SPidge Tales

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Dubious Babe Ruth Homerun/Strikeout Ratio Analogy

Babe Ruth hit 714 homeruns. He reigned as baseball’s home run king from the day he passed the previous mark in the early 1920’s until Hank Aaron passed him in 1974. To this day, Babe Ruth stands at an impressive third on the all-time list. Along with his 714 homeruns, he struck out 1330 times.

Motivational speakers and others who know absolutely nothing about baseball bring these two stats up when advising people to move beyond their failures and strive for success. “Look,” they will say, “Babe Ruth struck out almost twice as often as he homered. This means the Babe saw every two strikeouts as a step toward his next homerun. Think of your failures as steps on the road to success, too.”

The assumption implicit in this analogy is that offense in baseball is comparable to, say, offense in basketball. A made jump shot or lay-up is a success, and a missed shot an equivalent failure. Similarly, in baseball, the analogy maker assumes, a homerun must be the sign of success and a strikeout the sign of failure. In the absolute simplest terms, a homerun is a successful end result of an at-bat for a hitter and a strikeout is a failure. However, they are not proportional and to say that someone who strikeouts more than he homers fails more than he succeeds is simply not true.

A homerun hit is a successful at-bat. It certainly is the most successful at-bat a player can have in any one trip to the plate. Yet, there are plenty of other ways to succeed at bat. A single can drive in other base runners, or set the hitter up to be driven in by the next batter. Doubles and triples do likewise. The most underappreciated offensive stat, the walk, puts a hitter on base just as solidly as a single. Even a batted out such as a grounder to the second baseman or a deep fly ball to center can advance other runners and not be entirely futile. There are many ways to succeed. Would we conclude that the hitter who hits one homerun, four singles, two doubles, yet strikes out three times in twenty trips to the plate has failed more than he has succeeded because his strikeouts triple his homerun output? No way.

And, to label the strikeout as the epitome of failure is untrue, as well. It is just one, among many, ways of making an out. A batted ball to a fielder results in an out, too. When no runner is on base, an out is an out is an out, whether the batter strikes out, grounds out, or pops up. A batted out is only superior to a strikeout when it advances a runner. Sometimes, a strikeout is less damaging than a batted out. It is better to strikeout than ground into a double play. Plus, a strikeout uses up more of the opposing pitcher's stamina than a groundout on the first pitch. As a former pitcher myself, known for wild streaks, I would rather the batter weakly hit the first pitch than have to attempt to throw three out of six pitches over the plate for strikes and risk a walk.

The truth is every player strikes out more than he homers. It is the rare player who even has a season or two with more homers than K’s. Yet, there is a truth to the notion that a batter fails more often than he succeeds. A great hitter is seen as someone with a .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage, which means he hits safely (gets a base hit; a batted ball that the fielders are unable to put him out on) only 3 times every 10 at bats and reaches base safely only 4 times every 10 times to the plate. Every player fails at the plate more than he succeeds. If a motivational speaker wishes to use a baseball analogy to show how even the greatest players fail more often than they succeed, the correct analogy is hits to at-bats, not homeruns to strikeouts.


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