March 23, 2005
BASEBALL: Up, Up and Away!
As baseball fans, we have certain expectations, grounded in experience - our own lifetimes' experience, as well as the collective experience of 130 years of the game's history. Among those expectations are a set of boundaries about how players age: some burn out early, and some bloom late, and some are remarkably consistent. But age comes to all.
Until Barry Bonds.
At any time in the game's history, if you had to identify the everyday player most likely to show dramatic and sustained improvement compared to his prior accomplishments, about the last person you'd pick would be a 35-year-old slugger with a first-ballot Hall of Fame career already behind him. And the fact that Bonds has done precisely that is so fundamentally jarring to our expectations that we'd be talking about him doing something unnatural even if we'd never heard of steroids. You can point to his talent, but plenty of players had the same talents, the same determination, and plenty of players today have access to the same conditioning and equipment. Yet Bonds stands alone, and even if he's out for half or all of 2005, that's why the questions won't go away. More than anything else, even more than Bonds' own prickly personality or the shape of his head, that explains why the steroid debate has come down so hard around Bonds. Because we can't seem to explain Barry Bonds any other way.
How unique are Bonds' accomplishments? There are many ways to measure, and many have tried. But I wanted to get to the heart of the Bonds enigma: not the greatness itself, or even the greatness at an advanced age, but the dramatic improvement at that age compared to his own prior self. The closer you look, the more unique Bonds is.
To measure Bonds' improvement, I set up a study. First, I needed to decide what to study; I focused on comparing Bonds' seasons from age 35 to age 39 (2000-2004) to his career averages as a hitter through age 34. Second, I needed a measuring stick, one that was readily available and wouldn't be distorted by changes in offensive conditions over time (after all, a lot of players' careers look more volatile than they are because the league scoring average has changed over time). I settled on OPS+ (i.e., On Base Plus Slugging - OPS - compared to the league average OPS and adjusted for park effects), which is compiled at Baseball-Reference.com; Bonds has posted the top 3 OPS+ seasons of all time in 2001, 2002 and 2004. OPS itself isn't a perfect metric, but it's a quick and dirty way to estimate offensive value. And through the Similarity Scores charts, you can get a player's OPS+ through age 34; Bonds' was 163, combining a .559 slugging percentage and .409 OBP through 1999, the numbers that got him voted to the All-Century Team and won him three MVP Awards.
Third, I needed a group to compare him to. We know Bonds is unusual, so rather than establish a similar-through-34 control group, I selected a group designed to capture as many players as I could find who had big slugging seasons after age 34; using Baseball-Reference.com's age-based leaders, I picked out every player who finished in the top 10 for a single season at age 35 through age 39, or in the top 10 for their career after that age, in any of four categories: OPS+, Slugging, Home Runs, or Extra Base Hits (the latter to pick up guys from the pre-home-run era). I then went through each season from age 35 to age 39 and divided each player's OPS+ at that age to his own career OPS+ through age 34. To keep fluke small-sample-size seasons out, I limited the study to seasons of 400 at bats or more.
I believe the criteria worked; I came up with 76 players (plus Bonds), including nearly everyone I could think of who had a big year in their late 30s. The 400-at-bat thing knocked out six players who had no seasons between 35 and 39 of that many at bats - John Lowenstein, Johnny Grubb, Bill Dickey, Ed Delahanty, Estel Crabtree, and Bob Thurman. The remaining 70 players collectively gave me 248 seasons to study. Of those:
*159 (64%) were below 100, meaning their OPS+ was lower than their career mark. This is unsurprising; most players that age decline, and for the great ones, the bar is high (Ty Cobb came in below 100 for his age 35 season when he hit .401; for what it's worth, the lowest figures in the study were 49 for Carlton Fisk at age 38 and 52 for Nap Lajoie at 39).
*44 (18%) were between 100 and 109, meaning less than a 10% improvement over career norms.
*19 (8%) were between 110 and 114, for a total of 222 (86%) showing less than a 15% improvement.
Let's look more closely at the 31 seasons (including Bonds) at a 15% or greater improvement:
Wow. Bonds absolutely towers over everyone else in his ability to . . . tower over himself. Was the young Bonds really such an underacheiver that he was leaving historic levels of talent untapped when he batted .336/.677/.458 for what looked like his career best season at age 28? Note that, of the other seven players to clear a 25% improvement in one season, two - Bob Johnson and Phil Weintraub - are marked with a * because those seasons came in 1944 against war-depleted competition (another, Ellis Burks, was a teammate of Bonds when he had his big year in 2000). The things Bonds has done are just not done.
Here's a fact almost as impressive as what's above: while Bonds has topped his career norms by at least 17% five years running, no other player among the other 70 in the study was even able to post five straight seasons above 100. And remember, this is in a study deliberately stacked to include guys who aged well. (Other than Bonds, Gaetti's the only 39-year-old on the chart). Only three players did it four times - Galarraga, Downing, and Edgar Martinez. Six players other than Bonds cleared 110 three times, and five (shown above) cleared 115 twice.
Those three groups have some overlap, amounting to ten players who showed something like a sustained improvement past age 34: Galarraga, Downing, Edgar, Burks, Henrich, Aaron, Molitor, Gaetti, Cy Williams, and Darrell Evans. There are some common threads with these guys: Edgar, Molitor, Burks and to some extent Galarraga had big chunks of their twenties wrecked by injuries, while Henrich was in the military from 30 to 32 (Bonds, by comparison, played less than 140 games only once between 1987 and 1998, and that was the strike season). Downing, Molitor, and Edgar had been switched to DH in their late 30s, Downing having started out catching and Molitor, at second base (even so, Downing's career high OPS+ was at age 28, Molitor's at 30, Edgar's at 32). Cy Williams was a home run hitter who just hadn't done well in the dead ball era; he was 32 in 1920. In other words, the guys with some similarities to Bonds' late-career charge are few and not all that similar. No wonder people think he's doing something unusual.
[At some point, I'll try to update this post to include the complete list of the other players in the study]
This little study seems to imply that steroid produced an incredible benefit in Bonds. His ratio of post-35 to pre-35 OPS would seem to be at least twice the average ratio of post-35 to pre-35 OPS. Did steroids really double Bonds's batting performance? Maybe so.
A follow-up question is how fast the benefit ends when steroids are discontinued. Does Superman turn back into Clark Kent immediately? Gradually over a period of years? Or, does the extra muscle mass pretty much stay permanently?
I think we'll get an idea of the answer by watching Sheffield, Giambi, et. al. thoughout the 2005 season.
Interesting analysis. I hope people don't lose sight of the fact that Barry Bonds did hit 46 HR as a 28 year-old in '93. Was he on "the cream" then? I don't know, but everyone points to his outrageous power spike late in his career as evidence that he is largely a product of steroids and omit this fact. I could be wrong, but I don't recall him becoming "Big Head Barry" until a good bit later in the 90s.
I think Bonds' OPS numbers are greatly inflated by the large number of walks he has been receiving for the last 4 years. His IBB numbers are absurd and any observer would note that sizeable percentage of his "unintentional" walks are the 4-0 type. If everyone pitched to him more like they pitch to everyone else, and more like they pitched to Bonds for the first 15 years of his career he would certainly hit more homers but his slugging percentage would likely remain the same and his OPS significantly lower.
I think one thing that gets overlooked in the steroid controversy is that Bonds has become a far more disciplined hitter in his later years. Your passing comment about Bonds being an underachiever is correct to a degree in that in his younger years Bonds had the propensity to be a very undisciplined hitter at times.
In his younger days, you could get Bonds to swing at a bad pitch and either strikeout or harmlessly hit a ball to the defense. A perfect example of this is his playoff performances with the Pirates in the late 80s. Bonds would literally swing at anything near the strike zone instead of waiting for a pitch to hit. His weakness, as evidenced by his ego, was that "If Barry doesn't get a hit here, we lose"
This is not to say Bonds didn't take steroids. I just think that there are far more factors involved in the late career surge of Bonds than can be explained by chemicals.
I'd agree that this isn't all about steroids, but Bonds' improvement has been so dramatic that it's only natural to ask whether some of it is attributable to funny business.
And yes, I'm aware of the intentional walks issue, but it doesn't account for everything, esp. given that he drew more intentional passes in 1993 than in 2001.
I'm being partially facetious calling Bonds an underacheiver - he was certainly a disciplined hitter when he was drawing between 125 and 151 walks a year from 1992 to 1998.
As for the 46 homers: yes, but he was 28 then.
Well it's certainly an interesting question that makes this era unique. Aside from PEDs, in the past 10-15 years, baseball has seen expansion (dilution of pitching), a construction renaissance (smaller and smaller parks), and the introduction of weight training and year-round workouts (bigger, and better conditioned athletes).
I'm looking forward to Will Carroll's book on steroids & other performance enhancers. I'm certainly no scientist, but is it that crazy to think there's a possibility that steroids, HGH or some other perfomance enhancer (perhaps even a legal one!) might have helped Bonds' (already world-class) hand-eye coordination and strike zone judgment to give him the equivalent of an extra few milliseconds to recognize a pitch? I have no idea, but I'm not willing to say that it's a priori impossible without hearing from scientists on the matter.
Check out one of the few useful Buster Olney pieces on the matter re: Bond's pitch recognition abilities:
Virtually all hitters identify pitches by the rotation of the ball after it leaves the pitcher's hand. If they see spin, the ball's face turned into a whirlpool of seams, they know the pitcher has thrown a curve or a slider. Otherwise, it's probably a fastball or a changeup. But Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who studied his rivals, maintained that Bonds could identify pitches before they were released. As a pitcher's hand reached its apex, Gwynn explained, Bonds could detect in an instant whether the pitcher held the ball with his palm and fingers straight up and down (a fastball), or if he gripped it from the side (a breaking ball). A flap of fingers sticking up from behind the ball meant changeup.
In practical terms, this meant Bonds had a huge advantage on other hitters, who had to wait until the ball was four or five feet into its journey toward the plate – an eternity, by comparison. "They always said it looked like he knew a breaking ball was coming," Gwynn said then. "Well, he did."
Great quote. But, did Bonds have this ability before 2000? If so, that tells us nothing about his dramatic improvement.
I was thinking about in reference to pitchers. 3 coming to mind:
Randy Johnson is 103-49 post-34 and 143-79 pre-35; 2.64 era vs. 3.36 era; 4 Cy Youngs
Roger Clemens is 115-46 vs. 213-118; 3 Cy Youngs
Steve Carlton was 88-47 (age 35-39) vs. 225-160 pre-35.
I realize pitchers are a different breed than hitters (especially lefties) but it would be interesting to see how pitchers stack up in their later years just to see if Bonds' late career success is 100% unique or solely related to position players.
Pitchers are indeed different. (That's also why going foward I'd like to separate out the EWSL age adjustments for hitters vs. pitchers). Few hitters would take as long to develop as Randy Johnson's quest to find the strike zone.
I started thinking about the more average player or the late developer. If you are great at 25 perhaps it is hard to be 10-15% greater than when you are 35. While I just have been monkeying around with this I stumbled across a classic late-bloomer: Dwight Evans. The last 5 years of his career coincidentally were age 35-39. His OPS+ those 5 years were 156, 136, 137, 103 and 119 putting him in a Bonds sort of category at least purely defined by OPS+. Perhaps Bonds' acheivement is unique to already established Hall of Famers but less than unique (if still entirely impressive) when compared to the league as a whole. Or, perhaps, since I have not run a study Evans is somewhat unique in that he survived a so-so offensive beginning to his career to play to 39. Is there a way to look at all 35+ guys OPS+ to get an overall sense of things?
Never mind. A little bad math. Dewey, we love ya still though.
I had thought of Evans as one guy I might have missed. His OPS+ was 125 through age 34, so the actual figures are 125, 109, 110, 82, and 95 - which would put him on the chart and does make him one of the best at aging well.
The guys I looked at weren't all superstars, as you'll see whenever I finally get around to adding the names at the end of the post. But few guys who aren't at least stars play regularly to age 39.
I think everybody's forgetting the pitching quality facing not only Bonds, but McGwire and Sosa. The NL added two expansion teams in '93, one of which is in mile-high Denver. Two more teams were added in '98, the expansion Marlins and the pitching-poor Brewers, with the expansion Tampa Bay club going to the American League.
There just isn't enough good pitching to accommodate that kind of expansion. A number five starter (or swingman) on the old clubs became a number two or three on the new, and a lot of rookies got spots on all rosters. All three sluggers were in the National League and their HR numbers went up when the expansion started. They were all big guys who'd shown power before and had 20,000-40,000 AB's when the pitching became diluted.
It looks like a perfect storm of power hitters coming into their own just as the pitching quality weakened. Twice. And steroids is getting all the credit!
I am sure you have the numbers from a different study somewhere in this blog. But I wonder about another factor in the 2000-2005 numbers for Bonds.
What was the effect on changing from Candelstick to Pac Bell which opened in 2000? THe stick was a terrible place to play and PacBell (SBC or whatever it is this week) seems designed to maximize Bonds ability to drive a ball into the gaps and give him a good target down the lines.
Only thing to add to this thread is:
If steroids are so potent why is NO ONE ELSE showing this improvement? Surely we don't think only Barry is on drugs
Also, how can we point to steroids to explain Bonds' longevity and Giambi's injuries? That is inconsistent. EIther steroids prolong your career or shorten it - I think they prolong it but I'll have to read Will's book
John H, people benefit from PEDs to different degrees depending on the physical skills they were born with, the physical training they go through to complement the PEDs, and also the quality and type of PEDs being used. We already know that Bonds was a great athlete to begin with. He had his personal trainer and worked out scrupulously as well. And BALCO was considered state-of-the-art in terms of PEDs, including HGH. All these factors may have combined to give Bonds his gargantuan years. The bottom line whether or not he's benefited more from PEDs than others is that these drugs most likely gave him an edge, and helped him to perform at a higher level later in his career than he would have been able to achieve without them.
I'm glad to see that Barry's walks only took three posts until it was brought up. I think he improved significantly in identifying pitches once he left Pittsburgh. Maybe it was the Bay air? Maybe it was the ballpark? Maybe it was the cream or the clear? But let's cut him some flaxseed oil. :)
Do performance enhancing drugs benefit how well the mind can spot a pitch? We know they give you the edge in bat speed, flex, and power. But what about the vision?
In SF, Barry is averaging a .471 OBP. That's insane. It's .435 in his first 7 seasons in SF. Once Pacbell park is built in 2000, Barry's OBP rockets to .513 over the next 6 seasons.
What I would like to see is a statistical analysis of pitchers at Pacbell compared to Candlestick.
It's tough to guage the conditions of the park compared to others. Some players have played well in the bay area(Giambi) and not as well when they left. Other's improved(Jermaine Dye) when they left the Bay area.
If you look at Jeff Kent's 2000 numbers as a Giant you'll see he posted career numbers. However, he also posted a career high of 90 walks. Not bad for a guy that has averaged 47 walks per season in his 14 year career. When he leaves SF for Houston, his walks decline. When he goes to LA his walks increase. Is it the air? The weather maybe?
And then there are always the photographs of Bonds over the years, which show dramatic increases in muscle.
The increased muscle can explain a great deal of Bonds' improvement: a slightly longer wait, a better ability to check a swing, and of course, more pop. The question behind the question is "can you get those muscles without steroids?"
I have him as 4th-best left fielder of all time going into 1998, BTW, behind Williams, Musial, and Henderson, and just ahead of Jackson.
Since so much of the comment discussion seems to revolve around Bonds's performance as a 28-year-old, perhaps a yet more interesting study would be to compare players' years after 35 to their best year before then.
I know, easy to say when I don't have to do the work.
It seems to me that most of the "ifs/ands/and/buts" that people are raising about this excellent study are completely beside the point.
I don't see the relevance of bringing up things like how often Bonds has been walked in recent years, or the difference between Candlestick and Pac Bell, or his ability to recognize pitches -- because those all are essentially SUBSUMED in the study, among the billions and billions of other factors that are subsumed.
Regarding the ballparks, Candlestick was a hard place to hit, and so is Pac Bell. But OPS+ is a PARK-ADJUSTED stat. Park adjustments aren't perfect and neither is OPS+, and as the author acknowledges, the data don't represent any precise indication. But there's no reason to think that this ballpark factor would introduce any great error.
Bonds's ability to recognize pitches presumably existed prior to age 35, and to whatever extent it might have IMPROVED after that age, well, that's part of what we might be looking for. There are ALL KINDS OF WAYS that a player might improve himself dramatically, and perhaps this is one of them. But so what? It doesn't affect the validity of looking at whether his degree of improvement was off the charts.
As to all those WALKS, don't we have to think the pitchers knew what they were doing? Baseball is a series of percentage plays, and for the most part the players, coaches, and managers have a pretty good idea what they're doing. If you think the frequent walks EXCESSIVELY INFLATED Bonds' production, you have to believe the pitchers were being stupid, which I doubt they were. They felt that pitching to Bonds would have given him more hits and especially more HR's, and I don't see why we should doubt them.
But don't get me wrong -- this is an excellent discussion here, and I appreciate it greatly.