There is no question that baseball fans should have a Barry Bonds vs Babe Ruth debate when it comes to rankings of the greatest MLB players of all time. While they played in different eras and faced different competition, there is no denying both are among the greatest baseball players of all time.
But how can we settle the Bonds vs Ruth debate taking into consideration both the MLB steroid era and Ruth’s special talents as one of the best hitters ever and his talents as a pitcher?
Barry Bonds vs Babe Ruth comparison
Let’s try to get to the bottom of the Bonds vs Ruth discussion by taking a deeper look at the careers of both players.
The Early Years
Bonds is best remembered for the massive home runs he hit during the latter part of his career. But it’s important to remember that he was once a skinny kid playing for the Pirates. While it took Bonds a few years to become a true impact player, he did hit 25 home runs in his second MLB season before averaging over 30 home runs between his fifth and seventh season in the majors.
It’s also worth noting that Bonds was more of a five-tool player during the early part of his career, stealing as many as 52 bases during his days in Pittsburgh, twice becoming a member of the 30-30 club during his seven years with the Pirates at the start of his career. He also won two of his MVPs in those seven years, both coming in his final three years in Pittsburgh.
Ruth, on the other hand, was primarily a pitcher during the first six seasons of his career before the Red Sox traded him to the Yankees. That changes the Bonds vs Ruth debate because we’re comparing a position player to a pitcher during their early years.
That being said, Ruth was an elite pitcher during his first few seasons. In his first full season in the majors in 2015, he won 18 games with a 2.44 ERA. That was followed by 23 wins and a 1.75 ERA in 1916 and 24 wins with a 2.01 ERA in 1917. Those are impressive numbers for Ruth on the mound, not to mention he was also contributing a little at the plate during those years, perhaps giving him an edge over Bonds during their early years because of his versatility.
In their Prime
Fortunately, comparing Bonds and Ruth during their prime is more of an apples-to-apples comparison. Since he won two MVPs while he was still in Pittsburgh, it’s clear that the prime of Bonds’ career began there. His final season with the Pirates kicked off a string of 14 straight seasons with an OPS over 1.000.
That was also the second of 11 seasons in which Bonds hit .300 or better. Of course, the individual seasons that Bonds posted from 2001 to 2004 were some of the best seasons any player has had in big-league history. That stretch includes the season he set the single-season home run record with 73 homers but also three other seasons in which he hit at least 45 home runs, as well as a season in which Bonds hit .370 with an OPS of 1.378.
As for Ruth, he surely hit his prime as a hitter during his final season with the Red Sox, batting .322 with an OPS of 1.113. However, it wasn’t until his trade to the Yankees that Ruth’s power started to shine.
He hit 54 homers during his first season in pinstripes and 59 homers the following year. During his first 13 seasons with the Yankees, there was just one season that Ruth failed to hit 35 homers of post an OPS under 1.100. Much like Bonds, Ruth was more than a power hitter during his prime years, batting .300 or better in all but one of those 13 amazing seasons with the Yankees.
There is certainly an interesting dichotomy between Bonds and Ruth when it comes to awards. It must be mentioned that postseason awards were taken far more seriously during Bonds’ era. That being said, his seven MVP Awards compared to Ruth’s one stands out.
Bonds also won two batting titles compared to Ruth’s one. During Ruth’s era, there were no Gold Gloves or Silver Slugger Awards handed out. For what it’s worth, Bonds won eight and 12 of those awards, respectively.
However, Ruth has Bonds beat when it comes to the ultimate award, a World Series ring. Ruth helped the Red Sox to three World Series titles before winning four more with the Yankees whereas Bonds never won the World Series despite seven postseason appearances. The other kicker is that Ruth is in the Hall of Fame whereas Bonds is not.
A Little Defense
It would be a disservice not to include each player’s defensive capabilities in the Bonds vs Ruth debate. As mentioned, Bonds won eight Gold Gloves, although none of them came during the final nine years of his career.
By the time Bonds became the greatest power hitter in the game, he was essentially a DH who was forced to play the outfield. However, he was a strong defensive player in his younger days, ultimately finishing his career with a 7.6 defensive WAR.
Ruth, on the other hand, was the classic example of a slugger who was a liability in the field. His fielding percentage was noticeably worse than Bonds’ while his defensive WAR was -2.3, giving Bonds a clear edge in this category.
Gaining an Advantage
It’s impossible to reconcile the Bonds vs Ruth debate without acknowledging that they played in different eras, each of which gave the two players distinct advantages over the other. With Bonds, the use of PEDs was well-documented during the latter part of his career. Even if he was on his way to the Hall of Fame before there was a hint of PED use on his part, the use of banned substances surely made it easier for him to post the kind of outrageous numbers that make him one of the greatest players of all time.
Also, being a ballplayer during the 1990s and early 2000s was surely easier than it was during Ruth’s time. The amenities on and off the field are far better and medical advances made it easier for Bonds to overcome nagging or minor injuries and always be at his best.
Meanwhile, Ruth undoubtedly faced a lower level of competition than Bonds. During Ruth’s career, baseball had not yet been integrated, diluting the talent pool around him, including the pitchers he had to face.
Likewise, pitchers during the 1910s, 20s, and 30s didn’t have the same velocity or breaking stuff that Bonds had to face. In that sense, it was a little easier for Ruth to dominate pitchers the way he did and showcase such impressive power. Then again, most agree that if Ruth had the same modern amenities that Bonds played with in his era, he would have been fine against the pitching of the 90s and early 2000s.
It’s easy to argue either side of the Bonds vs Ruth argument because there is a compelling case for both players. Both are surely among the greatest players of all time.
While Bonds was surely the better overall athlete and a more well-rounded player than the pitcher turned slugger, it’s hard to get past his use of PEDs and the fact that his use of banned substances has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
Ruth may have faced somewhat inferior competition, but he was not a known cheater for a large chunk of his career. The fact that he was also an elite pitcher during the early part of his career and then became one of the greatest power hitters in baseball history helps separate Ruth from Bonds and countless other players when ranking the best players of all time.