Thankfully, it’s over: Barry Bonds hits #756
August 8, 2007 4 Comments
Barry Bonds just hit his 756th career home run. After all of baseball agonized over the inevitability of this moment for the last 4 months, it’s finally happened. As a baseball fan, I have an uneasy feeling about that fact, and it’s not the same uneasy feeling I got right before my wedding. It’s more the uneasy feeling I get before cleaning out my office. But, now it’s all over, and that particular storyline doesn’t have to hang over baseball for the rest of the season.
I’m conflicted though. In a strange way, as a Sabermetrician, I owe Barry Bonds a huge debt of gratitude. Seriously. I would vote Barry into the initial class of the Sabermetric Hall of Fame with Bill James, Michael Lewis, and the Mills Brothers. Consider this: even before the inevitable happened, Sabermetrically inclined folks have taken it upon themselves to show in some way that Bonds is not really the greatest HR hitter of all time. Putting aside the questions on Vitamin S, we know that Bonds has benefitted from rampant expansion, smaller stadia, a lower pitching mound, better nutrition and medical care, and depending on whom you ask, a juiced ball. Sabermetricians are able to point out that in today’s game, HR are easier to come by. (Consider, 50 HR used to be something that happened once in a decade or so. Since 1997, someone’s hit at least 47 every year!) We’re able to talk about why that is and what the necessity is for adjusting statistics to reflect the context in which they were produced.
And for once, people will be listening, although for all the wrong reasons. Sabermetricians are often placed in the role of telling people what they don’t want to hear about baseball. Using the closer exclusively in the ninth inning really is a waste of a good pitcher. Clutch hitting ability doesn’t really exist. The sac bunt really isn’t that great an idea. Finally, after all that, we get to say something that people want to hear, that 756 home runs might not qualify Barry as the best of all time when you consider the context. And for a little while, people will (hopefully) be interested in things like park and era effects and standard deviations and z-scores. And maybe some of them will take the time to understand a few of the rest of the things that Sabermetricians have been trying to tell them about the grand ole game for the past few years. But it all starts off because people don’t like Barry Bonds as a person and want to hear evidence that he’s really not that good. As a scientist, I try to work the other way around (evidence, then conclusion). It’s a rather backward entry into the public consciousness, but surely, we will be thrown into the public consciousness thanks to one Barry Lamar Bonds.
I hadn’t really thought of this until I was talking to Bob Ngo, a doctoral student in sociology, who is conducting his disseration research on Sabermetricians (we’re apparently a sub-culture now!). He asked me a question on what stake I believed that Sabermetricians had in the steroid controversy. Oddly enough, the steroid controversy may have a stake in Sabermetrics as a field. Funny how these things work.