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February 24, 2008

Prospectus Today

Sign Barry Bonds

by Joe Sheehan

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A few days ago, in a piece on the free agents still looking for homes, I mentioned Barry Bonds' name in passing. About that time, it became a story in the mainstream that Bonds is in shape and looking for work. The glee with which some members of the media pounced on this story was embarrassing, even shameful. Stories with a similar theme, that the Giants are a happier bunch with Bonds no longer in the room, also abounded.

These stories all start in the wrong place, which is just one reason why they all end up in the wrong one as well. The notion that Barry Bonds is not a player who can help 30 teams win is deluded. He is still a great player, and the way to reach the conclusion that he is not is to raise things such as baserunning-"clogging the bases"-and defense, calling him a "defensive liabilility," far past their actual importance to a player's value.

Last year, Bonds batted .276/.480/.565. Had he qualified-he was 25 plate appearances short-he would have the led the NL in OBP by a wide margin and finished in the top ten in slugging. In fact, using the rule that you can add an 0-for-25 to his stats, he actually did lead the NL in OBP. That's called dominating the category.

Of course, a chunk of Bonds' OBP comes from the intentional walks he receives: 43 last season. You can argue that this disproportionately inflates his OBP, a function less of Bonds' abilities and more of Brian Sabean's inability to find hitters better than Ray Durham and Bengie Molina to hit behind his Hall of Famer. So lop 35 intentional walks off of Bonds' total, and give him the average performance in his other at-bats in those 35 times up. That makes him a .276/.439/.565 hitter, assuming he drew no walks in that time and saw the same distribution of lefties and righties, both ungenerous assumptions. He'd pick up a couple of homers, and almost certainly a lot of RBI, both of which would inflate his value to the people who seem to think "66 RBI" is an indication of value.

Then again, those intentional walks tell you more about Bonds' skills than anything else in his stat line. MLB managers all think he's good enough to not bother trying to get out nearly 10 percent of the time. How can a hitter that good not warrant a spot in someone's lineup? Bonds produced 86 Equivalent Runs last season, and had a VORP of 55.2, the latter good for 19th overall in MLB. There is simply no argument that Barry Bonds isn't a championship-caliber hitter. He remains one of the very best in the game on a per-at-bat basis.

Let's move to some of the other objections. Over the last two seasons, Bonds' baserunning and defense have been attacked viciously, as if he were playing with a cane and no glove. It is clear that Bonds' troublesome knees have slowed him down with age; he's not the burner he was in his prime. He doesn't steal many bases any longer, yet he's nearly perfect when he does: 8-for-8 since 2006, 59-for-70 since 1999. Dan Fox looked at baserunning at the end of 2007 and showed that Bonds wasn't one of the worst baserunners in the game, meaning his baserunning can't be costing his team more than four runs a season. A study going back three years, published in Baseball Prospectus 2008, doesn't show Bonds among the trailers in baserunning value. Bonds' baserunning is a wash, and pointing to it as evidence of his lack of worth reflects bias, not study.

Bonds' defense, like his baserunning, looks worse than it actually is. According to Dan Fox's SFR method, Bonds cost the Giants 12.8 runs in 2007, sixth-worst in MLB. One legitimate criticism is of Bonds' arm, which is terrible. Also in BP2K8, Fox analyzes outfielder arms and concludes that from 2005-07, Bonds has the second-worst throwing performance of any left fielder, costing the Giants about a half-win a season, on a range that runs from about plus-one to minus a half. Then again, that has little to do with age; Bonds couldn't throw when he was a Pirate or able to play center. Bonds' defense, arm included, is a negative on the order of a bit more than a win. However, he is not the worst left fielder in the majors, with regulars such as Adam Dunn, Raul Ibanez, and Pat Burrell showing as worse than he is.

So Bonds put up 55 batting runs above average at the plate last year (in Clay's system), and gave back no more than 16 with his baserunning and defense. His performance in those areas was suboptimal, but not unusually so, and lumps him in with other players whose baserunning and defense detract from their overall value, the way baserunning and defense have been weak spots for older hitters since time immemorial.

One of the subtexts to the Bonds story is the idea that he can't play left field any longer. Well, we've seen that he can, if in a below-average manner, but one of the more interesting pieces of information that gets lost is just how much he's played. Despite the persistent notion that he's a DH, Bonds ranked in the top 20 in innings played in left field the past two seasons, and for the two years combined, he was 13th. Among the players listed ahead of him by innings, you have SFR trailers such as Dunn, Burrell, Ibanez, and Luis Gonzalez, and other so-so defenders such as Jason Bay and Manny Ramirez. Left field, quite clearly, is not the place where teams worry so much about defense. So raising the issue with Bonds, who was on the field a reasonable amount, played the position as poorly as many of his peers and outhit them from me to you, is ridiculous. Bonds' defense is not a reason to not sign him.

Bonds' actual playing time, which was substantial in each of the last two seasons, is actually underestimating how much he could play for an AL team. While battling old age and leg problems, and without the DH as an option except in a handful of games, Bonds nearly qualified for the batting title in both 2006 and 2007. In fact, had the Giants been playing meaningful games down the stretch in '07, Bonds may well have qualified. With the ability to DH half the time or more, it seems certain that Bonds would be able to play at least as often as he has the past two seasons. Moreover, he's proven that he can handle 800 innings a year as a left fielder, so he can clearly be used out there a couple of times a week.

It is reasonable to conclude, then, that Bonds' 2006-07 performance, which came under suboptimal conditions, understates what he could do for a team in the AL. Less time in the field may have a salutory effect on his legs, enabling him to run and field better, while reducing the value loss his presence in left creates. An NL team could also sign Bonds and benefit, although that team would likely have to platoon Bonds-keeping his innings in the field down-to mimic an AL team's potential usage.

In short, Barry Bonds can still help 30 teams. Every single one of them would be better for having him on the roster in some role. He remains an impact hitter with plate discipline and power, and what he's lost on defense and the basepaths is just a fraction of what he brings at the plate. Some teams are better fits than others, but there's never been a team in the history of baseball that wouldn't benefit from a .270/.450/.550 hitter.

So let's talk about the reasons put forth to not sign Bonds. The first is money. Jeff Borris has been silent on the matter, so there's no telling what he and Bonds are actually looking for. Bonds made $15.5 million last season on a one-year deal, and it has been speculated that he will not take a large pay cut to play. Certainly, there is room for negotiation, but if you're Bonds, how much ground should you give? Bonds had a higher WARP last year than Andruw Jones, who will make $18 million this season. He had a higher WARP than Eric Gagné, who will make $10 million. Do I need to bring up Juan Pierre? I could fill a page with those examples, but the point is this: in a market that values inferior players at eight figures a year and more, how can it be that a league leader in OBP has outlandish demands? At his 2007 price, Bonds is a reasonable buy. At $10 million, he's a bargain. And for anything less, he's being insulted.

A better reason for a prospective employer's wariness is the uncertainty over Bonds' trial for perjury and obstruction of justice. From a contractual standpoint, this is handled easily: the contract becomes null in the face of a conviction. Beyond that, given the pace at which these things travel, it doesn't seem that Bonds will be rendered unavailable during the 2008 season, if ever. The government needs time to make more "typos" that bias the public and jury pool, and Bonds' lawyers will have to make motions to counter those actions. Bonds will be able to play out the '08 season if he cares to do so.

Bonds is perceived as unpopular among baseball fans, and carries the stigma of his assumed steroid use with him. The first is a problem, although one that is a complicated issue going back 20 years, and clearly prevents some teams that have been adamant in protecting their image as family-friendly from getting involved. A number of Mariners fans have written me to suggest that Bonds might be a slight upgrade from Jose Vidro in the DH slot. This is true, and certainly the Mariners have made a significant statement about their timeframe in making the Erik Bedard deal. However, the Mariners are among the last teams I can see adding a player who carries Bonds' image issues. No matter how much he would help them-a four- or five-win upgrade over Vidro at DH would be my estimate-he's not going to end up in Seattle.

However, the steroid thing, like Bonds' baserunning and defense, should be a non-factor. Players have been suspended for PED use and then signed to multi-year, multi-million-dollar contracts. With all the names mentioned in the Mitchell Report, and all the subsequent mea culpas, no players have found themselves released, sued for fraud, or blacklisted. Steroid use, proven or otherwise, is simply not grounds for not employing a baseball player. Holding out on Bonds for that reason is hamstringing your team for no reason; presenting that as a justification for not signing Bonds is an argument that ignores the facts in evidence.

The prior few paragraphs lead to one other justification for not signing Bonds: that his presence creates a circus atmosphere around a team. The lack of this atmosphere is one of the core elements in the "happy Giants" stories floating around. Of course, this is the last time anyone will care about the Giants this year, other than to perhaps talk to Matt Cain down the stretch as he attempts to become the first pitcher to lose 20 games and lead the league in ERA in the same season.

The media circus that accompanies Bonds is just that: a media circus. If there's anything we know about Barry Bonds at this point in his career, it's that he doesn't enjoy interacting with the media. He doesn't invite them to cover him, he certainly doesn't provide good quotes, and he doesn't make the media's job easy. Nevertheless, we've been treated to a decade of stories about how Bonds doesn't like the media and what a big meanie he is to the members of such. That's not news, so why report it? It's akin to the issues raised above, raising the idea that Bonds creates a media circus far above its importance. Worse, the rationale implicitly blames Bonds for this, when he's the last person who wants to see a "circus" atmosphere, and would just as soon everyone goes away. Then again, in a media environment in which an erroneous government report gets reported as fact in bold type, but its discovery as an error merely a "typo" mentioned back in the agate, perhaps expecting sports reporters to get anything correct is folly.

Barry Bonds is a championship-caliber baseball player, better, at age 43, at getting on base and hitting for power than all but a few hitters in the game. The things he doesn't do well as a player, such as running the bases, throwing and covering ground in left field, lessen his value, but do not come close to negating it. He could be a 120-game left fielder for a National League team, and be one of the 40 most productive players in the league in doing so. With an AL team, his playing time would rise and his productivity with it. The non-baseball reasons to not sign Bonds are as much a creation of the media as anything else, the latest version of the stale storylines that have accompanied him for a decade. Teams have behaved as if winning is what matters in their dealings with bad guys-count the spousal abuse charges-and PED cases throughout the industry; drawing a line at Bonds is absurd when you consider what he brings to a team's record.

Sign Barry Bonds. Win more games. Make more money. Embarrass your peers.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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