Is He for Real?
October 25, 2002
Barry Bonds has become somewhat of a phenomenon in that people really don't know how to take him. Is he really this good? Why do so many love him yet so many hate him? More importantly, are his accomplishments of the last couple of years due to superior genetics and physical training, or are they in large part a product of a high tech pharmacy?
First of all, if he is using a performance enhancing drug, it's probably not old-fashioned steroids. Steroids have too many dangerous side-effects for a guy making Bonds' money to take the risk. Instead, he'd be taking something like Human Growth Hormone. It's safer, harder to detect and more effective at producing the desired results. It also provides deniability on the steroid issue: he wouldn't be using a drug that promotes testosterone production (which is what a steroid is); he'd simply be taking the testosterone itself.
Can we determine if he's using? Probably not conclusively without some type of medical test, but what we can do is look at all the data available and draw conclusions on the likelihood that he is or isn't using.
First, we should look at Bonds' side of the issue. He claims that he has a new technique for batting that allows him to see the ball better and make more solid contact. Of course, he didn't make that claim until after his record breaking 2001 season. During the season when asked on several occasions, he stated he didn't know. But anyway, if he's recognizing the pitches sooner or has figured out a way to get the ball on the bat more frequently, we'd expect his contact rates to have improved over his career average. From 1997-2000, Bonds contact rate hovered between 83% and 84%. In 2001, it dropped to 80%. This year, it rose to 88%. So while this year's results can be explained by his improved vision at the plate, last year's can not. This year's boost in contact rate might be partially explained by a inordinately high number of pitchers making no effort to throw him a hittable pitch, as evidenced by his record 68 intentional walks, numerous "unintentional" intentional walks and precipitous drop in strikeouts - only 47 after averaging 80 a season for his career. Bonds' focus on winning a batting title might also explain the improved contact rate, sacrificing some of his recent power surge in favor of making more contact. He did top his career best in batting average by nearly 35 points and his career average by 75.
Perhaps his improved vision shows itself in the number of pitches he sees each appearance. Bonds has averaged 3.72 pitches per plate appearance for his career, five times topping 3.80 (1992, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001) with a career best in 1999 at 3.87. Had his power been all about selectivity at the plate, we should have seen a boost in homers or slugging percentage during these peak years. While it's true he's established career highs in the most recent three years, 1992 and 1995 were two of his lowest years in slugging percentage since 1991. This year, he saw 3.54 pitches per plate appearance. However, that number is slightly deceiving because pitches thrown in an intentional walk are not counted in the total. Including them yields 3.98 pitches per plate appearance, but that is still lower than than the marks he established last year (4.05), 1995 (4.00) and 1992 (4.05) when including IBBs, and only slightly better than his marks in 2000 (3.97), 1999 (3.95) and 1996 (3.97).
If there's been an improvement in his vision, it hasn't showed itself conclusively in either his contact rate or pitches seen: both are at or near his career averages.
Perhaps his new technique allows him to loft balls in the air more, thus giving him a better chance to hit a home run. From 1992-1997, his groundball/flyball ratio vacillated between 0.71 and 0.76. In 1998, it dropped to 0.63. The following year it was 0.62. In 2000 it dropped even further to 0.57 and in his record breaking year it was 0.56. This year, it was 0.65. So yes, he is hitting more flyballs than he once did, but the significant drops in G/F rate haven't necessarily corresponded with an increase in home runs or slugging.
Year G/F Ratio HR/550 ABs 1992 0.74 39.5 1993 0.75 46.9 1994 0.72 52.0 1995 0.72 35.8 1996 0.71 44.6 1997 0.76 41.4 1998 0.63 36.8 1999 0.62 52.6 2000 0.57 56.1 2001 0.56 84.3 2002 0.65 62.3
If there is a technical reason why Barry Bonds is hitting for a slugging percentage more than 200 points higher than his career average the past 2 years, he either doesn't know what it is or is not telling. None of his or any of his defenders explanations hold any water.
Well, what about the other side? If he's using performance enhancing drugs, how could we tell? A number of ways really, but none are what one could call defining.
First, obviously, he'd hit the ball farther. The added strength from the muscle mass increase would turn what were once flyball outs into home runs, very much like the effect the thin air has on balls at Coors Field. While it'd be hard to measure how many flyball outs are now home runs, we would see a difference in length of his home runs. If someone were hitting the ball farther, we'd expect him to show up on the longest home runs of the year more often. In 1994, there were 45 homers that traveled at least 450 feet. Many of the names on that list are noted moonshot artists - Sosa, Griffey, Canseco, Fielder, Piazza. However, none that year were hit by Barry Bonds. In each year from 1995 to 1998, there were at least 40 homers that traveled 450 feet and guys like McGwire, Sosa, Griffey, Canseco, Piazza were all over those lists. Yet no Bonds. In fact, from 1990 when STATS Inc began publishing these lists in their Baseball Scoreboard book, until 2000, Bonds showed up on these lists exactly once (in 1993 he hit a ball 450 feet in a game in Colorado).
However, things changed in 2000. In the 2000 season, he showed up twice on the list. Over the last 2 years, he has topped 450 feet ten times, hitting balls at least 480 feet six times. This total does not include 13 of the home runs he's hit into McCovey Cove over that period as they don't usually give distance for those. However, the cove is 380 feet from home plate down the right field line and balls hit over the right center field fence where the wall zig-zags have to travel 446 feet to get to the water's edge. Given any shot from home plate will clear the walkway at an angle - the ball would not go directly into the cove at water's edge - the distance traveled would likely be an additional 5-10 feet. So what we have is this: not including his first 3 years where we have no record of home run distance, Bonds topped 450 feet once in the first 14 years of his career. But in the last 3 years, he has topped that mark at least a dozen times, and perhaps as many as two dozen. And not only is he reaching this mark much more frequently, but he is exceeding it by nearly 10%. So unless you believe that he never made solid contact with a ball until his 15th year in the majors, Bonds is a lot stronger than he was over the majority of his career.
According to Yale University Physicis Professor Robert Adair in "the Physics of Baseball", in order to hit a ball 400 feet under ordinary weather conditions, with optimal trajectory and spin, a hitter's bat speed must be 76 mph (for a pitched ball travelling at 85 mph, major league average). To hit the same pitch 450 feet, his bat speed must be 86 mph, a 13% increase in speed, requiring 28% more energy to accomplish. To hit that same pitch 480 feet, the bat speed would have to be 92 mph, requiring almost 30% more energy than the 450 foot blow. So the question then is can an athlete already in peak condition increase his power that much just by altering his workout and nutrition?
How often do athletes get substantially stronger at this age? Well, never. Some would compare Bonds recent surge to that of Hank Aaron's late in his career. In 1971, at age 37, Aaron hit a career high 47 homers and set a personal best mark of .669 slugging. After an off year in 1972, Aaron followed up with another strong season with 40 homers in 1973. However, these two seasons were not substantially better than any of Aaron's other great years, and Aaron benefitted from a move to a more hitter-friendly park and the pitcher's mound being lowered . With Bonds, this is not the case. If anything, the recent move to Pac Bell, one of the toughest parks for hitters, works against Bonds.
The last 2 years of Bonds career are so out of line with the rest of his career as to suggest that this is a completely different hitter. The difference between Bonds of 2001-2002 (1.380 OPS) and Bonds career previous (.979 OPS) is the difference between Ted Williams (1.117 career OPS) and Gerald Williams (.720 career OPS). Even using Bonds' "peak" years (1992-2000 - 1.065 OPS), it's the difference between Ted Williams and Matt Williams (.808 OPS). Bonds' home run rate per at bat was 1 every 15.6 at bats until 2000. In 2001 and 2002, he's averaged a home run every 7.38 at bats, or more than twice as often as his career average. Using Adjusted OPS, Bonds posted a 262 and a 275 in 2001-2002, the two highest marks in history. Before 2001, his best mark was 206 in 1993. He had topped 200 just twice and had averaged around 170 for his career. No one has ever made such a sustained leap and the only similar leap for even a one-year period was made by Fred Dunlap in 1884, when he left the National League and went to the Union Association, essentially AAA league. Needless to say, no one ever come close to the 25-30% increase in production over their previous career best after age 33 that Bonds has enjoyed in his mid-late thirties.
Even in other sports, this does not happen. Al Oerter was probably the greatest discus thrower ever and one of the finest Olympic athletes in the history of the games. He was the first man (Carl Lewis being the only other) to have won individual gold medals in 4 different Olympics. His distances went up at each Olympics he competed in. He retired at age 31 to spend more time with his family, but came back to discus several years later and was competitive into his 40s. However, early in his career, Oerter was a terrible technician, by his own admission. His victories in the 1956 and 1960 games were largely due to his incredible strength. It wasn't until he refined his technique that he became the first man to ever throw a discuss 200 feet. And while he was competitive in his late 30s and into his 40's, he was not the best in the world at that point, perhaps not even in the top 5. Neither of these factors are true with Bonds. Bonds has always had a technically proficient swing at the plate with no major adjustments over the course of his career, and here he is in his late 30s, unquestionably the most offensively productive player in the game. No player in any other sport has ever become substantially better after age 35 than he was before that age. No one.Perhaps his superior baseball genetics is the answer. After all, his father was a very good ballplayer. While that is true, his father had his last productive year at age 33 and was out of baseball at age 35, not due to injury, but ineffectiveness. If Bonds inherited some kind of special endurance gene that allows him to produce at a higher level later in his career than he did in his peak years, it didn't come from his father.
Another sign of pharmaceutical enhancement is an increased number of injuries. Due to the increased stresses on the support structure of the body, the athlete is more prone to pulls and tears of muscles and ligaments. We'd see this in the form of missed time and time on the DL. From 1989-1998, Bonds averaged 155.6 games played per season. In 1999, he played only 102 games due to a rib injury. Over the last three years, he's averaging 146.6 games played per season and going back to 1999, just a 136 per season. This obviously isn't conclusive as you might find a decline like this caused by nothing more than getting older, especially an athlete in his late 30's like Bonds.
On a bit of a conjectural tangent: if Bonds claims that his new-found ability is largely due to the work of his nutritionist and his personal trainer, why hasn't the Giants organization contracted these people to work with all the Giants hitters? Over the last 2 years, Bonds' OPS is 40% better than it was for his career to that point. It seems logical that if a player enjoyed that kind of performance boost from simply eating right and exercising, that everyone on that team would be under an organizational mandate to eat the same things Bonds was eating and to be exercising the same way. What team, or player for that matter, wouldn't want a 40% increase in offensive production? But the fact is that not only haven't the Giants enjoyed that kind of increase, but have remained neutral in both relative runs scored and team OPS over the last several years. Given Bonds' boost in production, this would imply that the rest of the Giants' hitters are actually less productive than they were before Bonds' two-year outburst. So the rest of the team is declining in production, one player is hitting unparalleled highs due to a secret formula for good living, yet the organization is satisfied that this is the way to go and is not interested in seeing the rest of the team enjoy a similar renaissance? It just doesn't add up. Unless that one player was doing something that was either illegal or something that had a substantial stigma attached to it. It has been noted that Gary Sheffield has worked out with Bonds and is on a similar fitness program. His skill set is similar, although not quite as good, yet his results pale by comparison. So what is missing?
The Jury Discusses...
So how is it that his on base percentage is so high? I don't really know, but I have a theory which I call the ESPN factor. Opposing managers and pitchers see Bonds hitting home runs in just about every highlight, they start to think ,"maybe it's simply better not to pitch to him at all", much like the notion that it's a really good idea to bunt a hitter over to second in non-game ending situations. The likelihood of scoring a run actually goes down with each additional out, despite moving the runner closer to scoring. So even though the runner at second is closer to getting home, because they forfeited an out, the team is less likely to score that run than it would be if they had just left him on first and batted away. Yet plenty of highly regarded managers (at least, highly regarded by hiring front offices) buy into the idea that they can "manage" a run home and give his team an early edge, when in fact, it hurts his team's chances of winning by reducing the chances for his team to score multiple runs.
Maybe the same thing is occurring with Bonds. They see him hit all these monster home runs and start to believe that walking him every time up isn't as bad as pitching to him. If not intentionally walking him, at least not giving him a pitch that he can hit. The side effect is that pitchers are more concerned about not throwing a strike than they would be of making their pitches. As anyone who has played sports will tell you, or for that matter has undertaken almost any endeavor, if you start to think about not making a mistake, the more likely you are to make one. Overthinking matters causes more troubles than avoids them. Thus Bonds gets fewer hittable pitches overall, but the ones he does get are mistakes right over the middle of the plate, or at least in an area he can get the fat part of his bat on fairly easily.
But that is not really the point. This is the point: there are people who believe Bonds is simply an all-natural freak of nature. Just like there are people who believe that the Russians won the 1972 Olympic gold in basketball legitimately, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that Richard Nixon was not involved in Watergate, that Ronald Reagan never colored his hair (or didn't lose mental function until after he left office), that Bill Clinton didn't inhale and/or that smoking cigarettes is not bad for your health. However, there is a substantial amount of evidence to the contrary to these positions and very little evidence to support them. It is almost certain that Bonds uses performance enhancing drugs and they're probably far more potent than creatine.
How do we know that? Because we have some basis for what certain supplements can do for performance. For instance, Mark McGwire was a body building enthusiast for his entire career. We don't know how long he used Androstenedione (a supplement more potent than creatine, which you can get at any GNC and many supermarkets) but we do know that in 1998 he was using it and in 1999 he wasn't. His home run rate in '98 increased to once every 7.27 at bats from his career average of once every 11.9 at bats, and bested his previous career best of once every 8.13 at bats set three years earlier in 1995 and matched in 1996. In 1999, his rate dropped to once every 8.0 at bats, followed by two injury plagued half seasons where he averaged once every 8.75 at bats before retiring. And McGwire's adjusted OPS in 1998 was only marginally better than his career best years set in 1995 and 1996. Ken Caminiti, on the other hand, has admitted to using steroids during his career, specifically citing his MVP year in 1996. That season, his adjusted OPS was 25% better than anything he had done previously, and his home run rate (once every 13.65 ABs) was substantially better than his career best (once every 20.2 ABs accomplished the year before) and nearly twice his career rate (once every 26.3 at bats). These are gains similar to what Bonds is experiencing, although Bonds is doing this nearly 5 years later in his career.
Bonds has always been somewhat of a gym rat, but if pharmaceutical supplement isn't part of his recent equation, then you must believe that the exercise is finally showing some results after 15 years of workouts and that he suddenly became the best conditioned athlete of all time. To demonstrate how much Bonds has improved over what he'd done previously, imagine if Lance Armstrong were suddenly to enjoy comparable gains. Instead of winning the Tour de France by insurmountable leads of 5 to 6 minutes, he would be winning bicycle racing's most prestigious race by 20 hours. Do you think anyone would believe such a thing were possible just by eating right and exercising better?
So what does this mean? Well, when comparing his accomplishments to his peers, nothing. They have access to the same resources he does, so if they aren't as productive, then they are either not as driven, not as talented, or in some cases like Vlad Guerrero and ARod, simply not as experienced. Either way, it's pretty clear that he's the most dangerous offensive player in the game right now and has been for much of the last 15 years. Whether that is due to talent, drive or drugs is a moot point.
But when comparing his accomplishments to the all-time greats, this just means there must be another caveat added to the mix. Just how much do performance enhancing drugs boost performance? Based on the evidence, enough to make good players into All-Stars, All-Stars into MVPs and Barry Bonds comparable to Babe Ruth.
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