A couple years ago, I wrote here about Barry Bonds’ stats, and the remarkable upswing they took in the mid-1990s. At the time, I said this:
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.
Allow me to take that back. I am now saying that Barry Bonds has taken steroids, and thanks to Game of Shadows, we even have a pretty good idea when he started. So it makes sense to go back and take a new look at Bonds’ numbers to see what they tell us.
The biggest myth going around is that steroids can’t make a person a better hitter. You hear it all the time in defense of Bonds; heck, Bonds himself has even used it. In February 1995, Bonds said this:
I don’t believe steroids can help your eye-hand coordination, technically hit a baseball. I just don’t believe it.
Here’s Barry’s little trick: he says something that’s true! No, steroids probably can’t improve your eye-hand coordination, so Barry is probably no better at Nintendo games than he was before he starting taking steroids. But there is a lot more to baseball than eye-hand coordination. The coordination will help you put the bat on the ball, but that’s all. Last year in the National League, only 32 percent of the balls put in play turned into hits; less than four percent went for homers. So putting the bat on the ball — thanks to hand-eye coordination — is a very small part of the battle.
Here’s another myth: Other than his amazing 2001 season, Bonds’ stats really aren’t any different since 1998 than they were before. In the comments on a blog entry on FoxSports.com, a guy calling himself “UltraMegaOK1988” said this:
Look at the stats post-1998 compared to pre-1998 (1998 is the year the consensus claims Bonds started using steroids). The only aberration is Bonds’ 73 HR in 2001. Other than that, he’s been very consistent throughout his career.
The guy even created this graph to support his opinion:
Bottom line: a dead monkey could refute this argument. Here’s a similar (albeit more extreme) argument: “Why are people making such a big deal about Albert Pujols having ten home runs? Adam Everett hit more than that last year!” Does it seem silly to compare Pujols’ 48 at-bats so far this year to Everett’s 549 at-bats last year? Of course it does. So why would we accept an argument that compares Bonds’ 1989 season (580 at-bats) with his 2004 (373 at-bats)? Of course we wouldn’t.
As we did when I wrote a couple years ago, we need to put Bonds’ numbers on an equivalent scale. The “per season” scale doesn’t work, because due to injuries and walks, Bonds’ at-bats — you know, actual opportunities to get a hit or hit a home run — vary drastically from one season to another. A much better scale is based on the number of at-bats. Last time, I did this based on 512 at-bats, for some reason that I can’t remember right now. The number we use doesn’t matter at all, because it is the comparison that we are interested in. I have chosen to use 600 at-bats as the scale this time, just because I like round numbers.
Let’s look at the comparison of Bonds’ statistics, per 600 at-bats, comparing 1987-1998 to 1999-2004. (I am leaving out Bonds’ lousy rookie season and his very brief 2005 season, because no matter what you believe about Bonds, we can all agree that those two seasons were not indicative of the REAL Barry.)
(Just for now, let’s ignore that bottom mystery row. I will tell you about it in a minute. All we need to focus on is the two rows that tells us Bonds’ stats in the two different eras.)
So first things first, let’s go ahead and debunk this whole “hand-eye coordination” myth. Bottom line: pre-steroids Barry struck out 92 times every 600 at-bats; post-steroids Barry strikes out 92 times every 600 at-bats. So if anyone tells you that Bonds has become a great contact hitter as evidenced by his remarkably low strikeout numbers, tell that person he or she is full of it.
Now let’s get to the harder stuff. Buff Bonds has a batting average that is 33 points higher than that of his more angular self, and an on-base percentage that is 96 points higher. Those two numbers are directly attributable to two things: 21 more hits and 104 more walks every 600 at-bats. The walks are easy to explain: 48 of them are intentional, and the vast majority of the others are a direct result of pitchers being extremely careful of his power. But the hits, those are a tougher sell. I mean, if the guy gets 21 more hits every 600 at-bats, that means he is a better hitter, right? Not so fast. Let’s look a little closer. Round Barry averages three more doubles and three fewer triples than Skinny Barry, so those cancel each other out. That leaves us with singles and home runs to make up this difference of 21 hits every 600 at-bats. How many more homers? That’s right: 33. That means he actually gets 12 fewer singles every 600 at-bats than he used to. Does it mean he is a worse hitter? No, it means the startling increase in home runs is the one and only reason he is a better hitter.
Let’s break it down for those of you who don’t like math. Steroid Barry’s stats improved by the following amounts every 600 at-bats:
Home Runs: 33
Batting Average: .033
On-Base Percentage: .096
Slugging Percentage: .186
Shall we talk about that mystery row at the bottom? You see that guy who averages 143 runs, 52 homers, and 110 RBIs every 600 at-bats, with an OPS of 1.034? That’s superstar Mark Bellhorn, one of the worst offensive players in baseball. What did we do to his numbers? Just added the difference between Skinny Barry and Steroid Barry, that’s all.
There is absolutely no question about it: Barry Bonds is a better hitter than he used to be because he hits more home runs. He’s not making any better contact with the ball; his other extra-base hits have not increased at all. A lot of balls that used to be flyouts or doubles are now home runs, and probably some of the ones that would have been singles are now finding gaps for doubles. Barry himself said this, in May 2001:
There are some things I don’t understand right now. The balls I used to line off the wall are lining out (of the park). I can’t tell you why. Call God. Ask Him.
Of course, by “God” he means “Victor Conte and Greg Anderson,” and by “call” he means “subpoena,” and by “Ask him” he means “please don’t.”