The Barry question

Walk him? Pitch to him? The Angels have run out of room for error in trying to decide.

Topics: Baseball,

It’s my favorite subject these days, other than wondering why baseball has a rule about what you can write on your cap but no rule about 3-year-olds running onto the field: Do you pitch to Barry Bonds or not?

Game 5 Thursday, a 16-4 rout by the San Francisco Giants that gave them a 3-2 World Series lead over the Anaheim Angels and brought them to within one win of their first world championship since 1954, gave me plenty of time to consider it. That is, when I wasn’t watching Giants manager Dusty Baker’s batboy son, Darren, nearly getting run over at home plate by J.T. Snow, who alertly scooped the wandering toddler into his arms and out of harm’s way.

In the first inning, with no score, Bonds came up with runners on first and second with one out. “The Angels are in a spot where they have to pitch to Bonds,” said Fox announcer Joe Buck. His partner, Tim McCarver, correctly asked why it’s OK for the Angels to walk Bonds with runners at first and third with one out, as they’d done twice in Game 4, but not with runners at first and second with one out. The result, after all, is the same: bases loaded, one out.

Buck gamely answered that the Angels wouldn’t want to move the go-ahead run to third base themselves. I would argue that Buck was representing the majority view here. Most baseball people would agree with him. McCarver, who loves to argue, didn’t argue.

But right after that, McCarver said that Kenny Lofton, on second, wouldn’t be likely to run with Bonds up, also conventional wisdom. If Lofton steals third, you see, the Angels would walk Bonds, taking the bat out of the hands of the game’s best hitter.

So let me get this straight: The Giants don’t want Lofton at third base and Bonds walked intentionally. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that the Angels would want that? If something’s bad for one team, isn’t it by definition good for the other? I think so. In fact, I think if Lofton had stolen third, the Angels would have walked Bonds and said, “Whew!”

None of this happened, Bonds doubled, and the Giants led 1-0. Angels starter Jarrod Washburn had a streak of wildness that helped the Giants take a 3-0 lead in the inning. He’d have been in trouble whether he walked Bonds or not. In the second inning, Bonds came up with runners on second and third and was, of course, walked intentionally. All three runners eventually scored for a 6-0 Giants lead. All of Bonds’ subsequent at-bats came with the Giants ahead by at least four runs and the bases empty. The Angels pitched to him and he flied out, doubled and singled, scoring no runs.

But the Buck-McCarver exchange illustrated the damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of decision opposing managers often feel like they’re facing when Bonds comes up.

If you walk him, he’s not going to hit a home run or drive in any runs, which is good. But you’re adding a baserunner, you’re forgoing the out he has a 49 percent chance of making (given the .511 on-base percentage he’d have had if his intentional walks were turned into at-bats during which he hit .370, as he did in his actual at-bats), you’re giving an extra plate appearance to someone who wouldn’t have come up if you’d gotten Bonds out and you’re one batter closer to bringing Bonds up the next time, when you get to think about all this stuff again. That’s all bad.

There is a school of thought that walks are so damaging to the team in the field that it’s almost never a good idea to walk anyone, and I think there’s general agreement that there’s nobody, not even Bonds, who’s so good that walking him every time is a good idea. There are times, though, when it’s obviously a good idea to walk Bonds. If the game’s on the line and you have an open base and two outs, it makes an awful lot of sense to take your chances with Benito Santiago, who hits behind Bonds despite not being in the upper echelon of major league hitters, to put it mildly.

But what about, say, one out, bases empty? Is Bonds more likely to score a run when he’s at home plate being pitched to or when he’s at first base after a walk? And if there are guys on base when Bonds comes up, are they more likely to score if you pitch to Bonds or if you walk him?

I conducted a survey of Bonds’ regular season plate appearances — it hasn’t been certified by an independent accounting firm or anything, but I’m pretty confident I stayed awake for the whole thing — and discovered that he scored a run 20.5 percent of the time he was pitched to. (“Pitched to,” for our purposes, means “not walked.”) He scored a run 17.7 percent of the time when he walked, intentionally or not. So it looks like walking him isn’t a bad idea. It prevents a few runs.

But what about the guys on the bases? When Bonds was pitched to, 43 percent of the men on base scored sometime in the inning. When he was walked, 39.3 percent of them scored. The first figure can be misleadingly high, because runners can score without Bonds doing anything to help them. If Bonds strikes out with a man on third, and the next hitter singles the runner home, it counts in Bonds’ favor in this stat, even though pitching to him was a good idea. I can’t tell you exactly how often this happened this year, because frankly it didn’t occur to me until I’d already made too much progress. But I can tell you this: It was extremely rare. Bonds almost always moved runners along, drove them in or made the third out. And don’t forget that there are also times when the men on base when Bonds walks would have scored even if he’d made an out. A one-out intentional walk of Bonds followed by a home run, for example.

The argument for walking Bonds gets way better when you look at the numbers since he was dropped from third to fourth in the Giants’ batting order at midseason. With Santiago behind him, rather than Jeff Kent, even the slumping Jeff Kent of the season’s first two months, Bonds became a much better candidate for four wide ones. He scored only 13.7 percent of the time when he was walked, 21.9 percent of the time when pitched to. Baserunners scored at a 33.3 percent clip when he walked, 40.7 percent when he was pitched to.

Of course, when the guys behind Bonds are hitting, all of this goes out the window, and that’s what’s happened in the playoffs and World Series. Santiago, Reggie Sanders, Snow and David Bell aren’t exactly making anyone forget Murderer’s Row, but they’re doing enough. Both Bonds (29.2 percent to 23.8) and his baserunners (55 percent to 42.3) have scored more often when Bonds has been pitched to in the postseason.

None of this matters to the friend of mine who called me during Thursday’s game in a lather about all the intentional walks, calling them an affront to everything decent and sporting and American and fine, and to hell if it’s the right move or not. I gave him my spiel about how walking Bonds is no different than double-teaming Randy Moss. He said, well, it somehow feels different — he’s right about that — and that he can’t wait to see that manager who says, “What the hell, for the good of the game, I’m going to pitch to him, even with the game on the line.”

I told him he’d better enjoy that manager quickly if he ever comes along, because as much as it’s a shame that we don’t get to see such a great hitter actually hit very often, any manager who consistently pitches to him in a crucial situation isn’t going to be a manager for very long.

The Angels’ Mike Scioscia is not such a manager, that’s for sure. With the Giants one win away from the championship — the Series resumes Saturday night in Anaheim — it’s a good bet that unless Bonds comes to bat with the bases loaded in a tie game or down by a run, he’s seen his last meaningful pitch of 2002.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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