitched above it (think Aroldis Chapman, Luis Severino, Noah Syndergaard et al.) and so Shohei regularly faces players with lasers for arms.
For Ruth, again this is difficult to measure due to lack of measuring technology. Extrapolating the data from the graph below, with average fastball speeds from 2002 – 2015, we can safely again assume an average fastball speed in the mid-80s for this argument. The great Walter Johnson, who is still 2nd on the all-time victories rankings with 417, was told to pitch as fast as 100mph, but was very much a one-off. Babe faced Johnson, so would have had some difficulty against him, and in 107 at bats he batted .280 with 8 doubles, 2 triples and 7 home runs. Johnson struck him out 25 times however, and held him to an average .062 lower than his career mark. Babe clearly “struggled” against Johnson, however there is no doubt he would have had easier pickings off the rest of the pack, and dutifully tucked in to a feast of hits and homers.
So, Babe Ruth faced easier pitching that Shohei Ohtani, and pitched to weaker hitters. No doubt then, if you rented Doc Brown’s DeLorean and picked up the Bambino in his prime, placed him in Angel Stadium and had the 2-way showdown to end all showdowns, Ohtani vs Ruth, the Japanese superstar would wipe the floor with “The Sultan of Swat”.
And yet, we still idolise Babe Ruth as quite possibly the greatest player to have played the game. Here lies the beauty of baseball, the timelessness factor. Babe Ruth hit 714 Home Runs against the best pitchers that were around at that time, and Shohei Ohtani has hit 4 against the best pitchers around at present. Babe Ruth was a freak, an outlier, sheer unadulterated brilliance in pinstripes, with a swing idolised by all and a record that speaks for itself. Sure, if you took 1920s Babe Ruth and put him against 2018 Ohtani he wouldn’t fare well, but Ohtani has an advantage in the training, technology, science and analysis that Babe Ruth simply didn’t have access to at his time.
So maybe then we need to take our DeLorean back to Baltimore on February 6th, 1895. Let’s take a new-born Baby Ruth back to the future, train him with to today’s standards, and then see how he gets on. It would be a contest for the ages…