January 3, 2014
The Weirdness of Walking Barry Bonds
Ten years ago, we all watched something incredible happen: Barry Bonds was walked intentionally 120 times. He had very nearly tripled the previous non-Bonds record. It was the closest our generation got to seeing Babe Ruth’s home run records, to living in those years when Ruth was doubling previous records, doubling entire teams’ totals.
But Ruth’s records become slightly less amazing with the perspective of time. Imagine seeing Ruth hit 54 home runs in 1920: Nobody had hit half as many in the 1900s to that point; the Pirates as a team hit 16 home runs that year; the NL home run king that season hit 15. You can imagine being literally frightened by what Ruth was doing, like hearing the Rite of Spring in 1913. Fifty-four home runs would have certainly seemed like a record that would never be broken. But 10 years later Hack Wilson did it, then Jimmie Foxx, then Hank Greenberg, then Luis Gonzalez. By just 1922, Ruth didn’t even lead the league in home runs; guys in the NL were hitting 40. What Ruth did wasn’t impossible, it was just a few years early.
This happens. It happened with saves totals. It happened with stolen bases. It’s happening with strikeout rates. And yet, it didn’t happen with Bonds and intentional walks. Part of what makes Bonds’ intentional walks totals so amazing is that, when he disappeared, the game immediately reverted to its old way of doing things. It was a phenomenon wholly contained within one player’s at-bats.
Before Bonds’ 2001-2004 seasons, intentional walks were going down throughout baseball. After he left, they kept going down throughout baseball:
Since Bonds left, nobody has come close to getting the Bonds treatment. Last year, Giancarlo Stanton was (by PECOTA's estimation) the sixth-best hitter in baseball going into the season. He batted in front of Greg Dobbs, Joe Mahoney, Austin Kearns, Placido Polanco (as late as September!), Ed Lucas, others. The best hitter who protected him, Logan Morrison, had a .709 OPS. Now consider this: Stanton was intentionally walked five times. To put this in perspective: In 2004, Bonds was intentionally walked to lead off an inning three times.
To further put this in perspective: With runners in scoring position and first base open, Stanton was intentionally walked nine percent of the time last year; in 2004, in the same situations, Bonds was intentionally walked 70 percent of the time.
So here's what got me thinking about this: Bonds’ career win probability added on intentional walks, according to Baseball-Reference, is 10.1. By being merely scary enough to force the other team to pitch around him, Bonds produced 10 wins. Being scary was a 10-win skill. Ten wins!
Adrian Beltre, by comparison, has been worth a bit under nine wins of WPA in his career.
Partly this is a misleading statistic, as if there are no outs then obviously the WPA is going to go up up up. But then you realize it’s not misleading, because there is (unlike a conventional walk, or a single, or a home run, or any other way to add WPA) no threat of an out. It was a pure profit play for Bonds. Virtually impossible to have something go wrong. Because he was scary.
It's also not misleading because Bonds forced so many intentional walks that he jacked up the average WPA of his intentional walks. This will be obvious: Teams issue intentional walks when they are least damaging (or, ideally, beneficial to the defense), so the first (say) two that they call for will likely carry very little WPA. Nearly 160 of Bonds’ walks carried no positive WPA for the offense—or, at least, rounded down to .00. (Two of them actually carried slightly negative WPA.) But those situations are finite, and as the defense expands the pool of intentional walk scenarios the greater the WPA they are going to concede.
So, here are Barry Bonds’ intentional walks, by average WPA, broken up into different segments of his career:
The first number, .0102, is pretty much typical for a great hitter. Looking at the all-time IBB leaders, their average WPA per IBB cluster around that number: .0107 for Hank Aaron, .0100 for Willie McCovey, .0102 for Manny Ramirez, .0106 for Ken Griffey, .0101 for Prince Fielder, .0105 for Albert Pujols, .0111 for Miguel Cabrera. Vladimir Guerrero is the far outlier, at .0120 per walk. Bonds, at his peak, nearly doubled that.
Naturally, the impact of Bonds shows up when looking at each player’s outlier IBBs, too.
These are pretty extreme IBB situations. Walking the bases loaded! Moving the tying run into scoring position! Putting the go-ahead run on base! Now compare them to Bonds’ more extreme IBBs:
No. 5 and No. 4: .08 WPA
He “was so sick head trainer Stan Conte actually stalked him onto the on-deck circle before he batted in the 10th and begged him to come out for a pinch-hitter.”
Bonds came around to score, and the Giants won. Much second-guessing. “Over the past 30 seasons—a span of time that includes more than one million batters leading off innings—only one other time did a manager order such an intentional walk,” Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau wrote later.
But later in the year, in an identical situation, the Pirates made the same decision. Bonds didn’t score (despite a sacrifice bunt, a walk and a single later in the inning), and nobody really wrote about it. By that point, eh, whatever.
Bonds Response: Aloof. “Bonds declined to be interviewed after the game.”
No. 3: .09 WPA
This is not the worst IBB an opposing manager issued, by WPA, but it’s the one that most sticks out to me. Jeff Kent, the defending NL MVP, was on deck. He entered the game hitting .294/.373/.508. Yes, right-handed pitcher Jeff Shaw was pitching, but this was not walking Bonds to get to Edgardo Alfonzo.
And maybe more than any other walk it changed the dynamics of the situation. The tying run moves to within a wild pitch of scoring. The go-ahead run moves into scoring position. The free base to pitch carefully to a batter is gone.
Jim Tracy: "So I went to the mound and told Jeff Shaw, 'You're not going to like this, but that's not the issue. We're going to walk Barry Bonds and take our chances with Kent.' For me to think I'd ever go to the mound and suggest that to my closer was unbelievable. But I did. I walked the winning run into scoring position. Jeff Kent popped up the first pitch. We ended up winning. Then I took a big exhale."
(Also Tracy: “I just felt very strongly with the matchups of Bonds being seven of 20 against Shaw and four for 21 with Kent against Shaw.”)
Bonds Response: Snippy. “They won, we lost. Who cares how it looks?"
No. 2: .10 WPA.
Also not the worst IBB an opposing manager ever issues to Bonds, but probably the most famous one. Bases loaded! Though, actually, the bases loaded aspect is a bit of a flashy distraction. This situation is more or less identical to the one we talked about a second ago. The seventh run scores, but the seventh run doesn’t matter, so ignore that. The walk pushes the tying run to third and the go-ahead run to second, and removes all margin for error, as in the 2001 walk. The only differences: Brent Mayne, not Jeff Kent, on deck; a lefty batter, not a right-hander, on deck; an exhausted pitcher who was struggling; Bonds at home, not on the road; and a stage of Bonds’ career in which he was the best player in baseball but not the best hitter in history.
Showalter: ''I wish I had a picture of Kelly Stinnett looking at me. He said, 'I thought I missed something.' He was looking for the open base. 'There are only three or four players in this game you'd do it with, and Bonds is one of them.” Three or four players? The heck? There are three or four players that Showalter would have walked in that situation? Considering nobody had been intentionally walked with the bases loaded in more than 50 years, that’s… well, that’s probably not true.
Showalter, in defense of this statement, went on to give examples of how liberal he is with intentional walks when the hitter is a superstar: “The previous season Showalter had Thomas walked purposely in the first inning with a runner at second base and one out.”
Catch that? Walked Thomas in the first inning, with a runner on second, and one out. That’s Showalter’s crazy “can you believe I’d walk somebody here” scenario. Bonds batted in such a situation 21 times from 2002 to 2004. He was intentionally walked in seven of them. He was unintentionally walked in another seven.
Bonds Response: Shocked; Proud? “I've had a whole night to think about it and I still don't know what to say. I don't know how to put it into words. Buck made history. Let him discuss it."
No. 1: .13 WPA.
The really incredible thing about this one: Bonds was still fast. He stole 40 bases this year, and was caught seven times. Mike Trout, over his two full seasons, has averaged 41 stolen bases and six times caught. Putting Bonds on first was like putting Mike Trout on first. Further, Ed Taubansee was catching and Jeff Brantley was pitching; both had below-average caught-stealing rates.
Ray Knight: "He's not going to beat us. We're going to pitch Bonds ‘four wide and see ya', ‘four wide and see ya'. The only time we'll pitch to him is when it's 2-0 with nobody on base, 3-0 with one guy on base or 5-0 with the bases loaded."
Bonds Response: Whiny. “"The thing that bothers me the most is, when I put this uniform on I'm here to do a job and they're not letting me. If I could be Michael Jordan and take my own shots . . . but I can't."
Here’s a funny quote:
''They can't walk him more than they did last year, I don't think,'' Bonds’ manager said today in between spoonfuls of cereal and sliced banana. ''It's hard to walk him more than they walked him.''
That was in 1997.
It is curious that no unwritten rule ever developed around this. Unwritten rules are squishy things, but most tend to come down to this: Don’t do anything that hasn’t been done for the past 100 years already. Walking Bonds became a totally new way of playing baseball. It was largely considered to be non-sporting, it was the sort of legalistic lawyerball move that players will complain about (especially if it’s effective), and it was about one player, not any sort of strategy that was spreading throughout the game.
Presumably part of it had to do with this being Bonds. Nobody much cared to stand up for Bonds, probably. If they did this to Miguel Cabrera right now, one imagines that other players (his teammates; other hitters) would get themselves quoted complaining about it. If the Tigers imagined that it was putting them at a competitive disadvantage, one imagines that Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer might retaliate with some purpose pitches. But nobody was ever on Bonds’ side for anything if they could avoid it. And nobody has ever had to apologize for treating Bonds any which way they want.
Part of it might have been that Bonds himself could never keep a consistent message going. As noted in his post-game quotes, he reacted differently each time. In a Murray Chass article in 1997, Bonds seems to actually complain about the managers who didn’t intentionally walk him.
Bonds doesn't appear to mind pitchers' avoiding his bat; on the contrary, he seems to be insulted when a manager doesn't walk him in a critical situation. He seems to take it as a lack of respect.
But maybe no unwritten rule developed because everybody understood it was just Bonds and it would always be just Bonds. Nobody had to cope with the change, because this wasn’t a change, and it wasn’t going to be a change—it was just a moment, an anomaly. The league just gritted its teeth and waited until the monster moved on and left their town alone. When he did, they all looked around, surveyed the damage, and got back to living life again.