Skip Bayless has a column on the BALCO situation. In it, he wrote the following about Barry Bonds, “For his first 14 seasons, he hit .288 and averaged 32 home runs. In the past four full seasons, he hit .334 and averaged 53 home runs.”
That is flat out misleading. 1995 must be the cut-off point for any discussion about Bonds, home runs, offense, whatever. Prior to 1995, baseball was a whole different ballgame. If you want to put Bonds career into proper context, then 1995 is be the dividing line for analysis. There's no way for Skip's readers (or anyone, for that matter) to not conclude that Bonds must be doing something different, if not outright cheating, when you talk about his accomplishments like that.
Put into context, you see that Bonds has been among the league leaders in offense for virtually his entire career. As for his home run surge; starting in 1988, when he was 22 years old, he's finished in the Top 9 in home runs every year but two, '89 and '99. Starting in 1996, home runs, batting average, slugging, runs scored; virtually all of offensive categories are at historic highs. Barry Bonds' supposed late-career power surge coincides exactly with the league.
As he entered into his thirties, the entire league was entering into a huge upswing in offense. He's led the NL in home runs twice, once with 46 (1993), once with 73 (2001). Almost exactly at the mid-point of his career, the league baseline for offense surged some 30%. You can look it up. Here's the league and Barry from 1988, his first full season:
2003 NL 2708 HR .262/.327/.417 ATL 235 (Barry 45) % of top team 19%
2002 NL 2595 HR .259/.327/.410 Cubs 200 (Barry 46) % of top team 23%
2001 NL 2952 HR .261/.327/.425 COL 213 (Barry 73) % of top team 34%
2000 NL 3005 HR .266/.338/.432 HOU 249 (Barry 49) % of top team 19%
1999 NL 2893 HR .268/.340/.429 COL 223 (Barry 34) % of top team 15%
1998 NL 2565 HR .262/.328/.410 STL 223 (Barry 37) % of top team 16%
1997 NL 2163 HR .263/.339/.410 COL 239 (Barry 40) % of top team 16%
1996 NL 2220 HR .262/.327/.408 COL 221 (Barry 42) % of top team 19%
1995 NL 1917 HR .263/.328/.408 COL 200 (Barry 33) % of top team 17%
1993 NL 1956 HR .264/.325/.399 ATL 169 (Barry 46) % of top team 27%
1992 NL 1262 HR .252/.314/.368 Pads 135 (Barry 34) % of top team 25%
1991 NL 1430 HR .250/.316/.373 Reds 164 (Barry 25) % of top team 15%
1990 NL 1521 HR .256/.321/.383 Mets 172 (Barry 33) % of top team 19%
1989 NL 1365 HR .246/.312/.365 Mets 147 (Barry 19) % of top team 13%
1988 NL 1279 HR .248/.309/.363 Mets 152 (Barry 24) % of top team 19%
1987 NL 1824 HR .261/.327/.404 Cubs 209 (Barry 25) % of top team 12%
In 1994 Barry turned 30 years old during the strike shortened season (which I excluded). Broke into two blocks, we can view his career from the 8 full seasons before the 2000 home run barrier was broken, and the 8 full seasons after the 2000 home run barrier was broken. Thus, Skip's sentence would read something like this, “In his eight full seasons prior to 1996, Bonds averaged 30 home runs a year. In the eight full seasons after 1996, Bonds averaged 45 home runs a year.”
And yes, I know there are more teams. That's why I also compared Bonds to the league leading team. You could also just compare him to the individual league leaders. His standing as one of the best players in the league is static throughout his career. He's been in the Top 6 in OPS every year but '89 and '99, having led the league in 1990, 91, 92 and 93, (back when everyone says he was obviously not on the juice
), and also 2001, 2002, and 2003. He's finished in the Top 10 in runs scored every year of his career except for '99, he was injured that season. He's been in the Top 5 in OBP 14 times in 16 seasons, having led the league 7 times. He's been in the Top 7 in SLG 14 times as well, league leader 6 times. Twelve times he's been in the Top 10 in total bases. 13 times he's led the league in times on base. 14 times in extra base hits. 8 times he's led the league in adjusted OPS, he's the active leader at 179, and third all-time.
Look at the numbers prior to 1996, In 1993, when Barry hit 46 home runs, the Braves led the league with just 169, meaning Bonds hit 27% as many home runs as the best team in the league. In 2001, when Bonds' 73 was 34% as many as the Rockies 213 total, 6 teams hit over 200 home runs in the NL alone! In his first full eight seasons, only two teams total hit 200 home runs. During that span, Bonds hit 19% as many home runs as the top team in the league four times. In his second eight, he did it five times.
If you looked at any of Bonds' contemporaries, Bagwell, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Thome, Sheffield, any of the big-time players whose careers land on both sides of the offensive explosion, you'll find similar trends. In fact, any player whose career straddles 1995 will show this effect. Look, here's Rafael Palmeiro, whose first full season was 1988:
1988 8 home runs
1989 8 home runs
1990 14 home runs
1991 26 home runs
1992 22 home runs
1993 37 home runs
1995 39 home runs
1996 39 home runs
1997 38 home runs
1998 43 home runs
1999 47 home runs
2000 39 home runs
2001 47 home runs
2002 43 home runs
2003 38 home runs
In his first seven full seasons, Palmeiro averaged 22 home runs per season. In his second eight full seasons, (after 1995), he averaged 42 home runs per season. Palmeiro turned 30 in 1996, meaning he has hit 334 of his 528 home runs after the season in which he turned 30. Bonds has hit 366 of his home runs after the season in which he turned 30 years old. Why is Bonds' career path so unusual, so distorted; while Palmeiro's isn't? Because of 73? Come on.
Batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, total hits, home runs…. offense as a whole exploded just after Bonds 30th birthday. Bonds also began his serious weight training not long after his 30th birthday as well. Could it be that the combination of the two is the real explanation for his power surge? Isn't it at least possible?
I'll tell you what, Bonds didn't change, the game conditions changed. If more sportswriters took the time to write about what is really happening, as opposed to doing the same thing the casual observer does; there would be far less speculation.
Update:Some people have suggested I clean up the table a little, so I did. I have also been asked if I am suggesting that what Bonds is doing isn't as special as it seems, or even as special as I have said many times. No, I am not suggesting that.
I just want to illuminate the discussion. The drum beat that Bonds alone is somehow defying physics is part of the reason so many people are willing to accept that because Dan Patrick believes he is using steroids, it must be true. But it isn't Bonds alone. Yes, he's breaking all the old records. But if the game conditions hadn't changed so dramatically, he wouldn't be. He'd still be the best player in the game, he'd still be making a run at Aaron, he just wouldn't be wreaking havoc on the entire baseball encyclopedia. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy his assault on the record books, and it doesn't mean his accomplishments are lessened. It doesn't mean anything. It's just something to learn from the statistical record. In a way, it's just a fact of baseball life.