Baseball Prospectus on Bonds

I haven’t actually paid much attention to Bonds breaking the record. The superficial reasons are because I’ve been busy with my family, and my life, and something has to give.

Also, big career records are the result of circumstance. Nobody broke Babe Ruth’s career record in the 50s or 60s or 70s or 80s or even 90s because people didn’t hit so many home runs then. Is that because there weren’t great home run hitters then? Or is it because fewer home runs were hit? You be the judge.

But plenty of homers were hit in the 90s and 00s, and while that was happening to many hitters Barry Bonds eventually hit more major league home runs than anyone else.

When you read the BP tales linked to here you’ll have to decide whose smart ideas are valid and whose are crap. I admired that guy Ehrhardt’s 12 Monkey’s approach, though it’s pretty much a stunt. But he’s right that the question isn’t really worth our memory.

So I offer my take: All baseball records reflect the era in which they were set. This is inevitable. The dead ball is different than the live ball. Mound heights changed, expansion happened again and again. Ballparks got bigger. Ballparks got smaller. The DH. And certainly PEDs have played a role. So when we compare records across eras we’re inevitably comparing apples to papayas.

I find it incredible that some people still offer up Cy Young’s 511 wins as baseball’s most unbreakable record. Um, yeah.

Bonds’ achievement came within a context that also created A-Rod and Junior and Slammin’ Sammy and Canseco. I read a story the other day that talked about the percentage increase in Bonds’ record over Maris’s, without talking about the intervening records of McGwire and Sosa. [Sure, they might all be tainted by ‘roids, but they happened. Bonds did not break Maris’s record.]

There will never be a Davenport Translation that eliminates PEDs from the record. Not everyone used, and no one knows how much help the drugs are. I think it suffices to look at such things in the context in which they were created. If Clay Davenport (and Will Carroll) tell me that the contextual adjustments make Ruth No. 1 Career Home Run hitter and Bonds No. . . . Whoops, I don’t recall what they tell me about Bonds. That he’s either second or third all time, and either is fine by me.

But that’s what our statistical evaluation can do. If Bonds were the only steroid user his advantage would be incalculable. He would soar over everyone else. But we know others used, and we have no evidence that he used more than them. We know that many of them (at least half) were pitchers. In any case, all of that comes out within the context. Bonds setting the record looks more like Bonds establishing that he’s the best home run hitter of his era. That he set the career mark as well is trivia.

Of all the BP essays in this package, the one I admired most is Christina Kahrl’s. She’s an ambitious stylist, but in this case I think she also gets the race thing right. Maris beating the Babe (in baseball’s first expansion year) was the triumph of man over legend. Feh, the traditionalists said! Legends don’t fall to flawed men. Asterisk, please.

Aaron has always been derided for his lack of flash, for the duration of his career, for never hitting lots of homers in one season. But now, illuminated by Bonds’ strange light, he’s the paragon of self-esteem and integrity, the wounded party when Barry Bonds’ nouveau race man comes to town. Christina says it much more elegantly than I am here. How much hatred accrues to Bonds because he’s (probably) used steroids? How much because he’s broken the record? How much because he’s uppity?

None of us knows the exact answer, but I agree with Christina that the issue still bites and is still in play here.

I’m here to say that in my book Ruth is the greatest home run hitter, based on 1921 and 1927, but that Bonds deserves all the respect you can stomach giving him. And if that’s not a lot, then a lot more. He’s clearly a driven talent with both skills and dedication enough to set gargantuan records. If you think it’s the drugs that put him over the top, you still have to admire all that he accomplished without drugs. And it makes more sense to devalue the record than to decry Bonds’ achievement besting an arbitrary number into some sort of symbol of moral decay.

At least I do.

2 thoughts on “Baseball Prospectus on Bonds”

  1. Well said, Peter.

    He’s the two greatest baseball players I’ve seen my own eyes: once in ’90-’93 and again in ’01-’04.

  2. Two things Peter…
    1. “apples to papayas”
    ..umm Papayas? Heh, heh..

    2. “I’m here to say that in my book…”
    I would hope you mean that literally. When might that book be coming? I’ll take an advanced copy.

    As usual, and as Jurgen already noted, well said.

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