Friday, May 25, 2007

AFS (Adjusted for Steroids): A Sabermetric Approach to the Bonds Question

The closer Barry Bonds gets to Hank Aaron’s home run record, the higher the hairs rise on the back of my neck. I keep trying to figure out if I’d be less agitated if Bonds was a nice guy. No matter. He seems to be such a surly SOB that it’s easy to let the resentment rise, where it will probably move easily into contempt. (If I’m wrong, Barry, and you’re really a sweetheart of a human being, then I apologize.)

Of the top 10 all-time major league home run hitters, four of them—Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro—are cheaters. That is, they are (or were) users of steroids and/or other performance-enhancing drugs. This is what logical conjecture and deductive reasoning lead us to believe.

The current list (* indicates still active; cheaters are in boldface):

1. Hank Aaron  755

2. Barry Bonds* 745

3. Babe Ruth 714

4.Willie Mays  660

5. Sammy Sosa* 598

6. Frank Robinson 586

7. Mark McGwire 583

8. Ken Griffey Jr.* 573

9. Harmon Killebrew 573

10. Rafael Palmeiro 569

Perusing the list also brought me interestingly to #8: Ken Griffey Jr. (pictured, left). KGJ has never been mentioned as a steroid user. Early on in his career, he was immediately targeted as a potential Hall of Famer. In his first seven seasons, he hit 40 or more homers twice, and knocked in more than 100 runs three times. Then, from 1996-2000, Griffey was Superman. In those five years, he blasted 249 homers and collected 685 RBIs. He also scored 593 runs, stole bases regularly, drew walks, and his batting average hovered between .271 and .304. He was also a spectacularly gifted outfielder.

Then Griffey got injured. From 2001 to 2004, his numbers were decidedly mediocre. He missed 331 games in those four years—the equivalent of approximately 80 homers based on his previous pace—and even before and after these years, Griffey endured hamstring, calf, foot and wrist injuries that, even when they did not cut into his playing time, kept him always playing at partial strength. He rebounded a bit in 2005, with 35 homers and 92 RBIs, then had a so-so 2006 that would have been more impressive statistically if he hadn’t missed 53 more games.

Griffey, 37, actually looks healthier now than he has for years, and he’s off to a good start in ‘07. Even with all his bad luck, he still has, at this writing, 573 career homers. If he keeps on going with relative good health, he has a chance to realistically close in on Willie Mays’ homer numbers. Ken Griffey Jr. is a legit Hall of Fame candidate—actually, he’s got to be a shoo-in—and, as far as we know, he comes by this future accolade honestly, i.e., drug-free.

Consider that one of the chief, possibly most important, benefits of steroid use—besides enhanced strength—is quicker recovery time from injury. It would seem apparent that Griffey had no such benefits. Unlike Bonds and Sosa, his career numbers—great as they are—definitely have suffered due to his injuries.

And so, in the spirit of the great Bill James and sabermetricians everywhere, I offer a new statistical barometer that can help us return perspective to the record books in the wake of the controversies of the post-steroid age.

I’ll leave it to the wonky sabermetricians to figure out a precise actual formula for this one. The gist is this: For every year Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro and whoever else was on steroids, we deduct 10 home runs. This works out at a glance to about 100 home runs for each of these guys. Applying the AFS (adjusted for steroids) quotient, we simply alter the homer totals for the cheaters and make a notation of AFS after their names in the record book.

Thus, the new revised list would look like this:

1. Hank Aaron 755

2. Babe Ruth 714

3. Willie Mays  660

4. Barry Bonds* 645 (AFS)

5. Frank Robinson 586

6. Ken Griffey Jr.* 573
7. Harmon Killebrew 573

8. Reggie Jackson  563

9. Mike Schmidt 548

10. Mickey Mantle 536

11. Jimmie Foxx 534

12. Willie McCovey 521

13. Ted Williams 521

14. Ernie Banks 512

15. Eddie Mathews 512

16. Mel Ott 511

17. Eddie Murray 504

18. Sammy Sosa* 498 (AFS)

19. Lou Gehrig 493

20. Fred McGriff 493

21. Frank Thomas* 492

22. Mark McGwire 483 (AFS)

23. Alex Rodriguez*  482

24. Jim Thome* 478

25. Manny Ramirez* 477

26. Stan Musial 475

27. Willie Stargell 475

28. Rafael Palmeiro 469 (AFS)

Now, not only are the achievements of Griffey recognized appropriately—not to mention a great like Frank Robinson (left), yet another guy who had nagging injuries but no benefits from steroids—but also the top 10 is almost steroid-free. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a dogged theorist applying AFS to Bonds might not be able to subtract a greater number from his total. (There probably should also be AFE—adjusted for expansion—given the number of lame-o pitching staffs Bonds faced against the expansion teams in Colorado, Arizona, and Florida in the past 15 years. Where Sosa is concerned, we might consider AFCB, adjusted for corked bat.)

Plus, this method focuses new light on presumably clean contemporary active ballplayers like Frank Thomas—also waylaid by injury at critical times in his career—Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. The fact is, their numbers just look “more correct,” when put in historical perspective, and the arc of their career numbers looks more logical based on what we know of ordinary human physiology and the eventual decline in power hitters’ numbers as they age naturally.

The Bonds file, as amazing as the numbers look, is really something of a joke. At a time of life—his late thirties—when all who went before him showed a natural and increasing dropoff in power numbers, Bonds’ spiked supernaturally high. The juice had to have a lot to do with that. There simply is no other explanation.

AFS puts Bonds where he belongs in the “real” history, and it gives us a home run record book in which we can once again have a little faith, not to mention renewed admiration for the guys who got there legally.


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