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September 18, 2001

Doctoring The Numbers

The Bonds Edition

by Rany Jazayerli

We are a jaded society. The entertainment industry drowns us in hyperbole and excess, to the point where magazines devote their cover story to the outfits worn by celebrities to an award show. The sports industry is nearly as guilty, or haven't you noticed that college players are being touted for the Heisman trophy in the second week of the season? Baseball wants more offense and hockey wants more action and basketball wants another Michael Jordan and golf wants Tiger Woods to win every week. We are so bombarded with "new" and "improved" and "bigger" and "better" and "the best ever" that we don't believe any of it.

That's a shame, because when an athlete does something truly magnificent and unprecedented, we are unable to appreciate it. When a baseball player produces one of the finest seasons in the 125-year history of the sport, we are unable to distinguish his performance from the merely great. In a society that uses "Ruthian" to denote a gargantuan amount of, well, anything, few notice that a player is having a season that Babe Ruth himself would envy. While Barry Bonds may be having the most valuable season in the history of baseball, there are those who can't decide if he's even the Most Valuable Player in the National League this year.

And that's exactly what he's having, folks. This isn't run-of-the-mill greatness here. This is the kind of season that our grandchildren will look up in Total Baseball XVII some day and wish they could have seen in person.

The 63 home runs, you know. But did you know that of all the 60-homer hitters in history (it's happened seven times now), none amassed as many extra-base hits as Bonds is on pace to hit?


Year  Player        HR   XBH

2001 Barry Bonds 63 106 (projected) 1927 Babe Ruth 60 97 1998 Mark McGwire 70 91 1999 Sammy Sosa 63 89 1999 Mark McGwire 65 87 1998 Sammy Sosa 66 86 1961 Roger Maris 61 81

With 106 extra-base hits, Bonds would finish in the top five all-time in that category:


Year  Player       XBH

1921 Babe Ruth 119 1927 Lou Gehrig 117 1930 Chuck Klein 107 2001 Barry Bonds 106 (projected) 1948 Stan Musial 104

Impressive, certainly, but it becomes more impressive when you consider how few at-bats Bonds garners per game. Bonds is currently averaging 3.16 at-bats per game, which is considerably fewer than any player with even 90 extra-base hits in a season:


Year  Player          XBH      AB     G   AB/G

2001 Barry Bonds 94 427 135 3.16 1920 Babe Ruth 99 458 142 3.23 1998 Mark McGwire 91 509 155 3.28 1923 Babe Ruth 99 522 152 3.43 1924 Babe Ruth 92 529 153 3.46

Not counting Bonds's 2001, Ruth has five of the top seven seasons on this list, as (like Bonds) he averaged nearly a walk a game for much of his career. At the other end of the list, Chuck Klein holds three of the four highest at-bat counts per game, a product of his relatively low walk totals as well as to his increased chances to bat playing in an incredible hitters' park during an incredible hitters' era.

If we look at another measure--extra-base hits per at-bat--Bonds is left standing with the twin pillars of baseball greatness:


Year  Player          XBH      AB    XBH/AB

1921 Babe Ruth 119 540 .2204 2001 Barry Bonds 94 427 .2201 1920 Babe Ruth 99 458 .216 1927 Lou Gehrig 107 584 .200 1923 Babe Ruth 99 522 .190

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that Barry Bonds not only has the highest slugging average in National League history (by a margin of 64 points)...


Year  Player          SLG

1920 Babe Ruth .847 1921 Babe Ruth .846 2001 Barry Bonds .838 1927 Babe Ruth .772 1927 Lou Gehrig .765

...but that his isolated power--slugging average minus batting average--is the best ever, in any league, by an enormous margin:


Year  Player          ISO

2001 Barry Bonds .520 1920 Babe Ruth .472 1921 Babe Ruth .469 1998 Mark McGwire .454 1996 Mark McGwire .418

Let's stop for a moment. As sacred as Ruth's home run record was, isn't it true that Ruth's record for slugging average was far more impressive? Sixty homers may have been the record for 34 years, but Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx both hit 58 shortly after Ruth hit 60. But Ruth's twin towers of slugging--.847 in 1920, .846 in 1921--have lasted for 80 years without a serious challenge. The highest slugging average posted by anyone other than Ruth, Lou Gehrig's .765 mark, still fell 82 points short, which is greater than the difference between George Brett's career mark and that of his brother Ken. Seriously.

Today, with just three weeks left in the season, Bonds sits just nine points behind a mark most of us never thought we'd see approached, let alone broken. If Bonds hits two homers in his next game, he'll pass Ruth's slugging mark.

Okay, so Bonds's power is legendary. How about his on-base skills? After reaching base six times on September 7, Bonds's OBP briefly touched .500 on the nose. A .500 OBP is not unprecedented--it's been accomplished 15 times--but it hasn't been seen in 44 years. Since Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle both broke the .500 barrier in 1957, the highest OBPs on record are:


Year  Player          OBP

2001 Barry Bonds .499 1994 Frank Thomas .494 1961 Norm Cash .488 1962 Mickey Mantle .488 1995 Edgar Martinez .482 1988 Wade Boggs .480

Bonds's OBP since May 1 is .524. He's reached base in 24 straight games and in 39 of his last 40.

Add it all together, and Bonds has a 1337 OPS. Once again, Bonds is entering territory previously seen only by Babe Ruth:


Year  Player          OPS

1920 Babe Ruth 1378 1921 Babe Ruth 1358 2001 Barry Bonds 1337 1923 Babe Ruth 1309 1941 Ted Williams 1286

The 1250 OPS barrier has been cleared eight times, but Bonds would become just the third player to do so.

If we consider Bonds's performance relative to his league, he drops on the leader board just a tad, as the offensive level of the 2001 National League is a little higher than it was in Ted Williams's day:


                            League
Year  Player          OPS    OPS    Ratio

1920  Babe Ruth      1378    734    1.876
1921  Babe Ruth      1358    765    1.775
1957  Ted Williams   1259    710    1.771
1923  Babe Ruth      1309    739    1.771
2001  Barry Bonds    1337    756    1.769
1941  Ted Williams   1286    730    1.761

Ruth's 1920 and 1921 seasons look virtually identical on paper, with the exception that Ruth played in 10 more games in 1921. As this chart shows, the AL was still coming out of the dead-ball era in 1920, and relative to the league Ruth's performance that year dwarfs any season before or since. Since 1957, the highest ratio recorded by a player was 1.647, by Mark McGwire in 1998.

But while Bonds's season ranks "only" fifth all-time in terms of relative OPS, is it possible to argue that he's having a better overall season than Williams or Ruth ever had? Even ignoring the quality-of-play issue (Ruth played in a lily-white league, and the American League was very slow to integrate in the late 1940s and 1950s), it's easy to make a case that Bonds should move up at least three slots on this leader board:

  • Bonds is a much better defensive player than Williams was, particularly the Williams of 1957, when the Splinter was 38 years old. The young Babe Ruth was a thinner and faster version of the Ruth that's immortalized today, but he was never thought of as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game.

  • Bonds is the best baserunner of the three, by far. Ruth was fairly speedy in his day, but in 1920 and 1921 he combined for 31 steals and 27 caught stealings. Williams stole 24 bases and was caught 17 times...in his career. Bonds is 11-for-13 in stolen-base opportunities this year, adding perhaps two runs to the bottom line, and he goes first-to-third faster than Ruth or Williams ever dreamed.

  • Bonds has played in 94% of his team's games, compared to 92% and 86% for Williams in 1941 and 1957. Ruth played in 92%, 99%, and 100% of the Yankees' games in 1920, 1921, and 1923.

  • Bonds has grounded into just five double plays all year. Williams grounded into 10 and 19, respectively; GIDP data isn't available for Ruth.

With these arguments in hand, I'm quite comfortable placing Bonds's 2001 season to date ahead of all but Ruth's 1920 and 1921 campaigns, which are generally considered to be an inviolable standard as the two best in history. You can make a strong case that Bonds's speed and defense makes up for Ruth's marginal advantage in terms of offense and playing time in 1921, but Ruth's 1920 performance--even in just 142 games--is a tougher nut to crack.

But there's more to Bonds's season than the numbers above. I dare say that if you wanted to create, on paper, the perfect MVP candidate, you couldn't do better than Barry Bonds, v2001. Aside from the sheer greatness of his performance, consider the context:

  • The worst month of his season was April, when he hit .240/.363/.747. Before the All-Star break, he was hitting .305/.487/.826; since the break, he has managed to exceed that, hitting .339/.517/.857. Since August 1, he's hitting .361/.540/.935.

  • As mind-boggling as his overall numbers are, they get progressively better in clutch situations:

    
    Situation          AVG   OBP   SLG
    

    Overall .319 .499 .838 No one on .277 .434 .783 Men on .376 .577 .916 Men in SP .363 .627 .963 Close & Late .328 .538 .844 Bases Loaded .667 .571 2.000

  • His team is in the thick of a pennant race. Against the team the Giants have been chasing all year long, the Diamondbacks, Bonds is hitting .328/.518/.836, better than he has overall, and that's against one of the league's best pitching staffs.

  • If you want to throw in intangibles (remember, we're trying to make a case that will appeal to the real voters), then you should mention that the player batting ahead of Bonds all season, Rich Aurilia, is having one of the great all-time seasons by a shortstop. If Rich Aurilia were having the same season batting ahead of Sammy Sosa, don't you think Sosa would be credited with "protecting" Aurilia by forcing pitchers to throw him fastballs?

Despite all this, Bonds is still fighting an uphill battle to win an unprecedented fourth MVP award. Look, Sammy Sosa has an 1146 OPS, which would rank 41st all-time. Luis Gonzalez's 1135 OPS would rank 45th. Sandwiched between the two, with an 1140 OPS, is Bonds himself--in 1993, the year he won his last MVP award. Both Sosa and Gonzalez would be worthy MVPs in most leagues in most seasons, like, say, the AL this year. Bonds clears both of them by the margin of 191 points of OPS, which is simply unassailable. Here is a list of every instance in which a first baseman or outfielder won an MVP award even though another player in the league (that played in 140+ games) had an OPS at least 170 points higher:


Year  Lge   MVP             Pos   OPS   Better Player   Pos   OPS  Diff

1926 AL George Burns 1B 889 Babe Ruth OF 1283 394 1940 NL Frank McCormick 1B 850 Johnny Mize 1B 1039 189 1941 AL Joe DiMaggio OF 1083 Ted Williams OF 1286 203 1947 AL Joe DiMaggio OF 913 Ted Williams OF 1133 220 1973 NL Pete Rose OF 838 Willie Stargell 1B 1041 203 1998 NL Sammy Sosa OF 1026 Mark McGwire 1B 1225 199

(Ruth's snub in 1926 should be ignored; the rules for MVP voting were different back then, as you were only allowed to win the award once, and Ruth had already won in 1923.)

Bonds has been compared to Ted Williams on many an occasion, and here's yet another reason to intertwine the two. If ever there was a comparable situation to Bonds's predicament this season, it's what Williams went through in 1941, when he had his greatest season (not only did he hit .406, but he set the all-time record with a .551 OBP) and was still denied the MVP. DiMaggio was a vastly better defensive player, and the Yankees won the pennant, or so the argument goes.

No such argument can exist against Bonds--who is at least the defensive equal of Gonzalez and Sosa--if the Giants make the playoffs. It is quite unusual for a player having such an outstanding season to find himself locked in a tight pennant race, which makes Bonds's effort that much more meaningful. The highest OPS by any player whose team qualified for the postseason by the margin of two games or less is 1123, by Jason Giambi of the 2000 Athletics. If the Giants reach the postseason by the skin of their teeth, how could anyone argue with the notion that Barry Bonds did more to take his team to the playoffs than any player in the history of baseball?

So if you want to tell your children's children one day that you witnessed the greatest season of all time, root for the Giants to make the playoffs. Better still, if you enjoy seeing the members of the Fourth Estate get their comeuppance, hope that Bonds not only carries the Giants to the postseason, he finally slays the demons that have gotten hold of him in October, and takes the Giants to their first World Championship since the team moved to San Francisco, thus completing perhaps the most perfect season in the history of team sports.

Then wait until mid-December, when the execs at Sports Illustrated, who have conducted an ongoing campaign to assassinate Bonds's character ever since he failed to show up for a scheduled interview years ago, realize that they have no choice but to name him their Sportsman of the Year.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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