“I had an argument with a coach in Triple A about Babe Ruth’s effectiveness in today’s game,” the 33-year-old said this week on MLB’s Statcast podcast. “I said, ‘Babe Ruth, with that swing, swinging that bat, I got him hitting .140 with eight homers.’
"He was like, ‘Are you nuts? Babe Ruth would hit .370 with 60 homers.’ And I’m like, ‘I would strike Babe Ruth out every time.’
“I’m not trying to disrespect him, you know, rest in peace, you know, shout out to Babe Ruth,” Ottavino joked. “But it was a different game. I mean, the guy ate hot dogs and drank beer and did whatever he did. It was just a different game.”
So let’s talk about that.
Ruth over 22 seasons had a .342 batting average, a .690 slugging percentage (still an MLB record), a 1.164 on-base plus slugging percentage (also still a record). He hit 714 home runs and had 2,214 runs batted in.
Ottavino has a point: Baseball has changed a whole lot in the past century. Players train year-round. Nutrition has become as important as scouting reports. Defenses shift all over the field to match a hitter’s habits. The best pitchers' velocity in Ruth’s day topped out at about 90 miles per hour, while relievers you’ve never heard of now flirt with 100 mph fastballs.
But some objective measures of athleticism are consistent. And by at least some of those standards, Ruth in his prime bears a resemblance to one of baseball’s modern legends in his prime: Albert Pujols.
Popular Science magazine in 1921 took Ruth to get tested at Columbia University in search of a scientific answer to why he bashed so many home runs. Researchers used state of the art scientific techniques for the era, although some have since been called into question. Here are the pertinent results:
- To gauge power, Ruth swung a 54-ounce bat 75 mph, a measure that flabbergasted researchers.
- To test fine motor control and speed, he was given a steel board punched with holes and asked to insert a peg into those holes as many times as possible in 60 seconds. He managed 132 hits with his (dominant) left hand. The average score was 82, according to Popular Science.
- To measure reflexes, he was asked to depress a button with his index finger as many times as possible in 10 seconds. The results were reported by percentile. Ruth was in the top 99.8 percent.
Popular Science went bananas over the results. “The tests proved that the coordination of eye, brain, nerve system, and muscle is practically perfect,” it wrote.
The New York Times went equally berserk with its headline: “Ruth supernormal, so he hits homers.”
Ruth hit 59 long balls to lead the big leagues that year. St. Louis’s Ken Williams and Yankees' teammate Bob Meusel came in second place, each with 24. Not a decade prior, home runs were barely a part of the sport. In 1911, Philadelphia third baseman Home Run Baker (yes, his name was Home Run) led the American League in dingers. He had 11.
Pujols was coming off his third straight all-star appearance in 2006 when GQ asked him to take the same tests Ruth had undergone in 1921. The tests were administered at Washington University in St. Louis. And their scores were similar.
- Pujols swung a 31.5-ounce bat nearly 87 mph. That’s significantly faster than Ruth, but factor in the weight of the bat Pujols used. Big leaguers use much lighter bats today than in Ruth’s era. And the trend among the game’s top sluggers is to go lighter and lighter. “I’d rather have a quicker bat,” Giancarlo Stanton said in 2013 when he dropped down to a 32-ounce bat. “The heavier it is, the harder it will be to get to [the pitch].”
- On the peg board test, researchers gave Pujols a board with 25 holes and asked him to insert a peg into each hole as quickly as possible. It took him 56 seconds to complete the task using his (dominant) right hand, which was slightly above average, GQ reported. Ruth has him beat there.
- In the finger-tapping test, Pujols tested in the 99th percentile, about the same as Ruth. (One of his taps was so mighty it knocked a screw loose in the device.)
“Making exact comparisons between the Pujols and Ruth test results is difficult because the tests given to Ruth were not very well normed,” Desiree White, a Washington University associate professor of psychology who helped administer the tests to Pujols, said at the time. “But it’s clear that both Ruth and Pujols performed well above average on a number of tests that are very similar in nature.”
Something that’s impossible to measure is the adjustments Ruth would make to fit in to modern baseball. Ruth biographer Jane Leavy posed that question to acclaimed private hitting coach Jason Ochart of Driveline Baseball in Kent, Wash., during research for her book “The Big Fella.” The company uses engineering tools to study and restructure a batter’s swing.
“The human body hasn’t changed much; and the swing, on the mental level is the same,” Ochart told Leavy. “He’s using a kinetic link. He’s turning linear energy into rotational energy. He’s really doing the same stuff we’re doing nowadays.”
Ruth would likely have to use a lighter bat to generate more power and allow himself to hold his swing on pitches out of the strike zone, Ochart said. And he’d likely have to shorten his swing, too, to catch up to the faster pitchers in today’s game.
But Ruth already did things in his swing that modern power hitters do, too, possibly because later swings were modeled after the Great Bambino’s. For example, Ochart said, Ruth didn’t stand square to the plate. He staggered his feet to create more rotational velocity.
In other words, said Ochart: “I find it ridiculous to say that he wouldn’t be very good this day and age.”
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