Should Shohei Ohtani stay a two-way player? Exactly 100 years ago, the Red Sox faced the same question with Babe Ruth

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Now we've seen it for real:Shohei Ohtani got a hit in his first major league at-bat, and then he got a win in his major league pitching debut. He sat at 98 mph as a pitcher, after rapping grounders 95, 102 and 104 mph as a batter. The extraordinary experiment he and the Los Angeles Angels are embarking on this year -- to make him the game's first two-way superstar in a century -- looks credible.

Which isn't to say that it looks simple. Every decision the Angels make in how they use Ohtani will be difficult, just as it was difficult for the Boston Red Sox to decide how to use Babe Ruth 100 years ago -- almost exactly 100 years ago, in fact. In April 1918, Babe Ruth was a full-time pitcher pleading to be allowed to play the field. His manager, Ed Barrow, was resistant, in part fearful that he'd be a laughingstock. The decision, which came to a head in early May of that season, looks obvious in retrospect. But what exactly was Barrow choosing between at the time? We invented an analytics department for the 1918 Red Sox to find out.

May 5, 1918

To: Manager Ed Barrow

From: Analytics Department, Boston Red Sox

CC: Team President Harry Frazee

Mr. Barrow:

First off, congratulations on your excellent start to the season. We're sure you felt some nerves taking on the managerial job in Boston this year, but you've guided our club to a 12-5 record and a spot atop the AL standings.

We understand it hasn't been without drama. Babe Ruth has been agitating to bat full time, and one does like to respect a player's wishes and comfort. On the other hand, as you told Harry Hooper, you believe assenting to this request would make you "the laughingstock of baseball." Because we don't have an official game scheduled today, Mr. Frazee asked that we in the club's analytics department run some calculations to make your decision easier.

1. How good is Babe Ruth as a pitcher?

Over the past two seasons, Babe has been one of the three best pitchers in baseball and clearly the best left-hander. Only two pitchers have thrown more innings: Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander. Only two pitchers (Alexander and Eddie Cicotte) have lower ERAs than Babe. In that time, Ruth has allowed just two home runs, in 650 innings, the lowest rate of any pitcher. In big games, he's even better: Recall his 14-inning complete game in the 1916 World Series or note his 6-1 record in head-to-head matchups against Johnson. Add to this the value he brings at the plate when he pitches, and he has been one of the two most valuable pitchers in baseball, according to our proprietary, all-in-one stat, Whoopla Achieved Relatively (or WAR). Most staggeringly, Ruth has only just turned 23, which makes him nearly a decade younger than Johnson and Alexander.

Babe isn't a good pitcher; he's a historic one. He's one of the three best pitchers in the world, in his early 20s, with a career-defining World Series performance and spectacular value to his team. If you just stick with him on the mound, in 100 years he'll probably be as famous as Tim Keefe, John Clarkson and Jim McCormick! Any change would be a huge gamble, and for it to pay off, you'd have to think Babe could become the greatest hitter of all time.

2. How good is Babe Ruth as a hitter?

This is the tricky part because we haven't seen enough of him to know. Here's the case for "elite" hitter:

  • Before he became a professional ballplayer, he was considered an elite amateur hitter. According to our scoutsi, opposing right fielders would back up so far that they would actually leave the field and stand on far distant fields in the middle of far distant games. Ruth has hit some of the longest home runs we've ever seen, including the longest in Sportsman's Park history.
  • As a professional ballplayer, in small samples, he has been very good. In 1915, for instance, he led the Red Sox in home runs, despite batting just 103 times. He had more than half the league-leading home run total that year! In his career, he has homered about seven times more frequently than the average AL hitter, and he has doubled and tripled more frequently than the average hitter. By our calculations, he has been about 50 percent more valuable as a hitter than the average American Leaguer, which is about as good during that stretch as Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins and George Sisler -- all of them Hale Orb Flatteners. Babe, as a hitter, might well turn out to be a HOFer, too.
  • Harry Hooper believes he should be a hitter, and so do many of Babe's teammates. Hooper knows a lot about baseball, and his expertise carries a lot of weight.

But there's also a strong case against Ruth being a truly elite hitter.

  • Babe might have once been an extraordinary hitter, as an amateur and as a rookie in 1915, but his numbers nosedived in 1916 and weren't quite out of this world (just two homers) in 1917. Hitting at a high level requires extraordinary cognitive training, and Ruth has basically sacrificed five years of that crucial development time by being a full-time pitcher. There's an argument to be made that had Babe chosen hitting when he was 17, he would have gone on to be a better hitter than pitcher, maybe even the greatest hitter ever. But it might well be too late to play catch-up. (To be fair, it might well be the opposite: Maybe he has enormous untapped development potential as a hitter. We just can't know without testing. But there's a reason more hitters convert to pitching late than vice versa. The development demands are daunting.)
  • Over the past two years, he's only 18th in the majors in batting average. By a proprietary club metric we call Owkwardly Paired Statistics, or OPS, he's 10th. That's very good! But it's way, way behind the truly elite hitters, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Remember: As a pitcher, Ruth already is the truly elite.
  • Now, hitters tend to age more predictably than pitchers. We might expect Babe to get better as a hitter as he matures but not necessarily as a pitcher. But Babe's such an odd hitter: He strikes out way more than his peers. His 17 percent strikeout rate would be the highest of all time if he were a non-pitcher, almost double the league average. He also walks less than the average American Leaguer. There's no doubt he's strong and hits the ball hard, but his plate discipline is terrible, and his strikeouts suggest he might really struggle when exposed to more good pitching.
  • Hooper might like him as a hitter, but if Babe were really that good, you'd think his managers would have noticed it, too. Babe's previous managers have batted him ninth, and he pinch hit only 11 times last year. That's a lot -- for a pitcher! But if this guy were really the world's greatest hitter, a smart manager would find a place for him to pinch hit almost every day. We're big believers not just in stats but also in trusting the judgment of experts such as Jack Barry and Bill Carrigan, Ruth's previous managers.

3. How good is Ruth at everything else?

As a hitter, he'd have to play the field and more frequently run the bases.

Babe is agile for a big man. But Babe is a big, big man, and he's getting bigger -- he's known to order 10 hot dogs and eight sodas at a time, and word around the club is he recently acquired a taste for beer. That's not too damaging at his age, but (a) his weight will be a bigger concern as he gets older, dramatically reducing his long-term potential as a defender and (b) it might already be catching up to him. We saw this yesterday, when Babe pitched: The Yankees bunted repeatedly at him, forcing him to take 13 chances (and commit two errors). They see Babe as a poor defender. That's valuable data.

We also see this on the bases: Despite frequently reaching base, Babe has never stolen a base. Another small clue: Despite being young, his ratio of triples to doubles is lower than in the league as a whole. We suspect he isn't very fast and is likely to get slower, hurting his defensive and baserunning value.

There's one other detail that will come as no surprise to you: Babe is extremely undisciplined, even out of control, in his personal and professional lives. If you had to pick a player whose makeup and work ethic would help him make this challenging transition, you'd pick ... not Babe Ruth. He also tends to disappear in the offseason, so he isn't likely to put a lot of work into getting better at his position. (On the other hand, he's a natural athlete who seems to do everything he tries well.)

Put all that together, and we're going to make some estimates:

If Babe's past three years represent his true talent level, he's worth about 8 Whooplas Achieved Relatively this year. If he gets 10 percent worse as a pitcher each season (because of injuries or aging), while maintaining his offensive performance through his 20s, he'll be worth almost 50 WAR from 1918 through 1925, his age-30 season.

Meanwhile, if we're to believe that his offensive performance over the past three years is his true talent level, then he's worth about 29 runs more than the average hitter every 600 plate appearances. If he's an average defensive first baseman -- we're skeptical of that possibility but being generous -- and an average baserunner (ditto), then he'd be worth about 4.5 or 5 whooplas. He might get better as a hitter as he ages, but he'll probably get worse as a defender and baserunner, as ballplayers have done forever (50 years). That's about 35 or 40 WAR through 1925, with some generous assumptions.

As such, he'd have to either be a much better hitter than we're giving him credit for, or he'd have to get a lot better as he ages and gets more hitting experience, or you'd have to be very frightened of his arm blowing out, or your team would have to be much more in need of a left-handed slugger than a left-handed ace. Any of these might be true, though we don't think the word slugger has been invented yet, so maybe not that one.

4. Where do the Red Sox most need help?

With the league gutted by players drafted into the war effort, every team could use a little help everywhere. The Red Sox in particular don't seem to need a hitter who can play only a corner defensive position:

  • Hooper is, of course, the team's best player and a definite Hale Orb Flattener in right field. He isn't going anywhere.
  • Wally Schang, playing left field for you, has been almost as good a hitter as Babe over the past couple of years. Same with Amos Strunk in center field. Neither has the upside of Babe, but they're more certain.
  • Dick Hoblitzell at first base is nothing special, but he's an average player at his position, and every team in 1918 should have a guy nicknamed Doc around. (Spanish flu joke.) But if you want to replace him, well, Stuffy McInnis at third base is a more natural first baseman, and he was a perennial MVP candidate before the MVP award was canceled.

The bottom line is this isn't a team crying out for another first baseman or corner outfielder. Meanwhile, it's not as clear that we have the rotation depth to lose 350 innings from Babe. We could walk you through the implications to the pitching depth chart, but this memo seems like it's getting long. You don't really want to read 600 words on how reliever Sad Sam Jones' numbers would translate into a starting role, do you? Cool, cool, let's move on.

5. What if he just pitches and hits?

In a perfect world, he'd be capable of pitching every fourth day and playing first base the three days in between. Then he'd be an 8-WAR pitcher and three-quarters of a 4- or 5-WAR hitter, worth around 11 whooplas per season, about as much as the best player in baseball (Cobb). That would offer the benefit of seeing whether Babe elevates his offense in close to full-time play while giving us a chance to see how he can handle a defensive position.

But this would put a big strain on the Babe physically. We don't think a man can pitch in his regular turn and play some other position and keep the pace year after year. He can perhaps do it this season. He's young and strong and doesn't mind the work, but we wouldn't guarantee that he could do it for many seasonsii. Learning to play a new position also would add to his risk of injury.

Further, this puts a lot of pressure on Babe keeping his personal life together and could strain his relationship with you. Babe has not been what you'd call obedient to his managers. When Carrigan imposed a rule prohibiting eating during the game, Babe sneaked around the rules, stashing food in the clubhouse for midgame snacks. That, and his late-night activity, might have worked when he wasn't playing in three-quarters of games, but his lack of focus and his resistance to authority could get out of hand if you partially accede to his demands here. He might, for instance, decide he doesn't want to pitch on his regular schedule anymore, leading to the sort of distractions that can cost you your clubhouse.

The bottom line is that this comes down to something we in the analytics department can't measure: the Babe himself. We can't say how he'll react if you continue to use him in his current role as a pitcher. We can't say how he'll react if you use him as a two-way player. We can't say how he'll react if you give in and turn him into a position player. There are some real limitations on what analytics can forecast: It can't predict the future, and it can't see inside the mind of a player. This is where the manager's role is most difficult, his insights most valuable and his personal connection to the players most instructive.

Our own conclusion is that you should play it safe. Babe should continue to pitch full time and be used as a pinch hitter in every possible circumstance between starts. In this setup, he'd likely be "worth" about 9 WAR per season, as long as he stays healthy. That's one of the half-dozen best players in baseball. Gambling that Babe is something much better than that -- that he'd hit 20, 25, even 30 home runs per season -- is tempting, and it would be fun to try, but that's such an extreme outcome that we'd never bet on it. It almost certainly wouldn't happen.

On May 5, 1918, Ruth played first base in an exhibition game. (Yes, the Red Sox played exhibition games in the middle of the season.) The next day, he played first base in a major league game for the first time and homered. He then played first base the next day and homered again, and on May 9, he took his turn in the rotation and pitched into the 10th inning. He spent most of the rest of the 1918 season playing the outfield (including some center field) while starting 19 games as a pitcher. He led the majors in homers (11), OPS (.966) and strikeouts (58) while finishing fourth in the AL in total WAR (7.0). It ended up being one of his lesser offensive seasons, but at the time, it was his best, and it suggested he might well revolutionize offense in the modern game. It also was one of his lesser pitching seasons, though not by much. He fought with his manager over his usage and threatened to punch Barrow in the nose after Barrow criticized his offensive approach. He used a dubious wrist injury as an excuse not to pitch, and at one point, he got so frustrated that he reportedly quit the Red Sox and signed to play with a shipyard team in Chester, Pennsylvania.

That offseason, even after Ruth's huge offensive performance, a poll of major league managers "indicated that most of them thought Babe should be a pitcher," according to Leigh Montville's biography of Ruth. But Ruth was even more insistent that he should have just one role: as a hitter. The 1919 season was his last with the Red Sox and his last as a pitcher. He started 15 times and had only a league-average ERA but broke the single-season home run record, a record he would break in each of the next two seasons and once more in 1927. From 1918 through 1925, he produced 77 WAR, 74 of those as a hitter; he retired with 162 WAR as a hitter and 20 as a pitcher.

When Harry Hooper died in 1973, two of the 10 paragraphs in his New York Times obituary were dedicated to his role in persuading Barrow to let The Babe hit. When Harry Frazee died, the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees -- who converted Ruth to hitting exclusively -- made it into his obituary's first paragraph.

i Actually according to Leigh Montville's book "Big Bam," which provides most of the non-statistical historical information in this piece.

ii This is stolen verbatim from a quote Babe would give later in the 1918 season: "I don't think a man can pitch in his regular turn and play some other position and keep the pace year after year. I can do it this season all right. I'm young and strong and don't mind the work, but I wouldn't guarantee to do it for many seasons."