#TBT: When Babe Ruth hit right-handed
This date in baseball history, from the great website Nationalpastime.com:
May 21, 1930 — After hitting three consecutive home runs, his first three-homer performance in a regular season game, Babe Ruth decides to bat from the opposite side (right-handed) in the ninth inning. After two quick strikes, the 35 year-old ‘Sultan of Swat’ crosses the plate to bat lefty, but A’s hurler Jack Quinn still strikes out the Bambino in Philadelphia’s 15-7 rout of the Yankees at Shibe Park.
I’d never heard of this before. Could you imagine Bryce Harper doing this in 2015? This story, however, was insignificant enough — especially compared to other Ruth tales — that Robert Creamer didn’t mention it in “Babe,” his Ruth biography. Maybe because all the facts of the story don’t exactly align. Here’s the box score of the game. Ruth did hit three home runs for the first time in the regular season (he had done it twice in the World Series), with the home runs coming in the first and third innings off George Earnshaw and the eighth inning off Lefty Grove. But Jack Quinn didn’t pitch the ninth. He pitched the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. He did retire Ruth in the game, but Ruth didn’t strike out and Ruth didn’t bat again in the ninth inning.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t attempt to hit right-handed. But it seems unlikely. As it turns out, a writer named J.G. Preston investigated this story on his blog a couple of years ago. Here’s his examination. He points out that The New York Times game story didn’t mention anything about Ruth attempting to bat right-handed and neither did The Sporting News recap. The story is apparently drawn from Marshall Smelser’s “The Life That Ruth Built: A Biography,” which originally came out in the 1970s. Preston surmises that Smelser was told the story by one of Ruth’s ex-teammates.
That’s always the problem in relying on memories; they’re not always accurate. It’s certainly possible Ruth at some point tried to hit right-handed against Quinn, a veteran spitballer who was 46 years old in 1930. From the hitter-versus-pitcher data available at Retrosheet.org, we can see that Ruth didn’t fare all that well against Quinn, hitting .273 with three home runs in 77 at-bats. So maybe in a pique of frustration or humor, Ruth did try this. Just not in the game he hit three home runs.
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What would Babe Ruth hit today? One important thing to keep in mind about Ruth: Though he never struck out 100 times in a season and had a .342 career average, he struck out a lot for the era he played in. He led his league five times in strikeouts and ranked second seven other times. In his career, he struck out in 12.5 percent of his plate appearances, compared to the MLB average of 8.2 percent. So he struck out a little more than 50 percent more often than the average hitter. In 2014, the MLB strikeout rate was 20.4 percent; this season, it’s 20.1 percent. So if Ruth struck out at the same rate compared to the average hitter, we’re looking at a strikeout rate of 30 percent.
Only three regulars in 2014 fanned in 30 percent of their plate appearances: Chris Davis, Chris Carter and Adam Dunn. They hit .196, .227 and .219. That doesn’t mean Ruth would hit .200, just that it would be near impossible to hit .342 striking out that much. And more strikeouts would mean fewer balls in play, which would mean fewer home runs.
Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record addressed this topic a couple of years ago, and then-Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long had an interesting comment about Ruth facing harder-throwing pitchers than in his own era:
“Honestly, I think it would’ve been tough for Ruth to succeed against that. I see too much movement in his stride, he’s hitting off his front foot. That’s OK only if you’re sitting on an 80-mph fastball or waiting on a curveball that only breaks on two [up and down] planes.
“Hitters today have to be more centered because pitching has changed radically. The ball moves in so many different directions now. There isn’t time for all the movement Ruth had in his swing.”
Ruth was indeed a front-foot hitter, Long is correct about that. But Davey Johnson disagrees that such an unorthodox approach would’ve necessarily doomed the Babe.
“Anyone who thinks [front-foot hitting] would’ve made it tougher for Ruth today doesn’t understand that the principles of hitting are the same today as they were in Ruth’s time,” Johnson said. “Look at [Hank] Aaron, who was very successful hitting off his front foot. Look at [Roberto] Clemente. Same thing.”
One thing to note, as Klapisch points out, is that Ruth wouldn’t be swinging a 42-ounce bat against today’s fireballers. My guess is Ruth would still be a premier slugger, maybe along the lines of the hitter he physically resembles, David Ortiz.
Just don’t expect Big Papi to try hitting right-handed.