One of the great things about following sports is that you can really get yourself good and shocked every once in a while. Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. Super Bowl III. The Miracle on Ice. Stephon Marbury making a smart play.
But I don’t know that I’ve ever been around for anything as shocking as the fact that presumably intelligent people actually believe someone other than Barry Bonds should win the National League’s Most Valuable Award.
Bonds is simply having one of the greatest seasons anyone’s ever had, ever, including himself. And when I say he’s having one of the greatest seasons ever, it’s only because I’m too timid to just say he’s having the greatest season of all time, which he might be.
But one thing is sure: If Bonds doesn’t win the MVP this year, it will be the greatest such robbery ever, Ted Williams included, because the only seasons even remotely comparable to Bonds’ 2004 are a couple of his own MVP years and a few of Babe Ruth’s before the modern MVP was introduced.
The other “candidates” — in the sense that Ralph Nader is a candidate for president — are Adrian Beltre of the Dodgers, at long last having his breakout season, and a trio of Cardinals: Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds.
The Dodgers and Cardinals are both cruising to division titles, while Bonds’ Giants are leading a close race for the wild card. We talk about this every year, but let’s dispense of it now in case the Giants, who aren’t very good, lose that race to either the Cubs, Astros, Padres or Marlins, all of whom are also not very good.
The argument that a player has to be on a playoff team to win the MVP is absurd. It’s absurd because a great player’s value does not diminish just because he happens to be surrounded by lousy teammates, though an argument could be made that a lack of talented teammates increases the great player’s value, in the same way that a $100 bill is much more valuable to me than the same note is to Bill Gates. After all, the Dodgers without Beltre or the Cardinals without any of their big three sluggers are still pretty good teams. The Giants without Bonds are the 2003 Tigers.
It’s a silly argument, and I don’t make it, but it could be made.
But what’s really silly about this playoff argument is that sometimes — oh, let’s cast our mind all the way back to last year — a player on a non-playoff team, or even a last-place team, wins the MVP. So the argument is thus: “The MVP has to come from a playoff team, except when he doesn’t.” Which is absurd.
I don’t object to using team quality as a tie-breaker if it’s a real tossup between two guys and one of those guys is on a playoff team and the other isn’t. Sure, give it to the guy on the playoff team in that case. This isn’t that case.
The typical newspaper column handicapping the MVP race — here’s an example from the Arizona Republic last week — makes the case for the three Cardinals and Beltre, and also sort of shrugs thusly: And of course, by the way, there’s also Bonds. The only real candidate is sometimes so downplayed as to be a ghostly presence.
Stumping for Beltre in Monday’s San Diego Union-Tribune, for instance, Chris Jenkins wrote, “Beltre is up against St. Louis’ dynamic duo of Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen — and the ever-present specter of Barry Bonds — and his numbers are right up there with all of them.”
That last statement is true except for the minor detail that it’s completely false. Beltre’s numbers are right up there with those of Pujols and Rolen, not to mention Edmonds’, but saying they’re right up there with Bonds’ is like saying Pluto is right up there with Jupiter in size. Yeah, same league, but totally different stature.
This little problem is typically sidestepped by detailing the numbers for whichever non-Bonds player the case is being made for, and maybe even everybody’s numbers, without ever mentioning Bonds’ output, which is, to continue the metaphor, out of this world.
This column would like to remedy that situation, but rather than bludgeoning you with the overwhelming evidence of Bonds’ achievements all at once, I’ll dole it out, one day at a time, in a new running feature called “The Barry Bonds for MVP Stat of the Day,” which is of course available for sponsorship.
Be patient, grasshoppers, we’ll cover all the anti-Bonds arguments, from “All he ever does is walk!” to “But [insert favorite candidate's name here] has way more RBIs!” to “But what about fielding?”
Let’s start with a simple one, OPS, which is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, as you know. Like all other stats, it’s not a perfect, singular measure of how good a hitter someone is, but it’s a handy shorthand, a good rough sketch, because it measures a hitter’s two main jobs, getting on base and moving himself and any runners around toward home. Here are the N.L. leaders through Sunday:
1. Barry Bonds, S.F. — 1.445
2. Jim Edmonds, St.L. — 1.117
3. Todd Helton, Col. — 1.088
4. Albert Pujols, St.L. — 1.072
5. Adrian Beltre, L.A. — 1.032
Notice anybody standing out?
Helton, by the way, gets a statistical boost from playing his home games in the thin air of Coors Field, but not nearly the boost he’s gotten for most of his career, when he’s been Babe Ruth in Denver and just an ordinary, solid hitter on the road. Helton’s road OPS this year is 1.012, which would put him seventh in the league, but without benefit of the few road games everybody else gets at Coors. Anyway, Rolen is sixth.
But here’s the point I want to make here. Edmonds, second in the league, has an OPS that’s 77.3 percent of Bonds’ OPS. The same percentage of Edmonds’ OPS would be .863. There happens to be a player with that OPS through Sunday’s games. It’s Expos first baseman-outfielder Brad Wilkerson.
So in OPS, Barry Bonds is to his closest competitor, Edmonds, as Edmonds is to Brad Wilkerson, who is 27th in the league. Saying Edmonds is second to Bonds in OPS is like saying I would finish second in a match swim race with Michael Phelps.
Here is a list of the top five seasons of all time in OPS:
1. Barry Bonds, 2002 — 1.381
2. Babe Ruth, 1920 — 1.3791
3. Barry Bonds, 2001 — 1.3785
4. Babe Ruth, 1921 — 1.359
5. Babe Ruth, 1923 — 1.309
Bonds’ 2004 OPS, again: 1.445.
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