Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Barry Bonds appreciation

Last Thursday (September 14), Barry Bonds had 4 plate appearances in a game against Colorado. The plate appearances were rather uneventful – a single in 3 official at bats, and a walk. The 6th inning single and the 7th inning walk both led to San Francisco runs; after the walk Todd Linden pinch-ran for Bonds. The Giants went on to win the game, 5-0.

What was significant about Bonds’ 4 plate appearances, at least statistically, was that it pushed his total for 2006 to 453 total plate appearances. This was the Giants’ 146th game. In order to be a “qualifier” for awards such as batting championship or on-base percentage, a player must average 3.1 plate appearances per game, rounded to the nearest plate appearance. At 146 games, that means 453 total plate appearances. Bonds, with his 4 plate appearances, became a “qualifier” for the first time since May 29.

Much commentary on Bonds’ performance this year has focused on how he is suddenly “human” (at age 42, who isn’t?) or that he’s not as feared as he once was, or that the assumed steroids must have worn off.

On the surface, these observations might seem to have some merit: As I write, Bonds has a .262 batting average, his lowest since 1989. His .532 slugging percentage and his .988 OPS are his lowest since 1991 (when he finished 2nd in the MVP voting… details, details). He has scored 69 runs; he’s never been below 89 as a qualifier. His RBI total of 68 is his lowest since 1989, and only in his abbreviated 2005 season did he fail to exceed the 44 extra base hits he has so far this year – even in his rookie season of 1986 he had 45. Even his walk rate is way down this year.

That’s on the surface. Scratch that surface a bit, and recall that Bonds turned 42 this past July. We have possibly the greatest season ever for a position player of Bonds’ age.

As of September 18, here’s Bonds’ basic stat line:
262/456/532/988
122 games, 89 hits, 24 HR, 112 walks.

Bonds leads the majors with his .456 OBP, and his .988 OPS currently ranks 5th in the National League, just ahead of Carlos Beltran. His 112 walks lead the National League.

Now, let’s restrict the comparison of Bonds only to other qualifiers age 40 and above. ESPN has been keeping detailed sortable statistics since 2000. Since that time, here are all of the qualifiers age 40 and above:

Year Player G R H BB HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG OPS
2000 R. Henderson 123 75 98 88 4 32 36 233 368 305 673
2001 C. Ripken 128 43 114 26 14 68 0 239 276 361 637
2003 E. Martinez 145 72 146 92 24 98 0 294 406 489 895
2004 E. Martinez 141 45 128 58 12 63 1 263 342 385 727
2004 B. Bonds 147 129 135 232 45 101 6 362 609 812 1422
2006 J. Conine 132 122 51 38 10 61 3 268 327 406 733
2006 C. Biggio 133 73 123 38 19 52 2 244 305 421 726
2006 B. Bonds 122 69 89 112 24 68 3 262 456 532 988

Notes:
Henderson 2000 includes totals from New York and Seattle; his 31 steals were 4th in the AL. Henderson finished 9th in the NL in steals in 2002, but was not a qualifier that year.

Martinez was 4th in the AL in OBP, and 7th in walks, in 2003.

Bonds led the NL in BA, OBP, slugging, OPS, and walks in 2004, was 2nd in runs scored, and 4th in HR.

Conine 2006 includes totals from Baltimore and Philadelphia.

That’s it – in 7 seasons, just 6 players age 40 and above have had 3.1 plate appearances per game. Two of them (Henderson and Conine) switched leagues mid-season, and did not “qualify” in either league. Besides Bonds, that leaves just 3 others – Craig Biggio this year, Cal Ripken Jr. in 2001, and Edgar Martinez in 2003 and 2004. Of those, only Martinez in 2003 was productive, though his stats still don’t measure with Bonds’ totals this year, and never mind that Martinez almost never played the field.

The perception of Bonds’ 2006 season is perhaps jaded by comparisons to his age 40 season in 2004. That season, Bonds put up a .609 OBP, a 1.422 OPS, and was walked an astonishing 232 times, including 120 times intentionally. All-time records, all of them, some by wide margins. The .609 OBP surpassed Bonds’ previous high by 27 points, and was 56 points higher than anyone not named Bonds. The OPS surpassed Babe Ruth’s best by 40 points. The walk total gave Bonds the top 3 positions all-time; no one else has surpassed 170 for a season.

By comparison, the 2006 season is “ordinary.” While Bonds’ intentional walk total (currently at 37) will give him 7 of the top 10 all-time, he will likely fail to crack the top 100 all-time single season records for any other category.

Still, I would say that only one player ever, compares favorably to what Bonds is doing now: Ted Williams in 1960:

Year Player G R H BB HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG OPS
1958 T. Williams 129 81 135 98 26 85 1 328 458 584 1042
1960 T. Williams 113 56 98 75 29 72 1 316 451 645 1096

Williams led the AL in BA, OBP and OPS in 1958, and finished 3rd in walks and 8th in HR and RBI. In 1960, Williams did not have enough plate appearances to be a qualifier, but still he managed to finish 6th in the AL in both HR and walks.

How many other position players have had great seasons at or beyond age 40? With the help of baseball-reference.com, here are some other notables, among “qualifiers”:

Year Player G R H BB HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG OPS
1927 T. Cobb 134 104 175 67 5 93 22 357 440 482 922
1962 S. Musial 135 57 143 64 19 82 3 330 416 508 924
1971 W. Mays 136 82 113 112 18 61 23 271 425 482 907
1979 C. Yastrzemski 147 69 140 62 21 87 3 270 346 450 796
1982 C. Yastrzemski 131 53 126 59 16 72 0 275 358 431 789
1985 G. Nettles 137 66 115 72 15 61 0 261 363 420 783
1986 R. Jackson 132 65 101 92 18 58 1 241 379 408 787
1987 D. Evans 150 90 128 100 34 99 6 257 379 501 880
1990 C. Fisk 137 65 129 61 18 65 7 285 378 451 829
1992 D. Winfield 156 92 169 82 26 108 2 290 377 491 867
1993 G. Brett 145 69 149 39 19 75 7 266 312 434 746
1996 P. Molitor 161 99 225 56 9 113 18 341 390 468 858
1997 P. Molitor 135 63 164 45 10 89 11 305 351 435 784
1998 P. Molitor 126 75 141 45 4 69 9 281 335 382 718
1999 R. Henderson 121 89 138 82 12 42 37 315 423 466 889

There are others, to be sure, but that’s a pretty good sample. Almost all of the years listed above are ago 40 performances; only Musial (41), Yaz (in 1982, age 43 by season’s end) and Fisk (age 42) were older. Fisk is perhaps most amazing, because he caught 116 games that season.

Musial finished 2nd in OBP and 4th in OPS in 1962. Mays led the NL in OBP in 1971. Paul Molitor put together 3 solid seasons to end his career. But, of course, Molitor – as well as several others in this group – played mostly as a DH late in his career. Bonds still plays left field, and has been above average there this season.

At age 42, Bonds has put up offensive stats that compare favorably to any on the list of age 40+ players. Only Musial’s spectacular 1962 season really even comes close. For players age 42 or greater, Bonds will surely set many modern records.

Moreover, Bonds has nearly single-handedly lifted the Giants in to the wild card chase in the National League, though their pitching woes virtually ensure that they’ll soon be excused. He should get MVP votes for that. I’d like to see Bonds get his 3.1 PA, and finish atop the OBP leaderboard one last time (or two last times, assuming he comes back next year). And then be recognized for an all-time great season for a baseball senior citizen. It won’t be easy for Bonds to stay above 3.1; his manager routinely removes him early from games that are not close. Even though the wild-card chase is still on, Bonds was removed in the 5th inning tonight! Amazing that a manager would surrender so early, especially in Colorado.

Nonetheless, here's at least an appreciation for Barry.
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