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: 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 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:

Subject: 755! But feat will become farce
Date: August 10, 2007 1:22:19 AM EDT

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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