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September 15, 2004

Can Of Corn

What if...?

by Dayn Perry

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"Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

That's what the inestimable Red Smith wrote more than 50 years ago in the throes of Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." You can keep the blustery, purple excesses of Grantland Rice; I'll go to the rails for this as the greatest lead in the annals of sports journalism.

Today, I'm thinking of Smith's famous first line because, like many other scribes, I'm struggling with how to impart the otherworldliness of Barry Bonds. I've exhausted the superlatives, but he won't stop. Like Thomson and the '51 Giants, there's no way to tell the story of Bonds and his numbers and relay the staggering import of it all. Whatever rhetorical flourishes you dream up, his performance will exceed them. Of this, I'm sure.

He's about the breeze by the 700-home run mark. While this is not without precedent, what Bonds has done to our concept of offensive performance over the last four seasons most assuredly is. By now, the indecency of his numbers is well known, but here they are again:


Year     AVG   OBP   SLG    HR     EqA    VORP

2001    .328  .515  .863    73    .415   154.1
2002    .370  .582  .799    46    .442   147.4
2003    .341  .529  .749    45    .407   112.6
2004    .375  .614  .831    41    .468   131.9
The dilemma is how to go about etching these amazing statistical bestowals in sharper relief. How about looking at Bonds as a pitcher? I may have lost many of you with that, but hear me out. This can be done, at least in the dappled theoretical meadow in which I often dwell.

The beauty of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player/Pitcher), which you see in the final column above, is that it allows us to compare the relative values of pitchers and hitters on an even scale. The question here is what would a pitcher's numbers look like if he'd put up the VORPs that Bonds is responsible for over the past four seasons. (To do this, I enlisted the help of Keith Woolner, who competes with Clay Davenport and Michael Wolverton for the title of "the Barry Bonds of SQL and database manipulation.")

First, some notes on how this will be set up. For 2004, I'll pro-rate Bonds' 131.9 VORP to a full season, which comes to a VORP of 147. Since playing time is a necessary component of VORP, I'll use the number of frames pitched by the innings leader in each season (pro-rated for 2004). Runs per game will be the primary statistical output, but using the league-wide rate of runs to earned runs, I'll come up with a quick-and-dirty Bonds ERA for each season. All numbers will be calculated in a park-neutral environment and in a league in which teams score 5.0 runs per game. Basically, I'll provide a glimpse of the kind of amazing numbers Bonds would put up if he were a pitcher and still purveyed the kind of value we've become accustomed to from him.

In 2001, Curt Schilling paced the majors with 256 2/3 innings pitched. Pegging Bonds '01 VORP of 154.1 to that figure, here's what we get:


                IP    R/G      ERA
Bonds        256.2   0.79     0.73
In case you've forgotten just how rarified Bonds' air is these days, this should serve as a sufficient reminder. In 2001, he could've pitched a league-leading number of innings and given up roughly 22 runs on the season. He also would've boasted an ERA about 595% better than the NL average that year. Additionally, his ERA in percentage terms would've fared better compared to Randy Johnson's second-best mark than Johnson's would've compared to Mike Hampton's ERA, which was the worst among NL qualifiers for the ERA title. In other words, Johnson was closer to the league's worst than to Bonds.

Since innings and runs allowed can vary while yielding the same VORP, it's worth wondering: How many scoreless innings could Bonds have pitched that season while still posting a VORP of 154.1? The answer: 224. That's an innings total that would've ranked sixth in the NL that season, and Bonds could've reached it without allowing a single run, earned or unearned. That's one of the stupidest things I've seen in my life. But there it is.

On to 2002... That season, Johnson led the majors with 260 innings, and he also topped the NL with a 2.32 ERA. Using that innings total and the target VORP of 147.4, here's what we get for Bonds:


                IP    R/G      ERA
Bonds        260.0   1.09     1.00
His ERA in '02 would've been 410% superior to the NL average, and he could've thrown 214 1/3 innings (which would've ranked 14th in the NL that season) without surrendering a run.

The 2003 season figures to be Bonds' worst. Roy Halladay led all of baseball with a whopping 266 innings, and Bonds logged a VORP of "just" 112.6. Running the numbers, here's what we get:


                IP    R/G      ERA
Bonds        266.0   2.38     2.21
Ah, mortality! His ERA that season would have been a full run lower than that of Halladay, who won the the AL Cy Young Award. He also would've bested Jason Schmidt's mark of 2.34 for the NL ERA title. Still, this isn't the sublime level of performance we saw in the previous two seasons. That said, re-crunching the numbers, we find that Bonds could have tossed 163 2/3 shutout frames in 2003 and still yielded a VORP of 112.6.

For the present season, Livan Hernandez is slated to top the loop with 247 innings, and Bonds, as previously mentioned, is on target for a VORP of 147. The digits:


                IP    R/G      ERA
Bonds        247.0   0.83     0.77
That's more like it. Bonds' ERA of 0.77 would be almost two full runs less than Johnson's league-pacing mark of 2.75. Again, in percentage terms, Bonds' ERA compares much more favorably to the Unit's NL best ERA than Johnson's does to Jose Acevedo's bottom-feeding 6.28. Put another way, Bonds this season could throw 213 2/3 innings without surrendering even one run to match his VORP.

Over the past four seasons, Bonds the pitcher could've maintained his actual VORPs while throwing 815 2/3 shutout innings. Once more for maximum emphasis: 815 2/3 shutout innings. That's roughly five fewer frames than Roger Clemens will wind up pitching over that same span. Imagine a pitcher who ranked 19th in all of baseball in innings pitched over a four-year span. Now imagine him not surrendering a single run in those four seasons. In terms of VORP, that's Bonds the pitcher.

In case you've forgotten or taken for granted just what we're presently witnessing, maybe thinking of Bonds' numbers in pitching terms will remind you. As Derek Zumsteg recently wrote, we need to savor the opportunity to watch Bonds. One day we'll be talking about watching him to those who didn't have the chance to do so. I hope he doesn't topple Hank Aaron's record (for reasons previously laid out), but I'll relish the chase just the same.

As for Red Smith, he'll be glad to know that fiction, thanks to Barry Bonds, is still very much dead.

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