Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Barry Bonds, on the Edge of Cooperstown

By Brad Oremland

Barry Bonds turned 47 over the weekend, actually on the same day that Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, and Pat Gillick were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Next year, Bonds himself will be eligible, for the first time, for election to the Hall.

He won't get in, of course. Not on the first try. Maybe he'll be elected eventually. I hope so, though I don't like Barry Bonds, and I do believe he cheated to get an unfair advantage. But I also believe he's the best player in many decades, at least since Henry Aaron, maybe the best since Babe Ruth. A Hall of Fame that doesn't recognize Bonds isn't serving its mission. I feel the same way about Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, but that's a separate issue.

Bonds' legacy, even apart from his place in the game's steroid lore, is unique. He is the all-time record-holder in walks, intentional walks, and home runs. He holds single-season records in all the same categories, as well as on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He won 8 Gold Gloves, 12 Silver Sluggers, and 7 National League MVP Awards. He led the NL at various times in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, RBI, home runs, total bases, walks, and intentional walks. He scored and drove in 100 runs 12 times each, hit .300 11 times, hit 40 HR eight times, stole 20 bases 12 times, walked 100 times in 14 seasons, and had an OPS over 1.000 every year from 1992-2005.

Even before his incredible cream-and-clear-fueled run in the 2000s — when Bonds was so dominant as to make a mockery of the game, drawing record numbers of intentional walks — Barry was by far the greatest player of the 1990s. He didn't achieve the same peaks of stardom as Ken Griffey, Jr., or Mark McGwire, and jealousy reportedly played a role in his later decision to use performance-enhancing drugs. Yet Bonds was a far greater player than either Griffey or McGwire. In the case of Big Mac, who really did nothing remarkable except hit home runs, this is perhaps obvious, but some fans still believe Griffey was a better player than Bonds, and it simply is not true. This isn't even a matter of opinion. It's a fact. If we're going to deny that Bonds was objectively better than Junior, then it's a valid opinion that Bob Uecker was the greatest catcher of all time.

From 1990-99, Bonds and Griffey both hit .302. Bonds hit 361 homers, Griffey 382. Basically the same, right? No. Griffey had 500 more at-bats, because Bonds had 450 more walks. Bonds' OBP during the decade was .434, compared to .384 for Griffey. Barry actually hit more home runs per AB (one every 13.6 AB) than Junior did (every 14.1). Bonds slugged .602 in the '90s, Griffey .581. From 1990-99 — before the PEDs and 73 home runs — Bonds had an OPS of 1.036, about 70 points better than Griffey's .965.

In 1997, when he was named AL MVP, Griffey led the league in slugging percentage. Barry, just during the '90s, led the NL in slugging three times, in OBP four times, and in OPS five times. That still doesn't cover their offensive differences. During the '90s, Bonds stole more than twice as many bases as Griffey, 343 to 151, with a better success rate (78.5% to 74.0%). He also struck out a lot less (747 to Griffey's 901). That's 50 points of OBP, 20 points of SLG, 200 SB, and 150 SO. Did I miss where this is a close call?

That's still not it, though, because Bonds played most of the '90s in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, which was one of the worst hitter's parks in baseball. Bonds had an OPS+ of 179 during the '90s, meaning he was 79% better than an average hitter, adjusting for park effects. Griffey had an OPS+ of 152 during the same years. That's great, but it's nowhere near Bonds. Maybe we could get past all this if Bonds were a defensive liability. But he was an eight-time Gold Glove winner, and modern statistical analysis shows him as a superb outfielder. In fact, sabermetric fielding stats show Bonds as a far better defensive player than Griffey. But even if Griffey were ahead, how much better would he have to be to make up for Barry's advantage on offense?

Setting aside my Uecker joke, comparing Bonds to Griffey is very much like comparing Griffey to Juan Gonzalez. From 1990-99, Juan Gone batted .296 with 332 HR and 1,068 RBI. That matches up pretty closely with Griffey's .302, 381 HR, and 1,091 RBI. What this misses is that Griffey was better at everything else. Gonzalez never walked (.345 OBP) and couldn't run (21 SB, 58.3%). So he didn't score much (785 runs), and he grounded into a bunch of double plays (125) because he couldn't beat the throw to first. Gonzalez also played in a hitter's park, which makes him look better, statistically, than he really was. And Gonzalez couldn't field (-54 UZR).

Juan Gone won two MVP Awards because the voters didn't recognize park effects, and they tend to ignore stats like BB and GIDP. Gonzalez had good Triple Crown numbers, and that was enough. It's not that Gonzalez was a bad player; he was a very good player. And Griffey was a great player. But Bonds was otherworldly.

Compared to Junior, Bonds had more MVPs (3-1), and more years when he was a serious candidate (7 top-five finishes, to Griffey's 5). And remember, the sportswriters, who vote on this award, loved Griffey and hated Bonds. In 1995, when Bonds finished 12th in the MVP voting, he led the NL in OPS, and (despite a strike-shortened season) scored 100 runs and 100 RBI, with 30 doubles, 30 HR, and 30 stolen bases. He was almost certainly the most valuable position player in the majors that year.

Bonds could have retired any time in the late '90s with a first-ballot ticket to Cooperstown. But then came the 2000s, when Bonds became the most dominant player since Babe Ruth. The 2000 season, by his later standards, was blah: .306/ .440 / .688, 129 R, 106 RBI, 49 HR, 117 BB, 2nd in MVP voting to his frenemy Jeff Kent. In '01, Bonds set single-season records for homers (73), walks (177), and slugging (.863), also becoming the first player in 44 years with an OBP over .500. It was around this time that managers stopped pitching to him.

In '02, Bonds drew 68 intentional walks, breaking his own BB record (198), batting .370, and setting a new single-season mark for OBP (.582), destroying the previous record held by Ted Williams (.553). He also broke Ruth's 82-year-old record for OPS, reaching 1.381. In '03, .341 / .529 / .749, and a record-extending sixth MVP.

By 2004, Bonds was simply too dangerous to pitch to. He walked 232 times that season, including 120 IBB. His OBP was .609, breaking his own record. During Bonds' career, the highest OBP by a player other than Barry was Frank Thomas' .487 in the strike-shortened '94 season. Despite all those walks, Barry hit 45 HR, slugging .812 and driving in 100 runs. His 1.422 OPS is a record that I suspect will never be broken.

We know Barry was probably cheating during that sensational run. But we also know that a lot of other players were cheating, too. None of them did what Barry did. None of them came close. None of them were even close to being close. Bonds was so far ahead of everyone else in the league it was ridiculous: the guy walked in something like a third of his plate appearances, simply because managers and pitchers were so terrified of what he'd do if they gave him anything to hit. No player in history — not Williams, not Ruth, not anybody — has commanded that kind of fear and respect from opponents.

As we look back on Barry Bonds next year, there's a simple way to view him: as a cheater on the field and a jerk off it. But the more nuanced view is of a man who might be the greatest player in the history of organized baseball, who did things — both before and after BALCO — that no one else could do. Ruth and Williams were subpar fielders; Barry combined that kind of record-setting, world-skewing offense with probably the best defense in left field the game has ever seen. Barry Bonds turned 47 over the weekend. I understand why baseball fans are mad at Bonds, but if you can't get past the PEDs, you miss one of the truly brilliant and remarkable careers the game has seen. We should celebrate Barry for what he did so well, not wallow in our own bitterness (and his) about the mistakes he made.

Most fans believe Jackson and Rose deserve a place in Cooperstown. Bonds was better than Rose and Shoeless Joe combined. It's wrong to keep them out, but it would be worse, far worse, to keep out Bonds. Jackson and Rose aren't enshrined because they are ineligible; the voters have no choice. If Bonds isn't voted in, it will be because the voters chose to leave out the greatest player in half a century. I don't like Barry Bonds, either, but he's as crucial a part of baseball history as Cap Anson, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Gaylord Perry, Reggie Jackson, and almost any other player you could name. We don't have to like him to recognize that.

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