One of my refrains over the past five years is that at Baseball Prospectus, we write about baseball and we let other people write about writers and what they’re writing. Not that the coverage of the game doesn’t come up in what we do, but things that passed for content in the prehistory of our existence, breakdowns of things published by others, picked apart for their flaws and ill-founded reasoning, have been left behind in favor of a focus on creating content about the game.
So today, I’m going to ask your indulgence while I violate that tenet. Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun wrote an article about the possibility of collusion against Bonds, dismissing the notion out of hand. I have no opinion on that point–I don’t think Bonds’ unemployment is the result of one decision handed down from above, nor do I think it’s necessarily the product of 30 separate evaluations of him as a player and person in the context of each team’s needs and the potential revenue Bonds could create. It falls into a gray area.
No, my problem is that Schmuck is wrong about Bonds’ abilities, repeating the tired perceptions, perpetuating the feedback loop about Bonds, rather than digging into the facts. Schmuck refers to Bonds as “barely mobile”, references his “gimpy knees” and states that he would need to play for an American League team. The facts are that the “barely mobile” Bonds is a below-average left fielder, as much because of his terrible arm as his legs. However, he is not and has not been the worst in the game, or even in the bottom five. He costs a team about one win with his defense. His baserunning, according to Dan Fox’s work cited in the linked article, is not among the worst in the game and could not possibly be costing his team even a half-win a season. With those “gimpy knees,” Bonds still managed to rank in the top 20 in defensive innings in left field in both 2006 and 2007. He is not an asset with the glove or his legs, but he can clearly both play the field and run the bases in a manner well above the truly bad players in those roles, and do so in at least a 70% time role–something Shannon Stewart or Moises Alou would kill for.
These are facts. Bonds’ defense and baserunning and playing time are easily researched and included in an analysis, and what they show is that those elements lessen his value as a player, but not by nearly enough to make him anything but an asset when you consider what he is likely to hit. Bonds’ abilities are well-established, and given how he played in 2007 at age 42, we can safely predict what he would do in 2008 at age 43.
Back to Schmuck: “Throw in a difficult personality that is all but certain to create a chronic public relations problem…”.
Barry Bonds doesn’t create a public relations problem. Barry Bonds doesn’t interact with the public very often, except to hit, run and field in front of paying customers and be treated poorly by them. Barry Bonds has a media relations problem. Bonds doesn’t deal well with the media, and at this point, I hope he never does. His biggest crime, even bigger than any PED use or lies made in the hiding of that use, has been his refusal to treat reporters well, which is the driving force behind the public perception of him. The public has no idea who Barry Bonds is. They just know what’s been written about him by people he doesn’t respect, by people he wouldn’t help do their job. I don’t defend Bonds’ media relations, but it’s time to stop pretending his public image isn’t entirely the product of that relationship.
If Barry Bonds joins a team, that team will score many more runs, not allow very many more, and win more baseball games, possibly enough to push them into the postseason. The benefits of that will quickly outweigh the media’s disdain for the transaction.
Bonds has been singled out, even among the caste of players branded with the scarlet “S,” to pay for the sins of the so-called “Steroid Era.” Back to Schmuck: “While the rest of baseball is trying to wipe away the stain of the steroid era, the team that signed him would have to weather an initial burst of steroid-related publicity at home and regular reminders of the scandal on the road.”
The rest of baseball is employing, paying and cheering dozens of players who have been suspended for PED use or who were mentioned in the Mitchell Report. That the media alighted on Barry Bonds and a handful of other players–only one of whom ever tested positive for steroids–is a convenience for the game’s powers that be, allowing them to pretend that the problem was about individual stars and their character flaws. There are “cheaters,” to use the vernacular, taking down millions in paychecks every two weeks, signing autographs, exchanging elaborate high-fives with teammates, providing dull quotes in their underwear. No one cares. Only Barry Bonds’ purported steroid use, which never triggered a positive in five years of MLB testing, is so bad as to force him from the game.
Schmuck also rings the indictment bell. Of course, it’s May 9 and the last word was that an already thin indictment would have to be re-filed to correct some details, so there seems to be little chance that Bonds’ legal problems will be a barrier to his availability in 2008.
Whether Barry Bonds plays isn’t the point. The point is that the public version of the argument is a bad joke, with writers who don’t like Barry Bonds as a person making things up to create a fictional view of him as a player, damning him for steroid use that others have been allowed to play through, and conflating “media unfriendly” with an assortment of traits that have little to do with baseball. There’s a good discussion to be had here, but until and unless everyone is forced to come to the table with facts instead of being allowed to make them up as they go, no progress will be made.
I close with this. Schmuck trots out cliched imagery to state that Bonds wouldn’t fit with the Orioles:
“If that isn’t convincing enough, imagine how Bonds’ La-Z-Boy recliner and personal big-screen TV would play with manager Dave Trembley, who has built this year’s good chemistry on the notion that everybody is equal in the Orioles’ clubhouse.”
Well, Dave Trembley has a career mark of 59-71, the Orioles have been outscored and have a going-nowhere roster full of overpaid thirtysomethings for something like the ninth year in a row. I’m sure everybody is equal in the Orioles’ clubhouse, because there’s not a single player good enough to stand out from the crowd. If the 2008 Orioles are supposed to be the product of good chemistry, then good chemistry isn’t worth the electrons on this page.
The Orioles provide usable quotes on deadline, though. That’s something.