They called him the Home Run King. They called him MVP…seven times. They called him Barroid. Now they may call the man who was once the (enlarged) face of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball Coach.
His body changed to fit the game, thereby forcing the game itself to change to fit him. Once a lithe and lanky Pirate, Barry Bonds‘ body ballooned in San Francisco as he became a giant Giant. He was an anthropomorph. A mesomorph. And for a while, the juggernaut juggled speed and power in a balancing act unlike any we’d seen. But who needs to steal bases when they’re given to you freely? Or, better yet, when you can just buy all four at once?
Just for a moment, let’s set aside any talk of The Cream and The Clear, of curmudgeonly behavior and flat-out douchebaggery, and just look at Barry Bonds as a hitter. His walk rates from 2001-04 (26.7%, 32.4%, 26.9%, and 37.6%) are the four highest ever posted in MLB history. Like, ever. His .536 ISO (which measures raw power) in 2001 is 63 points higher than Babe Ruth‘s second-place 1920 season.
In 2004, Bonds reached base at a .609 clip. I’m going to let that sit there and marinate for just a moment. In 61 percent of his plate appearances, Barry Bonds reached base. Only 21 individual seasons have ever produced a number greater than .500, and those all came from only 11 men. Only three seasons have ever eclipsed .550, with Ted Williams‘ .554 in 1941 and Bonds’ .582 in 2002 rounding out the pinnacle.
How about slugging percentage, where Bonds holds three of the top five spots (Ruth has the other two) and stands atop the leaderboard with the .863 he put up in ’01. Bonds has the highest single-season OPS (1.422 in ’04), wRC+ (244 in ’02) in the game’s history and his cumulative offensive totals are generally among the top five across the board. Simply put, he’s easily one of the greatest hitters to ever lace ’em up.
He’s also one of the most controversial, forever branded with the scarlet letters of HGH and PED. But now, after eight years away from the game, Bonds may be coming back to help another Herculean slugger. If reports are correct, Bonds is in talks to work with Giancarlo Stanton as a member of the Miami Marlins’ coaching staff. If it seems odd that a clean-cut grinder like new Marlins manager Don Mattingly would court contention, consider that his hitting coach for the past three seasons in LA was Mark McGwire.
A cynic might look at Donnie Baseball’s personnel choices and crack jokes about wanting guys who know a little something about skirting the rules, and, to be fair, there might be at least a grain of truth there. In the case of Bonds, and of Big Mac before him, that tiny mote of impropriety may just be the seed around which layers of nacre begin to form. Perhaps Mattingly is already able to see the pearls of wisdom the disgraced slugger can dispense.
And where better to begin the process than at the southern tip of the baseball world for an organization long maligned for bad decisions? After all, Barry Bonds looks like a boy scout next to Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. Working alongside both the new and old guard of the game can help the deposed king to rehabilitate his image in a setting that may help him avoid the unwanted limelight he’d find in other locations.
Can Bonds really coach though? Can he find a way to translate his own preternatural skill into practical instruction for the hitters in his charge? So often it seems the great ones struggle to translate their transcendence and to deconstruct the abstraction of their own ability into something others can digest and put into practice. That is what I question more than the legitimacy of the numbers in Bonds’ case.
While I have no doubt his use of pharmaceutical enhancements aided and abetted, that doesn’t change the fact that Bonds was an insanely good baseball player. And though he won’t be able to infuse young hitters with his talent, he may well be able to tutor them in the areas I always felt were his strongest: patience and knowledge of the zone. To wit, I want to take a quick look again at that incredible 2004 campaign.
Bonds walked 232 times that season, 34 more than his own record established two years prior, which itself was 21 more than his record-setting total in 2001. Babe Ruth’s 170 in 1923 is the highest non-Bonds walk total ever. Of the 81,388 player seasons since 1871, only 139 have resulted in a walk total of 120 or greater; Bonds drew that many intentional passes in ’04. You’d expect a man being pitched around to that extent to be pressing, swinging at everything close.
During that 2004 campaign, Bonds’ O-Swing% (swings at pitches outside the zone), was a career-low 8.3 percent. The league average that season was 16.6 percent. His swinging-strike rate of 4.0 percent was less than half that of the league as a whole (9.1 percent). From 2007-07, Bonds’ respective O-Swing% and SwStr% of 13.3 and 5.7 percent easily bested the league averages of 20.9 and 9.8 percent. PED’s might help you swing a bat, but I’m not aware of any drugs that help you not to.
Though it’s been less than a decade since he last took his cuts, the game Bonds looks to return to is not the same one he dominated. Today’s hitters are struggling to adapt to a strike zone that is changing before our eyes, swinging at — and missing — more and more pitches both in and out of the zone. A man who can improve his charges’ plate approach would be a godsend for a team like the Marlins that ranks in the bottom third of nearly every plate discipline category.
I’m not going to speculate on whether a coaching role will help to polish his tarnished image and garner him a few more Hall of Fame votes, but I do believe the game is better with Barry Bonds in it. And I believe he can make the Marlins better, though how appreciable an impact he’ll have remains to be seen. Not everyone will be happy about this move, and that includes opposing pitchers.
After all, having the most feared hitter of all time working with the scariest active hitter in Stanton is surely going to make hurlers want to, well, hurl. It’s gonna be a hell of a fun show for the rest of us though.