It was announced earlier today that Barry Bonds has not been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Nobody was voted into the Hall of Fame, and there are several topics worthy of discussion, but I’m partial to the Bonds one, myself, because the voting results provide a reason to look at Bonds’ career statistics again. Asterisks or no asterisks, Bonds’ numbers are downright impossible, and looking at them is the most fun a person can have at work the most fun a person who doesn’t write from home for FanGraphs can have at work. You shouldn’t be allowed to drive and drink, you shouldn’t be allowed to drive and text, and you shouldn’t be allowed to drive and consider Barry Bonds’ career baseball statistics.
By WAR, Bonds’ best season was 2001. By wRC+, Bonds’ best offensive season was 2002. By wRC+, Bonds’ 2002 is the best offensive season in baseball history. At 244, he beats out Babe Ruth‘s 1920, at 237. Bonds also had a 234 and a 233. Ruth had a 231 and a 223. A new name finally shows up at #7. Anyway.
That year, in 2002, Bonds batted 612 times, with 68 intentional walks. His final line was .370/.582/.799, and this was the year after the year that Bonds broke the all-time home-run record. He drew 198 walks in all, with just 47 strikeouts. Those Giants, somewhat unsurprisingly, won 95 games and nearly won the World Series. It wasn’t all because of Bonds, but it was more because of Bonds than most good seasons have been because of individual players.
Ordinarily, when you reflect on a player, you identify career or season highlights. But in 2002 — in the best offensive season ever — Bonds reached base far more often than he got out. Bonds generated more highlights than lowlights. So I want to talk a little bit about an out that he made. The highest-leverage out, at that. There’s more than one way to say a player’s amazing, and here we’ll attempt to call Bonds amazing by highlighting a rare instance in which he wasn’t.
On September 15, 2002, the Giants hosted the Padres. Kurt Ainsworth was starting opposite Jake Peavy, and the Giants were good, while the Padres were bad. The Giants were locked in a battle with the Dodgers for the Wild Card, so for them, every game was important. Anyway, on this particular day, the Padres scored a run early. The Giants got it back, but then the Padres pulled ahead by two, and then by three. A two-run shot by Ryan Klesko was the big blow, and it was 4-1 San Diego going into the bottom of the ninth. The Padres felt good about handing the ball to Trevor Hoffman, and there was every reason to. Their win expectancy was about 96%.
David Bell led off with a line-drive single. Whoever Trey Lunsford was struck out, but Kenny Lofton walked on five pitches, and then Rich Aurilia blooped a single to right. The bases were loaded with one out, and more, the bases were loaded with one out and Barry Bonds coming up. The Padres’ win expectancy was 81%, but realistically, given the Bonds thing, it was quite a bit lower.
Coming into the day, Bonds had a 1.390 OPS. The leverage index at this plate appearance was 4.76, making it Bonds’ second-most important plate appearance of the season. In Bonds’ most important plate appearance of the season, he was intentionally walked. Hoffman didn’t have a chance to do that to him here, not given the situation, not with Jeff Kent on deck. Hoffman had to challenge Bonds, in what was the greatest offensive season ever.
Details are scarce. What we know is that Hoffman started Bonds with a called strike. Then he got Bonds to foul a pitch off, giving Hoffman an 0-and-2 advantage. I don’t know what hope a pitcher had of trying to get Barry Bonds to chase, but Hoffman nibbled, throwing consecutive balls. Even 2-and-2, Hoffman came with another delivery. Bonds didn’t think much of it. Mark Hirschbeck did, and Bonds was called out on strikes. Barry Bonds struck out with the bases loaded and one down in a three-run game, putting all the pressure on Kent. Kent also struck out looking, and Hoffman completed a 29-pitch, high-intensity save.
The win-expectancy swing was only about 10%, but the leverage of the Bonds plate appearance was astronomical. Sadly, no one seems to have written about the showdown in depth, and one wonders how different things would be if this plate appearance happened today. But here’s Bruce Bochy, then on the Padres’ side of things:
“Hoffy clutched up when he needed against two of the better hitters in the game,” San Diego manager Bruce Bochy said. “Those are the last two guys you want to see up with the bases loaded, but with the game on the line, Hoffy has an unbelievable ability to keep his focus.”
“The last two times I faced Bonds I intentionally walked him and he hit a home run on a fastball in,” Hoffman said. “With the bases loaded, you just try to get ahead. There’s no room to put him with him being the winning run. That’s not a situation I wanted to be in.”
That season, Hoffman faced Bonds on June 24, and Bonds hit a first-pitch dinger. They met again on June 26, and Bonds walked on five pitches. On September 12, Hoffman walked Bonds intentionally. On September 15, Hoffman won. Jake Peavy added more:
“That was awesome,” Peavy said. “No one in this dugout wanted anybody else but Hoffman in that situation. When you see him walk out there you expect to win. I don’t think there are two tougher outs right now in the National League. I’m glad he’s on my side.”
Interestingly, minutes before the Bonds plate appearance, Dusty Baker, Dave Righetti, and Benito Santiago were all ejected. The Giants had problems with the umpiring crew, and Righetti went so far as to throw a bucket onto the field. It might be coincidental that the game ended with consecutive called strikeouts. It also might not, although I don’t want to suggest anything about Hirschbeck’s integrity. Half of Bonds’ strikeouts in 2002 were called. Nearly half of Bonds’ strikeouts in his career were called.
The game’s conclusion was such that this was the entire recap in the Herald-Journal:
Padres 4, Giants 1: In San Francisco, San Diego’s Trevor Hoffman struck out Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent with the bases loaded in the ninth inning.
Kent posted a .933 OPS that season. This is more about Bonds and Hoffman than it is about the game’s bottom of the ninth, but I felt like that ought to be pointed out.
With the leverage way up, Trevor Hoffman struck out Barry Bonds. Prior to September 15, Bonds hadn’t struck out since August 22. His streak of plate appearances without a strikeout reached 96 before it finally gave. This is how amazing Barry Bonds was; this is how amazing it was that Hoffman put him away.
The next day, Bonds reached base four times and homered. The day after that, he reached base four times and doubled. The day after that, he reached base four times and singled. But in the greatest offensive season ever, in Bonds’ highest-leverage plate appearance in which he had an opportunity to swing the bat, he struck out looking in the bottom of the ninth. I wonder if Trevor Hoffman remembers that showdown. I wonder how one could forget it.