Burying Bonds

I’m about to commit one of the major sins of research methodology and I’m happy to confess to it.  This post is dedicated to all of you Barry Bonds-haters out there.  Your entire 2007 season will be ruined in a couple of months by Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record.  You are angry because you are convinced that Barry probably used some ill-gotten means to become the most-feared power hitter in the history of the game, even though you can’t prove it.  You want to have something ready for that day to show that Bonds isn’t really the greatest home run hitter ever that you actually can prove.  For example, he was the beneficiary of (take your pick: smaller parks, a longer career, Coors Field, watered down expansion-level pitching, Jeff Kent, a juiced… ball).  So, today I commit a sin.  I will start with the conclusion: Barry Bonds was not the greatest homerun hitter ever.  Now, to go about finding the proof.
There’s no way that I’m going to be able to show that Bonds is a terrible homerun hitter.  The man could very well end his career in the 800 HR range.  Whether he did or didn’t get big the natural way, there’s no statistic that would make Bonds look worse at hitting HR than say Cesar Izturis, so you will have to settle for something that has him as something other than #1.  (A small aside: If I’m not mistaken, America had this same conversation, in a slightly different form, about Britney Spears a few years ago.  Replace Cesar Izturis with Gwen Stefani and we’re in business.)
So, if Bonds is the most prolific HR hitter in terms of raw totals, is he the most prolific HR hitter in terms of PA per HR?  The answer is no.  That particular honor belongs to Mark McGwire (a home run every 13.13 times he came to the plate).  Given that McGwire has his own objections from a substance perspective (was that vague enough?), people may not be happy with this answer.  Ryan Howard comes in second place at 13.15.  The rest of the top ten on this list (excluding those who make it in due to a fairly small sample size, elsewise this list would contain the word Hyzdu): Ruth, Sosa, Pujols, Juan Gonzalez, Manny, Jim Thome, Bonds, A-Rod.  You’ll note two things: Most of these guys have recently been active and Hank Aaron isn’t on it.  He actually ranked behind Darryl Strawberry and Bo Jackson!
A couple of the objections to Bonds (Coors, expansion, juiced ball) can be summed up as Bonds playing during a time in history when it was simply easier to hit home runs.  Well then, let’s correct for this.  I found the mean and standard deviation for HR totals in each league and season from 1900-2006 among all players that had more than 100 AB (to ensure a proper sample size for hitters and to eliminate the skewing effects of injured players playing only a small part of the season, pitchers batting, and cup-of-coffee-call-ups), then using this information computed z-scores for each player-year in HR.  A z-score compares how far away from the mean an individual was in standard units, and so we can compare players across seasons.
Then, I took a look at these z-scores and alternately tried summing them and taking the mean.  The results:
When I summed the z-scores, the results showed that far and away, the most gifted HR hitter, relative to his era was Babe Ruth.  Ruth was a combined 92.95 standard deviations (i.e., he was, on average, 4.9 standard deviations above the league in each of the 19 qualifying years in the database).  No one else comes close.  Mel Ott in second place had a summed score of 59.56 SDs.  Hammerin’ Hank came in 3rd with Barry in 4th.  Perhaps some normalcy has been restored to the world.  (The rest of the top 10: Schmidt, Gehrig, Foxx, Teddy Ballgame, Mays, and Reggie).
When I took the mean score, the list shuffled itself around a bit with Bonds falling to 16th place, and Ruth maintaining the top spot.  Most of the top ten were dead-ballers (Gavy Cravath was 2nd, Dutch Zwilling was 3rd), as these were home run hitters in an era where almost no one hit home runs.  I looked at the median score as well to correct for the fact that a player having one career year could skew his own personal distribution and exaggerate his mean, although the top three stayed the same.  Bonds falls to 20th place behind Albert Belle!
With all that said, let me offer my conclusion.  The Barry Bonds case is a good illustration of where we stat geeks need to fade into the background, or at least switch off our hats.  Statistically speaking, Bonds is an outstanding home run hitter and will go down as one of the best practitioners of that art ever.   It’s not untoward to argue that he is the best ever, although I think a better case could be made for some of the other luminaries in baseball history, particularly Babe Ruth.  Bonds could retire tomorrow (short of 756) and it would still be the case that he, from a statistical point of view, deserves mention in the same breath as Ruth. 
Barry Bonds, however, is a cultural issue, not a statistical one.  He begs the question, can cheaters prosper and still be celebrated?  If you ask me, if America were being honest with itself, we’d have a gigantic nationwide party the day that Bonds breaks the record.  Here’s the very embodiment of the American way: he’s suspected of having done something wrong, and if he did it, it would be cheating.  But, for right now, he’s gotten away with it and he’s at the very top of a beloved cultural institution.  Of course, we’ll partake in that other great American tradition.  We’ll wring our hands and place the appropriate asterisk next to his name, because we’ve never cheated on anything.  At least on anything that mattered.  In other words, we’ll be hypocrites.  To that end, I hope Barry breaks the record on the Fourth of July.  That would be poetic.
You’ll notice that in that last paragraph, I didn’t cite any statistical tests.  On the day that we’re having this discussion in full (i.e., on the day Bonds hits the big one), I encourage you to follow suit.  Like it or not, Barry Bonds sure hit a lot of home runs, enough that he’s earned(?) a place in our cultural pantheon right next to Britney Spears.  Now, what does that say about our culture?  I leave you to ponder that.

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4 Responses to Burying Bonds

  1. David Gassko says:

    Pizza Cutter,
    You need to pick up a copy of Baseball’s All-Time Best Sluggers by Michael Schell. By far the most detailed look at baseball’s best hitters, both overall and in every pertinent category.

  2. David Hannes says:

    Nice post…and conclusion. As much as I am a fan of Henry Aaron, Ruth’s accomplishments as a home run hitter beat everyone. Not only did Ruth do it in an ERA where there were few homers/few home run hitters, he also did it after travelling to road games via train, without any personal trainers to improve his physique, and without any personal computers and video to analyze his swing.
    Progress, of course, is a part of any sport, and today’s players are better athletes than those of 50 years ago…but these negate themseleves, somewhat, as the pitchers also go through the same processes to improve their game. But when you add in the trend towards more homer friendly ballparks, and, in Bonds’ case more recently, maple bats, I think the recent advances have favored hitters over pitchers.
    Plus…wouldn’t it be ironic if A-Rod hit 75 homers this year to take away Bonds’ single season record?

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    That would be nice. 2007 is turning into a rather intense year in baseball. Bonds, now Clemens. Why not have A-Rod hit 75?

  4. mike oloughlin says:

    Hiya, ret. FDNY and doing a stats colllege project–Teddy ballgame 1941 z-score 2.79 in BA? Is that about right and who does that compare to for this past season? How’d ya arrive at it? Many Thx!

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