Dorktown: The secret to not allowing homers to Babe Ruth was being bad, apparently

Babe Ruth began his Major League career with the Boston Red Sox in 1914. By the next year had become one of the very best pitchers in the big leagues. But a problem quickly arose. He’d also developed into one hell of a hitter.

For a few seasons he remained solely a pitcher who dabbled in a little pinch-hitting. Then manager Ed Barrow got the bold idea in 1918 to get his bat in the lineup more often by also playing him at first base and in the outfield.

The following year, even while pulling double-duty, he hit 29 homers, breaking the single-season record. Then he was sold to the New York Yankees for 100 grand, whereupon they immediately closed the curtain on the whole pitching thing and just told him to play outfield and mash baseballs every day. And mash he did. Starting with year one:

Across Ruth’s 15 years in pinstripes, he faced 342 pitchers for a total of 9,200 plate appearances, resulting in 659 homers (in the process just squeaking past Roger Connor’s at-the-time-career-home-run-record of 138):

But take a close look there. Notice anything weird? Specifically, look at the row of dots representing pitchers who Ruth took deep zero times in his Yankee career. More specifically, the two dots in that row chilling in solitary (dual?) confinement. Not one, but two pitchers who he faced approximately 70 times each without ever homering.

One of them was a gentleman by the name of Ed Wells (71 plate appearances), the other was Roy Mahaffey (68 plate appearances). So they both held Ruth homerless despite the fact that he hit at least five homers against 38 of the other 41 pitchers who he faced at least that much (and even the remaining three allowed four, four, and two homers to the Babe).

Overall, Ruth homered in about 7.2 percent of his Yankee plate appearances. Here’s how it breaks down in terms of percentage against each pitcher he had a decent sample against:

With only one exception, every other pitcher allowed homers to Ruth on over four percent of their encounters. Most of them by a lot.

Now, to provide some context about what it means for a supernatural slugger to have his two home run kryptonites stem from such big samples. To me, I’d say that the 10 greatest home run-hitters of all-time are the nine members of the 600-home run club, plus Mark McGwire. Well:

For Ruth to have faced one pitcher so much without homering is really bizarre. But two? That’s like bizarre squared. Now granted, Ruth’s Yankee tenure was during an era in which his league was much smaller than it is today. He played just seven teams over and over for a decade and a half. Additionally, relief pitchers weren’t used anywhere near as extensively back then as they are in modern times. So that all meant there were plenty of pitchers Ruth faced a lot of times, but also that he faced a mere 362 overall in 15 years as a Yank.

As opposed to more recent history when it’s not at all unusual for players with lengthy careers to wind up facing well over 1,000 different pitchers. But that necessarily stretches thin the average amount of matchups that player has against each pitcher.

For example, Jim Thome had nearly as many career plate appearances as Babe Ruth, but there was only one pitcher (Brad Radke) that he faced more than 70 times, and none that he faced as many as 80 times (for perspective, in Ruth’s Yankee career there were 24 pitchers who he faced at least 100 times, three up over 200). So that obviously makes it pretty hard to have guys you face that much without ever homering when there are barely any guys you’re facing that much to begin with.

Nevertheless, we’re still talking about Babe Ruth here. Regardless of how large the pool of pitchers he regularly competed against was, it’s still an upset of epic proportions that there could’ve been even one who he didn’t hit a single homer off of. Let alone two. To ostensibly have a 7.2 percent chance of doing something, yet not doing so in any of 68 (1-in-156 chance) or 71 (1-in-195 chance) opportunities is pretty unlikely individually, let alone collectively.

And indeed, Mahaffey and Wells’ placement on all those scatter charts relative to all the other data points is quite impressive. But what really kicks the absurdity into even another gear is that whereas the chances of a Babe Ruth homer in a random plate appearance was about 7.2 percent, against Mahaffey and Wells specifically, you’d think it would’ve been much, much higher — not lower.

Because while one might naturally figure Roy Mahaffey and Ed Wells were both superstar, transcendent pitchers, they were not. No, actually, they were not even good pitchers. No, actually, they were bad. No, actually, they were each the very worst (decent-volume) pitchers in all of baseball throughout the entirety of the periods in which their Ruth encounters occurred.

For Mahaffey, that was 1930-1934:

For Wells, that was 1923-1934 (four of those years as Babe’s teammate notwithstanding):

In case you’re wondering if Ruth’s lack of homers against them was potentially a product of simply walking a ton, the answer is no. For two main reasons. One, Mahaffey and Wells combined to walk him 29 out of 139 times. That is about 20.9 percent — right in line with the 20.1 percent of all plate appearances in which Ruth walked during his time with the Yankees. And two, walks also pad the plate appearance totals that Ruth had against all the other pitchers, too; they’re reflected with everyone, not just Mahaffey and Wells.

It was already bewildering that there was one, let alone two, pitchers that could face Ruth that much without allowing a single homer. Then the idea that even one of the two pitchers could have been anything other than one of the very best in the game seems unfathomable. Let alone not even average. Let alone arguably the worst in the Majors during the relevant time period. And both of them were!

In the name of completeness, let’s remove the Yankee restriction — since he did have 1,424 plate appearances (and 55 home runs) with the Red Sox and Braves — to provide a total and comprehensive snapshot of every plate appearance of Ruth’s career (he had over 1,600 career plate appearances that stem from games of which play-by-play data does not exist; it required the development and execution of a plan to ascertain which pitcher each of those plate appearances was against — if you’re curious to see the overall raw numbers, or just the product of some good ol’ masochism, here you go):

You may notice a dot in that one representing another pitcher who Ruth faced nearly as much as Mahaffey and Wells without ever hitting a homer. That would be Black Sox scandal legend Eddie Cicotte. But there are two gigantic asterisks that make the story with Cicotte completely different.

One is that the overwhelming majority of their showdowns came when Ruth was still a Red Sock; in other words, before Babe Ruth truly became BABE RUTH. Wells was squaring off against Ruth during most of Ruth’s prime and, though he came along a bit later, Mahaffey still mostly faced a near-peak version.

The other is that while Mahaffey and Wells were as bad as anyone during their windows facing Ruth, Cicotte was dominant. In three of the five seasons in which Ruth faced Cicotte, Cicotte had a minuscule, sub-2.00 ERA. Still kinda surprising, but easily explainable.

But never hitting a single homer in his best years off two of the lousiest pitchers in the game in a combined 139 tries? Well, that’s just baseball for you.

Leave a Reply