Friday, August 5, 2011

What if Pitcher Babe Ruth Came to the Majors Today? Reds Need to Give Good Hitting Pitcher Dontrelle Willis A Chance to Hit Regularly in Lineup

Babe Ruth began his career as a pitcher.
Babe Ruth was the greatest slugger of all time in Major League Baseball.   The best way to measure a player is in his own era.  In 1920, Ruth alone had more home runs than all but one team in the American and National Leagues.  That's how dominant he was.

Ruth though made it to the majors not because of his hitting, but on the strength of his left arm.  Ruth began his major league career as a pitcher and a fine one at that.  Ruth's lifetime pitching stats shows him with a win-loss record 94-46 and a 2.28 ERA.  He accomplished that mostly starting for the Red Sox over just 4 1/2 seasons.

During the years 1914 through 1917, when the Red Sox only used him as a pitcher, Ruth hit just nine home runs. By 1918, the Red Sox realized they not only had a fine pitcher but a hitter as well.  The team began playing Ruth in the outfield and first base between starts.  When Ruth was sold to the Yankees in 1920 he finally became a full-time position player, pitching rarely after that.

What if Ruth came to the majors today as a pitcher?  Would a major league team look beyond his pitching talents to his even greater potential as a hitter?  Would the team try putting a good hitting pitcher in a position where he could get more chances at the plate?

I think there is such a good hitting pitcher playing in the majors today.  This year the Cincinnati Reds acquired Dontrelle Willis from the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Once one of the finest pitchers in the majors, winning 22 games in 2005, Willis has only won five games over the past five full years, starting 40 games during that period which has been marked by injuries.

Willis is showing some signs of reviving his pitching career with the Reds.  That's a long-shot though.   Pitchers rarely have five years slumps and then make a recovery. 

What is apparent though is that Willis, having arrived back in the DH-less National League with Arizona last year and now Cincinnati, is one terrific hitter.  While his current .417 average is undoubtedly inflated due to a low number of plate appearances, the way Willis swings the bat and the fear opposing pitchers have when facing him, suggest a hitter with substantial potential if given more at bats.

Reds Pitcher Dontrelle Willis
Tuesday evening Willis pitched against the Astros.  The game was tied 2-2 going into the top of the 7th inning.  The first two Reds made outs.  Willis was the third batter of the inning.  The Reds manager Dusty Baker had already decided to take Willis out and had a reliever ready to go.  There was no reason to not pinch-hit for Willis, except the fact Reds pitcher can flat out hit and probably has more power than any hitter on the bench.   First pitch to Willis, the left-handed hitting Reds pitcher crushed the ball deep into the right field grandstand, the hardest ball I've seen hit all year.  3-2 Reds lead.  Unfortunately the next inning reliever Nick Masset failed to hold onto the lead Willis himself had earned with the home run.

While one obviously hesitates to compare Willis with Babe Ruth, one has to wonder if a hitting talent is being overlooked because he came to the majors as a pitcher.  Ruth was an excellent pitcher in the prime of his career when his team decided he might be even be better as a hitter.  With Willis though it is a matter of a 29 year old desperately trying to revive a pitching career that's been in limbo for five years.  Reportedly, two National League teams last year thought so highly of Willis' hitting that they, assuming his pitching career was over, contacted him about joining their team as a pinch-hitter for the post-season drive.  (Willis is 6 for 18 pinch-hitting in his career.) What's the harm in the Reds seeing what Willis can do with a stick, playing a position?


marksmall2001 said...

Please don't fall over with a coronary, but for once I agree with most of what you say---most.
Yes, Ruth first hit the majors as a pitcher. However, the Red Sox used him so much as a position player between starts (he didn't mind it initially; he was bi-polar and a kid), he couldn't take the strain. The Yankees acquired him w/the idea of having him play position and, thus, the dreaded, evil Yankees began their reign of darkness.
It's hard to say what would happen today w/someone like Ruth. He was the best all-around player in any sport, except perhaps forCool Papa Bell who played in the Negro Leagues.
As for Willis, I must disagree. Do you remember who drafted Willis? The Cubs. Okay, he was part of the Florida team that killed us in '03 However, he's the proverbial head case. If he can turn that around, okay. But unless he has the talent of a Ruth, with the game the way it is today, Cincy should leave him on the mound. Oh, and while they're at it, switch the brand of hot dogs they serve. Those are the worst in the majors.

Cato said...

And when you do pull Willis off the mound late in the game, stick him in left.

Paul K. Ogden said...


Actually Ruth came into the majors in 1914 with the Red Sox. He didn't play any position but pitcher until 1918. If you check the Baseball Almanac one of the tables is fielding stats. They list games played by position:

Willis is tainted by being drafted by the Cubs. Hopefully though that stigma has worn off by now. As far as whether he has hitting talent, well who knows unless you regularly give him chances at the plate.

The Reds falling behind in the standings might make such an experiment possible late in the season.

Tiny23 said...

Arizona Razorbacks?

Other than that great post Paul, enjoyed it.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Tiny 23,

Woops. Thanks for catching that mistake. I really need an editor.