Is Barry Bonds Baseball's Greatest Slugger?

Sometime in the next few days, Barry Bonds will become the all-time home run leader in major league baseball history, surpassing Henry Aaron. He already holds the single season home run record of 73. The Giants slugger has won 7 MVP awards, a major league record. He has the 5th highest career slugging percentage in baseball history, and the 6th highest career on base percentage. For the combination of the two, the SLOB or OPS, Bonds rank 4th for his career. Bonds has the 3rd lowest number of at bats per home run in baseball history.

As for single season records, Bonds stands out even more: Bonds has the two highest single season on base percentages ever recorded,  3 of the top 5 and 4 of the top 9. Bonds has the highest single season slugging percentage ever recorded, 3 of the top 5, and 4 of the top 12. As for the single season SLOB or OPS (slugging percentage + on base percentage), Bonds has the highest single season figure, 3 of the top 4, and 4 of the top 8. In 2001, when he hit 73 homers, Bond recorded the lowest number of at bats to home  runs in any single season  in baseball history.

So is Barry Bonds baseballs' greatest hitter? Is he the greatest slugger in baseball history?

The answer to both questions is a resounding no. And it is a no without any need for asterisks or "yes, but..." parentheticals. There is ample room for skepticism about Bonds' place in history.

There is no other player among the baseball greats whose career took a sudden and dramatic turn for the better at age 35 and over. All of the single season records highlighted above occurred from 2001 to 2004 when Bonds was between 36 to 40 years old. During those 4 years, Bond put up numbers never before matched in baseball history. A career .290 hitter, Bonds batted .328, .370, .341, and .362. A hitter whose highest single season slugging percentage had been .688 recorded the following slugging percentages: .863, .799, .749, and .812. Bonds' on base percentage, never before higher than .461, rose to these season marks: .515, .582, .529, and .609. As for the OPS or SLOB, Bonds' single season high had been 1.135 before 2001. His figures for the four seasons were :1.378, 1.381, 1.278 and 1.421. 

Bonds, the career leader in bases on balls, received 755 walks in these 4 seasons, 284 of them intentional. In 2004, Bonds walked 232 times, 120 of them intentional. No player has ever been avoided at the plate this frequently in a season. Of course, when a hitter has a slugging percentage of about .800 for four seasons, pitching around that batter makes sense.

Throwing out the four incredible seasons from 2001 to 2004, Bonds has career numbers guaranteeing admission to the Hall of Fame.  In addition to his batting numbers, he won 8 Golden Glove Awards in the period 1990-1998.  But the skepticism about whether the numbers he posted in the period 2001 to 2004 may have been chemically enhanced now means that an even stronger career stat chart may not guarantee admission to the Hall. The evidence for this is the small number of votes for Mark McGwire on his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. McGwire hit 70 homers one year and 65 in another, the 2nd and 4th highest single season totals.  He hit 586 career homers and has by far the lowest career ratio of at bats to home runs at 10.61. McGwire would have been a lock first ballot inductee except for concern about steroid use. McGwire's numbers arguably make him one of the greatest, if not the greatest slugger in baseball history (I said arguably, which can mean as it does here, that the argument is weak).

But as I said earlier, one does not have to question Bonds' 4 greatest seasons to conclude that he is not baseball's greatest hitter, nor its greatest slugger. Baseball is a sport that is highly susceptible to statistical analysis. Bill James has created many methodologies to judge players from one decade in comparison to those of another, to evaluate the contribution good fielding makes to a team, to compare the value of pitchers to hitters in their value to a team, to measure ballpark effects. My analysis here is less esoteric, sticking to hitting, making no adjustments to the numbers for playing in a particular era.

While the batting numbers for Bonds for the seasons 2001 to 2004 were probably the best 4 single seasons any player has ever put up (Babe Ruth is close behind), over an entire career, the Babe and Ted Williams easily pass Bonds.  Ruth hit.342 for his career, Williams .344. Bonds career batting average is .298.  Williams is the all time on base percentage leader at .482. Ruth is second at .474, Bonds 6th at .444.  Ruth is way ahead in the career slugging percentage race at .690. Williams is second at .634, Bonds 5th at .609. The OPL or SLOB has a similar career leader board: Ruth first at 1.1638, Williams second at 1.115, Bonds is 4th at 1.0515.

A pretty good case can be made that Bonds ranks no higher than 4th on the hitting or slugging chart. Lou Gehrig, whose career and life were cut short by illness, is third all-time on the OPL/SLOB list at 1.0798, third in slugging at .632, and  5th in the on base percentage at .447. In other words, he is ahead of Bonds in all three areas, as are Williams and Ruth. Gehrig also has a much higher career batting average than Bonds.

Though Bonds will soon own the career home run record (younger players such as Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols could pass him in years to come), only once did Bonds hit as many as 50 home runs in a year, and only twice led the league in homers. Aaron never hit 50 in a season. Ruth hit 50 or more 4 times (in slightly shorter 154 game seasons of course), and led the league in home runs 12 times.

It is pure speculation at this point how Bonds' record will be judged in years to come. But even giving him the benefit of the doubt, he ranks as one of the greatest, but not the greatest hitter or slugger in baseball history. And if the later years' performance is tainted, he does not rank in the top ten.

I will be at AT&T Park in San Francisco tonight to see Bonds go for the record. Willie Mays will also be there. He is Bonds' godfather. Willie Mays has a statue and a street named after him near the ballpark. The Say Hey kid, now 76, was my hero when I was growing up in the Bronx. Was Mays the greatest? Probably not. Babe Ruth was a Hall of Fame quality pitcher, as well as the game's greatest hitter. Mays could do it all -- hit for average, hit with power, run the bases, catch the ball, and throw the ball (and the runner out). And he did it with grace, and warmth, and a smile on his face.

Whatever Bonds' achievements, in light of the current steroid speculation and how he has carried himself for most of his career, no one will ever refer to him as the "natural".  But that sobriquet fit Willie Mays. In my book, Mays' record, 660 career homers, over 3,000 hits, a .302 career batting average, and the best fielding center fielder, make him the 2nd best overall.

Richard Baehr is chief political writer of American Thinker, and also an avid sports fan.