Monday, August 13, 2007

Splashdown! Barry Bonds and the witch hunt

Well, old Mitch Albom finally pissed me off enough that I fired off a letter.

I'll note, before getting to the letter, that Albom is hardly alone in devoting multiple articles to pontificating on the evils of Barry Bonds. Never mind that Bonds just set the all-time record, or that -- 3 years after the implementation of steroid testing -- he is having, by a wide margin, the greatest season ever for a player of his age. Never mind that, in their disgust over a man they don't like and their "I'm shocked!" reaction to various as-yet unproved (and uncharged, in any official sense) allegations, they seem to be unable even to see what happend on the field.

Last week, I was subjected to Bob Costas speaking decisively on multiple forums. "Absolutely," he said to Wolf Blitzer on the CNN show "The Situation Room" when Blitzer asked if Bonds used steroids, as if Costas had been right there in the room with Barry. Costas added that there was "no other possible explanation." Never having been one to declare guilt by process of elimination, I reject this argument, but at least I understand that Costas may be sincere in his approach.

So then we get to something that's unfortunately more typical. The article that pissed me off is here: http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=200770805001. If you decide to click, be prepared: Its title is "755! But feat will become farce." Lori was actually somewhat swayed by it. After all, Albom wouldn't mislead or accuse someone who's not guilty (though he might be able to say a thing or two about showing up for sporting events).

Albom then managed to swipe a 2nd time on Wednesday, that one is titled "KING BARRY: Home run record's glory will be disputed forever" and it is at http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007708080433. It contains the remarkable claim that anyone who dares to disagree on certain basics of the discussion (e.g., is RACE a factor?) don't even deserve to be in the discussion. Fortunately, I don't need Mitch's approval to discuss.

Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Anyway, here's what I fired off:

From: matt@orel.ws
Subject: 755! But feat will become farce
Date: August 10, 2007 1:22:19 AM EDT
To: malbom@freepress.com

Interesting article.

But if there's one thing I despise, it's when statistics are mangled or distorted, and worse, by people who should know better.

For example:
You choose to ignore the mind-boggling fact that, for his first 13 seasons, Bonds averaged 32 home runs and a .290 batting average, but, beginning when he was 34 -- an age that foreshadows retirement for many ballplayers -- Bonds somehow averaged 49 home runs and a .329 average for the next six seasons.

C'mon, Mitch. You're giving equal weight to Bonds's 1986-1989 seasons? That's just statistical silliness, and you're way too smart for that.

The steroid allegations are that he started in 1999.

So, let's look at comparable data.
Now let's look, say, the 7 years before the allegations, 1992-1998.
They will show that Bonds batted .307 during that period, with a .618 slugging percentage, 39 HRs and an average OPS+ of 185.

You choose to ignore that Bonds, who, in his 20s, never hit more than 46 home runs a year, suddenly, when he was 37, hit 73 in one season.

He hit 46 home runs playing his home games in Candlestick Park. He had 37 the following season when the strike hit, which put him on a pace for 52. That's what you choose to ignore. His 365 total bases in 1993 were the highest NL total since the 1970s, and his slugging percentage of .677 and OPS of 1.136 were the highest since 1948. His back to back seasons over 200 OPS+ in 1992-1993 were the first time an NL player had surpassed 200 OPS+ in consecutive seasons since Rogers Hornsby in 1924-25. That's what Barry Bonds did in his 20's, just on the power end of it.

You might also note that Hank Aaron's career high in HRs was also at age 37 -- even though he played 20 fewer games that year than when he was younger. You may also note that Aaron, who averaged 34 HRs per season from ages 30-34, averaged 41 HRs per year from ages 35-39. At ages 30-34, Aaron averaged 17.6 ABs/HR. From ages 35-39, he averaged 11.8 ABs/HR. So, beginning at age 35 -- "an age that foreshadows retirement for many ballplayers" -- his HR rate increased by 49%. Which is comparable to Bonds's increase in HR rate, during the years you cite (54%).

Should we accuse the Braves of cheating? It was their decision to move in the left field power alley by 10 feet those seasons to a ridiculously short 375 feet, a decision that clearly helped Aaron in the pursuit of Babe Ruth. Aaron had never hit more than 23 home runs at home in his "prime" years, but somehow managed 31 at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium in 1971. Should we asterisk 8 of them? What about for the other 4 years the fences were in?

You choose to ignore the common-sense argument that players don’t suddenly become more powerful and more productive as they approach 40.

Have you checked in to the performance stats of Roger Clemens lately? How about Carlton Fisk? Didn't Aaron's former teammate Darrell Evans play for the Tigers and have a huge power surge at ages 36-40 (his HR rate increased by 79% over his age 31-35 seasons), or did I imagine it?
I don't recall anyone batting an eye when Nolan Ryan, who hadn't exceeded a strikeout per inning rate through his mid 30's, managed 11.48 at age 40, and then 11.32 at age 42. Ryan's strikeout rate at ages 40-44 was more than 40% above what he had managed a decade earlier, and his best 3 WHIP years were at ages 42-44. Was he not more powerful? Was he not more productive?

In yesterday's follow-up, you wrote:
But there are a few things this is not. It is not about race. It is not about personality. If you cannot get past those stumbling blocks on such an important issue, you don't deserve to be discussing it. You really don't.

Sorry, you don't get to shut down discussion like that. You really don't. Maybe in The Free Press, since you're the one with the column, but not out here. 'Cause if you write things like "the common sense argument" without at least acknowledging that it's not unprecedented, without at least acknowledging that the other (mostly white) guys above had late career spikes that are comparable in degree to Bonds but are absent from these discussions, then what else is there to conclude? The choices aren't pleasant here.

None of which is to proclaim Bonds as innocent. I don't know, and I suspect that you don't, either. (I can, however, proclaim Bonds to be the best baseball player I have ever seen. I can do that without any hesitation at all, though I confess that Willie Mays was past his prime by the time I saw him). If you happen to know Bonds's hat size pre- and post-, I'd love to know it. I see that accusation all the time, but somehow it always lacks the specifics.

It's about all of those things. Isn't it? Though I'd prefer it to be about baseball. It still could be that, I believe.

Best regards,
Matthew Orel
West Bloomfield, MI

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7 Comments:

Blogger dbf65 said...

well said Matt.

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barry Bonds cheated. Period. Yes, he is an amazing hitter, one of the best of all time. But, HE CHEATED by taking roids. That is fairly well established. So, ok, there is tragedy in his choice to soil his legit legacy by CHEATING. Yes, he would have been a hall of famer without the roids. But, he still CHEATED and is a LIAR! Deal with that shit.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Matt Orel said...

Mr. Anonymous,

While I'm suitably impressed by your shouting CHEATED and LIAR (!), you have "fairly well established" nothing.

In the context of baseball, I would expect that "cheat" corresponds to the dictionary definition "to violate rules or regulations." What rules and/or regulations, exactly, do you accuse Bonds of violating? There was no rule in baseball proscribing steroid use prior to 2003, after all; therefore, the issue of "cheating" doesn't even apply, say, to his single season record f 73 home runs (set in 2001).

The shit that I'm dealing with, here, is that as flung by folks such as Mitch Albom, those who would deliberately distort (or, as Albom has been known to do, just make shit up and pass it off as truth). As I wrote in the piece: "None of which is to proclaim Bonds as innocent. I don't know, and I suspect that you don't, either."

But I do know that Bonds's statistics don't prove any case here, nor his supposed trivial head enlargement (even according to "Game of Shadows," all the way only from 7 1/8 to 7 1/4). I know that the case presented by Albom is fundamentally dishonest on several levels, both in its presentation of statistics and its outright denial -- an insulting denial, at that -- of cultural elements.

Meanwhile, while so many other presumed steroid users have had severe negative impacts on their statistics this year, I notice that Bonds leads the major leagues in OPS, yet again. At age 43!! What's your argument now -- that he must be taking something undetectable? Or maybe it's the Costas argument, that it's some sort of lingering effect?

Maybe you should deal with that shit. Me, I'm enjoying the hell out of it.

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

barry bonds used steriods. read game of shadows. The witch hunt over bonds is another story entirely, but he DID use steriods. Seriously. read game of shadows. to quotes bob costas, "I regard him as one of the greatest players of all time who got an inauthentic boost and then became a superhuman player."

6:42 PM  
Blogger Matt Orel said...

Anonymous wrote:
"barry bonds used steriods. read game of shadows. The witch hunt over bonds is another story entirely, but he DID use steriods."

My post was about the witch hunt. Whether or not Bonds used steroids (and I don't profess to know, nor do I take "Game of Shadows" to be definitive on it), the witch hunt is wrong.

In his column, Mitch Albom wrote:
But there are a few things this is not. It is not about race. It is not about personality. If you cannot get past those stumbling blocks on such an important issue, you don't deserve to be discussing it. You really don't.

Curious thing. On September 7, it was revealed that Rich Ankiel had received HGH shipments during a time when they were banned. Ankiel fidgeted through a non-denial, and his game -- and his team's season -- immediately went in to the crapper (they immediately lost 9 consecutive to drop out of contention, with Ankiel going 2-for-29 in the process). You'd think there'd be a story, yes?

Albom wrote nothing. Oh, he wrote articles about the Michigan football team, articles about the Detroit Lions, even a review of a Stevie Wonder concert. But on Ankiel, who until September 7 was the nation's feel-good story? Nada.

And he's hardly alone. As Jemele Hill wrote at espn.com, "if there was any question about whether Bonds was treated differently because he is African-American, it was answered last week with Ankiel, a feel-good story that looks to be a tall tale."

Unfortunately, it's no surprise here.

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your "I don't profess to know, therefore I don't pass judgement" approach to Barry is a little misleading considering the energy you exert making the case for his innocence. Your OPS analysis is interesting, but i think its important to establish a couple things: 1. Bonds is a great/Hall of Fame player even with the steroid accusations true. And 2. maybe the reason his OPS is so high this year is a combination of being a great player, and being pitched around as he broke the ALL TIME HOME RUN RECORD.
Putting aside the Mitch "Douchebag" Albom article, you say that "There was no rule in baseball proscribing steroid use prior to 2003" but steroids were in fact banned for non-medical use in the United States.

Do you know how i know bonds used steroids? Because he F-ING SAID IT! He testified under a grand jury that he received and used clear and cream substances...from Greg Anderson. Do you know what this means? it means Barry did steroids. I should mention i think you bring up some good points, i just don't like the whole "i wasn't with barry in the locker room" argument. Here are just a couple articles i think are good reads

http://kermittheblog.wordpress.com/2007/05/10/beisbol-been-barry-barry-good-to-uh-barry/
http://www.theonion.com/content/node/46188

6:37 PM  
Blogger Billy said...

Most ballplayers today are taking homeopathic growth hormone oral spray because it's safe, undetectable, and legal for over the counter sales. As time goes on it seems it might be considered as benign a performance enhancer as coffee, aspirin, red bull, chewing tobacco, and bubble gum.

8:55 AM  

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