Search

A Season Like No Other Barry Bonds is playing in his own universe, where the strategies are twisted, the numbers are absurd--and everyone's frustrated

May 17, 2004
May 17, 2004

Table of Contents
May 17, 2004

Departments

A Season Like No Other Barry Bonds is playing in his own universe, where the strategies are twisted, the numbers are absurd--and everyone's frustrated

Just as he was about to speak, centerfielder Marquis Grissom
looked warily out of the corner of his eye around the San
Francisco Giants clubhouse. Was Barry Bonds within earshot? No?
Good. But still.... ¶ "I probably shouldn't," Grissom said last
week. "He probably wouldn't want me to.... " He had the look of
a man who'd peeked inside David Copperfield's prop trunk or
seen the secret recipe for Coca-Cola. Grissom smiled. ¶ "O.K.,"
he said. He had to tell the story. "It was in spring training.
Barry got a pitch to hit. He just missed it. It was the third
out. When we were walking to the outfield, I said, 'B, what
happened? What was that pitch?' And he said, 'Man, I don't know.
I missed it because my feet weren't set.' He didn't know, didn't
even care what the pitch was. What matters to him is what he
does."

This is an article from the May 17, 2004 issue Original Layout

Bonds is more than the center of the baseball universe. He is a
universe unto himself. And sweet Lord have mercy on those who
dare enter it, be they witless managers who fail to pitch around
him with a game in the balance, the few pitchers proud or dumb
enough to challenge him, or the sportswriting Hydra that
sometimes, just for the dark pleasure of it, he allows close
enough to simultaneously amuse and torment.

Two months shy of turning 40, Bonds has never been bigger, and
not in a BALCO kind of way. Never before have baseball
teams--probably teams in any sport--avoided one man the way they
do Bonds, not even when he smacked 73 home runs in 2001. His 50
bases on balls (26 of them intentional) in San Francisco's 32
games through Sunday put him on pace to draw 253 walks this
season, which would break the major league record of 198 he set
in '02.

Consider the calculus of his performance this season: At week's
end, of the 444 pitches thrown to Bonds this season, he deemed
only 107 good enough to swing at. He put 59 of those into play,
10 for home runs--an alarming rate of solid, square contact by a
rounded bat on a round ball. No manager worth his postgame press
conference wants to fly in the face of those numbers, especially
not when the rest of the Giants' lineup is so lame that San
Francisco's act has become known as Barry and the Seven Dwarfs.

"It's become such a big deal," Giants general manager Brian
Sabean says about every Bonds at bat, "that no manager wants to
be the ESPN highlight [after which] everybody asks, 'Why did you
pitch to him?' [Walking Bonds has] become an easy way to cover
your ass.

"We're all going to go a long time in our lives before we see
anything like this again, if we ever do. But this deprives people
of watching Barry hit. And that's the ultimate insult."

Such an avoidance factor may actually improve Bonds's chance of
hitting .400, something no hitter has done since Ted Williams
batted .406 in 1941. At the rate he's going, Bonds, who ended
last week on an 0-for-15 slide to fall from .490 to .379, will
get only 334 at bats this season. If so, he would need only 134
hits to bat .400. Williams had 185 hits (and 147 walks) in 1941.
(Official qualification is based not on at bats but on plate
appearances; a player must have 3.1 for every game played by his
team, and Bonds had 3.6 at week's end.)

Asked last week if he could hit .400, Bonds said, "No. Too many
pitching changes .... I'm not trying to hit .400. I'm just trying
to hit. There are two records that will probably last forever:
the 56-game hitting streak and hitting .400."

Bonds, however, was reminded that he batted .370 in 2002. He was
just a dozen hits short of .400--two hits per month. "That was an
accident," he said. "I screwed up and hit a lot of balls the
other way by accident is basically what happened."

He can build .400 with 1-for-2 and 2-for-3 nights as his bricks.
The walks limit his chances to make outs. "Sure he can," New York
Mets catcher Mike Piazza says of the possibility of Bonds's
hitting .400. "I don't think there's anything he can't do at the
plate. He has that confidence. He belongs in a different league."

Says Giants catcher A.J. Pierzynski, "I think he can. I'm just
glad I get to watch this show every day. I asked him once how he
can wait through all the pitches and all the walks and not miss a
pitch when he gets it. He told me he makes sure he's ready to hit
every single pitch. That kind of focus is amazing."

There is not a shred of anecdotal evidence that his involvement
in the BALCO case has weighed on Bonds. (His trainer, Greg
Anderson, was one of four people indicted in the alleged steroid
ring.) "You couldn't get me if you tried," Bonds told reporters
in New York on May 4.

In the nonbinding court of public opinion, the issue remains
muddled. What does it mean, for instance, if Bonds chases .400 in
the first year of baseball's full-blown steroid testing program?
Supporters will contend that it must not be the juice. Detractors
will note that the enormous loopholes in the testing plan make
nothing certain. It allows players to use performance-enhancing
drugs all winter without fear of tests (the benefits of such use
carry into the season) and human growth hormone (for which
baseball does not test) at any time without risk of detection.

The calculus of Bonds's season is much clearer than the
chemistry: Umpires had dared call a strike on 58 of those first
444 pitches to Bonds, or an average of once every two times he
came to the plate. In the first 100 times he batted, only nine
times did a pitcher get an 0-and-2 count against him. Of the 25
times Bonds batted in the seventh inning or later in close games
(with the Giants tied, ahead or behind by one run, or with the
tying run on base, at the plate or on deck), pitchers walked him
15 times. On those 10 occasions when they dared pitch to him,
Bonds rapped five hits: a single, a double and three home runs.

His teammates give opposing managers good reason to avoid him.
After Bonds had been intentionally walked, the next batter was 5
for 25 with one walk and two extra-base hits. Overall, San
Francisco's number 5 hitters (usually third basemen Edgardo
Alfonzo and Pedro Feliz) ranked 26th among 30 teams with a .214
batting average.

"That has a lot to do with it," Florida Marlins manager Jack
McKeon says. "With Jeff Kent behind him [1997 through 2002], it
was different. You had to pick your poison. If you walked Barry,
Kent would beat you. I know the fans come to see Bonds, but after
the game I want to be able to say we won because we didn't just
give in to what the fans want."

After a May 1 game in which McKeon had ordered his pitchers to
intentionally walk Bonds four times, the manager was walking from
San Francisco's SBC Park to his hotel when people on the street
began shouting at him.

"Chicken!"

"You suck!"

"Come back tomorrow," McKeon retorted, "and you'll see him walk
three more times."

There is no end in sight. Four regulars--Alfonzo, Pierzynski,
shortstop Neifi Perez and first baseman J.T. Snow--had one home
run in 390 combined at bats through Sunday. "You want to get a
hit so bad, whether it's in front of him or behind him, because
you want to make people pitch to him," Pierzynski says. "Because
when he gets a pitch to hit, it's amazing to watch. You want to
do well for yourself, but you want to do well for him, too. You
wind up trying too hard to make them pitch to Barry. I think
we're more frustrated than Barry is. I've never seen him show
frustration. Maybe he feels it inside, but I haven't seen it."

Says Bonds, "It's wearing me down. Dude, I don't ever sit down.
I'm on the bases the whole time or in the field. That's the
hardest thing. I have to take extra hitting all the time to stay
sharp. It's a hard-ass job."

This is baseball as we've never seen it in 150 years, the game's
conventions warped by Bonds's mere presence. He has been walked
as the leadoff batter in a tie game. He has been walked to move
the tie-breaking run into scoring position.

Every Bonds at bat boils with tension. Mets lefthander Al Leiter,
who retired Bonds three times last Thursday, said their
confrontations felt like instant playoff games, though Shea
Stadium was more than half empty. New York relievers walked Bonds
in each of his next two plate appearances. Throughout the game he
endured another hard night of taunts from road fans, including
singsong chants of "BAL-CO" and a sign held by a fan behind the
Giants' dugout that read, BALCO BOMBER. It was just another night
in a chaotic season in which Bonds so often stands alone. It
began with one of his classic impromptu lockerside sessions with
reporters, unequal parts charming and churlish.

"You got a crystal ball up your rear end?" he barked at one
writer who was curious about how many walks he might draw this
year. "You can't predict the future."

When someone else asked about the scrapped idea by Major League
Baseball to put movie ads on bases, Bonds hissed, "I don't pay
any attention to that stuff. If they have dog poop for bases,
you've got to step in the s---."

When another writer suggested, upon hearing Bonds bleat about the
rigors of travel, that he secure a gig like Roger Clemens has
with the Houston Astros, allowing him to skip certain road trips,
Bonds smiled superciliously and said, "I ain't white. What world
are you living in? I live in reality. They'll never let a black
man get away with that."

At one point the conversation meandered into Jewish comedians.
Bonds said he wasn't aware of any. A reporter mentioned Jerry
Seinfeld. "I said funny," Bonds replied. "He's not funny."

Seinfeld, a Mets fan, sat in a box seat at Shea that night and
watched his team tiptoe around Bonds with intentional walks in
the ninth and 11th innings--a show about nothing!--in order to
get to Feliz. The strategy worked each time, with Feliz grounding
out and striking out to end each threat. The Mets won on a Piazza
home run in the bottom of the 11th, 2-1, to sweep the three-game
series. (The Giants, floundering in the lower echelons of the NL
West, would then win two of three in Cincinnati to end the week
at 14-18.)

A weary Bonds waved away reporters after his one and only game in
New York this season--he missed the first two games of the series
with a sinus infection--having no desire to resume his
stream-of-consciousness monologue. He put on dark blue slacks and
a tan, long-sleeved knit pullover for the trip to Cincinnati. He
zipped closed a black nylon wheeled suitcase with BLB embossed on
a leather tag. The tiny visiting clubhouse at Shea Stadium was
nearly empty. None of his teammates were around when Bonds said
aloud to no one in particular, "Let's go, guys. New city, new
start."

He walked alone, pulling his baggage.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO/KRT/ABACA A PITCH TO HIT Even with precious few opportunities, the walk-weary Bonds was batting .379, with 10 homers at week's end.COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD CARSON/REUTERS (CLEMENS) CAUTION Bonds was intentionally walked 26 times in 29 games; even Roger Clemens passed.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO (KIDS) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL QUIET MAN Bonds has not ripped his teammates despite a lack of support in the lineup and the Giants' sub-.500 record.

"I know the fans come to see bonds," says McKeon, "but I want to
be able to say we won because we didn't just give in to what the
fans want."

Bonds is more than the center of the baseball universe. He is a
universe unto himself. And sweet lord have mercy on those who
dare enter it.

WHEN TO PITCH TO BARRY

The chart below examines the relative merits of pitching to and
walking Barry Bonds, given all combinations of outs and base
runners possible when he comes to bat. The figures are the number
of runs that the Giants would be expected to score for the
remainder of an inning in which a team either pitches to Bonds
(P) or walks him (W). The correct option is usually the one with
the lower run expectancy, but because there are factors not
included, such as score differential, certain situations are too
close to call. The numbers were derived from a model that plays
out the balance of an inning after Bonds bats, using projected
stats. Two lineups were used: the Giants' regular lineup and one
with two free agents that they could have signed this winter. Two
conclusions can be drawn. 1) Teams are walking Bonds too
frequently, and 2) placing better hitters behind him would
eliminate all situations in which it would clearly be better to
walk him.

With current Giants lineup No Outs 1 Out 2 Outs

P W P W P W
Bases empty 0.62 0.86[1] 0.39 0.53[1] 0.20 0.20[3]
Runner on 1st 1.15 1.53[1] 0.76 0.97[1] 0.41 0.43[3]
Runner on 2nd 1.26 1.53[1] 0.85 0.97[1] 0.48 0.43[2]
Runner on 3rd 1.45 1.75[1] 1.06 1.29[1] 0.52 0.45[2]
Runners on 1st and 2nd 1.91 2.62[1] 1.38 2.03[1] 0.73 0.76[3]
Runners on 1st and 3rd 2.09 2.62[1] 1.57 2.03[1] 0.75 0.76[3]
Runners on 2nd and 3rd 2.18 2.62[1] 1.63 2.03[1] 0.83 0.76[2]
Bases loaded 2.98 3.62[1] 2.38 3.03[1] 1.23 1.76[1]

With Vladimir Guerrero and
Ivan Rodriguez batting
behind Bonds No Outs 1 Out 2 Outs

P W P W P W
Bases empty 0.70 0.98[1] 0.47 0.64[1] 0.24 0.30[3]
Runner on 1st 1.27 1.68[1] 0.89 1.17[1] 0.48 0.59[1]
Runner on 2nd 1.38 1.68[1] 0.98 1.17[1] 0.54 0.59[3]
Runner on 3rd 1.56 1.88[1] 1.16 1.41[1] 0.58 0.61[3]
Runners on 1st and 2nd 2.06 2.75[1] 1.51 2.17[1] 0.82 0.97[1]
Runners on 1st and 3rd 2.21 2.75[1] 1.70 2.17[1] 0.83 0.97[1]
Runners on 2nd and 3rd 2.31 2.75[1] 1.76 2.17[1] 0.90 0.97[3]
Bases loaded 3.12 3.75[1] 2.52 3.17[1] 1.31 1.97[1]

P = Run expectancy when a team pitches to Bonds
W = Run expectancy when a team walks Bonds

[1]PITCH TO HIM
[2]WALK HIM
[3]CLOSE CALL

Compiled by Baseball Prospectus