When Will Barry Bonds Descend from Olympus?

Discussion and analysis on when Barry Bonds might become mortal again and hit like one and why the Giants need to acquire his successor sooner than later. Plus scenarios for additional players.

Barry Bonds has been hitting like he is a Baseball God for the past few years. But as we all know, he is a mere mortal doomed to rejoin our ranks once more. But when exactly does he become mortal again?

I thought it would be interesting to see which players in the past have been able to rise above the rest and continue to do well into their late 30's and perhaps early 40's. The players I will examine are Darrell Evans, Hank Aaron, and Ted Williams, as there are similarities between them and Bonds and they came easily to my mind as I knew of their late career surges.

Darrell Evans: Found His Extra Gear Late in his Baseball Career

Darrell Evans was a complementary player, not a superstar who could lead his team to the promise land. He started his career with a bang, joining Hank Aaron and Davey Johnson as the only trio of teammates to hit 40 or more homers in a season. But after that it was pretty much nondescript until he reached 36 years of age. Then all of a sudden, he cranked it up and started hitting homers again, a lot of them.

Darrell and Barry do not share many similarities. Both did not strike out that much and walked more times than struck out. Both were able to crank up their offensive production at some point while with the Giants versus what they did pre-Giants. Both greatly improved their home run rate in their mid-30's and hit a lot more homers in their late 30's than previously.

Hank Aaron: Hammering Them Even More as He Aged

Hank Aaron was a superstar who was the tortoise to Willie Mays who was the hare. Hank was known but not as well known as Willie Mays was. Potential teammates (the Giants were seeking to sign Aaron, but were beaten out by the Braves), they were parallel stars but Willie just shone a little bit brighter than Hank. Until, that is, Willie reached his late 30's and quickly joined the ranks of the good but not great, whereas Hank found more within himself and not only continued hitting homers but actually increased his home run rate, until he had surpassed not only Willie Mays but Babe Ruth.

Hank and Barry share some similarities. Both were thin when they first started out but got larger as they aged. Both had one of the quickest bats in the majors when they were playing. Both had good command of the strike zone and did not strike out that much and walked more times than struck out. Both did not hit for a lot of homers in a season in any season - usually someone else hit more and never over 50 - but quietly kept on hitting them until people had to take notice (notwithstanding Barry's record breaking home run total of 73).

Ted Williams: Teddy Ball to the End

Ted Williams could do it all with the bat. He hit for average and he hit for power. He walked a lot but did not strikeout very much. He was the last qualified batter to hit .400 in a season and he punctuated that by going 6 for 8 on the final day of the season to raise his average to .406 when he could have sat the day out at .399955 and been officially a .400 hitter, but he did not want anything to do with that, he wanted to be .400 for the full season. Had he not served our country, not once, but twice, based on his homerun rates at the time, he would have had an excellent chance to have been the one to pass up Babe Ruth before Hank Aaron did.

Ted and Barry share a lot of similarities. Both are left-handed batters who played LF. Both were thin when they first started out but got larger as they aged. Ted was an ex-Marine and was taught how to train for peak physical condition while Barry has an exercise routine that's probably reminiscent of the Marine's regimen and has been training for peak physical condition starting in his mid-30's, when he realized that he's no longer young anymore and could get away with things just on talent alone.

Barry did not do this at first, but later in his career, he, like Ted, was a consistent .300+ hitter with the power to hit 40 homers in a season, walk over 100 times in a season and yet not strike out a lot and always much less than the number of walks, showing a great understanding of the strike zone. Both are extreme pull hitters that opposing teams would put on a defensive shift where the 3B played the shortstop position, the SS would play the 2B position, and the 2B would be like a rover just beyond the infield, up close in the outfield grass. And both were ornery enough to not give in to the shift and hit to the the left. Both were not too popular with the press and proud enough to not care what the press thought.

Comparisons of the Players by Their Peaks in Their Late 30's

Darrell had a home run rate of 25.1 AB per homer pre-late peak years and 16.8 AB in his late 30's. Darrell's peak before his late 30's was when he was 26 years old and had an OPS of .959 and an OPS+ of 156. Darrell's OPS in his late 30's (was .831 and he reached a peak OPS of .894 with an OPS+ of 150 when he was 36 years old. His last real good offensive year in terms of OPS was when he was 40 years old with an OPS of .880 and an OPS+ of 135. Then he had two declining seasons, falling to about league average then falling further to below average at age 42.

Hank had a home run rate of 17.4 AB per homer before his late peak then pushed it to 11.8 AB in his late 30's. Hank's OPS in his late 30's was .997 and he reached a peak OPS of 1.079 with an OPS+ of 194 when he was 37 years old. His last real good offensive year in terms of OPS was when he was 39 years old with an OPS of 1.045 and an OPS+ of 177. He played three more seasons, one still good season followed by two league average seasons.

Ted had a home run rate of 15.4 AB per homer in his pre-late peak years then pushed it to 13.4 AB in his late 30's. Ted's OPS in his late 30's was 1.149 and he reached a peak OPS of 1.257 with an OPS+ of 233 when he was 38 years old. His last real good offensive year in terms of OPS was his last season when he started the season 41 years old and had an OPS of 1.096 and OPS+ of 189; that was his final season as a player and ended his career on a high note after a severe drop the season before, though it was still above average.

Barry had a home run rate of 15.7 AB per homer before his late peak then soared to 8.2 AB in his late 30's. Barry's OPS in his late 30's was 1.291 and he reached a peak of 1.381 with an OPS+ of 275 when he was 37 years old to start the season. His last real good offensive year in terms of OPS was when his most recent season when he started the season 38 years old with an OPS of 1.278 and OPS+ of 231. Obviously, he is doing well again this year, the year he started at age 39. What will happen to Barry as he ages?

What Could Barry Look Forward To

Barry is Barry as Ted and Hank were Ted and Hank, but based on these examples of players who surged offensively in their late 30's, other players were able to continue hitting well to 40 and 41 years of age, hitting OPS and OPS+ that were still very good seasons no matter what age. Barry, being "only" 39 years old when he starts 2004, looked like he would be good to go and do well again, based on how he did last season and how he ended last season, and he has.

However, all these other players had an off-season at some point after turning 35 years old. Darrell had an off year when he was 37 years old, Hank had an off year when he was 38 years old, and Ted had an off year when he was 40 years old, where they clearly fell a notch or two down in terms of OPS production and had an off year, relatively. They all recovered to have at least one more good year, but Barry has not had a year yet where he did not do well, so he is due to have a bad year any year now, if he follows the path that most baseball players follow.

However, Barry has definitely not followed the path that any other baseball player has taken, so perhaps he will break the rules and not have a bad offensive year at any point before he finally retires. But the odds currently is that even players who did well into their late 30's and early 40's had an off year at some point, before having a final good offensive season, and then petering out. But the player most directly comparable to him - Ted Williams - was able to keep it going even at age 41, so who knows.

Get Barry's Successor, ASAP

We have all witnessed how poorly the offense has functioned the past few years with Barry out of the lineup. There is no offensive star to lead the team when he is out resting or injured. In addition, even when he is in the lineup, there is no one who has been consistent in driving him in - Feliz gets the big hits but disappears from time to time and Alfonzo takes a while to get warmed up before hitting. Alfonzo actually has done well driving in runs this year pre-ASG relative to his past three years, but his hitting overall has been ordinary.

This gets me back to my argument over the past year: Barry needs his successor, the Big Hitter, with him now. While the Giants probably could also use another very good starting pitcher and either a closer or a very good late reliever, plus the Giants offense has actually been pretty high scoring for the year and ranks higher than pitching or fielding versus the other National League teams, the Giants need the insurance that another premiere hitter would provide.

He would be insurance in a number of ways. Obviously, he would be the key offensive cog if Barry is out of the lineup for rest or any injury. Also, should Bonds start to slip over the next two seasons, he would be the key offensive cog again. Furthermore, should Barry be shut down offensively for whatever reason, like he has been in most playoff series except for 2002, again the team could turn to him to be the key offensive cog, to drive in Barry if he is walked despite not hitting well. Lastly, he could drive in Barry consistently given all those opportunities from Barry's walks and hits and the Giants would have a monster offensive team like they had in 2000 with Ellis Burks in the lineup.

The spector of a stinking offense caused either by Barry's absence or severe decline lurks as a reality if the Giants don't cast out for Barry's successor beforehand. Plus acquiring such a player out of necessity versus currently mainly out of want, not need, will cost the Giants even more than they gave up when they acquired Sidney Ponson last year, because then it becomes a seller's market because the Giants really need the Big Hitter. With the trading deadline coming up soon - July 31st - whereupon trades can then be blocked by waiver claims, there is not much time to do this.

Scenarios

Unfortunately, only 11 teams appear to be out of the race for a playoff position (have record .500 or below), leaving few trading partners so a seller's market currently exists anyway. Given Sabean's patterns of trading from the past and the availability of the three pieces I noted above - very good starter, good reliever, and Big Hitter - the Giants at best will trade for a good reliever. It could be a bluff, but the Giants have said that they are not going to trade either of their two top prospects - Merkin Valdez and Matt Cain - and that's probably what it would take to get a very good starter - like C.C. Sabathia or Kris Benson - or a Big Hitter - like Carlos Beltran - out of the hands of teams, so a big impact player is unlikely.

Thus only a pickup on par with picking up Matt Herges in 2003 and Scott Eyre in 2002 appear likely, but that would be good because the bullpen is tired and could use fresh blood. However, Sabean has made noises about bringing up help from the minors. Kevin Correia has been taken out of the starting rotation in AAA and move into a relief role. Plus Dave Veres was recently released and, while David Aardsma inherited Veres' role as closer at AAA, Sabean also noted that Aardsma has some things to work on and will stay down to do that work.

They might be able to get a high-priced player like Larry Walker or Randy Johnson for lesser prospects. But they would be not be a long-term solution. Plus, because of their age and injury history, along with their big long term contracts, they could hamper the competitiveness of 2005 and possibly 2006, if they become injured or suffer from a decline in performance.

The main way the Giants would be able to obtain a player of more significance than a good reliever would be if the other team wanted Pedro Feliz plus lesser prospects. That would be a gamble given how well he has done in driving in runs, but it would be a calculated risk. Based on past experience, Edgardo Alfonzo normally lights things up offensively after the ASG - .285/.358/.465/.823 with 103 RBI in 628 AB the past three seasons vs. .259/.344/.382/.726 with 83 RBI in 833 AB pre-ASG. So Feliz won't be needed there plus perhaps Mohr can play some 1B in place of Feliz. In addition, presumably the player obtained for Feliz would either be a big improvement in offense - negating the lost offense and probably ending with a net big improvement given Alfonzo's usual late season surge - or a big improvement in starting pitching, again negating the lost offense and ending up positive overall when looking at the big picture.



Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fanatic's View' for SFDugout.com when the mood and muse strikes him. He wants to teach and share his love of baseball and, in particular, his love for the San Francisco Giants. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player and should be in Cooperstown. Please feel free to e-mail him at BiasedGiantsFanatic@nospam.yahoo.com (remove the "nospam." if you wish to e-mail me) if you have a question or comment.

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