Bonds vs Griffey – Or, How Good was Bonds before the Mess?

Update: Stop Mike Lupica made the same comparison, using some different numbers, three weeks ago.

Earlier this week Mad Dog and his callers were discussing Barry Bonds’ legacy (I’m only mentioning Russo here because he’s the most recent person I’ve heard discussing this – but a variation of this conversation has been taking place everywhere). Russo is a Giants’ fan, but has been increasingly down on Bonds in recent years. At one point, a caller asserted that Bonds was the best player in baseball in the 1990s, before he was a steroids user. Thus, the caller argued, Bonds’ legacy as an all-time great should be secure regardless of subsequent allegations/revelations about performance enhancing drugs. Russo disagreed, arguing that Griffey was the better player in the 1990s, at least until Bonds starting using. I should back up here and note that, according to Game of Shadows, Bonds began using in 1999. No one else, to my knowledge, with any serious claim to know Bonds’ history, has asserted otherwise. There is a consensus, in other words, that Bonds was clean through 1998 (whether you think Bonds was clean after that point is a separate question, one I’m not discussing here). And, even if we discount Bonds’ 1999 season entirely, there’s no comparison between him and Griffey in the 1990s – Bonds is the vastly superior player (and, Bonds was hurt for much of 1999, missing sixty games).

Looking at adjusted OPS, otherwise known as OPS+ (on-base plus slugging, adjusted for park and league context), as reported on baseball-reference.com, Bonds’ finished with an OPS+ of 161 in 1991 and 162 in 1999. 100 is league average – so a 162 is, essentially, a 62% better than league average offensive performance, an MVP level performance in many seasons. And, those were Bonds’ worst two seasons, by that measure, in the decade. In both 1992 and 1993, Bonds’ adjusted OPS was over 200. The rest of the decade is sprinkled with seasons in the 170s and 180s. Bonds finished first in that category four times in the 1990s and, between 1990 and 1998, never finished worse than third.

Griffey is a great player, one of my favorites and possesses one of the two sweetest home run swings I have seen in my lifetime (the other one belonging to Darryl Strawberry). Injuries the past few seasons have, unfortunately, robbed baseball fans of the pleasure of watching him play far too often. And, he was a wonderful player in the 1990s. But, he doesn’t really hold a candle to Bonds. Looking at OPS+ for Griffey, between 1990-1999, Griffey’s best season was 1993, when he posted an outstanding 172. Griffey had two other seasons above 160, and had other seasons ranging from 120 through the 150s. Griffey finished as high as second in that category once in the decade, in 1997, and in the top five a total of four times. For a little perspective, Bonds had five seasons in the 1990s that were better than Griffey’s best season.

Griffey played center field in the 1990s, a more significant defensive position than Bonds’ left field. So, although Bonds was a great fielder – an eight-time gold glove winner in the 1990s, Griffey was also regarded as a fantastic center fielder, having won ten gold glove awards in the 1990s. Bill James’ Win Shares attempt to account for all of a player’s contributions, making relevant adjustment for context, including park, league, pitching staff, defensive position, etc. So, unlike adjusted OPS, it accounts for a player’s fielding contributions. James considers a total of twenty in a season an all-star level performance, and thirty or better is a performance consistent with serious MVP consideration. According to James’ win shares, the best player in the 1990s, by far, is Bonds, who racked up 351 win shares in the decade, 64 more than any other player. If you want to throw out the 1999 season because that’s when Game of Shadows says he started using, he drops to 332, still 45 better than any other major leaguer. In no season other than 1999 or the strike shortened 1994, did Bonds amass fewer than 34 win shares. In other words, he’s a bona fide MVP contender essentially every season. Griffey is the fifth best player in the 1990s by this measure, 90 behind Bonds (or 71, if you prefer), with three seasons better than thirty in the decade.

Because of everything that’s happened in the past seven years, Bonds’ name now is almost exclusively associated with steroids and a tainted chase for the all-time home run record, rather than with true greatness.Additionally, his 2001-2004 seasons were so incomprehensibly good that it seems impossible that any mortal could have posted such numbers without illegal help. But, those seasons also serve to make it seem as if what Bonds accomplished in the 1990s was a relative triviality. (To give a sense of this, his 2002 adjusted OPS was 275, easily the best of all time, and three of his four seasons between 01-04 were better than the Babe’s best season, and no one else has come close to the Babe by this measure). Many people, of course, believe that Bonds brought this on himself by deciding to use steroids and, thus, tarnish his legacy. I am not weighing in on that issue here. But, whether you think Bonds did this to himself, or has been the unfair victim of a witch hunt (either because he didn’t do what he’s accused of, or because he only did what many other players, including pitchers did), what’s being increasingly lost is what a truly historically great player Bonds was before any of this started.

19 Responses to “Bonds vs Griffey – Or, How Good was Bonds before the Mess?”

  1. The key point should be this: Barry Bonds was one Terry Pendleton MVP away from winning 4 in a row, all before his “steroid” seasons. That alone would make him a Hall of Famer, and superior to Ken Griffey Jr.

    You also should mention that Ken Griffey could not hold a candle to young Bonds baserunning abilities – he had almost 500 SB before 1999, and several 30/30 seasons, a 30/50 season, and a 40/40 season. And just missed another 40/40 season. Griffey never came close to those SB numbers.

  2. CJ Scudworth Says:

    That’s the funny thing though. Many of the sportswriters who trash Bonds acknowledge his great hitting (not so sure about the great fielding/throwing; guess I’ve been listening to Jim Rome talk about Sid Bream for too long) and claim they would vote for him for the Hall based on his 90s numbers. Be interesting to see if that actually happens…

  3. SML, you’re right. Bonds was a superior base stealer as well – a great player in every phase of the game (and, by the way, I saw you’re piece on Bonds/Griffey after I poste mine. I am going to update this to link to you now). CJ, Hall of Fame voting will be interesting. McGwire’s Hall of Fame credentials (for those, like me, who believe he possesses them) were built largely on one five-year period, 1995-1999, when he put up outrageous numbers (though he was only better than Bonds in ’98 and ’99, according to win shares). Mac’s rookie season, incidentally, 1987, was as good as any year in the 90s except for 1998. And, according to Canseco’s book, 1987 is the one year he’s convinced Mac was not using. But, that five year period has obviously been discredited by the voters, judging by the balloting this past season. Bonds is immune to rejection on that sort of basis, at least (or ought to be).

  4. The irony has always been that Bonds was already an automatic HOF’er by 1999. At the end of the ’98 season, as SML alluded to, he had, at the age of 35, 411 HRs and 465 SBs. Barring any random major injuries there’s almost no doubt that he would’ve gotten to 500/500. No one else has even hit 400/400 yet, nor is anyone likely to soon. That plus all the traditional accolades, e.g. MVPs/perennial All-Star for a decade/Gold Gloves etc., that HOF voters care about, would’ve easily been enough. He was never quite as good defensively as Jr. in his prime, but who was? Back when he still had knee cartilage Bonds was one of MLB’s best left fielders. And of course the whole piece is about how more advanced sabrmetric judgements merely confirm his place as the best player of the 90s by a vast margin.

    In retrospect doesn’t it seem absurd that Barry was overshadowed by Andy freaking Van Slyke during his historically awesome seasons in the early 90s? I mean, Van Slyke was a nice player, but c’mon. Barry’s amazing numbers from the 90s aren’t all that’s been trivialized. As he trudges on joylessly toward 756 it’s also nearly impossible for me to reconcile the current lumbering monster with the giant, bloated head with a mental image of young, svelte Barry 1.0 with the killer stache and blazing speed. I get the same disconcerting feeling when I watch Shaq, like Young (kind of skinny) Shaq from the Magic era is trapped somewhere insided all the accumulated layers of extra mass yearning to break free.

    Griffey was a great, great player (and he’s still pretty good) but really, it’s not even close. The same people who try to argue otherwise will probably be claiming, 10 yrs from now, that Jeter was better than A-Rod, which is of course equally absurd.

    Also, I know it’s post-1999, but Barry walked 232 times in 2004 and OPSed 1.422. Steroids or not, 232 BBs is straight of some alternate, frightening dimension that I don’t want to think about. Nearly 60 games into the season there are only 8 TEAMS that have more walks that that.

  5. oh, interesting factoid about the utter worthlessness of Gold Gloves:

    I discovered on wikipedia that from 63-68 Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood were the NL’s GG OFers. Same trio of dudes, every year for 6 straight seasons. as great as all 3 were I find it incredibly difficult to believe that SOMEBODY didn’t have a season or to that merited consideration.

  6. Padraig- If you didn’t see them play, then you don’t have an appreciation of just how good those three were. Clemente had the best arm I’ve ever seen; No one has even come close to him; not Vlad, not Ichiro, Dwight Evans or Larry Walker. NO. BODY. Willie Mays was, and still is, the best OF I ever saw play. You have to remember that before moving to SF, the Giants played in the Polo Grounds in NYC, where right and left CF were 450′ and CF itself was 483′, so Mays learned at a very early age how to cover a lot of ground. And Curt Flood was exceeded only by Mays, IMO, in his brilliance as a CF. For most of his career, he played in ancient Sportsman’s Park, where CF was a mere 426′. Plus he had guys like Lou Brock, Mike Shannon, and an older, broken down Roger Maris playing on either side of him, so he had to be able to cover a lot of ground.
    Granted, these days, GG’s don’t really mean that much(Rafael Palmiero won one while playing just 26 games at 1B one year), but back then, they did. They were actually given to the players who deserved them,

  7. I grew up watching Bonds play EVERYDAY in Pittsburgh. Bonds was the more complete player, while Griffey was the better power hitter and clutch player.

    Once upon a time, it was a matter of WHEN Griffey would break 755, not if.

    Griffey almost SURELY would have broken 61 in 1994 until the strike happened and this was playing MOST of his career in the Kingdome, as opposed to how it has been lately.

    Andy Van Slyke NEVER overshadowed Bonds on the FIELD… Andy played the media well and had equal status in the eyes of the media and the fans…

    but on the field? It wasnt even close.

  8. Thanks for the comments, all. Padraig – true about 2004 – when I was a kid and fantasized about being the best player of all time, I would have been embarassed to have allowed myself to imagine putting up those kinds of numbers. About gold gloves – they’re hit or miss. Sometimes they get it right – Bonds in the 90s was outstanding in the field – and sometimes, as with Palmeiro – just embarrassing. Davey Wayne – you’re right – Griffey was once surely headed for 700 homers plus. About 1994 – four players were robbed of truly great seasons – Matt Williams – who led the majors with 43 homers when play stopped – Griffey, Jeff Bagwell (though he got hurt just before the stoppage of play, his numbers were outrageous and Bonds who, because of Bagwell’s injury, would have been the NL MVP that year (again) had the season been played out.

  9. [...] Bonds vs Griffey – Or, How Good was Bonds before the Mess? Update: Stop Mike Lupica made the same comparison, using some different numbers, three weeks ago. Earlier this week Mad […] [...]

  10. padraig Says:

    Bruce/Jweiler: I wasn’t by any means trying to denigrate Mays, Clemente or Flood, and I admit that there are far more glaring examples, like Palmeiro. I guess that particular stretch just leaped out at me because it was 3 guys year after year and not just a single player owning his position. The main problem I have w/GGs is the overwhelming tendency for players to get locked in as perennial winners to the point where their reputations become more important than the actual quality of their defensive play. Even so, I still wouldn’t care if Gold Gloves weren’t cited as being somehow meaningful by pundits, especially those w/HOF votes, despite being totally subjective measurements of players’ worth.

    DaveyWayne: Well, of course Van Slyke never eclipsed him on the field. I was talking about the widely held (mostly by, I’d assume, casual fans), wildly inaccurate perception that he was even remotely close to being as valuable as Barry despite the vast disparity in production.

    And you’re right that Griffey’s star was once very, very bright. Bonds was just better, but that shouldn’t take anything away from Jr.

  11. Chris Waters Says:

    Clemente was great, but Johnny Callison had a better arm. People have forgotten just how great Callison was on defense.

  12. You could probably argue that Bonds was the greatest player in history pre 1999 just based on the fact he may have dominated arguably the strongest leagues in history. I personally think it could be argued that a 206 OPS+ in 1993 is the equivalent to a 256 in 1923.

    And, I’ve also noticed how Clemens has recieved a wierd free pass from the media. Does anyone realize that he posted a 143 ERA+ since 1997? With his best seasons ( 226, 221), all coming after he hooked up with mcnamee?

    Clemens didn’t get better the way Bonds did, but Clemens success is pretty eye popping, and if it weren’t for Bonds, I think he’d face more scrutiny.

  13. I should also add – Is it possible that Bonds would of amassed more winshares in 1999 if not for heavy steroid abuse which led to injuries?

    It doesn’t excuse Bonds cheating, but I believe his 1999 season could of resembled his clean 98 season if he layed off the juice which drove him to injuries. I personally dock Bonds starting in 00, but that’s just me.

  14. Marc A, Says:

    Sgfgf,

    Could you tell me how you determine which or all of Bonds’ post 1998 (or 1999) home runs were aided by his so-called use of steroids? Do you know for a fact which ones would had stayed in ballpark if they weren’t aided by the “juice”? And could you take each one individually and determine why it couldn’t or shouldn’t go over the fence? Until you can answer those questions, then you or anyone else shouldn’t say he was cheating.

  15. Jimmy Paz Says:

    Interesting how steroids are credited/blamed for both Bonds’ physical prowess and for his frequent injuries. Not impossible for steroids to contribute to both conditions, but…I think most of the witchhunters want to have their cake and eat it, too. Of course, there is no scientific reason (evidence-based, peer-reviewed data) to believe that steroid use has ANY effect on healthy adults. So in Bonds’ case the lynch mob is actually at three removes from anything substantial. (1) there is no proof Bonds used. (2) There is no proof that steroids provide much more help in building strength in a strong, healthy adult than could be achieved through hard work and the use of (legal) “nsaids.”
    (3) There is no reason to believe that increased prowess at weight lifting would significantly help a player who was already strong enough to have hit more than 400 career homers–I can’t prove this, of course, but I would bet that more players have “lifted” themselves out of greatness (remember Ruben Sierra?) than have used strength training to achieve it. And finally:I would think that a quick picker-upper (a “greenie”) would help someone who plays 162 games in 180 days more than adding a few inches to his chest. I would think that replacing a tendon in a pitcher’s arm with a much stronger one from his leg (“Tommy John” surgery) would help that player more than weight lifting helped Bonds. I would think that Lasik surgery would help players in a sport in which great vision and hand-eye coordination are essential more than would a more powerful bench press. But that’s just me.

  16. over his career, here’s bonds’ season averages:

    536 AB/121 R/160 H/33 2B/4 3B/41 HR/ 109 138 84 28 8 .444 .608 1.052 .299

  17. sorry that didn’t all copy, nor did the link, but i gotta run. check out bonds’ player profile on foxsports. it’s a nice breakdown. looking at those numbers is eye-opening. it’s a shame such an amazing career will be tainted by as-yet unproven allegations of drug use.

    here are the career averages :

    536 AB/ 121 R/ 160 H/ 33 2B/ 4 3B/ 41 HR/ 109 RBI/ 138 BB/84 K/ 28 SB/ 8 CS/ .444 OBP/ .608 SLG/ 1.052 OPS/ .299 BA

    sick. just sick.

  18. jweiler Says:

    Jimmy

    Your comment raises some of the issues that make it difficult, in my mind, to come up with coherent justifications for banning steroids, as opposed to barring other types of medical procedures/activities that enhance athletic ability. Elite athletes put their bodies through stresses and rigors that most people (myself included) can’t really fathom. Wrestlers sweating out weight, football players practicing in extreme heat with heavy equipment on, the insane regimen that world-class cyclists put their bodies through, to name just a few. And, as you mention, all kinds of procedures – lasik eye surgery seems to be a favorite these days – previously unavailable, provide what can only be described as an “unnatural” boost to an athlete’s competitve abilities.

    So, where is it proper to draw some lines? I don’t know, but I am convinced that major sports leagues and the Olympics have drawn them in a place that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, either from a health standpoint or a competitive standpoint.

  19. Bonds has unquestionably suffered as a result of his personality and relationship with sports writers and media. As names like Clemens and Pettite join the large and undoubtedly incomplete list of players who’ve used, Bonds continues to be the favored scapegoat. The idea that his breaking Hank Aaron’s record was only of interest in and around San Francisco is absurd, if only from the standpoint of how many people, nationally, were rooting against him. A villain is infinitely more interesting than a hero and particularly a supremely talented, unapologetic one.

    It is a shame that this man’s vast talents will always be viewed with skepticism. Obviously, what he accomplished in his late thirties and forties was aided by substance use. But when you factor in the prevalence of said use among the league and comparable stats the man still stands head and shoulders above the pack. Steroids didn’t provide him with a swing so perfectly compact or unrivaled pitch discipline. The true measure of an athlete’s ability is in the evaluation of his peers .. those playing the game under the same circumstances and in the same environment. And with rare exception (Schilling and a few others) Bond’s talents are acknowledged by all. Those most critical of the man’s legacy typically never played the game and if they did never made much of a dent in their high school record book. A Hall of Famer and supremely talented athlete, if not a great guy.

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