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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Lively Player Era

For those who are unaware of the magnitude of the increased performance Barry Bonds has evidenced in the last few years I've updated a graph I created a few months back with Barry's 2004 stats as well as added HR/AB.
In looking at this graph it appears that by age 33 Bonds had begun the natural decline that is typical for ball players. By age 35 however, his performance levels were equal to his peak period from age 27 to 30. After that he continued to get better with his peak homerun season of 73 coming at the age of 36. However, after dipping back down at age 37 his homeruns per at bat have climbed a little the last two seasons while his strikeouts have declined and his walks, of course, have gone through the roof.

I don't know that I have too much to add to what's been said on other baseball blogs this week. I guess like alot of fans (who should shoulder some of the blame for not being more outspoken and clear sighted) I had hoped that Bonds and others had improved their performance in large part due to hard work and weight training along with a confluence of other factors I've written about before. Alas that seems unlikely to be the case as the scandal spreads and so the increased homerun output since 1993 will be - at least mentally - placed in a different category for baseball fans like me. That saddens me because I'm one who does cherish the statistics of the game and value them in large part for their continuity. Quite simply it makes a wreck of them since there is no way to separate the livelier players" (in the words of George Will) from the unenhanced ones.

And the unfortunate thing is that the widespread use of these substances was so preventable. If baseball had gotten serious when other sports did, namely the NFL which instituted its policy in 1987 and the hoopla surrounding Ben Johnson in 1988, much of this would have been avoided. Baseball even had a second chance in 2002 when the Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco stories came out but once again they fiddled while Rome burned. The strength of the player's union and the disunity of the owners both played a role.

I did want to address two issue that came up this week. First, in the Peter Gammons story on ESPN a couple days ago. He said,

"In 1999, Barry Bonds was already a Hall of Fame player. He had won three MVPs, and should have had a fourth. He hit .300 and averaged 36 homers a year in the '90s. He is such an intelligent hitter that teammates claim he knows every pitch that's coming, he's reduced the strike zone to the size of a nickel, and in the 21st Century has batted .306, .328, .370, .341 and .362, with on-base percentages of .440, .515. .582, .529 and .609. That's not chemical, that's simple greatness."

I'm not so sure that what Gammons described can be so easily passed off as skill and that there isn't a positive feedback loop related to Bonds' presumed chemical enhancement in operation that shrinks his strikezone and accounts for his "intelligence" and increased batting averages and on base percentages.

If one assumes that Bonds' increased strength has increased his bat speed it is reasonable to assume that this allows him to wait on pitches longer. This allows him to get better recognition and avoid swinging at some percentage of balls that he formerly would chase. This results in more line drives and thus more hits and a higher batting average. At the same time his strength allows him to hit balls harder and farther than before. Gammons noted that a homerun distance expert has claimed that "prior to 2000, Bonds hit three homers longer than 450 feet; in the last five years, he has hit 26". Pitchers aren't dumb and notice this and therefore rightly pitch carefully to him. Umpires also know this and aren't expecting as many strikes thrown to Bonds. The strikezone shrinks. His walks and on base percentage (not counting intentional walks) skyrockets. Bonds can be more selective therefore and swing only at very hittable pitches (mistakes, usually fastballs with poor location or hanging curves). He hits them very hard. Pitchers see this and are even more reluctant to throw strikes. Fewer strikes are expected, the strikezone shrinks. The end result is what you see.

The second is the statement that Bonds made when he said he didn't know what was in the "cream" that he got from his trainer and didn't ask. I'm not a professional athlete but my brother-in-law is an Olympic wrestler and in observing him I find it impossible to believe that any professional athlete, whose job is their body after all, wouldn't know what they were using on their body or wouldn't care or wouldn't see changes that were unnatural. Athletes at that level understand their bodies much more deeply than your average Joe. I'm not buying Barry's defense from ignorance.

Update: Just read this column by George Will. I was referring to his comments on This Week on Sunday morning much of which he echoes in the column. Related to his points about fairness in sport Gammons quoted the Royals Mike Sweeney saying at this year's All-Star game, "I want strong testing because I don't think it's fair for someone to have an illegal advantage over me." Way to go Mike.


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