Monday, January 10, 2011

Barry Bonds, Cooperstown, steroids, amphetamines, and common sense

Barry Bonds is well within the conversation of the greatest players ever, with Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb. Let me explain.

He owns the single-season record for home runs with 73. He also owns the all-time record for home runs with 762. He is also the only player in history with 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases, also obviously the first and only with 600/500 or 700/500 for what it’s worth. His 2,558 walks is most all-time, and so too do the 688 intentional passes he amassed rank first. He is second in runs, despite batting in the middle of the lineup (and not leadoff) throughout the majority of his career. He trails 3,000 hits by a mere sixty-five, and narrowly missed 2,000 RBI by four. Baseball-reference has Bonds worth an astounding 171.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over his career, behind only Babe Ruth (172). His career adjusted-OPS (OPS+) is 181, or 81% better than his average peer. He owns seven (7) MVP awards, awarded to the best player in each league since 1931, or four more than any other player in history; ten players have won three (3).

All of this, though, is marred by steroids. This is highly unfortunate. It is widely believed that Bonds began using Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in 1998. And boy did he have some incentive. Baseball was all but handing the players the stuff themselves, and the sport, no the entire country, was rejoicing in Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, and how they’d saved the game of baseball.

Before that, though, before the indictments, the suspicion, the "clear", and the book, Game of Shadows, he was regarded as the greatest player of his generation, and well on his way to being one of the greatest ballplayers of all time.

Through his 1998 season, Bonds already had 1,917 hits, 403 doubles, 63 triples and most notably, a combination of 411 home runs and 445 stolen bases. No player in the history of baseball had ever done that, i.e. the 400/400 club. No player has since. At the time, only Willie Mays, Andre Dawson and his father Bobby Bonds had ever reached even the 300/300 club (only Steve Finley, Reggie Sanders, and Alex Rodriquez have joined since). In 1996, he became only the second player (after Jose Canseco) in history – he is still one of only four players – to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season*. Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano have joined since. His career batting average was .290, his on-base percentage .411, and his slugging percentage .556. His OPS+ was 164, or 64% superior to the average hitter while he played. He had already racked up a career WAR of 103.4.

*Ironically, he may well be the only one among them who did this without the assistance of PEDs.

Allow me to put that into context. If we place him on the position player career WAR list following the 1998 season, and include everyone else through 2010, that would have placed Bonds 19th on the career WAR list for position players, 0.10 wins behind Joe Morgan, regarded in the stats community, despite his own wild ignorance, as maybe the best second baseman all-time. The following players would be the entire list of players ahead of Bonds in career WAR, and keep in mind this is if Bonds had retired after his 1998 season at the age of 33. Also keep in mind, that not only is each of the players listed below a Hall of Famer (aside from Bonds), but each is also regarded as a top three player at their position in the history of the game we love, if not the best of all time.

1. Babe Ruth, 172.00
2. [Bonds today, second all-time], 171.80
3. Ty Cobb, 159.40
4. Willie Mays, 154.70
5. Hank Aaron, 141.60
6. Honus Wagner, 134.50
7. Tris Speaker, 133.00
8. Rogers Hornsby, 127.80
T8. Stan Musial, 127.80
10. Eddie Collins, 126.70
11. Ted Williams, 125.30
12. Mickey Mantle, 120.20
13. Lou Gehrig, 118.40
14. Rickey Henderson, 113.10
15. Mel Ott, 109.30
16. Mike Schmidt, 108.30
17. Frank Robinson, 107.40
18. Nap Lajoie, 104.20
19. Joe Morgan, 103.50
20. [Barry Bonds at end of 1998], 103.40

If you’re into hardware, he had that going for him too. Through just 13 seasons, he had eight (8) Gold Glove awards, three (3) MVP awards (which tied him for the most ever, and yet he also probably deserved at least one more ), and seven (7) Silver Slugger awards. He had already been an All-star eight (8) times.

Bill James easily ranked Bonds as the best player of the 90’s. Even more telling than that, he said that the second–best player of the 1990’s, Craig Biggio, had been closer to the tenth-best player than he had been to Bonds. In essence, at the end of the 1998 season, Bonds was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Had he simply walked away from the game, he would have ranked among the best players ever.

• • •

Fast-forward to today, and the topic at hand:

Last January, I wrote a post entitled Steroids vs. Apmhetamines. Within it, I argued that their effects were not equal, that they are nowhere near equal. I still believe that today. A player using greenies will outperform a non-enhanced version of himself. That seems clear or else why were they using them. But it also seems all but certain a player using steroids will outperform an amphetamine-using version of himself. To what degree, I do not know. I’m not a doctor.

But to use this argument to exclude a player from enshrinement? Again, both were illegal to all society. Both substances were banned for use in the game of baseball. As Posnanski pointed out on Twitter, the “greenies don’t help as much” is not much of a compelling argument. It’s really sort of childish. In terms of using it for an argument, it’s probably on par with a child trying to convince his parents that his sibling is deserving of harsher punishment because “he hit me harder.”

Each player in 2000 was applying the same logic when deciding to use (or not to use) steroids as the player in 1970 was when opting (or opting not to) use amphetamines. The factors to consider were nearly identical: 1) they are banned by MLB 2) they are illegal and 3) they stand to enhance my performance. Each are performance-enhancers (PEDs). If anything, the players of 2000 were more incentivized because of the money involved, the contracts they stood to sign.

And yet, it is now evident that many of the writers across the country are now both ready and willing to deny all those players, though as spectacular as they may have been throughout their career, both while using PEDs and while not using PEDs, and again please reference Bonds’ numbers through 1998, the opportunity to be Hall of Fame players. More disturbing: the president of the Hall of Fame, Jeff Idelson, has handed them the propellant for this witch-hunt, when he says: “There’s a certain integrity when it comes to baseball’s highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame.” And when he also says: “The character clause exists as it relates to the game on the field. The character clause isn’t there to evaluate and judge players socially. It’s there to relate to the game on the field.”

For what reason the character clause was created, it’s not entirely clear. But to this point it’s not been used much, if at all, in regards to how players should be evaluated on the field – Hall of Famer Juan Marichal once clubbed Dodgers’ catcher Johnny Roseboro with his bat, more than once, in what is likely the bloodiest brawl in baseball history – or off the field – please see Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and a host of others.

And yet the vast majority of the writers have taken their stance, drawing the line at steroids. And again, the argument isn’t that they were either banned or illegal, as both greenies and steroids were, but literally that “the greenies don’t help as much.” And really, the real problem with them is the records, and more specifically the home run records. If someone would have invented a designer steroid by which eye-sight was improved by 25% and someone broke the single-season and all-time walk record, no one would have given a crap. Bonds did in fact break both those records as well, but the point still stands.

But even before Idelson’s comments, there’s evidence the stance against steroids was becoming more prominent: Feeling good about saying no to McGwire. With this article, Lowell Cohn compared steroid-users to murderers – seriously? – and wrote:

“In years past, I never considered whether a player used performance-enhancing drugs when I voted. I voted merely on performances and career statistics. I felt, with some justification, I am not a court of law and have no right to ban people. I also felt, and this was my key argument, many players who took PEDs, who cheated, never got caught, so it’s unfair to penalize the few who did get caught by denying them entrance to the Hall.

I acted on that position on several ballots but I always felt bad about what I did. It felt like I was condoning cheating, at the very least looking the other way. It never is good to feel bad.

During the last few months, I played a mental game with myself. I imagined how my conscience would feel if I voted “no” on a known PED user. My conscience felt great. I began to walk around conflict-free. It was good to look in the mirror and tell myself I was back to being a sincere, ethical, well-meaning voter as opposed to a moral weakling who would let things slide.

This means I won’t be voting for Mark McGwire this year, although I voted for him previously. I like McGwire and I wish him well in life. I just won’t vote for him. He admitted using PEDs and that disqualifies him on my ballot. I feel good writing that. I feel good not voting for him.”

And Idelson has now only fanned the flames, he’s handed them the justification for their convictions. What a shame. And because most are walking to the beat of this drum, the most recent ballot saw Rafael Palmeiro – he has both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, one of the rarest combinations in MLB history. The list: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray. That's it – finish with just 11% of the vote. If you think it's isolated to hitters, you're wrong. Kevin Brown, worth at the very least a look at the Hall of Fame, at the very least a few years to stay on the ballot and see what sticks, and that's if you don't believe he flat out deserved enshrinement, as some do, simply fell off the ballot after not receiving even 5%. Mark McGwire slipped to 19.8% after admitting his usage. It sure does pay to tell the truth, kids. And players.

As Keith Law pointedly remarked on Twitter: "I feel like the big message today is that if Bagwell did in fact use PEDs, the worst thing he culd do now is admit it and apologize." Admitting to steroid use, and telling the truth, is about the worst thing a player can do at this point.

Jeff Bagwell only garnered 41.7% of the vote. Regarding his case, Geoff Baker had this to say:

“And I do consider myself somebody who believes in innocence until guilt is proven.”


“Nor do I want to be leading a witch hunt. That’s not what I’m about. Nor what many of my fellow voters, I suspect, are about. Bagwell has not been found to have done anything wrong and put up numbers that appear Hall worthy.

So, here’s what I’ve decided to do. On Bagwell and any other guys from his era I’m not totally comfortable with going forward.


So, with Bagwell, I’m going to take advantage of the voting structure. The structure that allows me to wait if I’m unsure of a candidate and seek out new information.”

So, Jeff Bagwell, the player with clear Hall of Fame worthy credentials, he who, when recently Joe Posnanski posed the question if he was the greatest first baseman in National League history and, even going back to the 1800’s, no one could come up with any player aside from Albert Pujols, Johnny Mize, Willie McCovey and Cap Anson as his competition. And Pujols was really the only one anyone was sure of. And he, of those sterling endorsements, has been tossed into purgatory without a sliver of evidence. With only whispers and suspicion. Funny, that.

Rob Neyer, after reading Jim Caple's request for HOF voters to open their eyes and Joe Posnanski’s recap on the Hall of Fame vote, said this: “[They’re] right about steroids and amphetamines and the Hall of Fame but doesn’t it follow that we have to discount the hitting some? That we can’t put in every hitter with “Hall of Fame numbers”?”

And that’s just it. Thoughtful discounting is needed, but exclusion is not. This, in fact, is almost exactly what I said one year ago. The statistics of each player from this era of error must be scrutinized a bit more carefully. And perhaps even a bit more so for those players who are known PED users. Nothing more.

Otherwise, am I supposed to fly from San Jose, California to Albany, New York, rent a car, drive 60 miles to Cooperstown, check in to a hotel, drive to the museum, walk in, head to the section of the Hall of Fame containing the era of my childhood, and find the plaque of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Tony Gwynn, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones and a bunch of empty spaces? Wait, what? No Jeff Bagwell? No Mark McGwire? No Rafael Palmeiro? No Alex Rodriguez? No Roger Clemens? And, you’ve got to be joking me, no Barry Bonds? These are the guys I saw play. These are the guys I thought were the very best. And they aren’t even in the Hall of Fame? I guess I’ll buy the iPad 4, instead.

Luckily, Idelson did say something that makes perfect sense, and is as it should be: “When you look at the Hall of Fame...”, “you see that those who are elected are representative of that era. The Hall of Fame election is a continuum. And the standards have upheld the test of time.”

That’s the whole point, Jeff. Let’s stick to that. You aren’t handing out Nobel Peace Prize’s, or even good-guy awards. We want to see players that can steal bags, hit home runs, draw a ton of walks, take over games, and carry a team offensively for weeks. We want to see guys that threw gem after gem, whiffed countless batters… and… have wicked strikeout to walk ratios!

IF Barry Bonds IS NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF HIS ERA, then I just don’t know what. Why I don’t know if Dumb and Dumber is hilarious, if chocolate chip cookies are delicious, if high-heels are flattering on women, if Pixar revolutionized children movies or if Martin Scorsese is one heck of a director.  If that isn't the case, I just don't know what I know anymore.


  1. Thank you.

    From what I've seen on the internet, there seems to have been a fairly significant backlash over this last round of HoF fame voting. I really hope these people hold their ground.

    The baseball HoF without Barry Bonds (and many others, of course) is not the baseball HoF. Its a piece of junk. If the writers insist on holding up their "standards" it will be the HoF, rather than the players, that end up losing out.

  2. Read High Boskage House's Steroids and PEDs article plus their article on Silly-Ball, I would appreciate your opinion on the two (longish) articles that Eric Walker (of Sinister Firstbaseman and A's fame) wrote (he runs high boskage house).

    Sorry, need to run to bed but wanted to sneak this in before.

  3. Silly Ball:

    Steroids and PEDS:

    Also, sabernomics blog author is an econ professor (goes by Baseball Economist moniker) and he spoke with fellow professors down the hall from him who are in athletics dept about HGH's effects in baseball, and it is common knowledge among the profs that HGH has no positive effect to performance on the field, and has some gruesome effects on body organs (they get too large for their surrounding body, causing them to squeeze out of their body cavities; that's why some wrestlers had big guts, it wasn't from exercise).

    Now one thing unexplained in that is whether HGH gets the players back on the field faster, a la your spot-on points above about amphetamines (which I totally agree with).

  4. And so. There is also the presumption that only a small handful, and/or only the highest achieving, used steroids. If this is not the case, then there is an adjustment to be made for both hitters and pitchers, i.e., netting out to nothing. As OGC mentions, there may be an effect on counting stats, but too, rate stats would then still be legitimate.

    Why does no-one seem to mention that Bonds supposed "transformation" happened at the same time as his elbow injury? As someone who watched a few hundred games, what I saw is that post-surgery he had trouble reaching the low and outside pitch, was often made to look foolish, upon which he cultivated the incredible batting eye. He became a different type of hitter, much more disciplined than earlier in his career.

    It seems that simple to me. But I never ever see it mentioned - though it's recited endlessly re: Ted Williams. It gave Eddie Stanky a ML career. Forcing pitchers to throw strikes I thought was the great benefit of plate discipline, for the obvious reasons. Yet this interpretation I've never seen raised.