"When he was younger, you were more concerned about him hitting a line drive in the gap or stealing a base than you were about him hitting a home run," says Atlanta Braves veteran lefthander Tom Glavine, against whom Bonds, at week's end, was 24 for 75 (.320) for his career. "He's a different hitter now. In fact he's a different hitter over the last five years than he was, say, when he first went to San Francisco [in 1993]. He went from a guy who would occasionally hit the mistake pitch for a home run to somebody who hits mistakes out all the time."
No batter ever has made himself this good this late in his career (chart). How did it happen? Most evident, the 6'2", 228-pound Bonds filled out physically without losing any of the snap to one of the quickest batting strokes in the game. (He has repeatedly denied that he uses steroids and says his growth is attributable to his workout routine and nutritional supplements.) More subtly, Bonds's development as a power hitter accelerated when baseball entered this post- Camden Yards age of long-ball worship and he learned to lift the ball.
His career can be delineated into three stages. In Stage 1, from 1986 through '89, Bonds was a slasher who hit as many ground balls as he did fly balls. In Stage 2, from '90 through '97, Bonds was a consistent run producer who became a better home run hitter by getting the ball in the air more often. In those eight seasons his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio fluctuated between 71:100 and 87:100. Not coincidentally, Stage 3 began in '98, an expansion year best remembered for the McGwire-Sosa home run race, when an even bigger, smarter Bonds moved into the company of the alltime power hitters. Over this last stage his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio has decreased every full year: 63:100 (in '98), 62:100, 57:100, 56:100 (56:100 in 2002, through Sunday). In other words, he now hits almost two flies for every grounder. This transformation would not be possible without Bonds's putting more arc in his swing—he's looking to go deep. With his added strength, many of those fly balls are sailing far beyond the fences of today's cozy retroparks.
Further, in Stage 3 Bonds has crept closer to home plate, enabling him to pull pitches on the outside half of the plate with power rather than hitting line drives to the leftfield gap. The defensive shift most teams employ against him is also a Stage 3 development. "He's so close to the plate, he can take a pitch away and turn on it," Glavine says. "If you hit him on the hands, it's almost a strike. Yet he's so quick that he kills the inside pitch. You have to pitch him inside to keep him honest, but you'd better bury it way in because if you miss [over the plate], it's gone."
In Stage 1 Bonds hit 21 home runs per season; in Stage 2,36. Through Sunday he was on pace to slug 48 homers this year—his average during Stage 3—which would give him 615 for his career at season's end. With another 48-homer season next year he would pass Mays, who finished with 660. If he continues to maintain his Stage 3 rate, Bonds would pass Ruth (714) and Aaron (755) in 2005, the year he turns 41.
Is it possible for Bonds to maintain this production at such an advanced age? In his final season (1960) Williams, at 41, hit 29 homers—sixth in the American League—in a much less homer-friendly, much less muscular time. In '72 Mays, at 41, hit eight homers and followed that with six the next year, his last. In '75 Aaron, at 41, hit 12 homers and bowed out the next year with 10.
If Bonds has taught us anything, it's that the arc of his career is like no other's—especially not like Bob Coluccio's.