The unique career of Red Ruffing

It has to be one of the stranger careers a pitcher ever had. And on the face of things, it appears to be one of the lousier Hall of Fame selections. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to him. And the more I look, the more impressive Red Ruffing has appeared to me.

Wins and losses, Boston and New York

When looking at Ruffing, it helps to start off with the most eye-catching and strangest part of his B-ref page: his win-loss record. Sure, it’s not the most sabermetrically-approved way of looking at pitchers, but it is just so starkly weird to look at what happened to Ruffing.

He began on some truly dreadful Red Sox teams in the 1920s and somehow, someway, posted a win-loss record even worse than the marks of his dreadful teammates. That’s tough to do, and not at all what you’d expect from a Hall of Famer. Plenty of Cooperstown-bound pitchers have spent time on hitting-impaired teams. While clubs such as those can drag down a hurler’s career mark, the pitchers still win some games. Not our man, Ruffing, though.

On the last-place 1928 Red Sox, Ruffing was 10-25 (a .286 winning percentage), while his teammates were 47-71 (.398). The next year, Ruffing was roughly the same, 9-22 (.290), and his teammates again posted a far superior record: 49-74 (.398). Yes, win-loss records are passé and non-sabermetrical, but this is pretty damn striking. A Hall of Famer playing for a terrible team wouldn’t be expected to post a record over 100 points lower than his lousy teammates.

In all, Ruffing was in the Boston rotation full-time for five years, from 1925 to 1929. The team came last in each season, yet his record in that span was worse than that of his teammates. Ruffing was 39-93 (.295), and the rest of Boston was 220-414 (.347).

Then, early in the 1930 season, Ruffing was traded to the Yankees, taking him directly from the outhouse to the penthouse. He pitched for the Bronx Bombers for 15 years, and though they won seven pennants in that span, Ruffing’s win-loss percentage there (.651) actually was superior to his teammates’ record.

This is weird. A guy who couldn’t keep pace with his horrible team broke from the pack with his terrific team. Yeah, that’s unusual.

Well, as already noted—and as many out there in readerland already believe—wins and losses are not the best measure of a pitcher’s ability. Yep, that’s true. But in Ruffing’s case, it still is intriguing because it is so extreme.

Delving deeper, Ruffing’s problems in Boston can’t be too easily explained away. It wasn’t just that he had a lousy win-loss record. His ERA was also bad. No, it wasn’t nearly as bad as his winning percentage, but it was still clearly inferior. He posted a 4.61 ERA in Boston, good for a 92 ERA+.

From 1925-29, the Red Sox team had an ERA+ of 91. So at least Ruffing wasn’t clearly inferior to his mates on the mound, but he didn’t stand out, either. He was just as crummy as they were, and that was rather crummy.

Well, maybe Ruffing’s run support was especially bad, even compared to his teammates. Checking into this, his offensive help was truly atrocious. When adjusted for park, Ruffing’s run support in his 138 starts for the Red Sox was about 80 percent of league average. That is almost impossibly bad and would help explain why his record sucked so much.

However, it still doesn’t quite explain why Ruffing’s record was worse than that of his teammates. Okay, Boston couldn’t hit when Ruffing pitched, but the Red Sox couldn’t hit any better when Ruffing’s teammates were on the mound, either. His Boston win-loss record was something of a fluke. He was a below-average pitcher pitching before a truly abysmal offense, yet he still didn’t win as many games as you’d expect under those circumstances. Hey, these things happen sometimes.

Okay, but then how do you explain what happened to Ruffing when he went to the Yankees? Forget win-loss record for a second. This is still a guy who was a below-average pitcher for Boston. Adjust for defense all you want, and Ruffing was still a substandard pitcher in the 1920s. (Boston did have a bad bunch of gloves back then, but nothing historically bad.)

Then came Yankee-dom. Forget the .651 winning percentage for a second. His ERA fell by over a full point, from 4.61 as a Red Sox player to 3.47 as a Yankee. That works out to a 119 ERA+ in New York—over 3,000 innings of work, too.

It took Ruffing a year or two to really settle in, but beginning in 1932, he began a stretch of 13 straight seasons with an ERA under 4.00. A few times, it was under 3.00, and this despite the 1930s AL being a glory run for batters. Ruffing never topped the AL in ERA, but he finished in the top five in five different seasons.

The hell? Well, defense played a big role. Whereas Boston had cruddy gloves, the Yankees typically were among the best. But the difference was more than that.

Joe McCarthy, the Yankees skipper in the 1930s, once listed his Ten Commandments of Baseball. Most of them dealt with hitters or just general play, but one focused solely on pitchers. Commandment No. 10: A pitcher who hasn’t control hasn’t anything. With Boston, Ruffing averaged 3.68 walks per nine innings. In New York, that rate fell to 3.0 BB/9. There is something to be said for good coaching.

Sometimes the changes that happen to a pitcher are worth more than the sum of their parts. Ruffing allowed fewer free passes and could rely more on the fielders behind him. That was a powerful combination, and it let him focus more on the task at hand without worrying that one mistaken pitch would be ruinous.

To put it simply, he pitched better. The circumstances allowed him to fulfill his potential in a way that would’ve been unimaginable in Boston. Combined with the great Yankee offense, Ruffing became an excellent pitcher for a nice, long stretch.

Durability and the war

Perhaps Ruffing’s greatest strength is one that is easiest to overlook: durability. There is nothing glamorous about a pitcher being able to take the ball ever fourth or fifth day. That just comes with the territory and is something we expect. Aye, but almost all pitchers get dinged up sometimes. That makes the rubber-armed ones easy to overlook.

And Ruffing was as durable as all get out. From 1914 to 1961, no one in all of baseball threw more innings than Ruffing’s 4,344 frames. Sure, those are selectively chosen endpoints. (Add on one year at the front end, and Pete Alexander passes him; at the back end Warren Spahn and Early Wynn leap in front). But still, that’s damn near a half-century, and Ruffing is No. 1.

Also, that underestimates him, because Ruffing lost a few years to the war. He missed all of 1943 and 1944, as well as the first half of 1945. Give him those years back, and he adds on an estimated 500 innings and ends up 17th all time in innings pitched. That’s not a glamour stat, but it does matter.

Well, maybe Ruffing wouldn’t have pitched that much in World War II. After all, 1942 was the first time in 15 years he threw under 200 innings. And when Ruffing came back, he never threw 100 innings in a season again. True, but when you look more closely, odds are good that Ruffing could’ve managed a sizable load.

He threw just 87.1 innings in 1945, but then again, he missed a little over half of the season, making his triumphant return in late July. Also, he was fantastic. His 40 years of age be damned, Ruffing posted a 2.89 ERA in his 11 starts. Then, in 1946, he was even better. In eight starts, he posted a 5-1 record with a sparkling 1.77 ERA. This was as good as he’d ever been.

Then fate intervened. On June 29, 1946, a line drive comebacker hit him in the leg, breaking his kneecap. At age 41 and clearly overweight (frankly, he was obese—the David Wells of his day), Ruffing’s career appeared through. The Yankees did give up on him, but he came back with the White Sox the next year. However, whether it was age or weight or his knee or a combination, time had finally passed Ruffing by. He was terrible in 1947, and that ended his career.

Still, in 11 months of action between his return and his injury, Ruffing went 12-4 with a 2.43 ERA. Yeah, he could still pitch.

Oh, and here’s another way of looking at it. If Ruffing did have those two and a half years back, he probably wins 300 games. In fact, it’s hard to imagine him not winning 300. He had 273 wins as is and hit double-digits in each of his full seasons with the Yankees but one.

Admittedly, those 300 wins would’ve been greatly aided by the defensive and offensive support the Yankees gave him. As bad as Boston’s hitters were, the Yankees hitters were equally as great, and he was there three times as long. Over the course of his entire career, his park-adjusted run support was 11 percent above league average.

Still, though, it’s damn hard to win 300 anyway. Even if you want to dock him 10 wins or so for his teammates’ help to get a better measure of his personal worth, that’s still well over Cooperstown standards. The in/out line for induction isn’t 300 wins. It’s closer to Stan Coveleski.

Ruffing at the bat

Oh, and Ruffing’s great offensive career support wasn’t just a product of his teammates. It was also a product of his own bat. Red Ruffing wasn’t just a good-hitting pitcher. He wasn’t just a great-hitting pitcher. You can make a case that Ruffing is the greatest-hitting pitcher of all-time.

In fact, Wins Above Replacement does make that case. According to that superstat, Red Ruffing’s bat was worth 15.1 offensive WAR for his position, the most by any person who pitched in a majority of his career games. He hit .269 with 36 homers and 98 doubles. He is one of the great power-hitting pitchers of all time as well as a fine contact hitter.

Okay, but how does this add to his overall value. How do you account for a pitcher’s batting appeal? We’re so used to looking at a pitcher’s pitching line to determine his overall value, but is there a way to adjust his pitching numbers to account for his offensive ability?

Sure there is. Let’s use the old Bill James stat Runs Created, or more specifically, Runs Created per 27 outs.

Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll get the overall hitting line for AL pitchers each year Ruffing was in the league and figure out how many runs the typical pitchers created per 27 outs. Then we’ll look at how many outs Ruffing made each year and figure how many runs an average AL pitcher would’ve created with his bat in that span versus how many Ruffing created.

Take the difference, and apply it to a pitcher’s runs allowed. If a pitcher is 10 runs better than expected with his bat, then you subtract 10 runs from his pitching line. So do that for all of Ruffing’s career, and here are the year-by-year results:

Year	Team	RC Dif
1924	BOS	-0.1
1925	BOS	 0.0
1926	BOS	-0.4
1927	BOS	 1.3
1928	BOS	10.8
1929	BOS	 8.4
1930	BOS	 0.5
1930	NYY	14.5
1931	NYY	11.4
1932	NYY	 9.5
1933	NYY	 3.5
1934	NYY	 3.4
1935	NYY	11.6
1936	NYY	 8.8
1937	NYY	-1.4
1938	NYY	 2.4
1939	NYY	 5.7
1940	NYY	-3.1
1941	NYY	 8.8
1942	NYY	 3.5
1945	NYY	 0.7
1946	NYY	-0.7
1947	CWS	-0.2
ALL		98.9

In all, Ruffing created nearly 100 more runs with his bat than a typical AL pitcher of that era would’ve. No one hires a pitcher for his hitting ability, but differences in pitcher hitting can matter—up to 100 runs in this case.

In Ruffing’s career, 86.7 percent of his runs allowed were earned, so at that rate, we should eliminate 86 earned runs from his career total. The upshot is that his 3.80 career ERA improves to 3.62. Not bad. Thus, his 109 career ERA+ becomes 114.

Adding it all up

If one wants, it’s easy to construct a case that Ruffing was a terrible pick for Cooperstown. He relied entirely on his teammates for help offensively and defensively. He was lousy when on a lousy team. And even with 15 years of a great Yankees defense, his ERA+ was just 109, which isn’t great.

But if you look deeper into the numbers, Ruffing’s case improves. He wasn’t just aided by his teammates, but he improved as a pitcherg when he came to New York. His own bat provided much of his value. And with his durability, he could’ve won 300 games if not for World War II.

Ruffing is a fascinating case because his career is so unlike any other.

References & Resources
Most info comes from Baseball-Reference.com. However, Retrosheet provided some vital info. That’s where I got overall batting stats for AL pitchers from. Also, years ago I looked pitcher run support info on their game logs.

One other thing: the Runs Created info here is based on the Bill James Tech versions, but it’s not perfect. Even for years where the AL kept grounded-into-double-play stats, that info isn’t always available in the splits for AL pitchers, so I had to leave it out. (Thus, I likewise ignored it in Ruffing’s own personal stat lines.)

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Comments

  1. Buck Zorba said...

    Two favorite Ruffing factoids:

    When Roger Craig lost 46 games for the Mets in 1962 and 1963, it was the highest two-season total for any pitcher since Ruffing, who just happened to be the Mets pitching coach in 1962.

    His 36 career homers came against the following teams: 1 Yankees, 2 Red Sox, 3 White Sox, 4 Athletics, 5 Senators, 6 Browns, 7 Tigers, 8 Indians.

  2. Jim G. said...

    Interesting article. Another possibility crossed my mind while I was reading this, but after some quick research, I don’t think I can prove anything.
    My thought was the with the Red Sox, Ruffing was considered the ace, and thus would line up with the opponents ace more often.
    Looking at the Red Sox staffs, Ruffing usually didn’t have the best stats in the starting rotation, although he often made the most starts. But nobody else stands out as a All-Star name.
    After moving to the Yankees, I would think Lefty Gomez was considered the ace. Ruffing had a few seasons where he out-performed Gomez, but for the most part, Gomez led those teams. Could the possibility of Ruffing not lining up with the opponents ace help his stats (particularly wins), having the opposite effect of his time with Boston?
    I don’t know if Ruffing truly was the ace with the Red Sox and I don’t know that pitching staffs would have been aligned with the opponent similarly to what often happens today.  But it was a possibility that stuck me while I read.

  3. Chris J. said...

    Jim – Actually, I have that info from years back. Ruffing really wasn’t used against first division teams all that often. He was more a workhorse—meaning they used him as often as they could, and thus couldn’t really spot start him that much.

    The leveraged starting pitchers were typically guys who didn’t pitch too much.  Mordecai Brown is a good example of that.

  4. mezzie said...

    Pretty certain most of the walk rate difference can be explained by the poorer defense. With an ERA that much higher in Boston, and worse fielders, he was facing several extra batters per 9 innings. Calculating the walk rate per batter faced rather than IP yields a drop from 0.093 with Boston to 0.092 in his first 5 seasons in NY. Basically no difference.

    Love the story and the article though smile

  5. Steve C said...

    Seems like a pretty big difference in defenses to me.  Through his last full 5 years with the Sox he had a weighted (by batters faced) BABIP of .292.  For his first 5 full seasons with the Yankees it was .267.

    Even if you were to regress this 50% towards his 10 year average the difference is still .286 to .273.

  6. Barney Coolio said...

    I am surprised that Red Ruffing missed time in World War II.  He was 37 years old when he was drafted in 1942.  From wikipedia: 

    “After the 1942 season, Ruffing took a job with Vultee Aircraft, a defense contractor. Despite his age (37) and missing toes, a United States Army doctor certified Ruffing as Class 1-B in the Selective Service System, overruled Ruffing’s personal physician, who had ruled Ruffing unfit for service. The Army decided that Ruffing could serve in a non-combat role.[1][63] Ruffing missed the 1943 and 1944 seasons due to his service during World War II. He served in the Sixth Ferrying Group of the Air Transport Command of the United States Army Air Forces at the rank of private. However, he did pitch for the Air Transport Command’s baseball team, throwing a perfect game against Joe DiMaggio’s team,[64] and leading his team to the championship against Ted Lyons’ team.[65] In 1944, he played with an All-Star team for troops stationed in Hawaii.[1]
    Ruffing turned forty years of age during the war, resulting in his discharge in June 1945”

  7. Barney Coolio said...

    Recently, I was researching Hall of Famers as pinch hitters.  The data is murky since before the 1950’s, stats are just split between starting and sub, without differentiating pinch hitting specifically.  Red Ruffing has 79 hits as a “sub,” while Willie McCovey has 68 hits specifically as a pinch hitter.  Duke Snider had 62 as a pinch hitter.  Paul Waner had 58 as a “sub.” 

    Presumably, some of those “sub” hits for Ruffing came when he was a relief pitcher, not as a pinch hitter.  Also, presumably, McCovey collected some hits as a “sub” but not as a pinch hitter.  It would be great to crown Red Ruffing as the HOFer with the most pinch hits, but that seems unlikely.  Ruffing pitched 208 innings of relief, so he probably had at least 12 hits as a reliever.

  8. Barney Coolio said...

    Ok, so I just looked at the game logs of Ruffing’s 86 relief appearances, and he collected 21 hits as a reliever and one as a right fielder, so he only collected 57 as a pinch hitter, 11 fewer than Willie McCovey.  Still, that is extremely impressive. 

    Red Ruffing really is one of the weakest pitchers in Cooperstown.  If he was a better pitcher, he would not have been asked to relieve so frequently, and may have claimed the HOF pinch hit record.  I think that McCovey’s record of 68 pinch hits among Hall of Famers is safe for a long time.

  9. Chris J. said...

    mezzie – interesting.

    Steve C – a lot of that difference in DE is ballpark, not defense.  I was looking at dWAR for mine.  Boston had the 7th best defense from 1925-29 —which is pretty bad but they weren’t that far out of sixth place.  They were just a routinely bad defense by WAR.

    Barney – thanks for the pinch hitter info.  About “if he was a better pitcher, he would not have been asked to relieve so frequently” – that’s false.  ALL pitchers were used out of the bullpen back then.  There was no starter/reliever split.  Take a gander at how many times Lefty Grove relieved in those same years. And he might be the best pitcher in history.

  10. Barney Coolio said...

    Well, I don’t know if anybody else cares, but Enos Slaughter and Ernie Lombardi both have over 100 hits off the bench.  So, among Hall of Famers, Red Ruffing comes in 4th place in pinch hits with 57, and he also comes in 4th place in hits off the bench with 79.

  11. Steve Millburg said...

    Ruffing grew up in the coal-mining town of Coalton, Illinois, where he lost four toes on his left foot in a mine accident. Coalton is basically a suburb of Nokomis, my hometown, where Ruffing went to school. Nokomis now has a small museum, the Bottomley-Ruffing-Schalk Baseball Museum, named for the Hall of Fame members with ties to the area (brsmuseum.org). Old-timers used to say that Ruffing’s sister, Frances Guidish, was not only a better hitter than her brother but also had a stronger arm. Maybe the Red Sox should have given her a tryout.

  12. Barney Coolio said...

    Chris J., yeah, you’re right.  Lefty Grove has fewer innings than Ruffing, yet Grove has almost twice the releif innings. 

    Red Ruffing has 79 hits off the bench, while Willie McCovey has 80.  McCovey eked past Ruffing by going 3-20 off the bench in 1980 at the age of 42.  His last pinch hit came off Bobby Castillo of the Dodgers.  It was a game winning double as the Giants beat the Dodgers 4-3.  McCovey would retire a week later.

  13. bob magee said...

    Ruffing made his last relief appearance at age 30.  Thereafter he was strictly a starter.  That made him unusual for that time.  His HoF cred is primarily his 4 yr stretch from 1936-39 when he was a 20 game winner.  Those Yankee teams may have been best of all time.

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