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October 9, 2001

Doctoring The Numbers

More on Barry Bonds

by Clay Davenport

[Ed. note. Clay Davenport isn't a doctor, nor does he play one on TV. He does, however, have some interesting observations on the greatness of Barry Bonds's 2001 season. Rany Jazayerli yields the floor to him this week.]

I'm having trouble deciding which of Barry Bonds's new records is the most astounding.

I'm pretty sure it is not the 73 home runs. The way 60s have been hitting the board in recent years, I have to join the pack of writers that was just a little bit jaded by the assault. So let's move on.

  • One hundred seventy-seven walks. I wouldn't have thought it would happen this year, not with all of the hype about expanding the strike zone. Strikeouts up, walks down... the league walked more than a thousand times less than they did a year ago, a whopping 12% decline. Bonds bucked the trend, and broke a 78-year-old record.

  • An .863 slugging average. I don't think this one has sunk in yet. Even with the recent run-up in offense, nobody had done better than Mark McGwire's .752 in 1998, and Bonds just beat that by 111 points. He breaks an 81-year-old record in doing so, one of the Unbreakable Records of ancient lore.

    (Chokes down the stretch? He slugged 1.078 in September and October.)

  • An OBP of .515. That's not a record, so maybe I shouldn't mention it among these all-time marks. But it is in the top ten all-time, and nobody's done better since 1957.

  • An OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average) of 1.378. With a quick look in the book, you'd say that wasn't a record, either--Babe Ruth had a 1.379 mark in 1920.

    But.

    The rules of 1920 were different in the scoring of sacrifice flies--they were counted the same as sacrifice hits. Ruth is credited with five sacrifices in 1920; whether they were flies or bunts is not known. We do have partial Retrosheet data for that season (thanks again, as always, to Dave Smith and his peerless organization) that show us two sacrifice flies and no sacrifice bunts, and I'd be willing to bet that all five were sac flies.

    Even if we stick to the two we know about, it is enough to give Bonds the title as long as both are held to the same rules: by Ruth's rules, counting SF like SH, Bonds's OBP rises to .517, since his two sac flies no longer count against him, and he leads Ruth by a 1.380-1.379 margin. By Bonds's rules, The Babe's OBP drops from .532 to at least .529, or even as low as .526, leaving his OPS between 1.373 and 1.376. So that's another one for Bonds.

  • Looking at my stats, Barry finished the season with a .430 EqA. That beats Ruth's 1920 mark by 11 points. It even beats Fred Dunlap's 1884 season, when a player roughly the caliber of Jeff Kent played in a league roughly as far below the majors of the day as the Carolina League is now. Dunlap gets credit with a .426 EqA, because the powers that be made a ludicrous decision to call the Union Association a major league 85 years after the fact. Now that eyesore will be removed from the top of the lists.

  • One hundred ninety-six Equivalent Runs. Old record, 184. It used to be so even, such a balanced build-up--two Babe Ruth seasons at 184 and 183, a Lou Gehrig at 180, a half-dozen assorted Ruths and Ted Williamses and Stan Musials in the 170s. Bonds has run right past the mark. A lot of that, it is true, results from intentional walks, and when I run the fullest, absolute total from it that may decrease somewhat. It won't decrease 12 runs; of that I'm pretty certain.

  • One hundred forty-five runs above replacement position. There are only about 50 players in history who have even generated 145 runs in a season. To beat another player by that much is unbelievable. To beat Babe Ruth by so much--the old record was 129--that's hard to believe, too. And when you consider that the lead is really bigger than that--because The Babe was 129 runs better than a replacement-level outfielder, while Bonds was 145 above a replacement-level left fielder, and you know that left-fielders are better than the average outfielder--well, that just shreds all of our notebooks.

One thing Bill James said occurs to me. Paraphrased, the idea is that you should never say never in baseball, because things can always change, and quickly, in ways you don't expect. The main part of my brain says I won't see another season like this again, ever. But I have this niggling suspicion that we will. There are liable to be big changes as a result of this--they may already be underway, and we just haven't recognized it yet. There is an apparent trend in outlier seasons over the past ten years, why I don't know, but I am not at all sure that we've reached the top of that trend yet.

Clay Davenport is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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