Is Barry Bonds a better hitter than he used to be?

By | June 02, 2004

I was watching SportsCenter a few weeks ago, and there was (of course) a story about Barry Bonds. The Giants were in New York to play the Mets, so they had a reporter from one of the New York newspapers on to discuss the Bonds hype. Naturally, discussion of Bonds led to discussion of steroids, and the reporter said, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: steroids did not turn Barry Bonds into a great hitter. Steroids may help the home run totals, but they don’t do a thing for batting average, and they can’t turn a man into a natural hitter as great as Barry Bonds is.”

It’s a great theory, and it makes sense. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t back it up. Let’s take a look at the facts, shall we?

First things first: for the purpose of this discussion, we are discounting 1986, Bonds’ first season in the Major Leagues, simply because the numbers tell us that whoever the real Barry Bonds is, he isn’t accurately represented by his 1986 stats (and let’s face it, very few guys are accurately represented by their rookie stats).

That said, if you look just at home run totals, you can draw a pretty nice line after the 1995 season. In the nine seasons from 1987-1995, Bonds hit 40 or more home runs once; in the eight seasons from 1996-2003, he hit fewer than 40 only twice, and he only played 102 games in one of those. Not coincidentally, you would draw the line in about the same place if you were looking at Bonds’ physique instead of his home run numbers; Barry Bonds the quick, skinny guy gave way to Barry Bonds the Greek God of Round Faces around the 1995-96 time period.

I guess it’s time for a disclaimer: I am not saying Barry Bonds has ever taken steroids. I am saying that he is a lot more muscular than he used to be.

So let’s look at Bonds’ split career, and see just how much different a hitter he is since he got buff. Prepare to be surprised, and if you are a certain New York reporter, prepare to eat your words.

SkinnyBarry (1986-1995) had 1344 hits in 4607 at-bats, for a .292 batting average. Of those 1344 hits, 276 of them were home runs. He also had 693 strikeouts. (By the way, all stats were taken from

RoundBarry (1996-2003) had 1159 hits in 3705 at-bats, for a .313 batting average. Of those 1159 hits, 366 of them were home runs. He also had 592 strikeouts.

Without even going too deep into the numbers, we can address one common idea: that Barry Bonds has become a better hitter because he started making better contact. Simple math, though, tells us that SkinnyBarry averaged 77 strikeouts per season, while RoundBarry averaged 74 strikeouts per season. So yes, SkinnyBarry struck out a few more times each season, but not enough to make a .021 difference in batting average.

This leads us very well into the next important step of our analysis. Simple per-season analyses are not very accurate when comparing SkinnyBarry and RoundBarry, for several reasons. The most obvious reason is that SkinnyBarry walked 866 times in 5554 plate appearances (15.6%), while RoundBarry walked 1139 times in 4929 plate appearances (23.1%); therefore, the number of at-bats (a number that does not include walks) is off by about 7.5%. Another major reason per-season stat comparisons don’t work (for anyone, not just Bonds) is that no two seasons are the same. SkinnyBarry lost nearly two months of the 1994 season to the strike; RoundBarry lost more than that to injury in 1999.

What we need to do is even things out, so that our comparisons are meaningful. SkinnyBarry averaged 512 at-bats per season; this is a pretty reasonable number for an average season from a power hitter, so we will use it. (We could use any number, really, and while the raw data would be different, the ideas behind the data would remain the same.) Instead of comparing the Barrys on a per-season basis, we will compare them on a per-512 at-bat basis and see how they match up.

Let’s go back to the contact hitting idea. SkinnyBarry averaged 77 strikeouts per 512 at-bats; RoundBarry averaged 81.8. So much for the contact idea, eh?

So Barry Bonds isn’t a better contact hitter than he used to be, but is he a better hitter? After all, batting average is the same whether it is per-season or per-512 at-bats or per-decade, right? Yes, yes it is. There is absolutely no denying that RoundBarry has a batting average that is 21 points higher than SkinnyBarry’s. The question is, how did it happen?

We will answer that in a roundabout sort of way. Let’s look at some other numbers:

Home runs per 512 at-bats:

SkinnyBarry: 30.7
RoundBarry: 50.6

Hits per 512 at-bats:

SkinnyBarry: 149.4
RoundBarry: 160.2

Non-HR extra base hits per 512 at-bats:

SkinnyBarry: 36.1
RoundBarry: 35.4

Singles per 512 at-bats

SkinnyBarry: 82.6
RoundBarry: 74.2

What if a lot of RoundBarry’s home runs didn’t quite make it out? What if RoundBarry only hit home runs at a pace that SkinnyBarry did? What if RoundBarry only hit 30.7 home runs every 512 at-bats? That is a decrease of 19.9 HR/512. Based on the numbers, we can assume that 0.7 of those 19.9 would have gone off the wall and gone for a double instead of a homer. That leaves us with a difference of 19.2. So what if those 19.2 homers had instead been deep flyouts to right field? Well, then RoundBarry would have averaged 141 hits per 512 at-bats, or a .275 batting average. That is .017 lower than SkinnyBarry’s average.

What does all this mean? Is RoundBarry actually a worse hitter than SkinnyBarry? No, RoundBarry really is a better hitter than SkinnyBarry. What these numbers teach us is that RoundBarry is a better hitter because he hits more home runs; he doesn’t hit more home runs because he is a better hitter.

So Barry Bonds is a better hitter than he used to be because he hits more homers than he used to. He started hitting demonstrably more homers than he used to when he started getting much larger. So if steroids were responsible for Bonds getting much larger, then yes, steroids did make Barry Bonds a better hitter, and they did a heck of a lot for his batting average.

You just read the main point; the rest is just for fun

Just for fun, let’s look at Barry’s amazing 2002 season, when he hit .370. This is the year that many people point to to demonstrate that RoundBarry is a much better hitter than SkinnyBarry. To work it with our other statistics, let’s put everything on a scale of 512 at-bats. On that scale, Bonds had 189.3 hits, 58.4 homers, and 41.9 non-HR XBH. What if he had had his average of 30.7 HR and 36.1 non-HR XBH? Well, that would drop him down to 155.8 hits, which would give him a .304 batting average. Still slightly above his .298 adjusted average for the other 16 seasons, but not quite the Ty Cobb numbers they looked like. (Obviously, it isn’t fair to assume that Bonds would have had an average extra base hit season in 2002; but even if you split the difference between his actual .370 and his adjusted .304, you are still looking at .337 — almost identical to SkinnyBarry’s 1993 average!)

If I had access to more in-depth statistics (and much more time), I would take this one step further: I would look at the actual distances that Bonds’ fly balls traveled, and see how every single RoundBarry at-bat would have turned out if adjusted to SkinnyBarry proportions. I am guessing that the results would be similar to what we have just discovered.

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