April 22, 2004
A Giant Among Men
Barry Bonds didn't hit a home run last night, and that makes me happy.
Don't get me wrong; I haven't climbed aboard the Hate Barry! bandwagon. I think Bonds is a remarkable baseball player, someone who I enjoy watching whenever I can. He's reached that level where no matter what I happen to be doing, I stop to watch his at-bats.
No, it's just that the record is held in part by a player whose at-bats also used to dictate my movements: Don Mattingly. Mattingly made history by roping homers in eight straight games in July of 1987. If you've read this column for a while, you know that Mattingly is my all-time favorite player. I'm glad to see him hold his distinction, his place in history, for a bit longer. Records are made to be broken; I just don't need to see this particular piece of my adolescence shattered.
Bonds didn't have much of a chance to tie the record last night. In a remarkable congruence of events, he didn't swing the bat once during the game, getting called out on strikes in the second inning, walking on eight pitches total in the fourth and sixth, and exiting the blowout before coming to the plate again. While the crowd was displeased with the two walks Bonds received, it wasn't as if Jake Peavy was ducking him. Certainly in the sixth-inning matchup, two of the pitches were close, and the 3-0 pitch could have easily been called a strike. Peavy didn't do anything wrong, and Bonds appeared to acknowledge this himself; the camera caught Bonds giving Peavy a wink and a pat on the rear as he trudged off the field after getting doubled off first base just after the base on balls.
The fact that Bonds elected to leave the 9-0 game--Felipe Alou offered him the chance to stay in for one more at-bat--after the seventh inning is a pretty good indicator of how concerned he was with the record. While Bonds usually sits out day games after night games, it will be interesting to see if he plays in today's 12:30 p.m. start after taking an early powder last night. If he does, I think it's fair to conclude that he sacrificed the shot at personal achievement in favor of what's best for the Giants. It would be another data point in the argument that Bonds is much more concerned with winning a championship than adding lines to his Hall of Fame plaque.
The fact that he didn't swing the bat once in his streak-breaking game is indicative. Bonds' seven-game streak may have been more impressive than what Mattingly, Dale Long, who turned the trick in 1956 with the Pirates, and Ken Griffey Jr. in 1993 did in their record stretches. After all, Bonds hit his homers--nine of them, actually--in just 18 at-bats in the seven games. He actually swung the bat just 33 times in that stretch. (Included in there was a particularly amusing beatdown of the Dodgers in which Bonds, in seven swings of the bat, had four home runs, a double, and a single.) Mattingly, on the other hand, had 37 at-bats during his streak, and Griffey had 35 (thanks, Retrosheet!).
[We interrupt this column to bring you a Small Sample Size Warning. Be on the lookout for the presentation of Small Sample Size statistics, and adjust any and all conclusions accordingly.]
With the season just 2 1/2 weeks old, I went digging a little deeper into Bonds' record. Since Opening Day, Bonds has swung the bat just 58 times, or as often as Randall Simon does in about a game and a half. When Bonds swings, the most likely outcome is a foul ball...let's just run a chart:
No. Pct. Foul ball 18 31.0 Air out 12 20.7 Home Run 9 15.6 Swinging strike 7 12.1 Double 5 8.6 Single 5 8.6 Ground out 2 3.4Odalis Perez and David Wells have each gotten Bonds to swing and miss twice. Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy and Antonio Osuna all did it once.
Throwing out foul balls for a second…when Bonds decides to swing, he has pretty much a 50-50 chance (19/40) of doing something good. When he hits a fair ball, he's batting .578/.578/1.342. I know the argument has been made that there's no player so good that it makes more sense to pitch to him than to intentionally walk him every time, but I'm starting to think that the current iteration of Bonds--who is batting in front of, shall we say, inferior players--has perhaps broken that theory. Maybe this isn't his level of performance, but until he proves that, why not take your chances with Edgardo Tuckmondzynski or whatever other 740 OPS is on deck?
(Fun freakshow stat? The player who has retired Bonds the most this season has been the opposition third baseman, with five putouts. That's more than all outfielders combined (four).)
Of course, this has been the story with Bonds for four years now, beginning towards the end of his 73-home-run campaign in 2001. He's an extraordinarily patient hitter who achieves tremendous results when he swings the bat, and who gets to swing that bat less than any player in baseball history. Bonds has reduced his swing to a ruthlessly efficient mechanism, completely devoid of all movement not directly related to hitting a baseball hard. This, as much as any strength he's added, is the reason for his late-career surge. He displays all the wasted motion of a teenager on summer vacation.
The shame of it is that Bonds is surrounded by people who should be hosting bake sales and car washes to pay for their uniforms. I like Ray Durham, but if he's your second-best player--and he is in San Francisco--your team has issues. Add in injuries to $18MM worth of pitching--Jason Schmidt is basically still rehabbing--a farm system that is devoid of near-term help or viable trade bait, and significant defensive issues, and it's easy to conclude that this team's window closed when Pudge held the ball.
Maybe Brian Sabean, who has done good work at the trade deadline in the past, can work a loaves-and-fishes level miracle in July. For now, Felipe Alou has to fire the one bullet in his gun and move Bonds to the #3 hole. Second is the optimal place for Bonds, but at least by batting him third they can get him to the plate in the first inning, get him a dozen or more extra plate appearances during the season, and perhaps stop ending games with him in the on-deck circle.
Bonds has never had a good nickname. If current patterns hold, I think "Kelly Leak" could take hold by Memorial Day. For now, let's all sit back and enjoy the show.
Speaking of shows, I've got baseball in the sunshine on today's agenda... I'm off to Angels Stadium for my first live game of the year. Friday's column will have a full report.