Stages of greatness
The arc of Bonds' career is like no other
By Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated
The all-time greats of baseball announce themselves early, like youthful princes born to the throne. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle all glowed with an unmistakable destiny from their first moments as big leaguers. Outside of this regal procession of the entitled, however, lies Barry Bonds, the fourth man in history to hit 600 home runs and the only one to actually sneak up on one of the sport's Mount Everests of numbers. Ever defiant, Bonds has blown up the game's actuarial tables as we knew them.
Bonds began his career in 1986 as a lithe leadoff hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The comprehensive Web site Baseball-Reference.com found Bonds to be most similar to these hitters through his first eight years in the big leagues: Bob Coluccio, Tom Brunansky, Jack Clark, Bobby Bonds and, in 1992 at age 28, Greg Luzinski. As recently as two years ago, Bonds was left off the All-Century team by Major League Baseball.
Now, having just celebrated his 38th birthday on July 24, the erstwhile Luzinski-esque Bonds (by numerical figures only, thank you) stands not only among the greatest players ever, but also as perhaps the most feared hitter who ever lived. At the very least, no one's ever been this good this late in a career.
Never before have pitchers avoided a hitter as much as they do Bonds. Last season, for instance, pitchers walked him in 26.7 percent of his plate appearances. Ruth never walked in more than 24.3 percent of his plate appearances and Williams never more than 25.8.
This season, however, the respect for Bonds has bordered on the absurd. Through Bonds' first 99 games, pitchers had walked him 127 times, or nearly one out of every three times he came to the plate.
When you put runners on base the fear factor becomes even greater. In those 99 games, Bonds came to bat 105 times with runners in scoring position. Pitchers walked him 48 times, or 45.7 percent. (His on-base percentage in those clutch situations was a beer-league-softball-like .648).
And with first base open with runners on second and/or third? Forget it. Bonds gets more passes than J. Lo. Bonds was walked 41 times in 62 such situations, or 66.1 percent of the time.
Of course, not all of those walks were intentional, and Bonds does have a famously discerning eye at the plate (though that, too, was not the case early in his career). But clearly the numbers and the anecdotal evidence suggest that Bonds is too good for this league. Getting such respect from opposing pitchers is unprecedented in the game.
This is a kind of newfound greatness for Bonds. Though always a terrific player, his overall career as a hitter still doesn't match that of Ruth or Williams. For instance, entering this season Bonds had virtually the same number of plate appearances as Williams (16 more, or 9,805 to be precise). But he made 13 percent more outs and struck out 81 percent more often than Williams. Bonds also trailed Williams by wide margins across the board in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. Ruth and Williams each walked in 20 percent of their plate appearances in 10 seasons. Bonds has done so four times.
This idea that you must be careful with Bonds is a phenomenon that has developed in the second half of his career. So what happened? Most obviously, Bonds filled out physically -- and then grew positively monstrous over the past four or five seasons. More subtly, Bonds learned how to lift the ball just as post-Camden Yards baseball was exploding into a worship of the longball.
You can break up Bonds' career as a hitter into three distinct stages. From 1986 through 1989 a coltish Bonds was a slasher of a hitter who produced as many groundballs as he did flyballs.
In Stage II, from 1990 through 1997, Bonds was a consistent, middle-of-the-order run producer who became a home run hitter by getting the ball in the air more. In those eight seasons his groundball-to-flyball ratio hovered between 0.71 and 0.83.
Stage III not uncoincidentally kicked off with the McGwire-Sosa home run race, time when an even bigger, smarter, more experienced Bonds moved into the company of the very best. His groundball-to-flyball ratio has decreased every year during this period. Here are those ratios, starting with 1997 (the end of Stage II) and including this season: 0.76, 0.63, 0.62, 0.57, 0.56, 0.59. In other words, Bonds now hits almost two flyballs for every groundball. This transformation would not have been possible without Bonds having put more of an upward arc into his swing. Now he's looking to go deep.
Bonds is on pace to hit 46 home runs this year. Assuming he stays on that pace, here are the average annual home runs for Bonds in the three stages of his career:
At his current pace, Bonds will finish this season with 613 career home runs. With another 46-homer season next year he would be one beind Willie Mays (660) for third on the all-time homer list. If Bonds maintains his Stage III average, he would pass Ruth in early 2005 -- the year Bonds turns 41 -- and, if he can elevate his average just a bit, he'd move past Hank Aaron in that same season to become the all-time leader.
Is that possible? Williams hit 29 homers at age 41 in his final season, 1960 -- good for sixth in the American League. Aaron, a DH at 41, hit 12 homers and bowed out the following year with 10. Mays, a part-time player at 41, hit eight homers and then six the next year, his last.
If Bonds has taught us anything, though, it is that the arc of his career is like no other. He is like nobody we've ever seen -- especially not Brunansky or Luzinski.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers the baseball beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com.