On Pujols and Time Machines

I’m reasonably certain that if Ruth somehow time-traveled from 1927 to 2011 and replaced Berkman in right field for the Cardinals, he’d prove a well inferior hitter to Pujols. Probably worse than Berkman too, especially if the time-travel mechanism is at all taxing or traumatic.

- Ted Berg

Whenever a friend of mine is squeezed for time, I usually (and, might I add, helpfully) suggest that they drop whatever it is that they’re doing and instead start working on a time machine. Because, if you have time to think about it, attempting to build a time machine is the most efficient way anyone could spend their time. If you somehow succeeded, you would now have an infinite amount of time with which to do other things. And it doesn’t matter how low the chances of successfully building a time machine are, because a 1% chance of success times infinity is infinity, and a 0.0000000001% chance of success times infinity is still equal to infinity, and so on. The expected payout of a time machine is always an infinite amount of time. It doesn’t matter what else you could be doing with that time, because in all other cases your time would ultimately be finite. So instead of studying for a test or worrying about a project, just try to build a time machine. Clearly it’s the most efficient way anyone could ever spend their time.

Maybe don’t think about that one too much. It might be a waste of time — time better spent attempting to build a time machine.

But if anyone should ever succeed in building a time machine, they could answer this question for us — first raised by Lance Berkman, written about by Ted Berg and then discussed on Twitter, in the comments section over that-a-ways and in the Mostly Mets Podcast: If you brought Babe Ruth to 2011 via time travel and stuck him on a major league team, would he or would he not outhit Albert Pujols?

I’m inclined to say, based on the evidence, that he would not. Babe Ruth, yanked from a time machine and stuck in the present-day majors – and, for whatever reason, Ruth is totally cool with all this and gets right into playing baseball — would be an average-to-above average hitter. But he would not be better than Albert Pujols. We’re not talking about cloned Babe Ruth. This is Babe Ruth, pulled directly from his day and put into ours. Albert Pujols would outhit him. Here’s why I think this is true.

This question really boils down to a question about the quality of play – that is, are major league players today better than their counterparts from 80 years ago. And if so, how much better? Because, per 162 games, Babe Ruth is clearly a better hitter than Albert Pujols. That’s a gap that needs to be made up. Ruth averaged 46 home runs, 143 RBI and a .349 batting average; Albert Pujols has averaged 42 home runs, 126 RBI and a .328 batting average so far, and Pujols hasn’t yet hit his decline years. Ruth’s park-and-league-adjusted OPS was 106% better than everyone else’s during his time; Pujols’ park-and-league-adjusted OPS has been 70% better than his contemporaries. That’s a big difference that needs to be made up.

But is that difference made up by Pujols facing tougher pitchers and better fielders?

The difference is made up and then some. The quality of play in major league baseball is much, much higher today than it was in the 1920s. There are two main reasons. The first is that the modern day major leagues are drawing from a larger pool of talent than the game did in the 1920s. There are no, or at least fewer, racial boundaries as there were in the 1920s, and a large number of players from Asia and Latin America play in the major leagues today. Ichiro Suzuki, Matt Kemp, Mariano Rivera, Curtis Granderson, Jose Bautista, Ryota Igarashi* and even Albert Pujols – none of these elite players would have been allowed to play in the majors 80 years ago. And while it is also true that the number of teams in the majors has almost doubled since Ruth’s time, from 16 teams to 30, and the number of players in the majors has more than doubled – but the population of the United States has also more than doubled, and nearly tripled, over that time to balance that out. There is a larger pool of players to draw from. More choices of players means you can pick better players — imagine what the majors leagues would look like if you plucked every single minority and foreign-born player out and replaced each one with a Triple-A white guy.

*Kidding

The second reason is that the players are just plain ol’ better at playing baseball. Pitchers throw harder, batters swing harder, fielders are better, and everyone is generally a lot bigger, stronger and more athletic than they were 80 years ago. Kids begin playing baseball at a younger age in little league, on travel teams and year-round squads. Youth baseball is often no longer a children’s activity; it’s a serious business, a way to get into college and get a scholarship. Talent is identified and developed earlier. Nutrition is better.* Conditioning is better — Honus Wagner is reported to be one of the few players from Ruth’s time who actually trained by lifting weights. Throw in that playing professional baseball and staying in shape is now full-time work; players no longer take jobs during the off-season. I mean, Bill James points out in his Historical Baseball Abstract that as recently as 1905 — nine years before Ruth — there were still a few instances of someone buying a ticket to watch a major league game and playing in the same game. There are probably a handful, if not dozens, of people at your local gym who are in better shape than most professional baseball players were 80 years ago. The pitchers and fielders Albert Pujols faces are much, much better than the pitchers Babe Ruth faced.

*There might be an argument that pandemic obesity in the United States cuts into the modern talent pool, i.e., there are children who would otherwise be talented enough to excel at sports, but are simply too fat to do so and stop playing. No, really. I’m not trying to be mean or silly. The CDC estimates that as of three years ago, 17% of U.S. children between the ages of 2-19 were obese. On the other hand, as Ted Berg has pointed out, there were a handful of nasty things decimating the talent pool in Ruth’s time that no longer do so – polio, a lack of antibiotics, World War I, Spanish Flu, the allure of hot Jazz, etc. Anyway, if childhood obesity is cutting into the talent pool, its effects should become more noticeable in the coming decade, when this generation would begin showing up in the majors.

If you’re still unsure that the quality of play in today’s game is better than the quality of play in Babe Ruth’s time, check out fielding percentages. This is another old Bill James observation, but the fielding percentage of a league is a good indicator about quality of that league. Little leaguers make more errors than high school players, high school players make more errors than college players, college players make more errors than minor league players, and so on. For example, here are the fielding percentages of the major and minor leagues in 2011, ranked from highest to lowest:

Rk Lg Lev Tms G PO A E Fld% ▾
1 American League Major League 14 2268 60850 22715 1432 .983
2 National League Major League 16 2590 69732 26583 1621 .983
3 International League AAA 14 2002 52580 19432 1447 .980
4 Pacific Coast League AAA 16 2298 60746 23781 1998 .977
5 Mexican League AAA 14 1456 38422 16931 1337 .976
6 Eastern League AA 12 1700 44226 16805 1491 .976
7 Texas League AA 8 1114 29578 11606 1035 .975
8 Southern League AA 10 1392 36623 14143 1353 .974
9 Florida State League Adv A 12 1664 43128 16822 1594 .974
10 Carolina League Adv A 8 1110 28854 11473 1100 .973
11 California League Adv A 10 1400 37316 14498 1584 .970
12 Midwest League A 16 2220 58104 22909 2625 .969
13 South Atlantic League A 14 1942 51075 20265 2306 .969
14 New York-Pennsylvania League Short-Season A 14 1046 27214 10866 1322 .966
15 Northwest League Short-Season A 8 608 16167 6668 793 .966
16 Pioneer League Rookie 8 608 16078 6557 842 .964
17 Appalachian League Rookie 10 680 18020 7078 1015 .961
18 Gulf Coast League Rookie 15 868 22686 9179 1286 .961
19 Venezuelan Summer League Foreign Rookie 6 428 11119 5258 709 .959
20 Arizona League Rookie 13 728 19390 7901 1297 .955
21 Dominican Summer League Foreign Rookie 33 2294 57799 24072 4153 .952
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/28/2011.

Fielding percentage puts the leagues in order from highest to lowest. And here are the fielding percentages in major league baseball, going every ten years from 1901 to 2011:

Year Tms Fld%
2011 30 .983
2001 30 .982
1991 26 .981
1981 26 .979
1971 24 .979
1961 18 .976
1951 16 .975
1941 16 .972
1931 16 .970
1921 16 .966
1911 16 .956
1901 16 .943
1891 17 .925
1881 8 .905
1871 9 .833
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/28/2011.

Fielding percentages are going up consistently and still rising. It certainly seems as though as the quality of play rises, fielding percentage comes up along with it.

So here’s the deal: During Babe Ruth’s time, major league teams fielded about .970. That’s about the same as a Single-A or High-A league fields in today’s game. This at least suggests that the quality of play in the major leagues during Ruth’s time is similar to the quality of play in the A-ball level of today’s game. I’m inclined to buy that.

We can’t actually go back, snatch Babe Ruth and bring him into the present. But we can make an half-way decent estimate of how he might hit, thanks to the endlessly handy Minor League Equivalency Calculator. (The MLE Calculator takes a player’s minor league numbers at a particular level and then spits out an estimation of his major league equivalent numbers based on what other players at the same level have done in the past. That is, if everyone hitting .300 at Double-A hits .270 when called up to the majors the same year, that’s a pretty good estimate for how someone hitting .300 in Double-A might hit in the majors.)

So if we take Babe Ruth’s numbers, and pretend that he were instead playing in the Midwest league at the Single-A level, his major league equivalent numbers for his 1.300 OPS age 28 season, in 1923, would be:

602 AB, .245/.347/.429 (.776 OPS); 82 R, 148 H, 30 2B, 7 3B, 22 HR, 71 RBI, 92 BB, 110 K

Time-machine Babe Ruth would be an above-average hitter, but maybe not an All Star. I don’t know, maybe Single-A undersells Ruth’s majors. If we imagine the quality of Ruth’s leagues to be closer to a modern day High-A league, specifically the Florida State League, his numbers would look like this:

579 AB, .287/.407/.520 (.927 OPS); 102 R, 166 H, 35 2B, 9 3B, 28 HR, 88 RBI, 114 BB, 103 K,

Pretty good. But for comparison, Albert Pujols’ career averages in the same number of plate apperances:

590 AB, .328/.420/.617 (1.037 OPS); 121 R, 194 H, 43 2B, 1 3B, 42 HR, 124 RBI, 91 BB, 66 K

Ruth’s numbers look good, but Pujols is still much better.

If you want to argue that poorly-kept fields led to more bad bounces (and thus errors) on ground balls and an artificially depressed fielding percentage, I could buy that. Maybe we bump the quality of the 1927 AL to a modern day Double-A league to account for that. If we do so, Babe Ruth’s numbers from 1923 now look like this:

571 AB, .300/.425/.550 (.975 OPS), 108 R, 171 H, 36 2B, 9 3B, 29 HR, 94 RBI, 122 BB, 102 K

In other words, if we imagine the American League 80 years ago was similar in quality to the present day Eastern League, Ruth moves closer to Pujols, but he’s still a ways away. Ruth would be an All Star, but he’s still a bit behind Pujols in the power department. (Also note that the disparity in strikeouts remains. Ruth struck out more often than any other player during his time; Pujols strikes out far, far less than most hitters of the present day. Home run totals aside, they’re actually very different hitters.)

Even if you consider the major leagues in the 1920s and 30s to be equivalent to today’s Triple-A leagues, and plug that into the MLE calculator, Ruth’s best years about match Pujols’ career numbers. Ruth has the equivalent of an 1.060 OPS if we imagine his majors are similar in quality to Triple-A. Pujols has a 1.037 OPS for his career. So Ruth equals-to-surpasses Pujols only if we assume Ruth’s major leagues are a single step below the present day majors.

And if you’re still in doubt, just consider pure physical size: When Ruth played, he was among the largest players of his time. He was taller than 89% of other players from his period and heavier than 98% of them. He was bigger and stronger than almost everyone else, a barrel-chested giant with enormous hands and wrists. Albert Pujols is an inch taller than Ruth, 15 pounds heavier, and looks to be much stronger. And Pujols is not that close to being the biggest player of his day. If you took Albert Pujols and sent him back to 1923, he would be a monster. He would be the largest man playing baseball and one of the tallest. He would easily be one of the strongest, and my guess is that he might be athletic enough to play shortstop.

Basically, fresh-out-of-a-time-machine Ruth would significantly outhit Albert Pujols only if you consider Ruth’s competition – competition that did not have every pitcher throwing in the 90s with multiple pitches, without modern training techniques and surgeries, without nutrition, with everyone much smaller, skinnier and slower – about equal to the competition in the present-day major leagues. I find that fairly difficult to believe that the quality of competition is the same. Basketball players have become much bigger, taller, faster and better at shooting over the last sixty years. Football players have become bigger, stronger and faster. The four-minute mile barrier wasn’t broken until 1954; five American high-schoolers have since run sub-four-minute miles. The record time for the 100 meter sprint continues to fall. In all other sports, athletes have improved dramatically since the 1920s. It seems a stretch to believe the same hasn’t happened in baseball.

This isn’t to degrade Ruth’s abilities. He didn’t have the advantages of modern training and nutrition, playing hyper-organized youth sports, specialized coaching and penicillin. A cloned Babe Ruth, brought up with the same relative advantages of Albert Pujols, might very well set all kinds of hitting records and outhit Pujols. But Ruth didn’t have those advantages, and without them, it seems strange to suggest that he could outhit Pujols in the modern game without them. That’s still not a knock on Ruth. The fastest car of the 1920s would not win a race against the fastest car of the 2010s, but this doesn’t mean Henry Ford was a bad car-maker. He just didn’t enjoy the same advantages that come from 80 years of progress. It’s the same story with Pujols and Ruth.

Though I have no way to prove any of this. Yet. If you’ve finished that time machine, let me know.

11 Comments

Filed under Columns, Words

11 responses to “On Pujols and Time Machines

  1. I have an alternate theory, which is that Babe Ruth is actually a time-traveler from our future who never had a chance to play baseball in his own time because the sport had grown obsolete by then. Having heard about this “base-ball” and yearning for a chance to play it, a young Babe Ruth built a time machine, traveled back to the 1910′s, assumed the identity of a poor kid that nobody would remember, and used his superior future strength and knowledge to master the game of baseball. As time went on, he was eventually corrupted by fame, alcohol, and sex (all of which were also eradicated by his time) and forgot how to travel back to his own time, preferring to stay in the new timeline he’d created.

    • Patrick Flood

      Actually . . . I agree. Babe Ruth is a pretty good candidate as a time-traveler hiding among us. If we imagine what people from the future might be like, I think we can assume that they’ll have the following traits:

      1. Bigger than an average sized human, due to better nutrition in the future
      2. Ethnically ambiguous, as the global melting pot continues to simmer

      It should actually be not-that-difficult to identify time traveling tourists among us, unless they disguise themselves exceptionally well.

      Anyway, Ruth somewhat fits these descriptions (to some extent, Albert Pujols does as well), so I find your theory pretty plausible. Particularly the part where he falls ill to alcohol and sex, things that may possibly be antiquated in the future.

  2. I’d like to send Pujols back to Babe Ruth’s time with some white guy disguise so they let him play and watch him inhumanly destroy weak fastball after weak fastball.

  3. The point you make about Ruth into a time machine is obviously true. In the isolated hypothetical question of whether Babe Ruth of the 20′s, time-traveled to the present, would be as good as Pujols, the obvious answer is no, he wouldn’t. The game, and the world around it, has changed. Athletes today are bigger, stronger, faster and better trained than athletes of the past.

    The problem is when that common sense point is used in parallel of the question about whether Ruth or Pujols was the better baseball player? Clearly that’s a different question, and shouldn’t be confused with a question of time travel.

    For instance, Wilt Chamberlain is generally acknowledged as being one of the greatest, if not the the greatest, basketball players to ever lace up shoes. But the world and game have changed, and if you time travelled Wilt from his athletic peak in the 60s to present day, any number of upper eschelon players would be more than Wilt’s match athletically and skill-wise. Dwight Howard’s speed, strength and athleticism would crush Wilt. And that’s just a difference of 40 or so years, the difference between Ruth and Pujols is 80+ years.

    Does this mean Dwight Howard is a better basketball player than Wilt Chamberlain? I argue that no it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t ever be conflated with the time-travel argument like it is being argued in the context of Ruth/Pujols.

    In another 80 years, there’ll be somebody that a time-travelled peak Pujols wouldn’t be able to compete against, but that doesn’t lessen Pujols dominance now or his role as one of the greatest players ever.

    • Patrick Flood

      Bill Russell. 6’9″ dominant big man — couldn’t happen today. Time-travel scenario, maybe he’s a good power forward. But that is, as you point out, different between a question of who’s better.

  4. I’m glad you mentioned field upkeep as a possible modifier to fielding percentage, but I think you missed a bigger one — equipment. Balls were more lopsided (on average) and harder to both throw and catch as accurately. They also tended to be darker in color, so less contrast vs. background, which made them take longer to acquire (in modern military targeting parlance) than the whiter balls of today.

    And how about those gloves? When I was a kid, I had to play for a couple of years with my dad’s old glove from the 1940s. We couldn’t even agree on what kind of glove it was. (He says catcher’s mitt; I say first baseman’s glove.) It had a pocket exactly the size of a ball, but overstuffed padding, which made it hard to grip a ball; often they’d fall right out, even after a ‘perfect’ catch. And the webbing was both open and spread so far apart that sometimes a ball that hit the exact center of the web would just pass right on through as if there was nothing there. My dad played played second base for four years in high school with this thing, and I played two years of Little League-equivalent third base with it, and it was a nightmare!

    Now let’s move on to the talent pool. I grant you everything about better training and nutrition. I’m surprised you neglected the effect of hispanic and oriental players on the talent pool, but since you (more Ted Berg — I read his piece two days ago) greatly overstate the effect of Pujols having to play against blacks, I’ll call that a wash. (Black participation in baseball has now fallen below the proportion of blacks in the general population.) And that leads me to…

    Have you seen how many pro sports there are these days? In addition to football (which was in existence even in Ruth’s day, though not by much), there are basketball, soccer, ice hockey, track, NASCAR and its many affiliates, and even track, cycling and lacrosse. (Who saw those last three coming as professional sports? Not me.) And up next are cricket, rugby and Australian-rules football, not to mention wrestling, gymnastics, figure skating… and the beat goes on. The fact is that there are fewer than half as many Americans participating in professional baseball today as their were in Ruth’s day, and far, far fewer in semi-pro. Just in the past decade or so, too recently to benefit Pujols, there has been a substantial increase in independent professional baseball teams, as well as summer college leagues, but even so there aren’t as many organized teams playing at a collegiate or higher equivalent level (Class D) as there was ninety years ago.

    And finally, I very much disagree with your assertion that Little League has increased the opportunities that youngsters have to play baseball. Increased over what they would be today without Little League, yes, but back in the ’20s (really any time before the Korean War and the growth of the suburbs) kids were out playing every afternoon and evening until it got too dark to see, at their corner sandlot. Or, perhaps I should say that they had that opportunity, if they lived in an urban area. They weren’t watching TV, playing video games, listening to records, or whatever it is that ‘kids these days’ do, which is why they didn’t have that 17% obesity rate you mentioned. In the spring and summer they were playing baseball, football in the fall, and basketball indoors over the winter (and not as much of that). Training in multiple sports made them less susceptible to injury than the intensely (over)trained monosports athletes of today.

    I realize I’m not arguing the same apples as you and Berg are. You’re carefully restricting your arguments to hitting, and taking the players in question out of their eras. My position is that if Babe had been born 80-90 years later, or Pujols 80-90 years earlier, or if they had both been active in the 1950s and ’60s, Babe would’ve been a more valuable player, taking into account all of the above AND that he was probably the third best lefthanded pitcher of his era.

    • In the fourth paragraph of the previous post, the first ‘track’ should have read ‘boxing’, which was also a professional sport in Ruth’s day. Sorry.

    • Patrick Flood

      Wait, I did mention the effects of new, non-black players. Paragraph eight, I think: “There are no, or at least fewer, racial boundaries as there were in the 1920s, and a large number of players from Asia and Latin America play in the major leagues today. Ichiro Suzuki, Matt Kemp, Mariano Rivera, Curtis Granderson, Jose Bautista, Ryota Igarashi* and even Albert Pujols – none of these elite players would have been allowed to play in the majors 80 years ago.”

    • Patrick Flood

      Lots of good points. . . I was just arguing for the time-travel scenario though. If you have Pujols and Babe both playing in, say, the 1950s, like you suggest in the last paragraph, that’s an entirely different story.

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