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February 21, 2006
Over the weekend, Barry Bonds was quoted as saying he would make 2006 his final season. Citing his deteriorating physical condition, as well as the off-field frustrations that have marred his last two years, Bonds said he would play out the final year of his contract and then call it a career.
Now, this isn't set in stone, and it wasn't long after the initial story in USA Today broke that Bonds was saying, this time on MLB.com, that he would play in 2007 if his knee allows him to do so. This kind of back-and-forth is to be expected; Bonds can comfortably be described as "mercurial," and dealing with the prospect that he may no longer be able to do what he does best, what he has done better than virtually everyone who ever lived, is likely to exacerbate that trait.
However, one thing is virtually certain: Bonds cannot catch Hank Aaron for the all-time home-run crown unless he puts on a uniform in 2007. The 500-odd plate appearances he lost to multiple knee surgeries last year put him too far behind the Hammer, and while a leap to second place on the list--currently Babe Ruth, with 714 bombs--is virtually certain, Bonds would need 47 home runs just to tie Aaron, and there's virtually no path to that number in 2006.
Be generous for a second and assume that the 2006 version of Bonds can play at the same level as the 2003-04 versions, the ones that won Most Valuable Player awards. Those versions hit 90 home runs in 763 at-bats (one every 8.44) and 1167 plate appearances (one every 12.96). At that rate, Bonds would have to garner 397 at-bats (his highest since 2002) and/or 622 plate appearances (his highest since 2001), to hit 48 home runs. I don't think even Bonds expects himself to play that much, not at 41 years old, not with his knees for a team that only gets to use the DH nine times a year. Even if he stays off of the disabled list all season long, he's going to lose playing time to aggressive use of defensive replacements and more frequent days of rest. PECOTA projects Bonds for 519 plate appearances, 399 at-bats and 39 home runs, a slight dip in both playing time and performance. Looking at the full range of projections, PECOTA does think it's possible that Bonds could break Aaron's record, but he would have to have a season near the top of his range. Bonds' 75th-percentile forecast, in fact, has him tying Aaron with 47 homers in 2006.
I was going to play with these estimates to see what might happen if the NL's pitchers collectively stopped walking Bonds every third time up, which is roughly what they did in '03-'04. I don't know that that's a valid exercise; after all, if Bonds' home-run rate dips to where he's considered less dangerous, then the extra at-bats he gets through a lowered walk rate aren't pushing him closer to Aaron, they're just helping him hold his ground. If anything, Bonds' complete loss of speed will reduce the impact of his walks, as he will likely provide negative baserunning value on the order of late Edgar Martinez or, more recently, Jason Giambi. That would make walking him more attractive, not less.
The one oddball effect to look for is a suspicious drop in Bonds' intentional-walk rate late in the season if he's closing in on the record. I've written about this in the context of Mark McGwire's 1998 70-home-run performance, when after the Cardinals fell out of the playoff chase, teams stopped treating McGwire with care. McGwire was intentionally walked 28 times that year, but just once in September, as fan pressure to pitch to him made optimal strategies untenable. His unintentional walk rate that month was also his lowest of the season. McGwire was just as dangerous, but down the stretch Cards' opponents acted as if "winning baseball games" was secondary to "let Big Mac swing."
Bonds doesn't generate the warm fuzzies that McGwire did--remember when he was popular, before the media needed to use him for other purposes?--so he's not quite the same candidate for a vox populi show of thigh-high fastballs. Still, if the Giants enter September with virtually no chance to make the playoffs, and Bonds is within shouting distance of Aaron, any additional chances he gets to swing the bat could have an impact on the chase.
Realistically, though, Bonds is going to play less than he has in recent full seasons, and it's likely that his home-run rate will drop a bit. If healthy, he'll end 2006 somewhere in the 740s, and he'll have to decide whether he wants to play some more. That decision will involve more than the value of that number to him, and it certainly will not be reached without considerable thought.
Until then, we'll probably have more weekends like the last, with Bonds showing that he, indeed, is as human as the rest of us.