Chasing Ben
April 22, 2004

I want to believe.

Even after writing a piece in October of 2002 about Barry Bonds unreal ascent since 2000, I really do want to believe that he is on the level when he says he's not supplementing with anything illegal.  But frankly, it's getting nearly impossible to do so.


Can't Hit What You Can't See

They say he can read the bottom of the eye chart, that he can call whether a pitch is out of the strikezone the moment it leaves the pitcher's hand.  They say that he sees the pitch better than anyone and that if he sees a pitch he wants to hit, he crushes it.  Jayson Stark wrote extensively about Bonds' recent home run tear at home, but I'm not sure how valuable a span of 50 at bats really is.  Does anyone really think that Brandon Inge's last 50 at bats (.333 average, .910 OPS) are really representative of his level of talent?  Regardless, we should look at how well Bonds is actually seeing the ball.

Here's a table of every strike he's seen since 1987 up until this year:

 

 

Total

Strikes

Swinging

Pitches

 

 

 

 

# times

# made

% making

Year

Pitches

Taken

Strikes

Fouled

Hits

SF

SH

Outs

offered

contact

contact

1987

2178

359

182

335

144

3

2

319

985

803

0.815

1988

2287

376

138

358

152

2

0

304

954

816

0.855

1989

2528

421

148

410

144

4

0

343

1049

901

0.859

1990

2311

423

123

326

156

6

1

280

892

769

0.862

1991

2378

389

135

395

149

13

0

288

980

845

0.862

1992

2352

424

124

333

147

7

0

257

868

744

0.857

1993

2406

341

154

383

181

7

0

279

1004

850

0.847

1994

1680

239

100

239

122

3

0

226

690

590

0.855

1995

2452

390

139

375

149

4

0

274

941

802

0.852

1996

2558

388

135

367

159

6

0

282

949

814

0.858

1997

2519

393

169

330

155

5

0

290

949

780

0.822

1998

2581

406

165

358

167

6

0

293

989

824

0.833

1999

1678

236

114

284

93

3

1

200

695

581

0.836

2000

2326

327

144

355

147

7

0

256

909

765

0.842

2001

2552

382

142

349

156

2

0

227

876

734

0.838

2002

2164

300

105

293

149

2

0

207

756

651

0.861

2003

2182

294

125

285

133

2

0

199

744

619

0.832

 

 

It's true that he's offering at fewer pitches than he ever has by rate, but if he's really seeing the ball better, why is his contact rate also going down?  I can understand why the number of times he makes contact has decreased with the number of opportunities, but if he's seeing the ball so well, shouldn't we see his contact rate going up, especially if he's being more selective?  Since 1997, with the exception of 2002, his contact rate is at the lowest it’s been for his entire career.

According to his former hitting coach in Pittsburgh, his swing is identical to what it was 10 years ago. One must assume, then, that since he’s making less contact but getting hits at a much greater rate and hitting for more power that this is not due to any rotational mechanics or adjustments, but due solely to increase in twitch muscle response.  Harder hit balls are harder to field, thus better results. Needless to say, 39-year old athletes aren't usually quicker and more explosive than they were at 30.  It'd be like seeing Michael Jordan jumping higher at age 39 than he did at age 30 or Greg Maddux suddenly throwing 102 mph.

Maybe the proof that he's "seeing the ball better" will show up in his increased walk rates.  Well, let's look at that:

What follows is a year-by-year look Bonds walk totals and rates, broken down by intentional walks, 4-pitch walks he's seen (of which a good portion in the last several years are "unintentional" intentional walks) and all other walks:

 

 

Year

PA

BB

IBB

IBB/PA

4-pitch walks

UIBB

Non-IBB

BB/500 PA

IBB/500 PA

 

UIBB/500 PA

HR

HR/500 PA

AB

HR/500AB

1987

611

54

3

0.018

11

8

43

44.19

2.45

6.55

25

20.46

551

22.69

1988

614

72

14

0.044

27

13

45

58.63

11.40

10.59

24

19.54

538

22.30

1989

679

93

22

0.054

37

15

56

68.48

16.20

11.05

19

13.99

580

16.38

1990

621

93

15

0.055

34

19

59

74.88

12.08

15.30

33

26.57

519

31.79

1991

634

107

25

0.065

41

16

66

84.38

19.72

12.62

25

19.72

510

24.51

1992

612

127

32

0.078

48

16

79

103.76

26.14

13.07

34

27.78

473

35.94

1993

674

126

43

0.089

60

17

66

93.47

31.90

12.61

46

34.12

539

42.67

1994

474

74

18

0.068

32

14

42

78.06

18.99

14.77

37

39.03

391

47.31

1995

635

120

22

0.061

39

17

81

94.49

17.32

13.39

33

25.98

506

32.61

1996

675

151

30

0.073

49

19

102

111.85

22.22

14.07

42

31.11

517

40.62

1997

690

145

34

0.099

68

34

77

105.07

24.64

24.64

40

28.99

532

37.59

1998

697

130

29

0.073

51

22

79

93.26

20.80

15.78

37

26.54

552

33.51

1999

434

73

9

0.046

20

11

53

84.10

10.37

12.67

34

39.17

355

47.89

2000

607

117

21

0.081

49

28

68

96.38

17.30

23.06

49

40.36

480

51.04

2001

664

177

35

0.114

76

41

101

133.28

26.36

30.87

73

54.97

476

76.68

2002

612

198

68

0.172

105

37

93

161.76

55.56

30.23

46

37.58

403

57.07

2003

550

148

61

0.156

86

25

62

134.55

55.45

22.73

45

40.91

390

57.69

 

 

UIBB = “Unintentional” intentional walks

Special thanks to STATS, Inc for the providing the raw data.  What we see is a substantial increase (40%!) in four pitch walks in 2001 and increasing to unprecedented heights in 2002-2003 as managers ordered their pitchers not to pitch to Bonds, a tactic that almost everyone on earth has observed.

It's interesting to note the increases:
Bonds total walk rate from 1996-2000: 98.13 per 500 PA
Bonds total walk rate from 2001-present: 143.20 per 500 PA
Bonds' increase in intentional walk rate since the beginning of 2001: 26.72 per 500 PA.
Bonds’ increase in other 4-pitch walks since the beginning of 2001: 9.90 per 500 PA

From 2001-the present, Bonds has experienced an increase in his walk rate of roughly 45 walks per 500 plate appearances.  However, 37 walks in that increase are due to either intentional or unintentional intentional walks.  Which means that since 2001, during the most obvious portion of his current home run surge Bonds has experienced a real walk rate increase of 8 walks per 500 PA. 

There's also something else interesting here.  The home run rate began to increase earlier than what many observers cite as his recent breakout.  Most look at the outburst in 2001, but the home run rate showed it's first big jump in 1999.  And that was the year he switched to maple bats.  At last, exoneration... maybe.


Good Wood

It has been popularized in the media that Bonds' new maple bats were his secret weapon in his home run hitting arsenal.  The sell job was so complete that nearly 3 dozen major leaguers switched to maple bats the next season.  I know people who turned in their aluminum softball bats in favor of a maple one.

North American Maple has a hardness rating of 1450 using the Janka scale for wood hardness.  The scale is determined by a test that measures the force required to push a steel ball with a diameter of 11.28 millimeters (0.444 inches) into the wood to a depth of half the ball's diameter.  White Ash - the wood most commonly used in bats - has a hardness rating of 1320.  

Assuming the maple is truly harder by 10% and not just relatively speaking compared to other woods on the scale (Brazilian walnut has a hardness rating 3620), the increase in hardness still would not be transferred perfectly to the ball.  In fact, energy transfer to a batted ball is very inefficient: a baseball struck by a wooden bat will only return about 32% of the energy exerted on it.  So at best, we're looking at an increased energy transference of around 3%.  But that's only an increase in the speed the ball travels off the bat, not the distance.  Factor in the drag of the atmosphere and gravity and the ball might travel an additional 2%. 

In practical terms, if you hit a ball 400 feet with a wooden bat, then picked up an aluminum bat and hit the same ball under the exact same conditions, you'd expect the ball to travel much, much farther.  But the fact is that it will only travel about 30 feet farther because the ball isn't perfectly elastic and the drag of the atmosphere slows the ball in flight.  It's pretty obvious that aluminum is substantially harder and transfers a much greater amount of energy than maple.  The distance increase from using a maple bat over an ash bat is no more than a few under the most optimum conditions on a 400-foot drive.  

There was a study of home runs that indicated that 80% of all home runs hit are only homers because they travel 5% further than a long out.  So the bat could have been responsible for some of the increase in 1999.  However, Bonds' home run rate keeps increasing, and the increased distance which he has hit the home runs the last several years (30-50 feet) can't be explained by a change in wood, especially when you consider that the park he's now playing in depresses home run balls more than any park in the bigs

Beginning in 2000 when it opened, Pac Bell has depressed home runs by left handed hitters by 34% over the average ballpark.  With one of the deepest power alleys in baseball - right center extends 421 feet from home plate - to a right field wall that stands 25 feet high, Pac Bell (now known as SBC Park) is a substantially tougher ballyard to homer in than 3Com (Bonds' former home park) which actually boosted home run production the last three years he played there by 12%.  In addition, the sea air, especially at night, is heavy with moisture, slowing the ball speed significantly.  Yet he's putting balls in the water day or night. 

Factoring out the ballpark effects to a neutral ballpark, his home run rate from 1998 to the present looks like this:

1998 - 25.2/500 non-intentional walk plate appearances
1999 - 38.8/500 NIBB-PA
2000 - 49.6/500 NIBB-PA
2001 - 79.1/500 NIBB-PA
2002 - 58.6/500 NIBB-PA
2003 - 55.4/500 NIBB-PA

The fact that there is a substantial increase from 1999 to 2000, and that even after a fluky year in 2001, 2002 is substantially higher than 2000, it's pretty clear that the bat is not the reason for the explosion in power we've witnessed recently. 

When Bonds surpassed Willie Mays with his 661st home run, it was also his 29th splash hit.  A ball that travels directly down the right field line can reach the water 380' feet from home plate.  To the right center power alley where the wall makes its first zig-zag, a ball must travel roughly 450' to reach the water.  That last splash hit brings his career total of 450' home runs to 31... 28 of which have been hit since the beginning of the 2001 season.  The only one hit before 2000 occurred at Mile High Stadium in 1993.


Good-bye Mr. Spalding

I thought that maybe the home run distances could be explained away by the fact that from ballpark to ballpark they use different methods of measuring home run distance.  But then, why would a 450' home run hit at Qualcomm in 1995 be measured any differently than a 450' home run hit at Qualcomm in 2003?  The same guy is giving the measurement.  Even when a team moves to a new ballpark, the same guy who measured at the old one will be measuring at the new one.   Unless he's randomly changing the way he measures home run to home run, the distances of the home runs must remain a part of the discussion.

The only way to explain the increased distances that he's hitting the ball is that he's much more explosive and much quicker to the ball.


Them's Good Eats

Maybe his increased bat speed could be explained by his strict exercise and nutrition regimen.  He's stated that he goes into BALCO to check his magnesium and zinc levels to "make sure he's eating enough broccoli".  And he does employ a nutritionist.

However, when Bonds signed his 5-year, $90 million extension, he celebrated by having a home-cooked meal of fried chicken, collard greens, rice and cornbread at his mother's.  Not exactly the first meal that comes to mind when one thinks of a strict nutritional regimen.  In fact, given the fat content of fried chicken and cornbread (which is made with buttermilk, shortening and in many Southern recipes, bacon grease), that might be the last meal that comes to mind for someone on a rigorously strict diet.

On a personal note, I know vegans and tri-athletes who live by a strict nutritional regimen also.  The reason I bring this up is that I've never seen any of them go back on their diet.  They bring nutritional bars or fruit or whatever they need with them so if the menu doesn't suit their diet, they have something to eat.  But maybe Bonds' strict nutritional regimen includes such fatty foods as fried chicken and cornbread.  Or maybe Bonds only eats at his mom's house once per contract.  Either way, as long as his mom's southern home cooking is part of his offseason nutrition, it doesn't seem like his diet could play any significant role in his home run barrage.

Maybe it's the workout.


Sheffield

Gary Sheffield has worked out with Bonds in the offseason several times.  In 1996, he had his best season as a professional after spending the offseason working out with Bonds.  He didn't work out with Bonds again until the offseason after 2001.  After following Bonds' rigorous regime, especially after his spectacular success in 2001, one would expect Sheffield to have a great season, perhaps his best season in 2002.  It was quite the opposite.  He had 5-year lows in home runs and slugging even with moving from a pitcher's park (LA) to a slight hitter's park (Atlanta).  After the 2002 season, he parted ways with Bonds on the workouts, instead favoring his own trainer and strength regimen.  Strangely enough, he rebounded back to his previous levels in 2003. 

So why did Bonds' regimen work so well for Bonds in 2002, but made Sheffield look like an old man?  And why was Sheffield able to rebound in 2003 after getting off Bonds workout?  Something must have been different about Bonds' workouts and Sheffield's.  But if they trained together, doing the same routine, what could that something possibly be?


Aaron Comparison


A number of people have compared Bonds late career surge to that of Henry Aaron.  But Barry Bonds (1986-1998) is not like Barry Bonds (1999- present).  The difference between Bonds before 1999 and after is the difference between Ted Williams (1.117 OPS) and Mike Greenwell (.831 OPS). Aaron at least bore a resemblance to his earlier successes.

There are explanations for Aaron's big years late in his career.  First, he was enjoying more favorable hitting conditions: strikezone changes, lowering of the pitching mound, moving to a favorable hitters park.  That can't be said of Bonds.  If anything, moving to one of the toughest parks in the majors for hitters should work against his production. 

Another difference between Aaron and Bonds is that Aaron's best year (at age 37) was bracketed by two relatively down years.  Using OPS+ as the measure, Aaron's numbers go from 148 in 1970, to 194 in 1971, back to 147 in 1972.  His previous high was 181 (in 1954).  His 1971 season is an increase of around 7% over his previous career best for one year.  Averaged out, his years from age 36 to 39 are only 7% above his career average.  With Aaron, it's reasonable to suggest that his big year in 1971 was somewhat fluky. 

Bonds has established a new level of performance and has had no down years; what he did in 2001 can no longer be described as an outlier.   Bonds went from 162 in 1999, to 191 in 2000 to 262, 275, 231 the last three years.  His previous high was 206.  That's an increase over his previous career best of 27% for 2 of those years, and a third at 12% better in a season in which Bonds was dealing with the illness and death of his father.  His career average before 1999 was around 170.  Averaged out, his years from age 36 to 39 are 43% above his career average.  Not meaning to state the obvious, but this is not the same as Hank Aaron.

Another thing to note with Aaron is the significant drop in his doubles production during this period.  Like home runs, doubles are part of the power equation.  It is not uncommon for a hitter to have a down year in homers, only to experience a career year in doubles, or visa versa.  A jump in home run total could be the result of a batter opening up his swing more to pull the ball towards the nearer outfield walls, or line-drives catching a little more wind and clearing the wall instead of hitting a foot below. The actual power is the same, it just takes the form of homers instead of doubles.  There have been studies within the last 10 years that prove this theory to be true.

With Aaron, I suspect as he drew closer to Ruth's record, he opened up his swing more to try to hit more home runs and in the process, sacrificed some of the doubles.  In fact, that looks to be the case as he averaged 30-35 doubles for most of his career, but as he approached Ruth, his doubles dropped precipitously from 26 in 1970, to 22 in 1971 to around 12 per season for the rest of his career as he chased, caught and surpassed Ruth in home runs.. 

But with Bonds, there has been no decrease in the rate of doubles. They have stayed constant relative to his number of opportunities.  So again, these two are very different cases.


Others

One of Hank Aaron's teammates, Davey Johnson, is
also cited as a comparable player coming up big after bulking up.  He went from a previous career best of 18 homers to setting a record for second basemen with 43 for the 1973 Braves.  However, he was going from a ballpark that reduced home run hitting by as much as 25% over league average to one that increased home run hitting by as much as 15% to right handed hitters like Johnson.  In addition, his walk rate was improving and, if you buy the theory of protection in the line-up, he went from a line-up devoid of power (Boog Powell led the Os with 21 homers and was the only hitter with more than 12) to a line-up replete with power hitters (five regulars had at least 15 home runs and three finished the season with 40 or more).  Most importantly, he was only 30 years old, still in his peak years.  He had a better place to hit, better line-up to hit in, increased selectivity and strength... the sum of which should equal a big year from Johnson.  This was also the only season in his career Johnson hit more than 20 homers.  Bonds has been at this level for at least 4 years.  The only aspect that is similar to Bonds is the increased strength.  Again, two very different cases.

Comparisons to other hitters like Andres Galarraga, Gary Gaetti, Hank Sauer and Darrel Evans who had good years late in their careers also fall apart because they only did it for a year or their late career success didn't surpass what they had done previously or because the surge was punctuated by down seasons. 


Caminiti Comparison

If there's a player in recent memory who's performance surge mirrors Bonds, it might be Ken Caminiti.  His increase especially in home run rate and OPS+ is similar, not in overall magnitude, but in percentage increase.

Caminiti admits he started taking steroids in the middle of 1996, his MVP season.  He hit 28 of his 40 homers after the break that year and 21 of those 28 were hit in August and September, plenty of time for him to start enjoying the benefits of use.  After averaging an OPS+ of 120 the previous four seasons with a high of 138 in 1995, Caminiti vaulted to 173 at age 33, an increase of 25% over his previous best and 49% better than his career average.  His home run rate that season (once every 13.65 ABs) was substantially better than his previous career best (once every 20.2 ABs accomplished the year before) and nearly twice his career rate (once every 26.3 at bats).

However, the good times weren't to last.  He began to break down more frequently the following year, but it wasn't necessarily because he was using steroids.  The problem was that he was mis-using them.  When he began, he used them non-stop rather than the directed use of cycling them with a down period.  The result was permanent damage to his body.  He has never been specific how long he used them without cycling other than to say he misused them "initially", but since his testosterone levels dropped 80% below normal according to his doctor, I'm led to believe that we're talking about more than just a couple of weeks misuse.

Regardless, even with the drop in testosterone levels and the constant pulls and strains of ligaments and muscles he experienced over the rest of his career, he was still able to generate an average of 135 OPS+ for the next 4 years properly using steroids, which was still 16% better than his career average.  Caminiti had some well-documented troubles with other substances during this period as well, so it's not clear how much more effective the steroid use could have been.

Brady Anderson is another player who showed similar percentage gains for a period of 4 years.  From 1996-1999 (ages 32-35), his production using OPS+ averaged 18% above his career average and his surprising 1996 season in which he hit 50 homers was 45% better.  Although he has never admitted using steroids, the rumors are well-circulated about Anderson's reputed use during this period in his career.


Conclusion

There's a lot to digest here.  The statistics say that he's much stronger and more explosive than he ever has been.  They also show that no other part of his game has substantially improved over the last 5 years and that some aspects are noticeably declining.  There is no evidence that his bat, diet or the specific exercises he does in his workout regimen are the secret to his success.  And then there's the fog surrounding the degree of his involvement in the BALCO case.

This generation of sports fans has been witness to some of the greatest athletes in history, several of whom were not only supremely talented, but driven to the point of obsession about maximizing their body's potential.  Yet Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Wayne Gretsky and Michael Jordan all showed their age as they entered their mid to late 30s with a loss of speed and explosiveness.  Bonds has not; his has increased.

A number of baseball pitchers became more effective as they entered their twilight years, but in every case it was entirely due to an increase in guile and knowledge of their opponent, not because they were throwing the ball 10% harder than they did when they were 25 or 30.  Hitters don't hit the ball harder and farther because they're smarter; they hit it farther because they are stronger and quicker.

So it really comes down to this: the characteristics of Bonds' improvements in physical performance are consistent with steroid use.  The question is can someone achieve those same increases without them at his age?  In an MSNBC poll, 82% of the fans said they cared if athletes are using steroids and almost 50% said they believed it was a serious problem.  The results of the BALCO case will shed more light on this topic.  Until then, the vast majority of us are left to wonder: are we seeing something truly great, or just another Ben Johnson? 

 


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