Barry Bonds is illustrative of all kinds of points about baseball, steroids, celebrity, race, the media, personality and psychology.
But there's one thing his tragically bizarre 2006 has illustrated that I haven't seen mentioned: The season Bonds has had shows just how rare really good players are. Because for all his struggles, Barry Bonds is still one of the most productive left fielders in baseball.
Now, before I go any further, I have to say that when I talk about the scarcity of really good, productive players in the major leagues, I'm talking about matters of scale. The worst players in the major leagues are phenomenal ballplayers.
You know that if you've ever seen a journeyman infielder go to Single-A on an injury rehab assignment and hit like Babe Ruth, and then thought about how even most of the best high school players never make it as far as A-ball. But it's good to remind ourselves.
But on that scale, in the context of the major leagues, keeping in mind that even reaching a big-league batter's box once in your life and striking out is a remarkable achievement, it's surprising how little it takes for a player to rise to the top third of players at his position.
Bonds is hitting .233 with five home runs and 14 RBIs in 34 games. And for all the talk that Bonds is a pathetic shadow, that pitchers should go after him because he can't hurt them, in strictly between-the-lines terms, about two-thirds of the teams in the majors would upgrade by trading their left fielder for Bonds.
And yes I'm ignoring defense, but I don't think defense changes the equation much. Bonds is not as bad a left fielder as you probably think he is.
The fielding metrics at Baseball Prospectus have consistently rated him as a below-average left fielder in the later years of his career, including this year, but not disastrously so. "The Fielding Bible" by John Dewan, a book that I think represents a major advance in measuring baseball defense, rates him as a middle-of-the-pack left fielder over the past few years.
A fair amount of Bonds' production comes from walks. He still gets a walk every 3.4 plate appearances, down from his 2004 figure of one every 2.7, but way more than, say, Albert Pujols, the best hitter in the game, who isn't a free swinger and who walks once every five plate appearances.
With all those free passes, Bonds' on-base percentage is .481. He's slugging .467, for an OPS of .948. Among the 30 big-league left fielders -- counting platoon partners in St. Louis, Toronto and Baltimore as single left fielders -- that's the seventh best.
The only left fielders with a higher OPS than Bonds are Nick Swisher, Matt Holiday, Carlos Lee, the Toronto platoon (Reed Johnson and Frank Catalanotto), Pat Burrell and Manny Ramirez. Bonds' OPS is higher than those of Adam Dunn, Alfonso Soriano, Hideki Matsui, Raul Ibanez and Shannon Stewart, among many -- actually, all -- others.
But it isn't just walks. If Bonds were pitched to like Pujols is, with a walk every five times up, he'd have 27 walks instead of 39. If we turn those walks into at-bats, with the same results Bonds has had in his other 90 official at-bats, he ends up with an on-base percentage of .413 and a slugging average of .434, for an OPS of .847.
That would drop him four slots to 11th, just ahead of Luis Gonzalez and Brad Wilkerson. He'd still be in the top half of the majors, and almost the top third.
OPS is kind of a blunt instrument, but we can look at other measures too, and Bonds, that pathetic oaf who can't play anymore, is still in the upper half of the league.
Baseball Prospectus has various stats that in different ways attempt to sum up a hitter's production in one number. Click on the name of the stat for a definition of each, but they're all basically measures of run production.
Bonds is ninth among major league left fielders in value over replacement player and marginal lineup value. He's second in equivalent average, which is a rate stat, so it doesn't reflect his many days off, as the counting stats VORP and MLV do.
According to the Hardball Times, which updates weekly, Bonds through Monday was sixth among major league left fielders in win shares with 6.3.
That is, his contributions add up to 2.1 of the San Francisco Giants' 21 wins so far this year, same as Jason Schmidt and more than anyone else except Moises Alou.
Again, I'm counting the excellent Toronto platoon of Catalanotto and Johnson as one left fielder, but if you don't want to do that, if you figure that Catalanotto and Johnson's production should be discounted some because they use up an extra roster spot to achieve it, then move Bonds up one slot in every category I've mentioned.
I'm not making this point by way of saying, "Lay off Bonds, he's still pretty good." Given his huge contract and the huge problems he causes, including the Giants' unwillingness to retool for several years now when they should have, he's really not "pretty good" in terms of overall value.
But I think the average fan, including me, has watched Bonds this season and thought he's been lousy not just in terms of the money he makes or compared to his old out-of-this-world production, but compared to anything. Just plain lousy.
That he hasn't been just goes to show how rare good players are. They get most of the attention, but there aren't that many of them. Like I said, Bonds is just an illustration of this point.
You can do this same thing with any position. Find a guy who's somewhere around the bottom of the top 10 in the majors at his position, a guy who's in the top third of the league in other words, and you've found a guy who doesn't exactly inspire epic poetry.
Do that and you'll find Orlando Cabrera at shortstop, Johnny Estrada at catcher, Ben Broussard at first base, Mark Grudzielanek at second. The kind of guy who gets traded and, unless he's endeared himself to the home fans by being a scrappy hustler or something, is barely missed.
Guys like that are better than two-thirds of the big leagues. I don't know why that surprises me, but it does.
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