For the third season in a row, Barry Bonds is the best player in the National League. His overall performance is stupendous–.341/.521/.755 (BA/OBP/SLG)–so good that even a peak performance by Albert Pujols–.370/.436/.686–doesn’t quite measure up. Bonds’ significant performance edge makes up for Pujols’ extra playing time, so he leads in advanced metrics like Runs Above Replacement Position (RARP) and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).
Whether Bonds will be able to win his sixth Most Valuable Player award is yet to be seen. He is the biggest reason for the Giants’ runaway in the NL West, but he’ll be fighting some biases. In recent years, BBWAA awards have become about the best story, and Pujols is seen in many quarters to be the better story. If the Cardinals earn a playoff spot, Pujols will be perceived as the reason, despite the fact that three of his teammates (Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen) are also among the 10 best players in the league.
I don’t want to get too deep into the MVP debate today, except to point out that if someone can have an “off year” and still be more than one win better than his closest competition, it’s a sign that maybe the voters are overthinking the issue.
What I want to address is how Bonds is handled by opposing managers, because I think it’s an amazing story. Bonds’ huge rate stats and his 37 home runs have yielded just 77 RBI. His ratio of home runs to RBI, 2.08, would rank among the lowest ever (data thanks to Keith Woolner):
Player YEAR TEA LG AB HR RBI RATIO ----------------------------------------------------- Barry Bonds 2001 SFN NL 476 73 137 1.88 Ron Gant 2000 PHI NL 343 20 38 1.90 Rob Deer 1992 DET AL 393 32 64 2.00 Chris Hoiles 1992 BAL AL 310 20 40 2.00 Carlton Fisk 1984 CHA AL 359 21 43 2.05 Fred Lynn 1988 BAL AL 301 18 37 2.06 Mark Bellhorn 2002 CHN NL 445 27 56 2.07 Ruben Rivera 1999 SDN NL 411 23 48 2.09 Mark McGwire 1998 SLN NL 509 70 147 2.10 Norm Cash 1973 DET AL 363 19 40 2.11
Now, the flaws of using RBI as an evaluative metric are well-covered. The statistic is dependent not just on teammates’ performance, but on the work of specific players, the ones in front of the hitter. They’re also dependent on at-bats, on getting chances to hit in RBI situations. Bonds simply doesn’t get those opportunities. He has reached a point of dominance where opposing managers simply will not let him bat if they have any other viable option in a game where the outcome is at all in doubt.
Bonds has come to the plate with at least one runner in scoring position 124 times this season. On nearly half of those occasions–57–he has drawn a walk. His performance when not walking is excellent: a .354 batting average with a .615 slugging average, so there’s no arguing that his RBI totals are the result of poor performance with runners in scoring position.
Breaking that down further, though, we see just how much respect opposing managers have for Bonds. Fifty-seven of the RISP situations have occurred with a runner on first base. When Bonds bats with first base open and at least one runner in scoring position…well, he doesn’t. He’s come to the plate 67 times in that scenario, and he’s been walked nearly 2/3 of the time. When allowed to swing the bat, he’s certainly not “unclutch”: 8-for-23 with a double and a home run.
This continues a trend that began in the 2001 season. Bonds gets a disproportionate number of his at-bats with no runner on base, with intentional and semi-intentional walks. Last year, Bonds was walked in nearly half of his plate appearances with a runner in scoring position, and was denied the chance to bat in the majority of his RISP/no one on first PAs: he came to the plate 91 times in that scenario, and was walked 60 times. When not being walked, he was 8-for-31 with four doubles and two homes runs. For 2001, it was much the same: 88 appearances, 48 walks.
(Note: for seasons prior to this one, I can’t identify when Bonds hit his sacrifice flies. He had two in each of 2001 and 2002, which would not affect these conclusions.)
As great as Albert Pujols is, he doesn’t get handled this way. He has 126 PAs with runners in scoring position–almost exactly the same number as Bonds–but 102 at-bats with RISP. When the option to walk him is presented–RISP, no one on first–he’s drawn 17 free passes in 69 appearances. Let’s chart that out:
w/RISP, 1B open AB BB RBI -------------------------------- Bonds 23 43 7 Pujols 52 17 26
The difference between Pujols’ and Bonds’ RBI totals isn’t their performance, and it isn’t the usual case of one player having better teammates in front of him. It’s that Pujols, as good as he is, hasn’t reached the point of being avoided in any and all situations where he can hurt you. That’s the air Bonds occupies. Perhaps no player other than Bonds and Babe Ruth has ever been treated with this level of awe.
If Bonds doesn’t win his sixth MVP award, it won’t be a big surprise. National League managers, however, vote on the matter every single day, and they like Bonds in a walk.