Bondsian plate discipline and batted ball tendencies

Jed Jacobsohn

Without question, Barry Bonds was one of the more gifted hitters the game has seen. Has anyone comes close to repeating some of his accomplishments at the plate?

The legacy of Barry Bonds, despite the tarnish it has accrued for myriad reasons, is a significant one and one that continues to loom large in today's game. It is also one that will be hard to replicate, as the career 164 fWAR, .435 wOBA, 173 wRC+, and the obligatory stat recall of 762 home runs all speak to.

Reciting and rehashing Bonds' power numbers is old hat these days. While still awe-inspiring, they nonetheless stem from Bonds' immense gifts of not only power, but a fantastic eye at the plate and an impeccable understanding of the strike zone. Without these prerequisites, the aforementioned numbers never occur, or at least don't shine as brightly against his contemporaries' stats. With the evolution and curation of game data since 2002, we have a respectable understanding of these skills in the form of batted ball data, as well as pitch type linear weights of the pitches Bonds saw during the post-2002 portion of his career. Let's discuss these values, while also comparing them to his peers as well as to what hitters have accomplished since Bonds' retirement prior to the 2008 season to qualify and quantify how special a hitter Bonds was from a different angle, while also looking for hitters that could potentially compare to Bonds and his accomplishments at the plate during the sunset of his career.

With the 2002 data boon and his retirement in mind, I set forth looking at the last six years of Bonds' career, which would provide the aforementioned batted ball and pitch type data. From here, I averaged the data over these last six seasons for Bonds, while also collecting the MLB averages for the same time period (2002-2007) as well as the seasons since Bonds left the game (2008-2013). Batted ball averages of the described groups are shown below:

Seasons O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
MLB avg 2008-13 28.70% 65.23% 65.17% 87.65% 80.32% 46.97% 59.18% 8.78%
MLB avg 2002-7 20.95% 53.85% 68.28% 87.25% 80.15% 52.97% 58.65% 9.02%
Bonds 2002-7 13.30% 52.40% 67.10% 90.50% 82.80% 44.10% 45.40% 5.70%

With this table, we can better appreciate the eye and the hand-eye coordination that Bonds displayed, with his swing rate on pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%), contact rate on pitches in the strike zone (Z-Contact%), and swinging strike rate (SwStr%) showing his knack for not only knowing the strike zone, but not missing when he had a strike to swing at. We can also start to make out what could be construed as pitcher's respect for Bonds' abilities, with lower than MLB average pitches in the strike zone (Zone%) and first pitch strikes (F-Strike%), possibly indicating pitchers treading carefully around the strike zone when facing Bonds. Also of interest are the differences between the MLB averages—hitters appear to be taking a more aggressive approach in recent years, with O-Swing rates going up nearly eight percent. However, recent years have also shown hitters to make much better contact on pitches out of the strike zone and overall (Contact%), while also accumulating fewer swings and misses.

With this eye, strike zone awareness, and knack to make contact understood, let's turn to the other side of the ledger and what Bonds did with a pitch once he made contact in the form of pitch type linear weights for each of the above pitches, again with MLB averages for 2002-2007 and 2008-2013 included as comparisons:

Seasons wFB/C wSL/C wCT/C wCB/C wCH/C wSF/C
MLB average 2008-13 0.13 -0.48 -0.25 -0.01 0.02 -0.02
MLB average 2002-7 0.19 -0.55 -0.31 -0.16 -0.15 -1.18
Bonds 2002-7 3.67 2.21 0.12 2.92 4.26 2.06

Here, we see what separated Bonds from the rest of the league; when he made contact (which he made a lot of), he punished the ball. Showing a lot of success in particular against fastballs and changeups in relation to his contemporaries as well as those who came after his playing days were over, Bonds capably handled every pitch thrown at him, showing tendencies of a mere mortal only with cutters.

Despite being in the twilight of his career and battling the effects of age and significant knee injuries among other maladies, his average stats for the years in question could be put up against many players' career year; the thought that these were just averages at a point in a player's career that finds them on the wrong side of the aging curve speak to the copious amounts of pure talent the mercurial outfielder possessed.

Speaking of other players, has anyone come close to replicating some of these numbers that Bonds sustained? When looking at his batted ball numbers, has anyone come close to the eye that Bonds displayed in his 2002-2007 averages, even in a single season?

Using an O-Swing rate of less than 13.3%, contact rate of greater than 82.8%, and a swinging strike rate of less than 5.7% as our criteria, we find a couple of players in the same rare 'good eye' air as Bonds:

Season Name O-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
2009 Marco Scutaro 12.30% 93.40% 2.20%
2009 Luis Castillo 12.10% 93.30% 2.00%

Between 2008 and 2013, only two players, both in 2009, have displayed similar levels of coordination, skill, and discipline that Bonds used (on average) in the last six years of his career to propel him to 41.4 fWAR—Marco Scutaro and Luis Castillo. The pair, while talents in their own right, have a combined career fWAR of 47.8, proving that while there were fleeting similarities between theirs and Bonds' careers and approaches at the plate, the comparisons are probably unfair.

Moving on to pitch type linear weights comparisons, let's see who comes close to filling Bonds' shoes. Again using the six-year averages as our criteria, we find that no one put up similar numbers as Bonds across all pitch types for any single season, so we must loosen the criteria. Instead of using an across the board comparison, let's compare against the pitch type categories previously mentioned, hard stuff, breaking stuff, and offspeed stuff. Now using Bonds averages for these categories, we get the following player seasons:

Hard stuff
Season Name wFB/C wCT/C
2008 Albert Pujols 3.63 1.88
Breaking stuff
Season Name wSL/C wCB/C
2008 Milton Bradley 2.38 2.96
2013 Robinson Cano 3.24 3.4
2011 Shane Victorino 2.43 2.98
2009 Denard Span 3.39 3.59
Offspeed stuff
Season Name wCH/C wSF/C
2012 Buster Posey 6.9 8.84
2012 Edwin Encarnacion 4.67 3.61
2011 Miguel Cabrera 4.45 7.7
2011 Jacoby Ellsbury 4.29 7.32

Qualified 'hard' seasons required pitch type linear weights of at least 3.6 wFB/C (slightly loosened criteria to allow for at least one player in the category) and 0.12 wCT/C. 'Breaking' seasons required values of at least 2.9 wCB/C and 2.2 wSL/C, and 'offspeed' seasons had pitch weights of at least 4.2 wCH/C and 2.0 wSF/C, respectively.

One small surprise in these results stems from the hard stuff; only one player measured up to the Bonds averages and that was only after slightly relaxing the criteria. One would expect that with so many hitters who sit dead red and have no issues catching up to the best fastballs in the game that more players would qualify and compare to the elder Bonds years. Also of interest is how many hitters can handily go toe-to-toe with Bonds when it comes to handling both breaking and offspeed pitches and even lapping Bonds and his ability to identify and punish secondary pitches. In particular, fellow San Francisco Giant Buster Posey shows an amazing knack for taking complete advantage of the breaking pitches he saw in his 2012 MVP season. Overall, finding a common thread, very few players could put up comparable numbers as Bonds, and those that could could only do so in a single season, in a particular part of the game; no one appears to come close to the all around batting talent that Bonds displayed, even in his age-37 season and later.

As previously mentioned, the legacy of Barry Bonds, while tumultuous and oft-criticized, will remain one nigh impossible to attain or replicate. With the use of batted ball and pitch type data, we see how special even just the tail end of Bonds' career was in comparison to his cohort and those who played after his retirement.

***

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Stuart Wallace is an associate managing editor and writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TClippardsSpecs.

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