Thursday, April 14, 2011

Judging A Player

Caption: San Francisco left fielder Barry Bonds swinging in a game against the Cincinnati Reds, Aug. 26, 2006.

Image credit: Kevin Rushforth/Flickr

It looks like the once amazing career of Hall of Fame player Barry Bonds is about to come to a sad end:
Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice Wednesday in Federal Court in San Francisco. A mistrial was declared on two other counts.

The case, of course, was about performance-enhancing drugs. Our sibling blog L.A. Now explains: "Bonds was charged with four federal felony counts for denying under oath to a grand jury in 2003 that he had knowingly used steroids or human growth hormones and for maintaining that his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, had never injected him."

Barry Bonds Convicted Of Obstruction Of Justice: Two Books Tell The Backstory
Yes, he was already retired, but the arguments about who was the greatest of all time at this or that go on forever. Bonds was, after all, the game's most prolific home run hitter. He was one of only a few players who both stole 40 bases in a year and hit 40 home runs, baseball feats that require very different skills. One of the few other players who ever managed that feat was his father, Bobby Bonds. Well, almost. Bobby missed that mark by one home run.

It almost goes without saying that Bonds would have been a great ballplayer even without taking steroids. It seems unlikely he could have beaten Hank Aaron's home run record, but that's not terribly relevant. To illustrate why, let me take you back to an earlier time.

Mike Schmidt was probably the greatest ballplayer of his era. He was certainly one of the best home run hitters, and one of the best fielders. Yet he ended his career with fewer than 600 home runs, not even in the top five when he retired in 1989 (he was the seventh all time then). He might seem, just looking at that statistic, one of the lesser stars of the game all, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson, and Reggie Jackson all hit more, and they were all part of the modern era. Since he retired, Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa have all hit more than 600 homers. But just looking at that stat ignores the most important aspect of judging any player's career: the time in which he played.

Baseball has had a deceptive sameness to it over the century or so that it has been played. Ever since the modern rules were put in place early in the 20th Century, the game's basic statistics and accomplishments have changed little. Equipment has changed, and there have been minor adjustments to the height of the pitching mounds, and other things, but anyone watching a game in 1910 or 2010 would understand what was going on with either.

Still, as I wrote, that sameness is somewhat deceptive. For starters, in 1910, the population of the U.S. was about 100 million people, a third of its current size. African Americans weren't allowed to play in the Major Leagues. They had their own league. Most of the rest of the world didn't play the game, or didn't play it well enough to produce players who were good enough to play in the majors. There were fewer teams, but they had a far smaller population from which to find talent. Thus, the talent itself is much better, on average, than it was back then.

The other thing that has changed is that managers have learned to run the games better. Teams are much better at training players, and rehabilitating them when they are injured or get into some personal difficulties or have health issues. Relief pitching has become a specialty, and players are substituted in much more technical ways than they were in the past. Teams want to make sure the have utility infielders and left-handed pinch hitters almost as much as they want to have home run hitters.

So, even though the game is fundamentally the same, there's a whale of a difference between the Major Leagues of 1910 and 2010. And, thanks to various factors, the 1970s and 1980s, Schmidt's era, is rather different from Barry Bond's.

Schmidt, who played his career with one team, the Philadelphia Phillies, was the dominant hitter of his time. He led the National League in home runs in eight seasons, more than anyone. He led the Major Leagues in home runs six times, more than anyone except Babe Ruth. He also won numerous Gold Glove awards for his defensive play at his position. Given that there was a larger pool of talent in the 1970s and 1980s, it is hard to credit the idea that he was somehow in a less talented league than Mays or Killebrew. And while there have certainly been some refinements in how the game has been managed since, it's hard to think that he was facing less talented pitching than A-Rod or Junior were. He was one of the most dominating players of his era, by any measure you can think of. Yet, as I've noted, he has been eclipsed by several players since then, including Bonds.

Similarly, Barry Bonds was one of the most dominant players of his era. He probably would have been anyway, even without the steroids. The only thing that seems less likely is that he would have hit as many homers, but it's always possible that he might have lasted a little longer had he not taken them. In any event, he played in an era when steroid use was pretty common. Other top hitters of the time, including Rodriguez, Sosa, Jose Canseco, and Mark McGwire (who also surpassed Schmidt's home run total) all have admitted using steroids. Others, such as one-time Mariners second baseman Bret Boone, were accused of abuse after large improvements in their hitting in the middle of their careers. Schmidt, in one of his more candid moments, admitted that, had he played during that time, probably would have taken them, too.

A couple of years ago, I wrote that I don't have much use for the government's obsession with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. There's little medical research that shows whether steroids are harmful; mostly there are scary stories of shrunken testicles and anger management issues. Until there's more data, I'm not inclined to think that the Congress' and the Department of Justice's interest in this is anything more than bread and circuses. While I think that baseball needs to make sure that it doesn't have a steroid abuse problem, it's hard to see it as anything more than a sign of the times we live in. It's also pretty clear that baseball didn't start paying attention to steroid abuse until it was impossible to ignore the problem. Players will use whatever they can to make their performance better. Blaming Bonds for that condition is a bit like blaming the rivets on the Titanic for sinking the ship. It was part of the problem, but it wasn't why it got a chance to be a problem.

It's pretty clear that steroids were part of the game when Bonds played. He still played better than the competition. That's probably what we should remember him for.

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