THE TIME HAS COME for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the end of the road in the steroid-fueled debate over their dignity of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Or unworthiness.
It is the last of his 10 years of eligibility with the voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and ballots are due by the end of this month. If Bonds and Clemens don’t get at least 75% of the vote this time, they will need to be elected by a select committee to join legends like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Cy Young, much less his own contemporaries, superstars like Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson.
According to the numbers, both would have been members of the Hall of Fame in the first vote; Bonds for being among the best players to wear a baseball uniform, and Clemens for a 24-year career that generated 354 wins and seven Cy Young Awards. But enough voters have decided that players’ relationships with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are disqualifying.
So we asked ourselves: to what extent did the alleged drug use affect your professional numbers?
How many home runs would Bonds have hit in 2001? That was the first year he used a mix of drugs obtained through the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), and the season in which he demolished the single-season home run record by shoot 73. Or, what about Clemens’ remarkable 2004 season? That’s when, in the year he turned 42, Clemens went 18-4, struck out 218 batters and posted a 2.98 ERA en route to his seventh Cy Young award.
Meet baseball statistics guru Dan Szymborski, the creator of the ZiPS projection system. In the simplest terms, the system (endorsed by MLB.com Y explained here ) uses past performance and trends in how performance degrades with age to predict a player’s future performance. ESPN asked him to project career stats for Bonds and Clemens from the season they are believed to have started using substances: 1999 for Bonds and 1998 for Clemens.
Things look strikingly different in the Bonds / Clemens cases when analyzed this way:
Home run totals for Bonds
Rather than hitting 73 home runs in 2001, the ZiPS projection suggests that Bonds would have hit just 23 that year, plus or minus a pair. And where he actually hit 209 home runs during the four seasons (2001-2004) he used the BALCO concoction, he was projected to hit just 66 during those four years.
According to ZiPS, where should Bonds be on the all-time home run list? Rather than king at 762, the projection has him at 551 career home runs, putting him at No. 15, below Manny Ramirez (well, that’s another discussion) and above Mike Schmidt. It’s also worth noting that the projection suggests that Bonds would have played one less season than he did.
Bonds WAR stats
While no stat says “Barry Bonds” more than home run, WAR speaks in much more powerful ways. The goal of WAR is to give the fullest sense of a player’s worth to his team, and it is perhaps the best piece of data to compare the greatness of one player with the next. Basically, he estimates how many wins a player is worth for his team versus an average replacement player.
Bonds, fueled by an astronomical career during his steroid years, finished with a 164.4 career WAR (using FanGraphs data), placing him at No. 2 on the all-time list, just behind Babe Ruth and far behind. in front of his godfather, Willie Mays. Before 1999, the year he started using PEDs, Bonds’ highest WAR for a single season was 10.5, in 1993, and that had been his only double-digit season. But beginning in 1999, he posted four seasons in double digits, including two above 12 and then 11.9 in 2004, the year he turned 40.
The ZiPS system projects a very different arc. Instead of 11.9 in 2004, ZiPS predicts Bonds would have finished with 1.7 WAR. And during the four-year stretch linked to BALCO, instead of totaling 47.3, it would have been expected to total 14.2. For his career, ZiPS projects Bonds’ WAR total at 128.7, taking him from No. 2 all-time to No. 9, just ahead of Stan Musial.
Bonds OPS + Statistics
According to the OPS +, which measures a player’s ability to reach base and hit with power and is normalized by the effect of multiple parks, Bonds was undoubtedly one of the game’s great players during the first half of his career, when he had seven consecutive seasons of 170 or more.
But after starting with PEDs, it became something out of this world, particularly once it connected with BALCO. In those four seasons, his OPS + was 259, 268, 231 and 263, which gave him three of the five highest seasons in history, second only to Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson. Bonds is No. 4 on the all-time list, with an average OPS + of 182.
But according to ZiPS, those four cartoonish seasons would have been replaced by 156, 144, 115 and 95; and his lifetime OPS + would have been set at 153, placing him tied for 30th.
Clemens Win Totals
As for Clemens, the ZiPS has a similar deflation effect on his numbers if he predicts beyond 1998, when he is believed to have started using PEDs. The first thing worth noting is that ZiPS projects that Clemens would have played three fewer seasons, and his career would have ended after 2004. That was the year he turned 42 and was 18-4 with an ERA of 2.98, 214⅓ innings pitched and 218 strikeouts. Instead, ZiPS projects the final season would have seemed much more mundane: 8-5, 3.35 ERA, 113 innings pitched and 105 strikeouts.
While the relevance of wins and losses has become moot in the age of empirical analysis, Szymborski believes it is useful for analyzing Clemens’ numbers. Clemens finished with 354 wins, 141 of which came after the date Clemens’ former personal trainer Brian McNamee testified that he first injected the pitcher with PEDs. ZiPS projects Clemens likely would have won just 85 games during that stretch, leaving him with a career total of 298, just short of the magic number of 300 that has long been a guaranteed ticket to Cooperstown. That total would place him from ninth on the career list to 24, just ahead of Tommy John (288).
Clemens Tackling Totals Pitched
Perhaps Clemens’s most notable stat is the innings pitched. The numbers reveal the enduring strength he maintained well into his 30s and 40s. He turned 35 during the 1997 season and pitched 264 innings; Thereafter, he had six more seasons with more than 200 innings pitched, including 2005 when, at the age of 43, he pitched 211⅓ innings, had a 1.87 ERA and struck out 185 batters.
ZiPS projects that he would have hit 200 innings just one more time in his career and would have finished with 689 fewer career innings pitched, taking him from 15th on the all-time list to 33rd, just ahead of Frank Tanana.
Clemens WAR Totals
Although Clemens ‘real-life WAR numbers weren’t nearly as dramatic as Bonds’, he racked up numbers powerful enough in the last 10 seasons of his career to become the all-time leader among pitchers at 133.7, just right. ahead of Cy Young. During that period, he racked up 46 of that total, including nearly 11 during the three seasons in which the ZiPS projects he would not have been playing.
ZiPS says that instead of an 8.2 in 1998, it would have had 4.9 and then continued a steady decline from there. In the end, ZiPS projects that his WAR would have been 111.3, taking him from the all-time leader to fourth place, just below Greg Maddux and above Randy Johnson.
What does all this really mean?
The thing about Bonds and Clemens is that, unlike many other players, they seemed to improve, at least for a few years, as they got older, defying the slow and steady decline that normally leads to retirement. And so his career numbers became inflated: Bonds with his 762 career home runs, 2,558 walks (688 intentional) and a .607 slugging percentage; Clemens with his nearly 5,000 innings pitched, 4,672 strikeouts and more than 700 games as a starter.
The statistics are, at least in part, and perhaps in large part, a by-product of the performance-enhancing drugs believed to have been used during the second half of their careers. Based on court reports and records, Bonds began using PEDs prior to the 1999 season. McNamee has testified that he began injecting Clemens prior to the 1998 season.
Note: Bonds has said that he did not know that the substances he was taking were steroids or other PEDs. Clemens flatly denied to Congress in 2008 that he had ever taken such drugs. Both men were charged in separate federal perjury cases; Bonds was found guilty of one count of obstruction of justice, although the guilty verdict was later overturned and Clemens was found not guilty in his court case.
Szymborski is the first to admit that his projection system is not an exact science, perhaps something akin to predicting the weather, and that drugs cannot fully explain the considerable differences between projections and the huge numbers in real life of Players. Yes, today’s gamers are in better shape than their predecessors, working harder and more consistently (although PEDs are actually part of that equation in some cases). Players’ careers last longer as they recover faster from injuries and benefit from a more scientific approach to the game. And of course, Bonds and Clemens faced untold numbers of opponents who also used PEDs.
However, with those caveats, the ZiPS system has proven to be surprisingly accurate. To prove it, Szymborski took 139 players who had at least 502 plate appearances in 2015, then compared their actual numbers in five categories over the next six seasons to what the projection model spat out. The precision of the results surprised even Szymborski. For example, when comparing your real-life home run totals to projected home runs (normalized using actual plate appearances, accounting for injuries, abnormalities, etc.), the “average” failure was about two per season. The average of failures in the batting average was 13 points and in OPS it was 36 points.
Hall of Fame voters could possibly take all of this data and throw it into the mental algorithms they have invented to decide the fate of Bonds and Clemens. Perhaps they would look at the ZiPS screenings and find new justifications for admitting or rejecting the two men. However, the truth is that it seems pretty clear that the numbers have not been the problem of the voters who have denied entry to Bonds and Clemens. It is the denounced deception. That’s why we believe this exercise has much more potential to reveal what their careers and legacies might have looked like had they followed a more predictable path. No, it’s not exact science, but again, the weather is pretty predictable. And so in this case, ZiPS suggests that while Bonds and Clemens were great no matter what, they would occupy very different places in the baseball record book.
ESPN investigator John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.
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Numbers game: Bonds, Clemens look less big without the steroids factor