Saturday, September 22, 2007

Bonds Is History

I’ve written quite a few posts about Barry Bonds, but the one I never wanted to write was about the Giants cutting their ties to the man who built PacBell/AT&T Park. It echoes their 1972 decision to abandon a 41-year-old Willie Mays, who played out the final 135 games of his major league career with the New York Mets. At least Bonds doesn’t have to share the indignity of being traded for $50,000 and a player the calibre of Charlie Williams.

The conventional wisdom is that Oakland would be a natural fit. They had a great experience with Frank Thomas in 2006, and are in the market for power hitting after the failure of Mike Piazza. It would also keep Bonds in the Bay area (although his off-season home is in southern California), and it could increase his batting time through use of the DH slot.

Yes, it makes sense – both for Bonds and for Oakland - but Nate Silver makes the argument that the Padres would be an even better fit: ”They have no problem picking up players with some baggage, they’re on the West Coast in a low-key media environment, they have a smart GM who understands Bonds’ value, they’ll need a left fielder if Milton Bradley departs to free agency, and they’re a good team that will give Bonds the opportunity to go out a winner.” Excellent points.

But before we get to the future, I want to take a moment to contemplate Peter Magowan’s decision. I think the best way to approach it is to consider the following:
“Barry Bonds was the best player in baseball every year from 1990 through 2004.” – Nate Silver, September 21, 2007
This is simply indisputable – and for 11 of those 14 ‘best player in baseball’ years he was a Giant. That San Francisco never assembled a team that could win a championship behind him is an indictment of the management, not Bonds.

We all know the gaudy statistics that quantify the peaks of his achievement, but it’s the lack of lows that really stand out when you scan down his adjusted OPS over the years. The worst year he ever put up was 156 – and that was last year when he was coming back from injury in 2006. It was still fifth best in the National League. This year, he’s first again.
“Re-signed as a free agent in the off-season, he made US$19.3 million in a one-year contract, including $3.5 million in bonuses…Bonds' presence helped the Giants build their waterfront ballpark that is on pace to draw more than three million fans for the eighth straight season since opening….Magowan said he was not concerned about how his absence would affect attendance. "I think we pride ourselves as an organization on knowing what our fans think…We listen to our fans carefully, but they don't make the decisions. They are made by the baseball people." – Associated Press, September 21, 2007
The question of Bonds’ salary is tied up with his productivity as a player (is he worth it?), and with San Francisco’s budget, which it hopes to re-purpose to build a younger team.

I’ll address both these points in a moment, but wanted to throw the numbers up there as a reminder that the Giants’ financial success – theirs is the only privately financed ballpark built in the past 40 years, and only the Yankees and Dodgers have outsold them since PacBell / AT&T opened – has been built around their marquee player. Magowan had better be right about this business decision.
San Francisco's split with Barry Bonds means is that the baseball people are back in charge of the Giants…Everyone knew Bonds, at 43, couldn't play the outfield and was brittle as a saltine. With him, the Giants were going to be older, slower, less athletic and far more one-dimensional…[The decision to bring him back for 2007] was, as predicted, bad news for Sabean, new manager Bruce Bochy and anybody who cared more about Giants W's than individual records. – Scott Miller, September 21, 2007
Right, it wasn’t a business decision, it was a baseball decision. This is all about building a winning team, and Barry’s old and slow and his defence undermines whatever pop his bat may have left. Gotcha.

Scott Miller’s contempt for Bonds has blinded him to what is patently obvious when you look at the numbers – he remains one of the best left fielders in baseball, and far from contributing only to his individual records, he’s done more to help the Giants win than any other player.

Let’s look at the top left fielders in baseball this season. The table below shows four measures – Batting Runs Above Average (a measure of batting and baserunning productivity), Fielding Runs Above Average, Wins Above Replacement Level-3 (adjusted for all time), and Value Over Replacement Player (which measures offensive contributions only).

How bad a fielder is Barry, and how much does it undermine his value? Well, among the ten best left fielders in baseball, Bonds’ 2007 fielding is ranked equal to Carl Crawford, and above Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell. But you don’t see Scott Miller writing columns about old, slow Carl Crawford (or rather, young, fast, inept Carl Crawford). Nor do you see him providing context – that only three of the leaders (Soriano, Holliday and Byrnes) made significant contributions to their teams through defence, while Dunn and Burrell have fielded the ball so badly that it nearly halves their production.

By WARP3, Bonds is the fourth best left fielder in baseball. Holliday is the breakout leader this season, Byrnes and Soriano are next, followed by Bonds. There are six players clustered behind him with 6.3 to 6.6 wins above replacement level.

Put another way, there are only three left fielders in all of baseball who could have done more than Bonds did this year to help the Giants win baseball games: Matt Holliday, Eric Byrnes and Alfonso Soriano.

Which brings us to the question of what comes next.

Option one: youngsters. The top ranked outfield prospects at the start of the season were Eddy Martinez-Estevee, Fred Lewis, or Nate Schierholtz. Schierholtz spent his age-23 season in Triple-A and did well (.333/.365/.560). Despite kind words for EME, Kevin Goldstein’s overall assessment is what rings true: “It's not a good system by any means. This is what happens when you throw away first round picks, like the organization did with the Michael Tucker fiasco a few years back.”

Option two: free agents. Can the Giants replace Bonds’ production (7.4 wins above replacement) from the upcoming free agent market?

Let’s take a look at who’s coming available ranked by their 2006 WARP (age in brackets):
Bobby Abreu (34)
Andruw Jones (31)
Torii Hunter (32)
Eric Byrnes (32)
Adam Dunn (28)
Milton Bradley (30)
Aaron Rowand (30)

In a recent HT column, John Beamer estimated that even coming off a disastrous 2007 season, Andruw Jones will be able to sign a six-year $80 million contract ($13.3 per) – and that’s on the basis of producing just 3.4 wins above replacement, with an upside projection of 4.3 WARP.

Is there any chance, then, that the Giants could spend the $19.3 million base salary they pay Bonds in a way that will replace his 7.4 WARP? They might come close in 2008, but it would be at the expense of future seasons as the players signed to multi-year contracts continue their decline phase, or watch their numbers do a bus plunge. And I wouldn’t sign any of the above list to long term deals after seeing the problems they’ve faced this season.

The San Francisco Giants have not made a baseball decision, or a business decision, they’ve just made a decision. In the short term, it’s going to hurt their ability to win and put bums in the seats – but it’s not like they were going to be a contender next year given the rest of their roster.

It’s that fact that lets me end this on a slightly optimistic note. Barry’s got a better chance at a World Series ring pretty much anywhere other than San Francisco. That the Giants cut him rather than the other way around will let him pursue his dream without having to reject the club and the fans who gave him a home for the past fifteen years. That might turn out to be the happiest memory of all.

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