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Bonds's Feats Are Ruthian, But He's No Babe -- Yet (washingtonpost.com) (October 9, 2002)

Every day another sportswriter embraces Barry Bonds. This display of love gets me all misty-eyed. Sniff, sniff. Hugs all around, guys. Feel the love.

Thanks to Fred Westerberg.
--posted by Jim Furtado at 3:49 PM EDT


Discussion

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Posted 4:18 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#1) - The Behemoth of Bust
  Hey kid, trust me, you don't want to be me now. I don't look so good after 55 years!

Posted 4:35 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#2) - Kurt
  Quite a turnaround from his embarrassing rip job last year, during the whole Sosa/Bonds MVP 'debate".

Posted 4:41 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#3) - bob mong
  Jim, you slay me. :)

Posted 4:41 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#4) - TFB
  Boswell leaves out two big arguments for Bonds--the general improvement in athleticism over the past several generations, and Ruth's lack of non-white competition. I think it's likely that Bonds is facing generally tougher pitching on a regular basis than Ruth did, for both reasons, and in a scenario where Ruth steps out of 1921 and is immediately made to play in today's game, the Bambino would get outhit by Barry. To me, that makes Bonds a better player in raw terms, but in talking about a player's ability to best the competition in his own context, Ruth comes out ahead, and his pitching puts him well over the top.

Posted 4:53 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#5) - eric
  This might be a minor point, but Boswell talks about Ruth's 31 steals over '20-'21 but fails to mention his 27 CS over the same time. Stealing bases was much more a part of the game then as it is now (enough that they presumably accepted 53% success rates - a lot of guys have rates like that). Saying that "a young Ruth is probaby faster than the old Bonds" definitely does not follow from that.

Same with the triples argument, considering how triples have, according to recent research and theories, gone from being a power stat in Ruth's days to a speed stat today.

I really see no reason to believe a young Ruth had any special gift in the speed area. He very well might have, but the SB and 3B numbers in no way imply that.

Posted 4:57 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#6) - Ty Cobb
  What's all this fuss about that Ruth fellow? Hey, I could hit over .300 in today's game, and I'm dead.

Posted 5:02 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#7) - TFB
  That's not a minor point, Eric. Using the SB stat to talk up Ruth's speed is pretty bogus. Better that Boswell quoted Cobb's assessment: "Runs pretty good for a fat guy."

Of course, this discussion is moot (or "mute," for any FOX announcers in the crowd) because I'm still the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.

Posted 5:15 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#8) - Robert H.
  TFB,

Bonds has also benefited from advancements in medical technology and equipment technology. How would Bonds perform with those trees they used to call bats? How would he perfrom without the psychological benefit of the batting helmet and body armor?

Ruth played within a segregated league, but there were also fewer teams ( and no 5th starters ).

Bonds-Ruth is like the BCS rankings, they are fun to argue about but don't mean much.

Posted 5:16 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#9) - Kurt
  We discussed Boswell's Bonds-trashing column from last year here, for those of you that like to keep track of these things.

Posted 5:34 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#10) - TFB
  Kurt--

You're right, which is why I said "I think" and "[t]o me" in my first post. I tend to weight the impact of the smaller player pool of the 1920s pretty heavily, for one thing. And trying to imagine whether Babe Ruth could or would take advantage of modern conditioning techniques boggles my mind, so I'm not even going there.

I've always been fascinated by players from way back when who had what look to us like gym-built bodies. I think it was Canseco who once talked about Mickey Mantle looking fit in his later years, "like he still lifts weights." Mickey said he'd never touched a dumbbell in his life. Similarly, if you look at Gehrig in his prime--the Ken Burns series has a lot of good footage--he looks better than a Greek god. Why don't we all stay away from the Nautilus machines and go pitch hay on a farm?

I suppose Mantle and Gehrig are two guys who just happened to win the genetic lottery and probably wouldn't have seen much physical improvement from any other conditioning program, but I shudder to think what they'd have been like if they did.

Posted 5:36 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#11) - TFB
  Of course, I should start a mental conditioning program of my own. I was responding above to Robert H., not Kurt.

Posted 6:21 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#12) - Jonathan
  Boswell leaves out the relief ace argument as well. Ruth wasn't facing fresh guys every time he batted after the sixth. Or specialists like Orosco, who's only purpose in (baseball) life is essentially to get Bonds out. (of course, that means Ruth was facing superior pitchers, who were just more tired. I don't know who's favored by this.)

I'm convinced old Barry is faster than young Ruth. Probably faster than young Elvis as well.

All that said, to argue that Bonds is establishing himself as the #2 player of all time is reasonable. The first reasonable Boswell article we've had here at BP.

Posted 7:08 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#13) - Pat (e-mail)
  TFB - what is the point here of muscleing up? Have you ever looked at the bodies of Mays and Banks just for two examples. It is in timing, sir. May I remand you to Sir Laurence Olivier's remark to Dustan Hoffman on something along the same order. Dustan to Sir Laurence, how do you achieve the sense of being completely exhausted without being in such a state in a scene. Sir Laurence to Dustan - Try acting my young boy, just try acting.

Where did this whole idea of big bodied people in power hitting start anyway? Canseco and McGwire were aberrations. Look at Musial, no muscles there. Who would you rather have on your team? And, even today, look at A-Rod and Nomar.

Please deliver me from this type of idle prattle on this site in the future. We have much more important things to discuss regarding the real game, don't we?

Posted 7:34 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#14) - Alex Lewis
  Here's a better example, though equally meaningless:

Buddy Holly is on the Late Show with Johnny Carson for an interview. The conversation is wandering and for some reason Holly smirks and asks Carson if he wants to know the secret of comedy is. It all went a bit like this-

Holly: John, how'd you like to know what the secret to comedy is?

Carson: What's the secre-

Holly: (screaming) TIMING!

It killed me.

Posted 7:34 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#15) - Srul Itza
  Ah, the Marathon Man anecdote. The way I heard it was that Hoffman stayed up all night, or maybe even more than one night, so he could look appropriately tired and frazzled for an important scene. Olivier asked him why he looked the way he did, and Hoffman told him what he had done, to which Olivier replied, "Why not just try acting? It's much easier."

Posted 7:38 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#16) - TFB
  Ouch, Pat. Good thing that blow didn't come from a muscle-bound behemoth or it might have hurt. I wasn't making a connection between bulk and slugging. The relatively slight Griffey, Jr. can still hit the ball a long way, and then there's A-Rod and Soriano, and hey, look at me--I was the Splendid Splinter, fer crying out loud. I was just imagining Babe Ruth making an effort to keep fit, and that led me to thinking about players who'd developed impressive physiques without the aid of modern weight training.

Posted 8:11 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#17) - Bill R.
  Proof of Ruth's greatness comes at the end of his career. By 1931 he was the older, fatter Ruth we've come to know and love, and yet, even though he was a contemporary of such obviously fit, younger players like Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Hack Wilson (less fit, though clearly very strong), who was the league's best hitter? Ruth.

And he used a bat that weighed, like 30 pounds or something.

Posted 8:13 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#18) - Sabertruth
  A common mistake when discussing level of competition across eras is to confuse conditioning/size/strength with the available talent pool, which are two separate issues. Conditioning is actually a "condition" of the times, and no player should be given credit or be penalized for their environment. However, the other issue is a valid one, which is how much of the population was used as major leaguers. Without blacks and very many hispanics, not to mention other nationalities, the talent pool was considerably smaller. In the early 1900s, the talent pool didn't utilize the population of the western states very much either, so it was rather limited. This phenomenon is manifested in several ways. One is the disparity between the best teams and the worst teams. Indeed, great individual stats can more easily be accomplished when there's a huge imbalance in the league. Just look at all the dismal cellar dwellars around 1930 and prior. It's a maxim that as quality increases, the competition bunches up.

After Jackie Robinson came into the league, integration finally brought the competition level up to its peak right about the time of the first expansion (early '60s). Expansion affects competition level only slightly anyway, and only for a couple years.

Posted 8:27 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#19) - Rick Reilly
  And what's the most money Bonds has ever spent at a whorehouse? Ruth used to rent out the places. Whatta character.

Selfish, selfish, selfish, selfish, selfish, selfish Barry.

Posted 8:32 p.m., October 9, 2002 (#20) - Spiveydinho
  Just because guys like Griffey and Alex Rodriguez don't look like they live in a gym doesn't mean they aren't quite strong. Alex Rodriguez looks quite strong to me.

Posted 12:39 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#21) - Buddy Holly
  The story of my timing joke on the Carson show was actually itself a highly sophisticated, postmodern joke, a riff on timing, because you see I died in 1959, three years before Johnny Carson became the host of the "Tonight" show.

Posted 4:57 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#22) - Bangkok9
  Boswell is a putz. Never does he consider that Bonds has steadily improved every year except '89 in SLG and OPS and except '89 and '99 in OBP -- increasing his avg. for the year above his in-category career average to date. That's 44 out of 48 points.

Ruth? From '19 - '32: 8, 9 and 10 respectively. 27 out of 42 points.

This gives Ruth credit for his 'breakout' season in '19 -- basically a freebie over his pitching years.

Who's better -- a guy who becomes 'the Babe' and then goes on auto-pilot, or a guy who's working to be the 'next Babe' and makes it?

Bonds, best, end of story.

Plus consider that the ball was reconstituted -- Australian wool! -- about the time Ruth started being 'the Babe' while Barry had to raise his game all by his lonesome until '93 and machine-wound balls.

Posted 5:35 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#23) - Jonathan
  +The relatively slight Griffey, Jr. +

Slight compared to who? The man has good sized arms, and massive legs, compared to McGwire's delicate tootsies.

Posted 6:23 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#24) - Pencilbox
  >I think it was Canseco who once talked about Mickey Mantle
>looking fit in his later years, "like he still lifts weights." Mickey
>said he'd never touched a dumbbell in his life.

Canseco and Mantle must not've shaken hands, then.

hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

Posted 9:35 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#25) - Darren
  Ruth ERA+: 122
Bonds: ???

Posted 10:54 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#26) - Buddy Hackett
  Oh........I thought you meant me.........

Posted 10:57 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#27) - Jimmy the Greek
  Slight compared to who? The man has good sized arms, and massive legs, compared to McGwire's delicate tootsies.

I can explain that.

Posted 11:08 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#28) - Dr Ruth
  For a moment I thought this article was going to be very interesting.

Posted 11:10 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#29) - Kirby Puckett
  Everytime there is an article on Bonds I always wonder if it is possible to be a complete louse of a human being and yet still be considered "loveable"? Anyone? Oh wait....

Posted 11:17 a.m., October 10, 2002 (#30) - Tommy LaSorda
  Here I am, Kirb-man.

Posted 12:33 p.m., October 10, 2002 (#31) - John Brattain (e-mail)
  A little fuel to add to the fire:

How much does the size of the respective strike zones for Ruth and Bonds enter into the equation?

Bonds career OBP: .428 LG OBP: .336 with tiny strike zone.

Ruth's career OBP: .474 LG OBP: .356 with letters-to-knees strike zone.

I have no data to substantiate this but the modern use of relief pitchers in Bonds' day has to be offset somewhat by the lower numbers of pitches thrown in Ruth's day due to having a larger target to throw at. I think I remember reading that Christy Mathewson once told a rookie pitcher that he should keep himself in optimum shape since he might have to throw as many as 100 pitches in a game.

Thoughts?

Best Regards

John

Posted 2:27 p.m., October 10, 2002 (#32) - Doy
  And, even today, look at A-Rod and Nomar.

You've clearly never seen Nomah on the cover of SI with his shirt off, and you clearly don't realize that Rodriguez is about 6'4" and well over 200 lbs.

Posted 7:12 p.m., October 10, 2002 (#33) - Steve Treder
  "I have no data to substantiate this but the modern use of relief pitchers in Bonds' day has to be offset somewhat by the lower numbers of pitches thrown in Ruth's day due to having a larger target to throw at. I think I remember reading that Christy Mathewson once told a rookie pitcher that he should keep himself in optimum shape since he might have to throw as many as 100 pitches in a game."

Um, John, I'm a little confused as to exactly where you're going with this ... if the strike zone is so much smaller today, why is it that Bonds' league OBP is lower than Ruth's league OBP was? Why is that BB/G rates in Bond's 90s/00s NL are almost exactly the same as BB/G rates in Ruths/s 20s/30s AL (low-to-mid 3's)?

What Mathewson said was (a) quite likely a subtle way of bragging, in that a great control pitcher such as Mathewson would obviously rarely throw as many pitches in a game as a typical pitcher, and (b) almost certainly said in the extreme low-scoring dead ball era, a very different era than that in which Ruth spent the great majority of his career. In Mathewson's era, since practically no one could hit home runs, there was very little risk for a pitcher to challenge hitters. In the 1920s and 1930s, circumstances were very different (and of course Ruth was more responsible than any other single person for creating that change).

Runs per game were slightly but consistently higher in Ruth's league than in Bonds', which means that, other things being equal, the runs that Bonds creates are more precious and valuable than the runs that Ruth created. Moreover, the pool of talent from which MLB draws today is vastly greater, proportional to the number of MLB teams, than it was in Ruth's era, indicating that the general quality of play today is far greater. This indicates that Bonds' batting exploits of the past two seasons are more impressive than those of a player in Ruth's era putting up the same numbers would be.

Ruth's great skill as a pitcher is obviously something that Bonds can't begin to match; indeed Ruth's feats in this regard are nearly singular in the history of the game. And it's also the case that Bonds has not been as dominant over the course of his career as he has been in 2001-2002; Ruth's peak performance in this sense was much longer than Bonds'.

But for sheer short-term peak batting performance, no one in history matches what Bonds has done for the past two years. Not Ruth, not Williams, no one.

Posted 7:38 p.m., October 10, 2002 (#34) - Tom
  Steve,

The fact of different strike zones is documented, so i assume what john said can be looked up. There are many things that affect OBP much more than the strike zone. No matter how big the strike zone is a pitcher is going to stay as close to the edge of it as he can, pitchers don't pitch to the center of the strike zone they aim for the border, like walking on the edge of a cliff, you aren't any safer because of the space beside you if walk the edge.

I have no doubt that pitchers tended to throw fewer pitchers back then. Reading the literature of the day, pitching seems to have been a matter of soft-tossing unless the game was on the line and then you would rear back and throw the good stuff and battle the hitters. The game times of that period almost preclude the kind of 140-180 pitch games of today. This was rapidly changing while Ruth was active, but was definitely the case when he started.

Posted 7:58 p.m., October 10, 2002 (#35) - Robert H.
  In all this talk about the size of the talent pool, I have to wonder something. Has anybody taken into account the drain of talent due to the rise of other sports, i.e. football, soccer, basketball, hockey? I'm not so sure that the growth in the number of available players has outpaced the growth in the number of available roster spots.

And then there is this question, how much of an impact did the advent of the minor leagues have on the level of play?

Here's a REALLY fun question. Ruth was put into the outfield so that he could hit every day. What would have happened if the AL had the DH in Ruth's time? Would it be like hockey, basketball, or soccer where nobody even bothers talking about the greatest of all time.

Posted 8:09 p.m., October 10, 2002 (#36) - Steve Treder
  "Has anybody taken into account the drain of talent due to the rise of other sports, i.e. football, soccer, basketball, hockey? I'm not so sure that the growth in the number of available players has outpaced the growth in the number of available roster spots."

Yes, it has.

Those other sports are obviously a bigger deal today than they were then (although some other sports -- boxing, horse racing -- were a bigger deal then than they are now). But still, MLB today is drawing not only from the many times bigger population of the US, but also from all races in the population of the US, which it wasn't then, and from large sections of Latin America and the Caribbean, and even now into Japan and Korea. This pool is far, far larger than the pool MLB drew from in Ruth's day, far larger than MLB expansion has accounted for, and far larger than the growth of other sports has accounted for (many of which draw from different pools as well).

"And then there is this question, how much of an impact did the advent of the minor leagues have on the level of play?"

Very little. By definition, the vast majority of players in the minors are inferior to the players in the majors. The majors always, by definition, represents (nearly) the best available pool of players -- nowdays it does so pretty much worldwide.

Posted 8:25 p.m., October 10, 2002 (#37) - Jonathan
  "And then there is this question, how much of an impact did the advent of the minor leagues have on the level of play?"

Very little.

I'd think the minor leagues would raise the level of play dramatically. It's like asking what impact did the advent of graduate schools have on the level of work done by scientists? Though there are plenty of flaws with the system, training leads to increased ability in just about any field. (it also means the talented-but-not-yet-ready can be made ready without consuming ML AB's.)

Posted 8:45 p.m., October 10, 2002 (#38) - Steve Treder
  "I'd think the minor leagues would raise the level of play dramatically. It's like asking what impact did the advent of graduate schools have on the level of work done by scientists? Though there are plenty of flaws with the system, training leads to increased ability in just about any field. (it also means the talented-but-not-yet-ready can be made ready without consuming ML AB's.)"

Of course you're right.

In re-reading it, I believe I misunderstood Robert H.'s point. I inferred that he was inquiring about the impact of there being a far less extensive system of minor league baseball in the 1920s/30s than today, and my point was that although there was a lesser proportion of major-league-to-minor-league players in that era than today, it doesn't follow that therefore the major league players of that era were better than those of today.

Of course major league play is better with a minor league system in place than without it. However, the minor league system in the US really had its initial blossoming in the 1880-1910 period; from about 1910 to about 1950, the minor leagues were more extensive in the US than at any other time, including today.

The impact of the minor leagues as the training/development ground for the majors has since been augmented by the ever-increasing extent of college baseball in the US, and of course by the boom in baseball programs in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Rim.

Posted 11:41 a.m., October 11, 2002 (#39) - John Brattain (e-mail)
  Um, John, I'm a little confused as to exactly where you're going with this ... if the strike zone is so much smaller today, why is it that Bonds' league OBP is lower than Ruth's league OBP was? Why is that BB/G rates in Bond's 90s/00s NL are almost exactly the same as BB/G rates in Ruths/s 20s/30s AL (low-to-mid 3's)?

Well, I'm not trying to say that Ruth was greater/lesser than Bonds but rather trying to make sure all the data is accounted for. As to the differences in OBP, part of it is likely the style of hitting in their respective eras. Contact was stressed over power early in Ruth's day so swings were shorter and fewer hitters were flexing the glutes and trying to go yard. Ruth started the home run era where in our day a lot of players have long power swings. 100 whiffs in Ruth's day would get you sent down to Scratchmyass Nebraska until you learned contact. Nowadays a player tops 150 whiffs and it's not big deal because we recognize that a lot of whiffs with a lot of walks (a la Jim Thome, Mickey Tettleton, Jay Buhner) isn't the end of the world.

Moreover, the pool of talent from which MLB draws today is vastly greater, proportional to the number of MLB teams, than it was in Ruth's era, indicating that the general quality of play today is far greater.

Agreed but then again, baseball got the best athletes (best white athletes it should be noted). There were more minor leagues, more people playing baseball in those leagues, all of them competing for about 400 jobs.

This indicates that Bonds' batting exploits of the past two seasons are more impressive than those of a player in Ruth's era putting up the same numbers would be.

Again, we agree. Again my point is just to make sure we examine all the data, and be thorough as to context.

As was mentioned in another post: "pitching seems to have been a matter of soft-tossing unless the game was on the line and then you would rear back and throw the good stuff and battle the hitters" I' m pretty sure that the depth of today's rosters leaves the rosters of Ruth's day in the dust. This would mean that pitchers would save their best scuff, er stuff for Ruth and Gehrig while just letting guys like Koenig, Dugan, and Collins do their worst whereas you've generally got to pitch to every guy in the lineup not playing on New York's current National League team.

Ruth's great skill as a pitcher is obviously something that Bonds can't begin to match

Agreed, Bonds couldn't even get Sid Bream out.

And it's also the case that Bonds has not been as dominant over the course of his career as he has been in 2001-2002; Ruth's peak performance in this sense was much longer than Bonds'.

But for sheer short-term peak batting performance, no one in history matches what Bonds has done for the past two years. Not Ruth, not Williams, no one.

Agreed.

Again, as I mentioned, my point was simply to take into account all relevant data. I doubt we’ll never see what Bonds has accomplished repeated in our lifetimes. However when we weigh what Bonds’ is up against as opposed to Ruth’s day (bullpens, international talent pool etc.) we have to weigh that against higher mounds, larger strike zones, best [white] athletes played baseball, heavier bats, poorer training facilities, access to medical/health care, videotape, nutrition, long train rides, poor hotels, etc. that Ruth had to put up with.

I guess what I’m trying to say (and hazarding a visit from the bad analogy police) is that today’s mountain climbers can climb Mt. Everest quicker than they could sixty years ago for a great many reasons; by the same token, the climbers sixty years ago had a harder time getting to summit. Modern climbers are more fit, have access to better health care, training facilities etc. so does that make their accomplishments more or less impressive than accomplishing them six decades ago?

Best Regards

John

Posted 12:29 p.m., October 11, 2002 (#40) - Steve Treder
  "I guess what I’m trying to say (and hazarding a visit from the bad analogy police) is that today’s mountain climbers can climb Mt. Everest quicker than they could sixty years ago for a great many reasons; by the same token, the climbers sixty years ago had a harder time getting to summit. Modern climbers are more fit, have access to better health care, training facilities etc. so does that make their accomplishments more or less impressive than accomplishing them six decades ago?"

Good points all, John.

Of course, in the example of the mountain climbers, my inclination is that the achievements of the earlier climbers, with less technology and information at their disposal, were more impressive. They achieved the same result (climbed the same mountain) under more difficult circumstances.

But the analogy isn't a perfect one for a sport like baseball, when all the variables, including quality of opposition, are in flux. This is why many thoughtful observers just throw up their hands and conclude that it's impossible to fairly compare players across eras. I'm not among them; I think it is possible to compare players across eras, and I think you're right on the money when you say it's an exercise that requires very careful attention to all of the many variables in play.


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