Back in February, Ed Valentine and I got into a debate over who was better — Babe Ruth or The G-POPE Barry Bonds. Seems like one of those great sports debates that can never be answered, but in a four-part series with the help of WhatIfSports.com, Bugs & Cranks hopes to add new perspective to the debate….
The idea is to switch these two all-time greats in time — what if Bonds quantum leaped into Ruth’s place on the Red Sox and Yankees teams of the 1910’s-1930’s? what if Ruth replaced Bonds on the Pirates and Giants of the past 21 years?
We posted the results of the first six seasons last week. Here’s what happens in the second six seasons….
In 2007, Bill Jenkinson, an eminent baseball historian and Hall Of Fame consultant, put forth an interesting theory in his book, The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs. After decades of research and analysis, Jenkinson believes that Ruth’s pattern of battled balls from the 1921 season would have accounted for more than 100 home runs in today’s ballparks and under today’s rules.
As we continue our experiment using WhatIfSports.com simulations, the numbers say Babe Ruth would rewrite baseball’s record books in his seventh season if he had spent it in 1992 playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates instead of in 1920 as a first-year member of the New York Yankees.
Ruth in 1920 was coming off a season in which he had just set the Major League single-season home run mark with 29 round-trippers — and he nearly doubled that total with 54 home runs. In 1920, the Philadelphia Phillies were the only team to hit more home runs than Ruth.
In our version of 1992, Ruth is coming back after hitting 53 home runs in the 1991 campaign — the 3rd-best total ever for a National Leaguer, and 7th-best for any big leaguer.
In our version of 1992, as a Pittsburgh Pirate, Ruth drives in 226 runs — 30 more than Hack Wilson’s major league mark of 191 RBI. Driving in the second-most runs in 1992 is Cecil Fielder, with 124.
In the world of our experiment, Lou Gehrig’s 1927 slugging percentage of .765 in 1927 had been the Major League record for 75 years. Until Babe Ruth slugged .995 in 1992. Mark McGwire’s .585 is next best in ’92.
And Ruth also hits 100 home runs, demolishing Roger Maris’s MLB mark of 61. Juan Gonzalez is next with a mere 43 home runs. More than a third of the 26 Major League teams hit fewer than 100 home runs in 1992.
Ruth also leads the majors in batting average, to win his second triple crown.
What effect do Ruth’s individual achievements have on his team? The 1992 Pirates with Ruth post a record that is 3.5 games better than what they did with Bonds.
Doesn’t seem like much, right? But wait, there’s more. The Bonds-led 1992 Pirates finished 9 games ahead of the second-place Expos. On the last day of our Ruthian 1992 season, the Pirates are 100-61 but lead the Cardinals by only a single game. How? Bonds had an MVP season in 1992, but the only offensive category Bonds bettered Ruth in was stolen bases (39). Defense might also be considered — in 1992, Bonds was winning the third of what would be nine straight Gold Gloves. WhatIfSports grades 7th-season Ruth a D fielder with C+ range, and rates 7th-season Bonds an A fielder with B range. Or maybe all those records being broken and Ruth’s off-field antics were too much of a distraction to his teammates.
In any case, in our experimental 1992, Ruth’s Pirates lose on the last day of the season, and the Cardinals win, forcing a one-game playoff. Unlike Bonds’ Pirates, this sudden-death playoff was the closest Ruth’s Pirates had been to the postseason since 1979. In the playoff, the mighty Ruth does not homer, and drives in no runs. The Pirates go down 5-0. I assume that still would have been less painful than Sid Bream and Francisco Cabrera.
|Bonds, 1920 Yankees||.327||21||116||37||.482||.589|
|Bonds, 1992 Pirates||.311||34||103||39||.456||.624|
|Ruth, 1992 Pirates||.385||100||226||0||.524||.995|
|Ruth, 1920 Yankees||.376||54||137||14||.533||.849|
Meanwhile back in 1920, Barry Bonds debuts with the Yankees by breaking the AL single-season home run record, and leading the majors with 21 home runs. He is also only .001 behind the major’s OBP leader, former teammate Tris Speaker. The 1920 Yankees win 91 games with Bonds, four fewer than with Ruth, but still good enough for the second-best mark in franchise history. Not bad for a team that has never won a pennant. Like their Ruth-led counterparts, these 1920 Yankees finish in third place, a few games out of first.
|1920 Yankees w/ Ruth||95|
|1920 Yankees w/ Bonds||91||-4|
|1992 Pirates w/ Bonds||96|
|1992 Pirates w/ Ruth||100||+4|
In 1921, a year after breaking the AL home run record, Barry Bonds breaks the Major League record by hitting 33 homers, eclipsing the 27 hit by Ned Williamson back in 1884. Bonds also leads the majors in OBP and tops the AL in SLG. Still, the Yankees lose a lot of offense with Bonds instead of Ruth, and win 6 fewer games than they had with Ruth. So while the Bonds 1921 Yankees tie a franchise record with 92 wins, they still finish second. Ruth’s 1921 Yankees won their first pennant, only to lose to the Giants in the World Series in 8 games.
|1921 Yankees w/ Ruth||98|
|1921 Yankees w/ Bonds||92||-6|
|1993 Giants w/ Bonds||103|
|1993 Giants w/ Ruth||87||-16|
After Ruth’s record-breaking 1992 season, it’s clear the Pirates can’t afford to keep him — especially as a team that had never made the playoffs with Ruth despite his Cy Young and two MVPs. Ruth signs a record free-agent contract with the San Francisco Giants, the biggest in baseball history in terms of both annual and total salary. With two new expansion teams being added to the National League, Ruth is thought to have an excellent chance to break some of the records he set the year before. He doesn’t disappoint, winning the triple crown for the second straight year, and the third time in four years. He breaks his own home run record with 106 and his SLG record with 1.057, but comes 5 RBI short of his RBI record.
And yet, the huge stats still don’t translate to more wins for Ruth’s team. The 1993 Bonds Giants won 103 games, only to finish a game behind the Braves — the playoff hopes of Ruth’s Giants are dead before the last week of the season begins.
|Bonds, 1921 Yankees||.350||33||126||20||.481||.619|
|Bonds, 1993 Giants||.336||46||123||29||.458||.677|
|Ruth, 1993 Giants||.387||106||221||2||.533||1.057|
|Ruth, 1921 Yankees||.378||59||171||17||.512||.846|
In 1994, Ruth’s two seasons of dominance still aren’t enough to ensure labor peace — the season still ends in August, the World Series is still cancelled. Ruth’s numbers aren’t anywhere close to what he had the previous two years, and they are very close to what Bonds did with the Giants in 1994. And again, Ruth’s version of the team wins fewer games than the Bonds version had.
|Bonds, 1922 Yankees||.353||36||149||34||.466||.614|
|Bonds, 1994 Giants||.312||37||81||29||.426||.647|
|Ruth, 1994 Giants||.307||36||90||0||.442||.671|
|Ruth, 1922 Yankees||.315||35||99||2||.315||.434|
Back in 1922, Roger Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals breaks Barry Bonds’ year-old home run record by belting 42 homers. Bonds, too, betters his record with 36 home runs, but he also finds his home run total surpassed by Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns and Tilly Walker of the Philadelphia Athletics. Bonds finishes second in the bigs in SLG and third in RBI. In nearly every offensive category, Bonds has a better 1922 than Ruth had. (Ruth had missed the first 25 games of 1922 because of being suspended for breaking a rule about World Series participants playing in barnstorming tours.) Yet, Ruth’s 1922 Yankees won a second consecutive pennant by a single game over the Browns, only to again lose to the Giants in the World Series. With Bonds, the 1922 Yankees win three fewer games and again fall just short of the pennant.
|1922 Yankees w/ Ruth||94|
|1922 Yankees w/ Bonds||91||-3|
|1994 Giants w/ Bonds||55|
|1994 Giants w/ Ruth||50||-5|
In 1923, the Yankees move from the Polo Grounds to their new stadium in the Bronx with high hopes of finally winning their first pennant after three years of near misses. Some fans are calling the new Yankee Stadium “The House That Bonds Built,” but the name is slow catching on. Bonds puts up respectable numbers again — he is second in the AL in HR and RBI, and third in steals — but there is a drop-off from his three years at the Polo Grounds. The 1923 Yankees with Bonds win 90 games — their fourth straight 90-win season, but also their third straight second-place finish. With Ruth, the 1923 Yankees had won the AL by 16 games, and finally beat the Giants in World Series for their first championship.
|1923 Yankees w/ Ruth||98|
|1923 Yankees w/ Bonds||90||-8|
|1995 Giants w/ Bonds||67|
|1995 Giants w/ Ruth||61||-6|
In early April of 1995, the strike ends. A few weeks later, a shortened 144-game season begins. Ruth does what he can to bring fans back to the ballparks on his way to winning his fourth triple crown. In 1923, Ruth had hit .393 — in 1995, he posts a .404 average. Some feel the first .400 season since Ted Williams in 1941 is tainted because of the shortened schedule, but others point out that Williams only played in 143 of 154 games that year. Ruth also breaks the single-season OBP record also set by Williams in 1941. Ruth’s individual accomplishments are about the only thing Giants fans have to cheer for — the 1995 Giants were a last-place team with Bonds, and they again win even fewer games with Ruth.
|Bonds, 1923 Yankees||.321||19||124||28||.450||.521|
|Bonds, 1995 Giants||.294||33||104||31||.431||.577|
|Ruth, 1995 Giants||.404||57||160||0||.557||.871|
|Ruth, 1923 Yankees||.393||41||131||17||.545||.764|
In 1996, in his first full season since 1993, Ruth again puts up huge power numbers — belting 86 home runs — and wins his fourth triple crown. Mark McGwire finds significantly less to whine about than he had playing in the same league as Barry Bonds. For the first time, a Giants team with Ruth wins more games than its Bonds counterpoint — but Ruth’s 1996 Giants still finish 20 games under .500 even with his 86 home runs instead of Bonds becoming baseball’s second 40/40 man.
|Bonds, 1924 Yankees||.308||21||106||42||.466||.496|
|Bonds, 1996 Giants||.308||42||129||40||.461||.615|
|Ruth, 1996 Giants||.381||86||183||0||.537||.912|
|Ruth, 1924 Yankees||.378||46||121||9||.378||.513|
Back in 1924, Bonds leads the AL in OBP, ties for the AL steals lead, and finishes second in the league in HR. With Ruth in 1924, the Yankees finished in second-place, two games behind the Washington Senators. With Bonds, the 1924 Yankees finish a bit further back, with 7 fewer victories.
|1924 Yankees w/ Ruth||89|
|1924 Yankees w/ Bonds||82||-7|
|1996 Giants w/ Bonds||68|
|1996 Giants w/ Ruth||71||+3|
In 1925, Bonds nearly doubles Ruth’s RBI totals. (Ruth had missed about a third of the season because of a stomach ailment rumored to be related to a hot dog binge and/or gonorrhea.) Bonds’ 119 RBI are good enough for 4th-best in the AL, and he finishes second in the AL in steals. In this case, both the Bonds and Ruth versions of the 1925 Yankees finish with identical disappointing 69-win seasons.
|Bonds, 1925 Yankees||.306||22||119||41||.455||.490|
|Bonds, 1997 Giants||.291||40||101||37||.446||.585|
|Ruth, 1997 Giants||.29||48||124||0||.413||.594|
|Ruth, 1925 Yankees||.29||25||66||2||.393||.543|
In 1997, with the help of advancements in medicine, Ruth fights off the stomach ailment to put up numbers for the Giants that would be impressive for anyone else, but which are close to what Bonds put up with the 1997 Giants. By a single home run, Larry Walker edges Ruth for the NL home run title. Once again, there is a big discrepancy in wins and losses. The 1997 Giants with Bonds won 90 games and took the NL West by two games; they they went on to lose a first-round series to the Florida Marlins, the eventual world champs. The 1997 Giants with Ruth and his mystery illness don’t even post a winning record.
|1925 Yankees w/ Ruth||69|
|1925 Yankees w/ Bonds||69||push|
|1997 Giants w/ Bonds||90|
|1997 Giants w/ Ruth||17||-13|
Through Twelve Seasons
In 12 seasons from 1986-1997, Barry Bonds hit 374 home runs — our experiment says Babe Ruth would have hit 549 home runs if he had taken Bonds place on those teams. Those numbers are astounding since Ruth was a pitcher for the first four of those 12 years. By comparison, Alex Rodriguez hit 513 home runs in his first 14 seasons, the last 12 of which were full seasons as a hitter.
The experiment also says that Bonds on Ruth’s teams from 1914-1925 would have had nearly 300 more RBI than Ruth had — although that is mostly due to Ruth’s years pitching. Bonds is also slightly ahead in the regular season won-loss differential. Bonds wins no pennants playing on Ruth’s first 12 teams, compared to Ruth’s five pennants and three world titles, but Ruth also never makes the playoffs on the first 12 Bonds teams, compared to Bonds being on four division winners.
Next Time on Bonds vs. Ruth….
Somebody’s got to make the playoffs right? The 1927 Yankees still have to be a beast with Bonds right? Ruth hit 60 in 1927, will he be able to break 106 in 1999? How will Bonds’ 73 home run season translate to the 1930 season? Ruth and the ’02 Giants have to be able to take the Angels, right?