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.