If you ask ten people what the greatest season of all time was, you may get ten different answers. But, there’s a good chance one of these answers was Barry Bonds’s 2001. What was special about it?
The 12.5 fWAR that Bonds racked up that year was at the time the highest since Babe Ruth’s time. Bonds hit an MLB record 73 home runs, walked a then record 177 times, had a .328 average, .515 on base percentage, and record .863 slugging percentage. Bonds threw in 13 stolen bases for good measure and set the wRC+ record at 235, making it quite possibly the greatest single season performance ever by a hitter.
There are two other factors that made this accomplishment even more remarkable. The first of which is Bonds’s defense — his defensive metrics in left field were well below average, evidenced by an awful -16.5 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average). Bonds managed to have the second highest fWAR total of all time despite poor defense, further shedding light on how special his bat was. The second, and more interesting, aspect of Bonds’ season is his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play).
Luck is a crucial and fascinating dynamic in baseball, given its ability to heavily influence and alter games and seasons. We try to quantify everything in baseball, and that’s no different when it comes to luck. So, BABIP was born. Most of the time, luck (or BABIP) finds a way to even out for hitters — hard hit balls might find the fielder’s mitt, but bloopers fall too. In other words, the average BABIP is about .300, which is to say that about 30 percent of balls put into play will be a hit.
As I was looking at Bonds’s astounding performance, I noticed an oddly low number, a .266 BABIP. This small BABIP was jarring, and got me thinking that it was possible Barry Bonds, in one of the greatest offensive performances of all time, had bad luck that season. If that’s the case, just imagine if Bonds had had good luck, like his .330 BABIP the year after. He had one of the greatest seasons ever, but would it have been the greatest season ever if his luck was better?
In 2001, Bonds hit 310 baseballs into play. Of those balls, 83 fell as hits (another 73 were home runs, but they were not technically put into play and therefore not included in BABIP). Add in two sacrifice flies, and Bonds had a .266 BABIP. But, let’s imagine that of the 310 baseballs put into play, more than 83 were hits. For fun, we’ll say that 20 more of those at bats turned into hits, giving him 103 hits that weren’t home runs on the season and a .330 BABIP,which was his 2002 mark.
This is far from an unlikely scenario, especially when taking into account the hard contact he made throughout the season. In fact, it’s probably more likely that he had a .330 BABIP than a .266 BABIP. For reference, here’s a plot of every offensive season since 1950 measured by wRC+ and BABIP.
So, if we’re giving Bonds another 20 hits it will obviously have a serious effect on his season. Although Bonds’s home runs wouldn’t have been altered, just about everything else would have. Bonds’s average would have risen from .328 to .370, and his on-base percentage from .515 to .545.
To find some other numbers, we’ll have to take a bit of a leap of faith (this whole exercise has been just that, so it should be fine). Bonds had 129 runs that season, or .83 runs per hit. If we multiply the .83 by 176 — and not 156 — hits, Bonds now has 146 runs. Doing the same with RBI gives him 154 runs batted in. Bonds also had 32 doubles and two triples, and we can use that to give him a new slugging percentage: .922.
Think about this, if Bonds had good luck in 2001, and not bad luck (this would have made sense — batters that made consistent hard contact generally had a higher BABIP, or better ‘luck’), he would have had an unbelievable season. A .370/.545/.922 slash line, 73 home runs, 146 runs, 154 runs batted in, and 13 stolen bases. That’s…truly incomprehensible. It’s a standard that will never be touched, and it’s hard to envision a player ever even coming close. But, one special slugger came within striking distance of these numbers, and was only stopped by bad luck.