- MLB Playoffs 2002 - How did they pitch to Ruth?

Thursday, October 17
Updated: October 18, 10:39 PM ET
How did they pitch to Ruth?

By David Schoenfield

    "Why shouldn't we pitch to Ruth? I've said before, and I'll say it again, we pitch to better hitters than Ruth in the National League."
      -- Giants manager John McGraw, before Game 2 of the 1923 World Series

The Babe went out and hit two home runs that day and the Yankees would go on to defeat the Giants to win their first World Series championship.

While you won't hear Mike Scioscia say such words about Barry Bonds, the anticipation of seeing Bonds in the World Series is similar to the anticipation of seeing Babe Ruth in 1923. And back then, like this year with Bonds, the big question was: Will they pitch to Ruth?

In McGraw's defense, the Giants had defeated the Yankees in the 1921 and 1922 World Series, and Ruth hadn't exactly dominated. He hit .313 with one homer in six games in '21, striking out in half his at-bats, and just .118 with one RBI in 1922.

In 1923, however, Ruth hit .368 with three home runs -- and drew eight walks around 19 at-bats, meaning McGraw at some point decided it may be best not to challenge the Babe.

Ruth, of course, had already been a World Series star before 1923 -- as a pitcher with the Red Sox he went 3-0 in three career starts. But that Game 2 in '23 turned around Ruth's postseason legacy as a hitter. In all, he played in seven World Series with the Yankees and hit .347 with 15 home runs in 118 at-bats. Here are his World Series numbers with the Yankees compared to his lifetime hitting numbers:

               Series   Regular Season
Average         .347       .342
On-base Pct.    .490       .474
Slugging Pct.   .788       .690

Ruth was actually able to raise his performance in the World Series, a remarkable achievement. Was that because -- like McGraw said he was doing -- pitchers challenged Ruth? Not necessarily. In his seven Yankees World Series appearances, Ruth averaged one walk every 3.58 at-bats; his career average was one walk every 4.07 at-bats, so he walked slightly more often during the World Series than the regular season.

Bonds by the way, averaged 2.04 at-bats per walk during the regular season this year and 2.0 at-bats per walk so far in the playoffs. In other words, he's been pitched in the postseason like he was in the regular season: with extreme caution.

When examining play-by-play data from Cohen and Neft's "The World Series," we can learn a few more tidbits. For instance:

  • Ruth came to the plate 16 times in his Yankees World Series with a runner on second; he walked just five times, or less than one-third of the time. But with Bonds up, this has become an almost automatic free pass: in the regular season, he had 35 walks in 56 plate appearances with a runner on second (63 percent of the time).

  • According to Neft and Cohen, of Ruth's 33 World Series walks, only two were intentional (once with a runner on second and once with runners on second and third). Like Bonds, however, undoubtedly many of Ruth's walks were semi-intentional.

  • Ruth was at his most dangerous with the bases empty: he was 27-for-65 (.415) with 11 of his 15 Series homers. He also walked 17 times, which means he walked slightly more often with a runner or runners on base. Bonds has been approached even more carefully. He had 237 at-bats and 87 walks with the bases empty this season, but 166 at-bats and 111 walks with a runner or runners on.

    Bonds has 14 walks in 10 postseason games so far, and most of them were undoubtedly intentional or semi-intentional. It appears Bonds is more feared than Ruth was, at least if you consider walks a sign of fear.

    More feared than Ruth.


    David Schoenfield is the baseball editor for

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