I am in New York right now, and not able to get in front of the computer for significant chunks of time, but I did want to get off a quick note about something I saw in the Times this morning. Due to a late voting push, Barry Bonds will be starting in left field for the National League All-star team next Tuesday in San Francisco. Much of the discussion over the past few weeks has been about whether Bonds, were he not voted in by the fans, would be added to the team as a reserve player. Some speculated that the commissioner might even step in to prevent Bonds from being named to the team. What’s been lost in that discussion, however, is what kind of season Bonds is actually having. Jack Curry’s article in the New York Times puts it this way:
“Even if the fans had not voted in Bonds as a starter, he is having a solid season and probably would have been selected by the players…” (my emphasis)
Not to pick on Curry here, but Bonds is having a “solid” season in about the same way one might say that the Great Wall of China is “sizable.”
All of the talk about Bonds and steroids over the past few seasons has, of course, diminished Bonds’ accomplishments in many people’s eyes. But, it’s also true that Bonds’ own greatness has established such an absurdly high baseline level, that most folks are inured to the magnitude of his performances. And, this year is a clear example. As of yesterday, Bonds’ batting average is .304 and he’s hit sixteen homeruns. These are excellent numbers and undoubtedly the ones that Curry has in mind when he describes Bonds’ season as solid. The batting average is 34th best among all qualifying major leaguers and the home run total is tied for 14th. But, batting averages and homerun totals provide an incomplete picture of a player’s offensive contributions. And, in Bonds’ case, more so than most. Bonds is also slugging .603. That’s fourth best in all of baseball. Bonds is first in all of baseball in OPS – on-base plus slugging. And, he’s first in on-base percentage, with a .516 mark. How good is that . 516 figure? Well, it’s 72 points better than the next best player, Magglio Ordonez. And, that gap in percentage points, between the first and second best in baseball in on-base percentage, is the same as the gap between the second best player and the 48th best player. But, it shouldn’t be surprising that Bonds on-base percentage is lapping the field. Because in all of baseball history, there have only been twenty season in which a player eclipsed the .500 mark in OBP, and three of those were achieved in the fluky, and pre-Cambrian season of 1894. In fact, the feat has only been accomplished fifteen times since 1900 (including in 1900, by John McGraw). Who’s on the list of players who’ve managed to get on base more than half the time in a full season? You’ve probably heard of them. Ted Williams, owner of the best single season OBP of all time until Bonds’ 2001-2004 run, makes the list three times (including at ages 22 and 38). He’s also got three more seasons just below that mark. Babe Ruth graces the list five times. Bonds himself is on it four times (I’m not counting this season, obviously). And Mickey Mantle and Rogers Hornsby make it once each (Hornsby cracked the magic barrier in the season in which he set the modern record with a .424 batting average).
That Bonds is in such rarefied air again, and could be described as having merely a “solid” season is a testament to the ongoing failure to understand the significance of getting on base. But, it’s also an illustration of the point I made above: Bonds’ greatness is so out of proportion to the game as we’ve known it for the past 100 years, that it’s hard to put it in its proper context. There are, of course, plenty of people who think that Bonds is still using something and therefore would begrudge whatever he does. But, that’s not Curry’s point, I don’t think. Just shy of his 43rd birthday, with bad knees and all, Bonds is still playing a different game than his peers, and it’s still hard even for professional baseball writers to see it.