Best. Not greatest: best.
I want no part of the word "greatest." This time of year it barely even means anything outside of whatever post-hoc definition is needed to support other arguments. If we're going to talk about Barry Bonds's place in baseball history, let's kick "greatest" to the same curb where we left "most valuable" a few weeks back and focus instead on best, which in relation to sports we can take to mean "demonstrating the absolute highest standard of performance and ability in his field, both in relation to his contemporaries and his historical predecessors."
We're also going to use the word "player" here not only to differentiate Bonds from the guys who throw off a mound for a living but to avoid the word "hitter," as there are few things I'm less interested in doing than debating whether or not Ted Williams hitting .400 or Pete Rose having 4256 career hits means either of them were the best "pure hitter" of all time. "Pure hitting," or what scouts call the contact tool, is just one facet of the skillset a batter brings to the plate. Obviously neither Williams nor Rose were slouches in the other two primary aspects of hitting -- discipline and power -- but their contact tools were what made both players legends.
First things first: I'm throwing Babe Ruth out of this discussion altogether. Not only does he have some significant value tied up in pitching, but he played his entire career in the pre-integration era, and I think that's a significant strike against the relative quality of the league in that era. Now, is that Ruth's fault? No, it's not. Does it matter that it's not Ruth's fault? Not even slightly. Comparing players from the various post-integration, post-expansion eras is hard enough without trying to shoehorn in a guy who played in a whites-only league with half the teams. Ruth is being removed from consideration not because he's unqualified, but because there's no good-faith way to truly compare him to Barry Bonds. Ted Williams is going to be collateral damage here too, since his career straddled integration and ended two years before expansion began.
Some might find it problematic to toss two of the most highly regarded players in the history of the sport aside so quickly, but it's necessary when considering the evolution of the game and the industry. Baseball in the 1920's and 30's, when Ruth played, might as well be an entirely different sport taking place on an entirely different planet. With the advent of professionalism, the growth of the sport, and the inexorable forward march of technology, Major League Baseball in 2012 is a higher quality product with stronger, faster, healthier, and -- due to the immediate financial security of their jobs -- more focused players than it was 70 years ago. It's been so long, there's not really even anyone left to have nostalgia for that period of baseball history anymore. Hell, if I'm nostalgic for anything it's the Steroid Era. I miss the dingers.
With Ruth and Williams consigned to history, we need to build a list of candidates from the remaining greats. If you trust Wins Above Replacement to provide a ballpark approximation of a player's career value, and I do, then the top five players since integration are Barry Bonds (158.1), Willie Mays (150.8), Hank Aaron (137.3), Alex Rodriguez (111.4), and Rickey Henderson (106.8). I think these are the right names in the right order; the only other guys over 100 WAR in that time frame are Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, and Frank Robinson, and I'm comfortable saying Rickey and Rodriguez are where they should be in relation to those guys. (Side note on Ted Williams: even though our endpoints have lopped off a significant amount of his value, he's still 24th on the list post-integration. If we make a special exception and give him credit for those years, his career 119.8 WAR puts him between Aaron and Rodriguez. Not sure I disagree with that, either.)
Mays and Aaron are from early in the post-integration era, well before expansion began in the '60s, but both men had Hall of Fame careers that took them into the '70s, so we can keep them around. Henderson's a modern-era player through and through, and Rodriguez is still active, but I don't think they pose any credible challenge to the three guys above them. And as much as Hank Aaron's shadow fell over Bonds in the later years of his career, Mays is really his only serious competition. On full consideration, the list has the guy at the very top correct.
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But let's say you're the sort of baseball fan who sees WAR capitalized all fancy-like and immediately reaches for your Edwin Starr joke: why should you think Barry Bonds is the best player ever?
Do you like awards? Pick any two players in the Hall of Fame. Barry Bonds has more MVP awards than both of them combined. Think everything he did while he was a Giant in those crazy home run years is tainted and want to throw it all out? That still leaves him a three-time National League MVP, tied with nine other players for most in MLB history. Eight of those guys are in the Hall already; the ninth is Alex Rodriguez, who should join them five years after he retires. Bonds also has 12 Silver Slugger Awards, giving him a two-trophy lead on the guy with the second most, Mike Piazza. And if you're a fan of Gold Gloves, Bonds has eight -- the most of any left fielder in the history of the sport, beating out Carl Yastrzemski by one. He also won the NL Batting Title in both 2002 and 2004, if there was any lingering concern that a seven-time MVP couldn't hit for average. All told, Barry Bonds has enough Hall of Fame hardware for him and three of his closest friends. (Seriously though, lay off the Gold Gloves. They're not good for you.)
There are more nuanced ways to judge a player's career than awards, however. For example: arbitrary counting-stat milestones! Barry Bonds can do better than just arbitrary counting stat milestones. You're likely aware he's the all-time home runs leader (I can hear some of you screaming "asterisk" at your computer monitor right now; be patient, we'll get there) but he's also the league's all-time leader in walks; his 2258 free passes put a comfortable 368-walk margin between him and Rickey Henderson in second, even though Rickey played for three more years. It's that discipline and selectivity that probably kept him from breaking 3000 hits; Bonds retired with 2935 to his name, good for 32nd all-time. No one's going to hold 32nd against him though; excluding players who are still active or not eligible for enshrinement, everyone in the top 50 has been inducted into the Hall.
Put up against baseball's historical record, Bonds looks fantastic. That's to be expected: he played in the greatest offensive era in the history of the game and a lot of those other guys did not. So how did Bonds fare against his peers?
In August 1997, then-Chicago Cub starter Geremi Gonzalez faced Barry Bonds 6 times in 6 days, and all 6 times he sat Barry Bonds down. The two would never face each other again. Gonzalez holds the distinction of being the only pitcher to ever face Bonds more than five times and not allow him on base. That's how Bonds generally fared against his peers: if he got more than an afternoon's worth of work in against a guy, he solved him.
Bonds spent the first seven years of his career in Pittsburgh, and if he'd retired after them or switched sports or just disappeared into the sky one night he'd have had one of the most intriguing Hall of Fame candidacies of all time: a white-hot peak with three MVP awards (almost four in a row -- he received the honor in 1990, then finished second in MVP voting in 1991, then won it again in 1992 and 1993) worth 48.6 WAR, which would rank him 45th out of the 108 Hall of Fame position players who played in the post-expansion era, accruing more value in seven years than guys like Bill Mazeroski, Jim Rice and Kirby Puckett did their whole careers. Had Bonds up and vanished off the face of the planet in the winter of 1992, his career might've become a footnote in the most bittersweet dream of what could've been in baseball history. Instead Barry Bonds went to San Francisco and unleashed an unholy terror upon the National League.
It's important to remember that Bonds was a complete player, dominant in all aspects of the game for the majority of his career. This gets lost sometimes in the fallout from everything that came afterwards. Coming up, Bonds played centerfield; the Pirates moved him to left not because he couldn't handle the position or because he bulked up out of it but because they'd just given Andy Van Slyke a whole lot of money, and Andy Van Slyke played a good centerfield. So Bonds became the best left fielder in baseball instead.
He was elite on the basepaths as well. When he was young he was fast, when he was old he was smart, and in the years in between he was hell for the guy on the mound. Over the course of his career Bonds stole 514 bases at a 78% clip, the 16th-most by any player since integration, and swiped more efficiently than Juan Pierre (591, 75%), Otis Nixon (620, 77%), or Lou Brock (938, 75%).
But Bonds will always be remembered foremost for what he did with his bat 762 times across 22 years. It sort of washes the other, littler accomplishments away, being the Home Run King. After a while one imagines they start to slip together in the mind. When you hit the most home runs in the history of the sport, the list of guys you've gone yard off of is going to end up long and diverse. For Bonds it includes: Mike and Greg Maddux, Pedro and Ramon Martinez, Tim and Todd Worrell, and two of the three Perez brothers, Carlos and Pascual (he never faced Melido, who pitched in the American League); Randy Johnson, arguably the best left-handed pitcher in baseball history, and Casey Fossum, arguably the worst; every member of the 2001-2004 Oakland Athletics starting rotation; every member of the 1995 Atlanta Braves starting rotation; Felix Hernandez, the current ace of the Seattle Mariners; Bud Black, the current manager of the San Diego Padres; Jerry Dipoto, the current general manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; fireballer Eric Gagne; knuckleballer Tim Wakefield; screwballer Fernando Valenzuela; and two different men named Greg Harris.
After joining the Giants in 1993, he wouldn't post a yearly OPS under 1.000 for the next thirteen seasons. When he finally did, it was .999 in 2006, and then the following season, Bonds's last in professional baseball, he went right back over 1.000. Considering the run-scoring environment at the time, a 1.000 OPS meant less in the 90s than it would right now, but not much less.
Between 2001 and 2004, Bonds didn't post an OPS below 1.200. Now you might say, all right, sure, 1.200 is bigger than 1.000 by a non-negligible degree, but what does that really mean in game terms? Well, what it means in game terms is that after he went out and hit 73 home runs in 2001, the managers of Major League Baseball decided they'd seen just about enough of Barry Bonds. So they began walking him. On purpose. All the time.
The intentional walk is the highest on-field compliment a hitter can be paid by his opponent unless his pitcher is hitting behind him. Bonds received 688 free passes in his career, but only had fifteen plate appearances out of the eighth spot. They were compelled by something beyond respect or even fear. You'll sometimes hear people say Boston slugger and Hall of Famer Jim Rice was the "most feared" hitter of his day. Rice was intentionally walked a total of 77 times across his 16 year career. Bonds was intentionally walked 77 times between April 5th and July 18th, 2004. Managers didn't really fear Barry Bonds, any more than grass fears a lawnmower; fear requires a measure of uncertainty, and the lawnmower does its same deadly thing every time it rolls by.
Managers usually order the intentional walk when first base is open, there are runners in scoring position and at least one out's been recorded in the inning. However, 75 of Bonds' career IBB came with a runner already on first base, meaning giving him a free pass advanced at least one runner. Thirty-four of those 75 came with a runner on third as well -- walking Bonds not only advanced a runner, but loaded the bases. And on May 28th, 1998, Barry Bonds became the first player in major league history to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded. With his Diamondbacks leading the Giants 8-6 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, manager Buck Showalter decided he'd rather have closer Gregg Olson face Brent Mayne, a light-hitting journeyman backup catcher, instead of the San Francisco slugger. It worked out for Showalter in the end: Mayne lined out to centerfield to end the game.
Bonds was also intentionally walked 41 times in his career when the bases were empty. Managers generally did this when the game was either tied or would be if Bonds homered and almost always in the late innings, though there were two times a manager ordered it in the third. And there were five times in his career that Bonds was intentionally walked with the bases empty and nobody out -- five times when a manager decided his team would have a better chance of winning if he spotted the Giants a runner on first instead of asking his pitcher to try and get Barry Bonds out.
The most times a pitcher ever faced Bonds without letting him on base was six; the most times a pitcher saw Bonds without putting him there on purpose was eight. That's how many times Bonds faced journeyman right-hander Will Cunnane between 1997 and 2001 without recording a single intentional walk. Instead, he had three unintentional walks, a home run, a double, and three singles. Cunnane would have been better off throwing him 32 straight balls.
The three pitchers who IBB'd Bonds most? Greg Maddux (9), Curt Schilling (8), and John Smoltz (7). Smart guys. Of course they didn't have much success against him, either: Bonds had an .883 OPS in 157 PA against Maddux, a 1.048 OPS in 100 PA against Schilling, and a 1.138 OPS in 108 PA against Smoltz. But still, smart guys. And at least they weren't in the same boat as poor Andy Ashby, who in 70 PA against Bonds gave up more home runs (7) than intentional free passes (5).
Bonds played 2986 games in 22 years and reached base in 2566 of them. Between 2001 and 2004, there were eight entire months where he played over 20 games and got on base in every one. It's possible no player will ever again dominate the sport as thoroughly as Barry Bonds did the first four years of this millennium.
Or more succinctly: in 2004, 668 different batters combined for 100,207 plate appearances of .263/.333/.423 (.756 OPS) hitting in the National League. Without Bonds's 617 PA, that line falls to .262/.330/.421 (.751 OPS). Bonds, then 39 years old and responsible for only six-tenths of a percent of the league's plate appearances that year, raised the league OPS five points by himself.
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There's really only one thing left to talk about, isn't there?
Everyone has their own opinions on how anabolic steroid and human growth hormone use affected the last few decades of baseball, mainly because we have no definitive understanding of their actual impact; it's convenient to look at a rise in home runs and power numbers, then look over at more muscular athletes and draw a clear, connecting line, but there was more to it than that. Teams were leaving the cavernous municipal arenas and compounds they shared with NFL clubs to smaller fields more conducive to offense, and there were major changes to the way baseballs themselves were manufactured between 1992 and 1993 (Jay Jaffe has a good run down on that whole mess). Regardless of their actual effect on the game, however, the majority of the drugs were illegal to use without prescription and banned by MLB.
Prescription drug abuse is a serious problem, but being guilty of it doesn't unhit home runs or unsteal bases; Bonds still did all those things. And if Bonds' numbers or performance has to be docked or thrown out entirely because he put chemicals in his body to try to make himself better at baseball, so do Mays and Aaron, both of whom have repeatedly admitted to using amphetamines as players.
The most responsible thing to do with the career numbers of steroids users is the same thing everyone does with the numbers of amphetamine users from earlier eras: make a note of the drugs if you feel you need to, but take the numbers at their face value. Not being able to properly quantify the effects of steroids isn't a reason to throw out 20 years of baseball stats when doing player analysis; it's a reason to treat steroids and PEDs as a health and safety issue instead of something that damages the competitive integrity of the game. Bonds's numbers are as legitimate as anyone else's in major league history.
It's basically a two-man race at this point between Bonds and Mays, and which of the two you think is better probably comes down to how you feel about the extra value of Mays's defense. For me, though, it's Bonds. The last two decades have been riddled with Hall-of-Fame-worthy pitchers and hitters, and he stands head and shoulders above them all.