JUST BEFORE his first spring training as Giants manager last year, Felipe Alou announced that he wanted Barry Bonds to bat third instead of his customary fourth. But, Alou says, when he ran the idea by Bonds at camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., the slugger "told me he was feeling more like a cleanup hitter." The manager deferred to Bonds's preference. It may have cost San Francisco a playoff spot.
The Giants lost five games last season in which the tying run was on base or at the plate and the third-place hitter, Michael Tucker or Marquis Grissom, made the last out with Bonds on deck. Three of those losses were one-run games to the Dodgers, who won the NL West by two games over San Francisco. Change the result of any one of those three Giants losses to L.A. and the two teams are playing a one-game tiebreaker to decide the division championship.
And so this season--assuming he returns--Bonds will hit ...
"Fourth," Alou says, adding that Bonds will follow Ray Durham, Omar Vizquel and J.T. Snow. "I batted Barry number 3 some last spring [training], and he was receptive to batting anywhere, but he preferred hitting fourth. Plus, J.T. had a great second half batting third, and he's a great on-base guy. With these players in front of Barry, there's a good chance he'll bat in the first inning anyway, and with men on base."
San Francisco's number 2 and 3 hitters did a poor job of getting Bonds to the plate last year. Those spots--occupied primarily by Grissom, Snow and Tucker--ranked 18th and 22nd, respectively, in the majors in on-base percentage.
Bonds, who left training camp last week and is rehabbing his surgically-repaired right knee in San Francisco, presents the most unique lineup dilemma in baseball, not only because he is so productive, but also because pitchers want no part of him with men on base. Last year they gave him nearly as many walks (153) as at bats (155) with runners on. With men on base and first base open, Bonds walked 78% of the time.
By hitting fourth instead of third, Bonds loses about 20 plate appearances over a season, is not guaranteed to bat in the first inning and sometimes misses crucial turns in the ninth. In the 2002 World Series, for instance, hitting fourth for then manager Dusty Baker, Bonds did not bat in the ninth inning of San Francisco's final three losses. Those games all ended with leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton or number 2 hitter Rich Aurilia making the last out.
The manager's choice with Bonds comes down to this: Would you rather he bat with 17 more runners in scoring position over the course of the season (the average difference between the 4 and 3 spots last year in the majors) or get 20 more plate appearances? Of course, a manager has other options, as well.
"I would consider hitting Bonds first," says one AL general manager. "They're not going to walk him to lead off the game, and you're going to pinch-hit for the pitcher his last time in front of him. You put a good on-base guy eighth. Now you get the best hitter in the history of the game as many as 60 to 90 extra plate appearances."
Says Alou, "When I was thinking about different batting orders last [season], I thought about hitting Barry second but not leadoff. I don't think Barry would like leading off just to get a few more at bats. They'd probably walk him, and I'd rather have him up with men on base."
Statistical analysis and theory aside, the answer to where a seven-time MVP should hit is a rather simple one in practice, as Bonds demonstrated last year: wherever he wants. --T.V.