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Jayson vs. Barry
2003-08-17 01:38
by Mike Carminati

Jayson Stark, the Carrot Top of baseball analysts, is at it again, this time he vents his stats-misrepresenting spleen on Barry Bonds. Bonds just hit his 650th home run and is hot on the heels of Willie Mays for third place. What could be Stark's issue with Bonds, you ask?

Well, Stark writes that the odds are against Bonds breaking Aaron's all-time career home run record. No kidding? The odds were against Bonds slugging .863 at the age of 36, but he did. The odds were against Bonds even making it to the majors in the first place.

Stark quotes the dropoff in homers hit by those 40 and above. The decline is rather sudden. Stark uses anecdotal evidence to show that past sluggers declined around his age so clearly Bonds must decline. Yes, a decline is in Bonds' future, but need it be as early and as sudden as it has been for other players in the past?

Bonds just came off possibly the two best offensive seasons ever recorded. In 2001, he broke the home run, slugging, and walks. In 2002, he set the record for on-base percentage, walks (obliterating his 2001 record), and OPS. His OPS those two seasons were 162 and 175% better than the park-adjusted league average, the highest ever.

Hank Aaron is an upper tier Hall of Famer. However, Aaron's top adjusted OPS was 94% better than average. Both Mays and Aaron showed signs of slowing down by age 39: Mays had OPSs "only" 25% better than the league average at ages 36 and 38. Aaron was stellar through age 40, but even he had off years-though career years for most other players-with an OPS under 50% better than the league average (also at 36 and 38).

Since turning 30 Bonds has never had an OPS that was lower than 62% better than the league average. Besides, he is coming off the two best seasons perhaps ever recorded.

Also, in 1974 when Aaron was 40 years old, a home run would be hit in only 2.00% of all at-bats. In 2002, a homer was hit in 3.06% of all at-bats. That's a 50% increase. So ever if Bonds started to decline he would be aided by the homer-happy era in which he currently plays.

Stark is correct in his career tallies for home runs by players 39 or older. However, it should be point out that Bonds now has 37 home runs during technically his 38-year-old season and only two players have exceeded that mark (Darrell Evans with 40 and Ted Williams with 38). Bonds should hit something like 50 or 51 by the end of the year. No 38-year-old has ever come close to that.

The prop comic of statistical analysis that he is, Stark blunders his way through an anecdotal, post-38 homer projection:

Exactly one man in the history of the sport ever hit 40 home runs at age 39. (And, if we use the universally accepted July 1 age cutoff date, next season would count as Bonds' 39-year-old season, even though he'll play almost 40 percent of it at age 40.) That's Aaron, who did it in 1973.

It undoubtedly seemed back then as if Hank would keep on hammerin' 40 or so indefinitely, too. Uh, guess again. Aaron's next three years went: 20 homers, 12 and 10 -- for a TOTAL of 42 over the rest of his career.

Then would come Bonds' 40-year-old season. Just one 40-year-old man in history has ever hit 30 homers in a season. That's Darrell Evans, who hit 34 in 1987 for a Tigers team that played in the perfect left-handed hitter's park, Tiger Stadium. We remind you that Bonds plays in the hardest ballpark in baseball for a left-handed hitter (besides himself, that is) to hit a home run.

OK, let's keep going. Most home runs by a 41-year-old: 29, by Ted Williams in 1961. Most by a 42-year-old: 18, by Carlton Fisk, in 1990. Most by a 43-year-old: 18, also by Fisk, in 1991. And after that, it isn't even worth counting anymore.

So to break this record, Bonds is going to need to keep churning out historic, or nearly historic seasons, for a man his age every year -- at least for three years, and, if he suffers any kind of major injury, possibly for a year or two or three after that.

Well, yes, to do something historic like breaking the all-time home run record, one must put up historic numbers year in, year out. Doesn't that follow? People don't back into such things.

However, Bonds had been eviscerating records for the last few years, so why pen him in by the home run records by age of previous players? ESPN ran a graphic the other day that showed that Bonds has been the quickest to go from 600 to 650, doing so in 145 games. Conceivably, Bonds could be at 700 by around the All-Star break next season and at Aaron's doorstep by July 4, 2005.

But will he? I don't think we can predict even by something like Bill James' Favorite Toy method. The man has just had such a unique career that defies description. There certainly appears no reason to think that Bonds will slow down any time soon other than the erosive effect that age has on baseball skills and Darrell Evans' less-than-hopeful, post-38 home run record.

Basically, there is no real reason to think Bonds cannot break the record. Well, except one valid one that Stark points to, injury. Bonds has played 102, 143, 153, and 143 games the previous four seasons. Bonds has already missed 19 games this year and is currently on bereavement leave. Yeah, that doesn't bode well, but then again it has yet to eat into his yearly home run totals. Besides who can predict injuries. Look at the toll injuries took on the middle of Mark McGwire's career but then he bounced back for some amazing seasons.

I don't know if Bonds will break the record, but then again for all his bloviating neither does Stark. History is on Stark's side but then again isn't that the case whenever anyone does something historic? The little Gordian knot that Stark's logic ties him in, can only be cut by looking at the history that matters most, Bonds' history.

Besides, Stark displays his lack of familiarity with this sort of history by saying disdainfully, "Obviously, Bonds can always flee to the American League and DH." Where does he think Hank Aaron played his last two years? In Milwaukee as the Brewers' DH. In his last two seasons he played 222 games but only 4 in the outfield (in left).

Yes, "The Road to Aaron"-whatever that means- is long, but we already know this. But there's no reason not to expect Bonds to get to that promised land, mixed metaphor and all.

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