Barry Bonds, Giants Left Fielder

Many words have been written about Barry Bonds, his use (or “alleged use” if you prefer) of performance-enhancing drugs, the morality of his passing Babe Ruth, and his chase of Hank Aaron. Meanwhile, baseball games were also being played.

If you’re like me, then you’ve probably been shying away from watching or talking about him. After all, what more is there to be said? I think that at this point, everyone has more or less made up their mind about Bonds. Between Human Growth Hormone, mistresses and passing the Babe, it’s easy to forget that he’s also a seven-time NL MVP, just two seasons removed from a run of perhaps the most dominant four season stretch in baseball history, playing for a team with playoff aspirations. And while he’s not hitting the ball as often or as hard as before, he’s been single-handedly keeping the Giants (Steve Finley? Pedro Feliz? Randy Winn?) in the NL West race.

Shouldering the Load

At the halfway point of the season after Saturday’s games, the Giants were 41-40, just two games out of the NL West lead and three back in the wild card hunt. While Bonds hasn’t been Superman for quite some time, his performance has carried the Giants, and on the merits of his play he probably deserved to be more in the All-Star discussion than he was. Of course, the Giants pitching and defense, fifth in the league in runs allowed (one run behind Colorado!), probably deserves most of the credit, even taking park effects into account. But still, Bonds’s offensive contributions have kept the Giants offense (ninth in the National League) treading just enough water to keep them competitive. First, let’s take a look at how his year compares to those of his Giants teammates (batting title qualifiers only, all stats through games played on July 1).

PLAYER         G    PA    HR    RBI    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS    WIN SHARES
Barry Bonds    64   241   11    34     .246   .480   .497   .977      12

Pedro Feliz    81   331   12    53     .271   .302   .470   .772      10
Randy Winn     80   348   8     36     .279   .349   .444   .784      8
Omar Vizquel   77   316   3     24     .297   .380   .391   .770      10
Steve Finley   73   265   5     31     .249   .319   .411   .729      7

The moral of that story is that despite limited playing time, he’s still the Giants’ best offensive player when healthy. He gets on base at the highest clip by far, and still manages to hit for the most power. The Giants’ play with him in the lineup compared to when he’s not in the lineup bears this out as well.

               WITH BONDS    WITHOUT BONDS
Win %             .571           0.360
Runs per game     4.90           4.04

So the Giants basically score like the Diamondbacks (fourth in the league) with Bonds, and score like the Cubs (worst in the league) without Bonds; from a wins perspective, with Bonds they are somewhere in between the Cardinals (second in the league) and the Mets (best record in the NL), and without Bonds, they are once again like the Cubs. Not really any surprise, considering the offensive talent (pun intended) that the Giants have surrounded Bonds with this season. Incidentally, this is actually a much bigger split than when he was pulling down MVP awards from 2001-2004, probably because instead of players like Jeff Kent and even J.T. Snow, he now has to carry guys like Lance Niekro and Ray Durham‘s carcass. Here are the splits from 2001-2004.

               WITH BONDS    WITHOUT BONDS
Win %             .597           0.484
Runs per game     5.03           4.27

Getting old

How has he done it? Much has been made of pitchers’ unwillingness to pitch to Bonds, despite his long injury layoff and his merely mortal home run rate this season. The numbers show that pitchers are pitching to him more than in the past. In 2004, Bonds walked in 37.6% of his plate appearances, while this season, he has walked in a mere 28.5%. Still, that’s more than 10% higher than Albert Pujols, who checks in at 18.1%. Part of that is probably due to the abysmal protection for Bonds in the lineup when Moises Alou is out, part of it is probably sheer force of habit and part of it is probably that Bonds still retains his killer batting eye even as his power has dipped. At times Bonds still flashes the old danger, such as on June 24 against the A’s, when he went 2-2 with a home run, a double and three walks, and basically forced the A’s to completely pitch around him (leading to, of all things, a Ray Durham walk-off home run after a walk to Bonds).

Amazingly, at age 41, Bonds has managed to maintain enough of his other offensive skills to be a game-breaking presence in the lineup, even as he’s lost some of his power. The main decline has been in his contact rate: He’s striking out in 10.2% of his plate appearances this season, half again more than in 2004 (6.6%). However, when he does does make contact, he’s hitting just as many line drives and fly balls as before—in fact, the only difference between what happens when he makes contact this season and his .362/.609/.812 2004 seems to be the rate at which his fly balls turn into home runs.

YEAR    LINE DRIVE %    GB %    PA/P    HR/F    OPS
2004       19.1         34.6    3.9     32.8     1.421
2006       21.7         31.2    3.9     17.9     .977

In fact, if you changed his home run rate on fly balls back to its 2004 ridiculousness without changing anything else, Bonds would have 20 home runs and a .292/.497/.701 batting line that isn’t too different from his four-straight MVP form.

So as you can see, despite not making as much contact or hitting for as much power, Bonds remains an offensive powerhouse. He doesn’t qualify for the batting title at this moment, due to some injury problems and a still obscene walk rate, but if he did, he would still rank second in the NL in runs created per game, a stat that takes into account his still other-wordly walk rate, behind only Pujols. He hasn’t been on the field enough or good enough to single-handedly keep the Giants offense in the top half of the NL in offense, as he had in previous years, but he has been good enough to keep the Giants on the fringes of contention, and Brian Sabean and Felipe Alou from polishing their resumes.

References & Resources
As usual, ESPN.com’s sortable stats and results pages were invaluable in the writing of this article, as were THT’s own stats pages.

Many thanks to fellow THT writer Vinay Kumar for pulling up the Giants’ Bonds split for 2001-2004.

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