Splitting the numbers from the allegations reveals an objective truth for most modern fans. But only if they want to split the two.
Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared on the author’s personal blog.
Forget the torches. Check the pitchforks. Ignore a revisionist history that’s impossible to achieve. Legends have been written already, and they’re about as set in stone as witnessed phenomena can be. Legacies and the importance of them are all opinions, anyway. This whole exercise is about as cut and dry as possible, with complete disregard for qualifiers.
Well, near-complete disregard. Let’s put it this way: unless you watched baseball in the early 20th century, and alright, we’ll include a little peak patch between 1954 and 1965, Barry Bonds is the best baseball player you’ve ever seen.
This isn’t about Bonds’ Pittsburgh years alone, because you can’t make a “best you’ve ever seen” case on them. While steroid-era rejectors will at best allow Bonds’ Pirates years consideration, that tenure were great, but not all-time great. After all, out of Pittsburgh, he wasn’t yet better than Ted Williams. He would be. Just not to that point.
But while there, he was a two-time MVP and was already worth more bWAR than Hall of Famers like Jim Rice and Ralph Kiner. At 27, he had already stolen more bases than the average Hall of Famer, and would’ve ended his career at the edge of the top 50 if he never swiped another bag. He left town only 64 home runs behind Pittsburgh legend Roberto Clemente, in 1,423 fewer games and 5,956 fewer plate appearances. But he wasn’t at the mountaintop just yet.
Bonds became a marvel with the Giants.
Early on in San Francisco, Bonds tore up Giants history with impunity. ’93 Bonds posted a higher slugging percentage than any Willie Mays or Willie McCovey season on either coast. ’96 Bonds had a higher on-base percentage than any Mel Ott campaign. In his first five seasons as a San Francisco Giant, Bonds had a top three OPS+ in baseball history cemented. He’d never fall out of that spot.
By 1998, Bonds had more seasons with an OPS over 1.000 than Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza, Chipper Jones or David Ortiz would in their respective careers. More than Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson or Joe DiMaggio, too. It’s as many as Hank Greenberg or Alex Rodriguez have tallied individually. And we haven’t even gotten to the astronomical years yet.
Let’s talk home runs. Barry Bonds hit 762 of them. He hit at least one off of 449 different guys. That list includes eight off Greg Maddux, eight courtesy John Smoltz, four from Tom Glavine and a couple off Randy Johnson.
Between 2000 and 2004, he hit 258 bombs, more than any consecutive five-year stretch by Mays, Robinson, Griffey, Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth. You probably know he has the single season MLB home run record, which he set averaging a jack every 6.5 at bats. It’s the lowest single-season AB/HR ratio ever.
Most of Bonds’ fierce swings had purpose, too. For his career, he added 127.99 points of win probability to his respective squads. It’s the highest WPA rate in Major League history.
Bonds was as historically great with a swinging bat as he was with the bat on his shoulder. He is the most avoided hitter to ever play the game, with the most walks and intentional walks in history, the former by 368, the latter by nearly 400. Bonds once walked 43 times in one month. In 2004, he was walked intentionally four times in one game. He led the league in walks 12 times. Between 2001 and 2004, he tallied 1,049 free passes. Each year, he got on base in over half of his at-bats. Only Bonds and Ruth have four or more seasons of that.
Over that same four year stretch, Bonds brought home four more MVP trophies, bringing his career tally to seven, by far the most of any player in league history.
For his career, Bonds was worth just over 162 bWAR. It’s the highest number for a hitter since Ruth. It’s the highest number for an outfielder since Mays. It’s the highest total for any player who played the game after 1935. The next closest player is a whole six wins worse. It beats the Hall of Fame hitter average by nearly 100 bWAR. It bests the individual career totals of all but three guys in Cooperstown.
The closest contemporary hitter is Rodriguez, who is over 40 WAR behind. The only contemporary player of any position who remotely comes close is Roger Clemens, over 20 bWAR off the pace.
Beyond the moralizing, the agonizing, the rumors of enhanced talent or the anomalous production in the face of Father Time’s well-proven track record, Barry Bonds was an all-time great. Not just an all-time great, but a great among all-timers: an all-time all-timer, if you will. And if you were a baseball fan during his career, you were witness to the surreal.
Which isn’t an attempt to imply complicity. Who turns away from a spectacle, be it awe-inspiring or abominable? The point is it happened. What to make of it, either through skewed, cold analysis or aggressively unflinching moral steadfastness is up to the soapbox statistician or the pumped-up preacher. One of which, without fail, we all become around this topic.
The importance of what he did and how he did it, whether the speculation matters at all or is the only thing that matters, is up to you, the individual fan, to determine for yourself. Between the chalk, Bonds was rarefied air. In modern MLB history, nothing like him exists, bar none.
We all saw it.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.