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July 15, 2007
No Asterisks Necessary
You're going to have to pick your poison here, old-timers. You can either hate Barry Bonds, or you can hate statheads, but when it comes to solving the "problem" of the all-time home run title, you can't have it both ways. Those that want to place an asterisk on Bonds' achievements have always focused on the question of whether or not he's been cheating, something that remains unproven in the legal if not literal sense. In that argument, you can never win, not until Bonds pumps out a positive steroid test, something that seems pretty unlikely at this late stage of his career. Instead, if you really want to make your point sans the Frickian asterisk, you're going to have to rely on that other thing that baseball purists hate: math.
Over and over, people always bring up that we can't compare Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron to Barry Bonds. To that, we say "nuts." Because we most certainly can. There's some question as to how physical skills might translate, but it's easy enough to translate statistics to adjust for park, league, and era. In fact, it's one of the bedrocks of Baseball Prospectus. Since before its founding, Clay has been making translations available. Translations of player performance aren't that complex on the surface and are easily read, just like a normal stat line. It's behind the scenes where it gets complex, and why Davenport Translations have never been seriously contested. Unlike attempts at the "One True Stat" like VORP, or Runs Created, or WARP, or Win Shares, all with their various degrees success or failure, translations seldom raise any significant argument among serious statheads, and no one has developed a competing system.
What goes into a translation? According to the BP Glossary, a single-season translation involves adjustments "made to account for the home park and for the offensive level of the league as a whole. Hitters have an adjustment for not having to face their own team's pitchers; pitchers have a similar adjustment for not having to face their own hitters. Hitters in the AL since 1973 have a disadvantage in these statistics, since the league average is artificially inflated by the use of the DH and no adjustment is made for that." This is of no concern, since Ruth and Aaron played before the DH era, and Bonds spent his career in the National League. (We know, we're not mentioning those few occasions that he DH'd in interleague play. The statheads are already riled up.)
To get to an all-time translation, you have to go a bit further. "Statistics that have been adjusted for all-time have all of the adjustments for a single season, plus two more. One adjustment normalizes the average fielding numbers over time. Historically, the fielding share of total defense has been diminishing with time-more walks, more strikeouts, and more home runs means less work for fielders. In the single-season adjustments, fielders from before WWII have a lot more value (to their teams) than fielders do today; the all-time adjustments have attempted to remove that temporal trend. The second adjustment is for league difficulty. League quality has generally increased with time. Each league has been rated for difficulty and compared to a trend line defined by the post-integration National League. In addition to the adjustments for season, an adjustment is made for league difficulty."
So once the heavy lifting is done, we're left with statistics that are on a level playing field. It's as if all the players that ever played the game did it at the same time in the same stadium against the same competition. Where is that stadium you ask? The most neutral stadium in the year used, 2000, happens to be Montreal's Stade Olympique, so in some small way, baseball in that fine city lives on. It's the ultimate simulation, calculated in a manner similar to the method economists use with 1973 dollars to calculate inflation. And what does this mean for those of you asteriskers? First, it means we can abandon the number "755" as some sort of ultimate achievement. That number's only good enough for ninth place on the Davenport Translation All-Time Home Run list-and it's Mike Schmidt that hits that number exactly in the translations.
Babe Ruth 1070 Hank Aaron 971 Barry Bonds 931 Mel Ott 861 Willie Mays 856 Lou Gehrig 792 Jimmie Foxx 765 Reggie Jackson 757 Mike Schmidt 755 Ted Williams 752
That makes for a pretty nice list. It passes the "looks right test," in that most of the all-time greats are here, with Ruth and Aaron atop it, and with Mays and Gehrig in historically significant positions. It removes Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire from the list while inserting Ted Williams. Mel Ott makes for a nice conversation-starter. Reggie Jackson and his connections to Curtis Wentzlaff aside, it acknowledges Barry Bonds on the list without giving him any sort of primacy. All in all, it's a good asterisk-free list that should appeal to all. Even Bonds' most ardent defenders can't argue that he's not being rewarded with a number of homers lost to cavernous AT&T Park and the winds of Candlestick-just not enough to put him above Ruth or Aaron. At least not yet; Bonds would need roughly 30 more home runs, most at home, to pass Aaron on the translated list.
If you're wondering about other major leagues, Sadaharu Oh is not your man. The level of play in the Japanese league is translateable too, but down, due to its level, which is somewhere between the Major Leagues and Triple-A. That leaves him with a rough estimate of 505 career translated homers for the purposes of this exercise.
Is there anyone else currently in the game who has a chance to edge onto the list? Let's contribute to the current lovefest for Ken Griffey Jr. Here's the current active list:
Barry Bonds 931 Ken Griffey Jr. 719 Sammy Sosa 684 Frank Thomas 628 Alex Rodriguez 576 Gary Sheffield 576 Manny Ramirez 565 Jim Thome 559 Carlos Delgado 501 Mike Piazza 469
Griffey is almost certain to edge onto the top ten all-time list, depending on how long the Indian summer of his career lasts. Going as high as sixth is quite possible, especially if we take for his own the career of his father, a player who kept value into his forties. Alex Rodriguez, to be sure, is noticeable on this list, coming up to almost 600 translated home runs at the same time that he's pushing the 500 mark in reality; at 32, Rodriguez should bash his way into the translated career top ten in the next two years and then will begin to creep up the list. It's notable that A-Rod leaving Yankee Stadium for his home games might actually hurt his chances at the translated career title. That's because park effects are a big part of translating performance, and help the numbers of those players who have to hit in pitcher's parks. Once again, this is a list that looks good. It should be no surprise to see any of these names, and it matches up well with what most fans would expect.
So if we've solved the 755 problem, what then of the 73 issue? The easy answer might be Alex Rodriguez, currently on pace for a translated 70. Bonds' 2001 translates to 72; all the math essentially cancels itself out for Bonds' 2001, and actually costs him one home run. I hear the asteriskers cheering. But who's in the translated 70 home run club? Here's that list:
Babe Ruth, 1927 75 Babe Ruth, 1920 74 Babe Ruth, 1921 73 Babe Ruth, 1924 73 Babe Ruth, 1928 73 Barry Bonds, 2001 72 Mark McGwire, 1998 72 Jimmie Foxx, 1932 70 Babe Ruth, 1923 70 Babe Ruth, 1926 70 Alex Rodriguez, 2007 70
Once again, we get a list that passes the "looks right" test. Ruth has seven-seven!-seasons of 70 or more, while Bonds and McGwire's so-called tainted seasons fall in the middle. Jimmie Foxx gets to be the guy we all shrug our shoulders on, a forgotten great to most fans, while Alex Rodriguez makes the list with his "on pace for" number this season. Rodriguez will have to keep up the same pace to stay on the list, but we added it here for entertainment purposes.
But there's more. There's one player with two seasons we've purposefully left off the list of the Seventies Club. That one player is one that might surprise you, not for having two of the great slugging seasons of all time, but for having the single greatest slugging season of all time. That's right, it's not Ruth at the top of the list. The translated 70 home run club has another member, its king:
Lou Gehrig, 1927 76 Lou Gehrig, 1934 71
There's no asterisks flitting around Gehrig's career, but that amazing 1927 season is pretty surprising and caused me (Will) to ask me (Clay) to check the math. Remember, Ruth hit 60 real home runs to Gehrig's real 47. Dutiful double-checking confirms that while Ruth had a 60-47 edge on Gehrig in real life, Gehrig had an 18-8 lead in triples, and a 52-29 lead in doubles, and when you translate from before World War II to the modern era, a lot of doubles and triples get turned into home runs, enough for the Iron Horse to pass the Babe in this case. Gehrig got those hits because he had power, not speed, and in today's game that power would translate over the fence.
So, there you have it, the problem is solved. We've wiped Barry Bonds off the top of both the all-time and single-season home run lists, restoring balance to the universe and aligning the stars in a neutral fashion. Any taint of the steroid era is shifted down (as many argue it should be), although it's through the context of the era rather than any unproven allegations and guesses over what PEDs do to player performance. Perhaps that's just as well. Performance-enhancing drugs may have been in the game of baseball and its Hall of Fame since the Age of Spalding, from Pud Galvin's elixir of bull testicles-a primitive testosterone that may have led to his death-on down to Willie Mays, Henry Aaron