My friend Bob Costas left a message for me yesterday. It was a very nice message — Bob is a great guy — but he also had a slight disagreement. Bob and I are very often on the same page when it comes to baseball, but he was reading a small essay I wrote in the magazine this week and he noticed this line:
“(Barry) Bonds and (Roger) Clemens are two of the best who ever played the game. If not for the steroid noise that surrounds them, you could make a viable argument that they are simply the two best ever.”
I should say that my thinking, when I wrote the line, was simply that if you took their numbers and performances at face value, you could make the viable argument that they are the two best ever. Bob, though, read it differently. He thought that I was actually saying without steroids Bonds and Clemens are two of the best ever, perhaps even THE two best ever. This did not bother him so much for Clemens, but it did bother him for for Bonds. He strongly disagrees.
We’ve had similar discussions before, and if I could summarize his thought, I think it goes something like this (and I am reworking this a little bit to get Bob’s opinion more precisely): Barry Bonds in 1998 was a great player. Truly great. But there was no argument to make for him as the best ever. In Bob’s words: He certainly wasn’t Ruth; he didn’t hit like Williams or Musial; as great an all-around player as he was he was not Mays and his career did not have the totality of Aaron. Bob thinks Bonds of 1998 could certainly be in the discussion as one of the 10 or 12 best non-pitchers of all time. But there was no argument for him as the very best. And there is no argument that can be made for him as the very best NOW either without steroids.
I certainly understand Bob’s point, and it’s a strong point. In that context, I agree with him: I don’t think you can honestly call Barry Bonds the best ever unless you take his bulked-up numbers at something close to face value. But Bob’s call did remind me to dig up an old post that I wrote but never published, one I titled: “Barry Bonds was even better than you think he was.” Most of the points in there are not terribly relevant or interesting — hey, there’s a reason I never posted it — but I did find the section I was looking for in there. The section actually brought up the same point Bob brought up: What if Barry Bonds had retired in 1998?
— He was 33 years old at the start of that season.
— He had won three MVP awards, and probably deserved at least two more, maybe even including that homer crazy season of 1998.
— His career numbers up at that point: .290/.411/.556 with 411 homers, 455 stolen bases (he already had become the only man in the 400-400 club),
— He had a career 164 OPS+ then — seventh all time for players with 7,500 plate appearances (behind Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Hornsby, Mantle and Cobb).
— He was 11th on the all-time list for runs created through age 33 — squeezed between Frank Robinson and Willie Mays.
— He had won eight Gold Gloves for his outfield defense, and numbers do suggest he was a marvelous left fielder, perhaps the best defensive left fielder ever.
Not bad. I think the problem is this: Bonds was so genuinely unlikable that people simply did not want to admire him or be awed by him. In fact, if you buy into the accepted narrative — that Bonds bulked up after 1998 largely because he was sickened by the public reaction to McGwire and Sosa — then it was that shortage of credit that pushed him into using steroids in the first place. For so long, Ken Griffey — and not Bonds — was widely seen as the best player in baseball. There is no definitive way to prove this, but I think Barry Bonds was actually A LOT better than Ken Griffey (who is an all-time great). Certainly that’s the story Wins Above Replacement tells …
We’ll use Fangraphs WAR, which is a little kinder to Griffey than Baseball Reference:
1989: Griffey 2.8, Bonds 7.3
1990: Griffey 5.3, Bonds 10.1
1991: Griffey 7.5, Bonds 7.9
1992: Griffey 6.0, Bonds 9.8
1993: Griffey 9.0, Bonds 10.6
1994: Griffey 7.2, Bonds 6.0
1995: Griffey 3.6, Bonds 7.7
1996: Griffey 10.2, Bonds 9.1
1997: Griffey 9.4, Bonds 9.2
1998: Griffey 7.1, Bonds 8.8
Bonds is better seven of the 10 years, and overall has 18 more wins above replacement than Griffey. As mentioned the numbers are even starker the way Baseball Reference calculates them. How about Bill James’ Win Shares?
1989: Griffey 14, Bonds 23
1990: Griffey 24, Bonds 37
1991: Griffey 30, Bonds 37
1992: Griffey 25, Bonds 41
1993; Griffey 29, Bonds 47
1994: Griffey 20, Bonds 25
1995: Griffey 9, Bonds 36
1996: Griffey 28, Bonds 39
1997: Griffey 36, Bonds 36
1998: Griffey 29, Bonds 34
By Win Shares, Bonds was better every single year except 1997, when they were tied. He compiled more than 100 more win shares than Griffey over those 10 years. Obviously you can make your own judgment but it seems to me that Griffey was an amazing player, someone people WERE comparing to the all-time greats in his prime. Bonds was even better.
There’s no way to know how Bonds career would have finished had he not bulked up. You can play all sorts of games — assume 10% deduction per year, tack on the numbers similar player put up at the end of their career and so on. But we’ll never really know. Maybe he would have aged amazingly well like Henry Aaron. Maybe, like Ruth, he would have petered out at 39 or so. Maybe like Mantle he would have been done at 36. There’s no real way to know.
But I think Bob’s statement — Barry Bonds would not even be in the discussion as best ever without steroids — leads to a fascinating discussion. If Bonds had not used steroids, if he had played out his career naturally, where would he be on baseball’s ladder?
I think he would have been viewed by people who work hard to study the game as one of the 10 best to ever play the game. In the last Bill James Historical Abstract, which came out in 2001 and was compiled in the couple of years before that, Bill ranked Bonds 16th all-time, and the third best left-fielder behind Williams and Musial. I’m not sure what this means in the overall rating, but I’d argue that the only players in the history of the game who could match the young Bonds as a hitter, power-hitter, runner and fielder — all four categories — are Willie Mays and Oscar Charleston (with a special exemption for Honus Wagner since he played in a no-power era).