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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Would Aroldis Chapman make Babe Ruth faint?

Babe Ruth playing today, whenever today is, is probably something we've all wondered about from time to time.  Let's put two pieces of information together before considering.

How fast do pitchers throw?  Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Published: September 16, 2013 in The New York Times

The fastest pitch recorded by the system is 105.1 miles per hour. It was thrown by Cincinnati Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman on Sept. 24, 2010, during an at-bat by Tony Gwynn Jr. of the San Diego Padres...  Chapman has thrown 17 of the 20 fastest pitches recorded by Pitch F/X since 2008...

The article mentions Bob Feller measured against a motorcycle. (at 100 mph)
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Babe Ruth: if the Babe played today, would he be a relief pitcher?  Monday, September 1, 2014

The Babe began his major league career as a starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox ...

Gradually Boston had Ruth play every day because he could hit.

The American League adopted the designated hitter rule (DH) in 1973 and today it applies to half the teams in the Major Baseball League (MBL)...

If Ruth played today in the American Conference, he could not both pitch and bat in the same game without his team losing the optional DH...

1. Would his team require Ruth to specialize?  Probably, either a pitcher or outfielder.
2. If Ruth became a pitcher, would he start or relieve?
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It is always assumed that Babe Ruth would be a great hitter whenever he played.  Maybe his pitching skill might not translate to the modern game but his batting skill is assumed.  Let's imagine The Babe stepping to the plate in the 9th inning of a game at Yankee Stadium, suddenly among the 2015 Yankees but unaware of any changes since he last played in 1935.

The opposing team has just called in 6' 4" Aroldis Chapman to pitch to Ruth.  Chapman's height alone would get Ruth's attention.  As Chapman takes his eight warm up throws Ruth's eyes widen in disbelief.  Ruth thinks this is some monster from another world.

Ruth stands not at the back line of the batter's box but in the middle, better to hit the curve ball before it takes its full break.  Ruth can always adjust to the fastball of most pitchers.
Walter Johnson 1924 by William Henry Jackson, 1843-1942, photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I've long thought that pitchers back in Ruth's day simply did not throw all that fast, maybe an 85 mph fastball. 6' 1" Walter Johnson passed Cy Young in career strike outs in 1921 with 2,804 and held the record at 3,509 until 6' 4" Steve Carlton went ahead in 1983 and then gave way to 6' 2" Nolan Ryan, reigning champ who retired after 1993 with 5,714.  Gee, that's a much bigger percentage increase over Johnson than Barry Bonds has over Ruth in home runs.  OK, back to Ruth v. Chapman.

Walter Johnson led the old American League in strike outs (SO) 12 times starting with 303 in 370 innings in 1910, four years before Ruth broke in as a pitcher.  By the time that Ruth joined the Yankees in 1920 as a full time batter Johnson was 32 years old and he had only 78 SO in 143 innings.  Johnson did lead the AL these final three times during Ruth's prime:
- 1921 143 in 264 innings: 4.9 SO9
- 1923 130 in 261 innings: 4.5 SO9
- 1924 158 in 277 innings: 5.1 SO9

In 2014 Aroldis Chapman had 17.4 SO9: 106 in 54 innings.  There were few relief aces back in Ruth's time, certainly no one who would blow away batters.

Ruth probably never used a bat lighter than 38 ounces, which would be impossible to swing quickly enough against 100 mph.  Let's allow The Babe to switch to a 32 ounce thin handled bat to give him a chance.  But Ruth's reaction to standing in the box against something so beyond anything that he had ever experienced would undoubtedly be overwhelming.  The Babe might faint.

And not just The Babe.  Lou Gehrig, too.  Gehrig was also a lefty batter like Ruth facing the towering lefty Chapman.  Maybe righty Rogers Hornsby would have a slightly better chance but not much.  Hornsby faced Brooklyn Dodger fireballing righty 6' 2" Dazzy Vance who led the old National League in SO 1922-1928.  In 1924 Vance had more SO than the next two pitchers combined:

Strikeouts  s c a p y
1.Vance (BRO)262
2.Grimes (BRO)135
3.Luque (CIN)86
4.Morrison (PIT)85
5.Kaufmann (CHC)79
6.Keen (CHC)75
7.Aldridge (CHC)74
8.Ring (PHI)72
Nehf (NYG)72
Donohue (CIN)72
Strikeouts per 9 IP  s c a p y
1.Vance (BRO)7.648
2.Grimes (BRO)3.911
3.Nehf (NYG)3.775
4.Luque (CIN)3.529
5.Kaufmann (CHC)3.413
6.Ruether (BRO)3.375
7.Cooney (BSN)3.332
8.Morrison (PIT)3.219
9.Stuart (STL)3.057
10.Sherdel (STL)3.042

NL SO leaders in 1924 other than Vance were averaging fewer than 4 SO9.  Chapman was over 17 SO9 in 2014.

Maybe righty Joe DiMaggio, who started the year after Ruth retired in 1935,would fare better than Ruth against Chapman.  In real life DiMaggio batted pretty well against the original 100 mph pitcher Bob Feller who stood 6 feet even.

I think the pure shock of Chapman's power would make Ruth weak.  Could Ruth adjust?  Who knows?  It would be very difficult.  The speed and control of today's relief pitchers might quickly overwhelm even today's batters who have batted against power pitchers all along but not as overpowering as the current crop suddenly appear to be.  The Babe might not stand a chance.

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