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.)