Stats, Science, Circumstance, and the Power of Language

“It’s called talent. I just have it. I can’t explain it. You either have it or you don’t.” – Barry Bonds

As I watched Manny Ramirez end last Friday’s Red Sox-A’s thriller with a walk-off hit by pitch, the ticker at the bottom of the ESPN screen flashed the news that Barry Bonds had hit his first home run of the season and number 704 for his career.

My stomach turned.

At just 10 homeruns from Babe Ruth and 51 from Hank Aaron, any baseball fan, especially one who loves the numbers as much as I do, should be excited in anticipation of witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime event. But I wasn’t and found myself wishing that Bonds hadn’t come back from his knee surgeries. So this week, as a cathartic exercise I thought I’d share my justification for that feeling, a feeling that can be summed up as stats, science, circumstance, and the power of language.

Stats

Through 1999 and the age of 34 Bonds was on track to complete a Hall of Fame career that began in 1986 and included three MVP awards (1990, 1992, 1993), eight Gold Gloves (1990-1998), and a home run title (1993). By all accounts, other than Bonds, only Ken Griffey Jr. had a claim on the title of best player of the 1990s. His aggregate stats through that year looked as follows:

   G    AB   HR     R   RBI   BB   AVG   OBP  SLUG   SB
2000  6976  445  1455  1299 1430  .288  .409  .559  460 

He struggled through injuries to his right wrist and knee during the 1999 season, playing in just 102 games and hitting .262. However, his power and batting eye were still amazing as he slugged .617 with a .389 on base percentage.

Then something happened.

Starting in 2000 at the age of 35 and through age 39, his production went through the roof and he became, statistically anyway, the greatest hitter in the history of the game. In those five seasons he would win four MVPs (2001-2004), two batting titles (2002, 2004), and set the single season records for home runs, walks, on-base percentage, intentional walks, and slugging percentage, all while never playing in more than 153 games. His aggregate stats from those seasons were:

    G    AB   HR     R    RBI   BB   AVG   OBP   SLUG   SB
  716  2122  258   615    544  872  .339  .532   .781   46

I’m sure most readers are well aware of this history but I’m not sure how many understand just how dominating, unprecedented, and abrupt was Bonds’ transformation from a great player to the best of all-time. Visually, you can begin to get an understanding of this transformation using the following graph.
image
As is apparent from the graph, up through age 33 Bonds’ career was following a fairly normal trajectory. His batting average, power, and walk rate rose steadily, peaking in his late 20s and early 30s, then started the slow decline that typically forces even great players into retirement around the age of 40.

As a result of his transformation, his OPS+, as measured by BaseballReference.com, shot up as he established a new performance level, as shown in the following graph.
image
For comparison, take a look at the typical career trajectory using normalized OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage adjusted for park and league) based on 249 players who amassed over 6,000 plate appearances from 1901-1979 (the smoothed line represented the three-year moving average).
image
Note the slow and steady decline after age 28 and how similar the two graphs are until age 34. However, instead of continuing to decline, Bonds took his performance to another level at the age of 35 after a notable power increase in 1999 at age 34, when he hit 34 homeruns in 355 at-bats. Previously, his best power season came at age 29, when he hit 37 homeruns in 391 at-bats. While it’s true that some players have their peak power season after age 35, including Hank Aaron (39), Darell Evans (38), Carlton Fisk (40), Hank Sauer (37), Andres Galarraga (35), Harold Baines (36 and 40), Edgar Martinez (37), and Cal Ripken (38), it’s simply not the case that there has ever been a player whose all-around and sustained performance after age 35 was so much better than his previous track record.

An aberration of this magnitude cries out for an explanation.

Science

In the 2004 book Brushbacks and Knockdowns by Allen Barra, the book ends with a fascinating chapter debating the merits of Barry Bonds’ transformation. In that chapter Barra quotes SABR member Michael Humphries when discussing the physical transformation that correlates with his on-field production. There Humphries lists the playing weights of Bonds as follows.

Age 33 – 190
Age 34 – 206
Age 35 – 210
Age 36 – 220
Age 37 – 228

It appears that from age 33 to 37 Bonds put on 38 pound,s and by all accounts this wasn’t flab but almost pure muscle, as Bonds boasted of his incredibly low 6% body fat in a 2002 article in the New York Times Magazine.

While I don’t doubt that Bonds is devoted to his diet and training regimen, there is a prominent view that the addition of that much muscle mass at that age is not possilble without the use of drugs. This point is echoed by a quote from Dr. Joey Antonio, as reported by Humphries in Barra’s book.

Unless you’re a genetic freak, it’s impossible to put on more than about 5 pounds of muscle a year without using steroids. That’s eating five or six high-protein, low-fat meals a day, following a very strict training program and using creatine to speed recovery. After age 30 or so, it gets even harder.

Of course, there will be those who say that increased muscle mass doesn’t have anything to do with hitting a baseball. After all, they’ll say, look at Gabe Kapler among others whose bulking up hasn’t turned them into Barry Bonds. The view that adding muscle isn’t helpful in baseball was the long time belief in professional baseball, and as with any longstanding belief it won’t get overturned easily. While it’s true that there have been no scientific studies that show the effects of increased muscle mass in relation to hitting ability, it doesn’t take an active imagination to conclude that it may have a positive effect on some players, not the least of whom might be an already Hall of Fame caliber player.

As a thought experiment, assume that increased muscle increases bat speed, and then consider that with increased bat speed might come, in addition to hitting balls farther, the ability to wait on a pitch a few hundredths of a second longer before pulling the trigger. While that may seem insignificant, it may indeed make a difference in the major leagues, where a hitter has just over two-tenths of a second from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand to process what he sees and decide to swing. Could it then be possible that an already gifted ballplayer could shrink his strike zone, in the words of Peter Gammons, to the size of a nickel? The result being more hard hit balls, more of which now leave the park, and a higher batting average. Couple that effect with the positive feedback loop that would occur as pitchers become more afraid to throw strikes and you would see a vast increase in walks. Sound familiar?

The above is of course conjecture on my part, but the point is that it is far from inconceivable that additional muscle can aid a hitter in the professional ranks. The focus on weight training in the modern game, even aside from the issue of performance enhancers is proof that indeed 80 years of conventional wisdom was incorrect.

Circumstance

And finally of course there are the circumstances in which Bonds finds himself.

Bonds admitted to a grand jury that he used the “cream” and the “clear,” as reported on December 3, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Of course both substances, which were shown to include the designer steroid THG distributed by BALCO and its founder Victor Conte, were given to him by his friend (and personal trainer since 1999) Greg Anderson, who also supplied drugs to Jason and Jeremy Giambi, Randy Velarde, and a handful of Giants players among others. Of course Bonds said he didn’t know what he was taking, but his obvious focus and dedication to his training makes that a hard defense to swallow.

Howard Bryant, in his book Juicing the Game, also reports that:

The Feds had Anderson on tape talking about the undetectable steroids Bonds was taking at the time. Anderson also said that Bonds would be tipped off at least a week in advance of a league-administered drug test.

And as if that weren’t enough, more recent allegations from his mistress Kimberly Bell surfaced earlier this year that he used steroids between the 1999 and 2000 seasons don’t make the picture look any rosier.

So at the end of the day what do you get?

In short, you’re left with a player whose performance level increased in a way that is historically unprecedented at a time that correlates with an increase in muscle mass that is difficult to explain without the help of steroids, and which also just happens to coincide with the player taking on a personal trainer who later admits to distributing steroids to major league players—including the player in question.

To me the only logical conclusion is that Bonds did indeed knowingly use steroids and has benefited from them, all of which brings me back to the sinking feeling I had last Friday night.

The Power of Language

I was originally going to title this article “704 and I Don’t Care” but once I got into the writing it became clear that I really do care.

Although I’m not of the opinion that baseball’s records are somehow holy or that players of some eras (pre-integration for example) didn’t have vast advantages over others, I do identify with the Bill James quote that ” … baseball statistics, unlike the statistics in any other area, have acquired the power of language.”

In other words, the statistics themselves are just numbers, but the stories they tell and the way they provide a mechanism to communicate about the game is what draws us to them. Numbers like 70, 73, 583, and Bonds’ eventual 700-something will sadly tell a story about an era where baseball and its fans turned their backs on what was happening both on and off the field.

And if Bonds should eventually surpass Aaron, baseball’s greatest number, and therefore its greatest story, will be a profoundly negative one.

References & Resources
Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries by Allen Barra
Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball by Howard Bryant

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