Monday, November 07, 2011

Barry Bonds Still Causes Us Heartburn

The next baseball season will put us five years removed from the last season that Barry Bonds played in the majors. And yet, more than any other player, his career continues to be a bucket of water on top of the door waiting for us to walk in and get wet. We can't, in light of events that were perceived to occur, put his career in perspective. At least with Mark McGwire, we have his admission to his steroid use to put his career in some kind of box. But McGwire was really a two trick pony. He walked and he hit homers. Bonds was a superstar in all aspects of the game. Thus his alleged use of PEDs seemed to elevate all facets of his game (except defense). The seasons he had from 2001 to 2004 leave us staggered for some sort of reality other than the one we have to live.

By the age of 35, Barry Bonds was having a Hall of Fame career. He had already won three MVP Awards. But his career WAR path was decidedly below the paths of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. See the WARgraph below courtesy of Fangraphs. As you can see by the graph, Bonds at 35 was below Ruth and below Aaron though on a similar trajectory. Starting at age 36, which includes the record homer year of 2001 and the next three seasons, Bonds makes a change in his trajectory as it shoots up and overtakes Henry Aaron. It is that late life jump in trajectory that drives us crazy. If Bonds had the seasons he had between 2001 and 2004 as a younger man, it might not affect us the same. Why? Because every conventional wisdom we have indicates that players regress from the age of 30 and onward. Bonds not only did not regress, he had the best years of his career.

2001 was the year that Bonds broke the single season home run record with 73. The record had stood from 1961 and Roger Maris to 1998 when both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa topped Maris for a single season. But McGwire's record was eclipsed just three years later. We have the famous story where Bonds supposedly told Ken Griffey Jr. that he was upset that lesser players were getting all his accolades and he was going to use the stuff they were using to get his attention back. And he did get it back. But at what cost?

As hard on our sensibilities as 2001 was, at least in was Bonds on his own making the history. Barry Bonds after 2001 wasn't the only complicit party. Starting in 2002, managers around baseball became part of the story and became just as guilty in creating the records that Barry Bonds later set. For example, after 2001, Bonds had the single season homer record. But his season that year still came in just behind Babe Ruth's single season OPS record set in 1920. But managers in baseball are just as complicit in allowing Bonds to surpass both his own 2001 OPS with the OPS compiled in 2002 and 2004, both years of which flew by the Ruth record.

How was Bonds able to have better OPS seasons in 2002 and 2004 than the year he hit 73 homers? Intentional walks. A superstar like Bonds was going to get his share of intentional walks. And year after year, managers walked him from between 14 times to a peak of 43 in 1993. But after 2001 (35 intentional walks), it got downright silly. He was intentionally walked 68 times in 2002, 61 the following year and an unbelievable 120 times in 2004. Those intentional walks allowed Bonds to beat Ruth's OPS record in 2002 and then break it again and set the all time mark in 2004. To this writer, those 120 intentional walks in 2004 are a bigger stain on the game than anything Bonds did to improve his play. Those walks are a stench that will never leave these nostrils.

Can we extrapolate the data to see what kind of year Bonds would have had in 2004 without those 120 walks? Perhaps. Those 120 plate appearances can be broken up this way. With Bonds career walk percentage, he would have walked 24 of those plate appearances. With the 96 plate appearances remaining, hitting at a .362 clip like he was, Bonds would have had 35 more hits. Of those 35 hits, at the rate Bonds was hitting doubles, triples, sac flies and homers, he would have had thirteen more homers, seven more doubles and another sac fly and triple. Bonds' actual slash line that season was .362/.609/.812. If you do the math as this writer has done, the slash line becomes, .362/.517/.783. Instead of the 1.412 OPS that Bonds actually accumulated, it would have been 1.300 or below Ruth's record of 1.3791. Similar results are constructed with his 2002 totals if you take away those 68 intentional walks.

Of those 120 intentional bases on balls in 2004, 79 of them were from within his own division. And on face value, you can say that their aim was to limit the damage Bonds could do on their chances to win the division. And you can even say it worked as the Giants failed to make the post season in 2004. But did it really work? Giants number five hitters only had a .705 OPS and number six hitters had a .767 OPS for the Giants that year. so perhaps it can be perceived as good strategy. But also consider that the number five and number six hitters combined for 219 combined runs batted in (many of them Bonds on base with a free pass or those ahead of Bonds already on base when he walked). So the strategy seems a wash in this writer's book. 

The statistical part of this writer knows that intentionally walking batters increases a team's ability to score. The old school part of this writer considered such a strategy an act of cowardice. But could it go beyond just those two thoughts? Was it planned? Can the conspiracy theory be at work here? A friend on Twitter brought up the conspiracy theory when discussing the freeze out of Bonds in the majors after his last season in 2007. Bonds still wanted to play, but he never got an offer. Colleagues of this friend brought up that Bonds was probably too much of a headache at that point and plus, was 43 years old at the time. Yes, that could explain things. But at age 42, Bonds was still able to put up a 1.045 OPS. Sure, an American League team would have loved production close to that at the DH, right? What if the freezing out of Bonds in baseball after the 2007 was organized? What if the intentional walks from 2002 to 2004 were as part of a plan to keep Bonds from breaking Aaron's career homer mark? We'll never know of course. But it sure smells.

Personally, this Fan will never get over what happened between the 2001 to 2004 seasons. They altered the landscape of statistics. With the arc of speculation involved with what Bonds did to enhance his performance, those numbers will never feel real. They created records that may never be broken. The game will endure and as the magical season and post season of 2011 showed, the game is as healthy as ever. But a shadow exists and we will never really come out of that shadow. Well, maybe we will, but it won't be for a long time.