In defense of Barry Bondsby Jeffrey Gross
January 10, 2013
Before you dive into the article below, I want to reiterate that Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is by no means a perfect statistic, the only statistic, or the be-all-end-all statistic. It is merely a shorthand for a lot of important comments and observations about the on-the-field attributes of a player. I merely use it to illustrate a point, not to claim the point is definitive. WAR, and its derivative statistics, as utilized in this article, is calculated using Fangraph's version of the metric.
Yesterday, something moderately historic-ish happened. No one was voted into National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum by the BBWA. This is the first time this has happened since 1996. It is also only the eighth time since the establishment of the Hall Of Fame in 1936 that this has happened (although two players were elected by the Veterans Committee that year).
In 1996, the top 10 vote-getters were (asterisks denote that the player was eventually inducted into The Hall, not that they used steroids):
|Name||Postion(s)||Career WAR||# Seasons||Career WAR||Vote Population|
This ballot in 1996 was pretty shallow. The only other "notable" name (as a player) worthy of entering The Hall was Curt Flood, and he deserves recognition in the sport for entirely different reasons.
This year, only two players crossed the 60 percent vote threshold—first time eligible second basemen (slash catcher, slash outfield) Craig Biggio and Jack Morris. Neither really deserves entry, though Craig Biggio is borderline worthy in my book.
Despite this fact, however, I could easily pick out five Hall Of Fame caliber players in this year's eligible mix, and 10 I would likely vote in. Even before considering the steroid issue, I would, without a doubt in my mind based on the evidence in front of me, vote for Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines (whose drug addiction in the 1980s and skin color may have more to do with his failure to receive enough votes than his on-the-field production), Edgar Martinez (Mr. DH), Alan Tammell and Larry Walker, whom I have previously defended. I am still on the fence with respect to Kenny Lofton (a world class lead off man) and Craig Biggio. That's five to seven arguably deserving players before you even get to the steroid cloud that surrounds Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling (the world's most opinionated pitcher (that was also pretty great)), Mike Piazza, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire (but not Sammy Sosa)... and Barry Bonds.
A lot can be said about Clemens, Schilling, Palmeiro and McGwire, but I want to focus on Barry Bonds. Bonds, along with Clemens, is one of the two scapegoats of the industry of a tainted era. Records were broken, amazing feats were accomplished, and asterisks with footnotes have been affixed.
But here is the thing I feel that a lot of people forget. Barry Bonds was great before he allegedly took steroids. By most accounts, this began sometime in the mid-1990s. Time Magazine posted an interesting article titled The Evolution of Barry Bonds a few years back that profiles his physical and baseball stats by season.
In the first 10 years of his career (1986-95), Bonds did something that very few players in the history of major league baseball have ever accomplished by WAR's measure of value—he crossed the 10 wins plateau. He did this not only once, but twice in those 10 years of play. The way we measure the value a player contributes to his team in a single season with his glove is a fickle thing, so take this somewhat arbitrary threshold with a grain of salt, but, by way of perspective, both Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez have each only done this once in their careers. In fact, only two of the 26 players elected to The Hall since Mike Schmidt in 1995 has posted a single 10 WAR (or higher) season in their career—Cal Ripken and Rickey Henderson. In 2010, no major league player even accumulated 9 WAR. Mike Trout, who unquestionably deserved the AL MVP, reached the 10 WAR plateau this past year at age 21, which is almost ineffably impressive, but the last player to post a 10+ WAR spot in a season prior to Trout this year was... Barry Bonds, in 2004.
Bonds was also a perennial all around player and 40/40 threat prior to his 40/40 1996 season. In his first 10 years of major league play, Bonds crossed the 30/30 mark three times, and missed it twice by just a single stolen base. Over the first 10 years of his career, Bonds batted .286/.398/.541 (.938 OPS), averaging 34 home runs, 39 stolen bases and 107 walks per 162 games played. By the close of the 1995 season, Bonds had accumulated 73.7 WAR. That's more value than such great modern players as Kenny Lofton, Jim Edmonds or Larry Walker accrued in their entire careers.
Still not impressed? If you were to combine the single-season WAR values of the top 10 hitters in baseball last season, their collective WAR would total 76.7.
Without any doubt in my mind, Bonds was headed to The Hall before the specter of steroids and BALCO began to haunt his record. Had he retired before the 1996 season, he would have gone down as Kofauxian in how brightly he shined. But he did not retire before 1996; instead, he went on to accomplish something only a three other players have ever done—hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases. I should probably note here, however, that two of those three other players, Jose Canseco and Alex Rodriguez, admitted using steroids at some point in their careers.
What happened in and after 1996 in Bonds' career is infamous, and hardly needs retelling. He shattered Mark McGwire's home run record less than five years after it was set. He walked 232 times in 2004 with a .609 on base percentage (OBP) that was greater than all but five other baseball player's slugging percentages (SLG). Bonds' SLG between 2001 and 2004 was greater than the major league average OPS. Yada yada yada.
By the time Bonds hung up his glove after the 2007 season,demonized by the media, he accumulated 168 WAR. That averages out to more than 7.5 WAR per season. Only five players in all of baseball last season posted a single season WAR greater than what Bonds averaged over his entire career.
Only one other player produced more value, according to Fangraphs, in the history of baseball. And that man is Babe Ruth (177.9 career WAR). Bonds is exclusively part of a group of only five players in the history of baseball to accumulate 150 or more WAR over their career. The other three are Willie Mays (163.2 career WAR), Ty Cobb (163.2 career WAR) and Hank Aaron (150.4 career WAR). Ted Williams (139.8 career WAR) would also likely be in that mix but for being such a great American and fighting for his country during his peak physical years.
Assume for a moment, somewhat arbitrarily, that steroids double a player's potential (note that I call it potential, because you cannot just take steroids, sit on the couch and each chips and instantly become great at sports). If we were to accordingly slash his career WAR in half, his 84 career WAR would still be greater than the career WAR of any single player on this year's Hall Of Fame ballot. Such "half-slashing" of Bonds' whole career would put his value on par with Jeff Bagwell in terms of career value added to his teams. Not a single one of the five baseball players inducted into the Hall Of Fame over the past three years has value equal to or greater than our mythical "Half Bonds."
Still not convinced? There is a a statistic called Wins Above Excellence, or WAE. This statistic subtracts three wins off of any single season of a given player (if a season would then produce negative value, it is zeroed out) to measure how much better than "All Star caliber" a player was over the course of his career. This adjustment also removes value added by not being great, but from being healthy (which itself, quite honestly, is a valuable tool).
By WAE standards, Bonds produced 104.2 wins of value for his career in excess of All Star caliber production. Putting this figure into perspective, only 30 hitters (soon 31, with Albert Pujols on the horizon) in the history of baseball even accumulated 100 wins by WAR standards in their career. Cal Ripken (99.7 career WAR), Wade Boggs (91.9 career WAR) and Chipper Jones (90.3 career WAR) all fell short. Mike Schmidt (110.6) and Rickey Henderson (113.9) are the only modern era players to be elected to The Hall with even 100 wins by WAR standards over their entire careers. By WAE standards, Schmidt and Henderson only produced 64.4 and 56.0 wins-worth of career value above All Star production over the course of their careers, respectively. Barry Larkin (70.5 career WAR) and Ron Santo (79.3 career WAR), the two latest inductees to The Hall, likewise produced 25.7 and 42.7 career wins of value in excess of All Star caliber production, respectively.
What WAE roughly tells us is that Bonds' level of "super star" production—that is, the amount of value he added in excess of being a mere All Star caliber player—was substantially higher than the career value provided by almost every player that ever played the game. And yet, despite all this data, Bonds' career barely convinced one out of every three of the BBWA writers to vote for him. That's just downright ridiculous. It might even be racist, considering that Clemens, equally vilified for steroids and substantially less valuable by WAR standards than Bonds (then again, almost all pitchers are inherently less valuable than their hitting counterparts), received more votes.
Bonds was not just really good. He was not even just great. He was downright amazing—steroids or not. He did things we'll likely never see again. And many of his amazing accomplishments cannot be entirely explained by steroids. He was beyond great before steroids came into the conversation. And that is why I would vote for him.
Jeffrey Gross is an attorney (and die-hard Cubs fan) who currently resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he also reviews tasty adult beverages as part of a side project titled "saBEERmetrics." He previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at saBEERmetrics AT gmail DOT com.