Inspired by this tweet from www.highheatstats.com, I took a look at Boston’s standings from 1920-34, the years Babe Ruth spent in New York. I was surprised to find just how mediocre the Red Sox were in those years.
To see what effect, in a vacuum, Ruth staying with the Red Sox might have had–on both the Red Sox and the Yankees–I undertook a little project.
And this is a crude way of doing this, but I just took Babe Ruth’s WAR on Baseball Reference from 1920-34, and swapped it with the primary outfielder for the Red Sox those same years with the lowest WAR. Then took the new standings. Obviously, the change in WAR would not lead to the exact changes in win totals; the distribution of plate appearances would have changed dramatically; and who knows what other personnel changes would have resulted if Ruth stayed with Boston. But I like to think it’s a decent measure to demonstrate how hard it would have been for the Red Sox to win even had they kept Ruth.
Instead of awarding Boston’s actual WAR figure to the Yankees, I made another simplifying move, assuming replacement level in the stead of Ruth’s production. This ended up not making a major difference practically speaking, as the Red Sox often trotted out a replacement-level outfielder every day in these seasons anyway. The bigger assumption here is that the Yankees would not have found an outfielder who would have given production better than replacement level in Ruth’s place.
Results based on standings are also impacted by keeping the win totals for the other six American League teams the same, which obviously would not have occurred either.
The link to the Google Doc is available at the bottom of this section.
For Both Teams
In the real world, New York finished ahead of Boston in the standings all 15 years from 1920-34. In this new universe, they only finish ahead of Boston…13 times. The exceptions are 1921, when the Red Sox win 87 games to the Yankees’ 85, and 1924, when both win 77.
Boston gains no pennants throughout this process, because they were quite bad regardless for much of the 20’s.
In fact, the bigger change for Boston is getting out of the cellar. They finished dead last in the American League in 1922, 1923, 1925-1930, and 1932…9 times out of 15. With Ruth, they still finish last in 1925 and 1926, but not in any of the other years.
1925 was, of course, the year Ruth got sick and missed a lot of games (producing “only” 3.5 WAR), and the Yankees finished 7th, so he would not have helped the last place Red Sox much that year either.
1926, though, is worth noting. The Red Sox finished 15 games behind the St. Louis Browns, so even though Ruth was worth 11 wins that year, Boston still ends up in last in this alternate universe.
For New York
In this universe, the Yankees retain three pennants: 1923, 1927, and 1932. It’s a step down from the seven they actually won with Ruth.
In 1921 and 1926, Cleveland now takes the American League title. In 1922, it goes Rogers Hornsby’s St. Louis Browns, and the mini-dynasty of the Philadelphia Athletics starts a year earlier in 1928.
Fortunately for our fake Yankees, the four lost pennants result in just one denied World Series title, in 1928.
While a lot else would have changed had the Red Sox kept Babe Ruth all the way through 1934, Ruth’s transfer to the Yankees did not by itself contribute to the rise of the Yankees and the fall of the Red Sox. Crudely taking Ruth’s production away from New York and giving it to Boston, with no other changes, indicates as much. There was a lot more to the Ruth “curse” than the player himself.
Even if taking such an in-depth look might not have been necessary to reach this conclusion, it was fun to do.
The Google spreadsheet for this project can be accessed at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0AlxsNoNGnPMPdG45Z2tPdkNaaUtqX3o1eHZvVGZvVEE&single=true&gid=0&output=html