In 2003, Barry Bonds had one of the most dominant offensive seasons in major league history. Since the expansion era, his campaign that year has only been outdone by Barry Bonds in 2001, Barry Bonds in 2002, and Barry Bonds in 2004. That year, Bonds hit .357/.431/.804 for a 213 wRC+… after the count reached 0-2.
Yes, Bonds was about 113 percent better than league average when he was starting from the absolute worst hitter’s count. By sOPS+, which measures a hitter’s performance in a split compared to league average, Bonds was 248 percent better than his peers after the count got to no balls and two strikes. According to Baseball Reference’s Stathead, Bonds’s 348 sOPS+ in 0-2 counts is second only to Tyler White who posted a 456 sOPS+ in 2018.
If you’re a Bonds fun fact connoisseur, you likely knew all of the above already (except for the Tyler White thing because lol). That Bonds was still Bonds after 0-2 isn’t exactly a deep cut. It can be hard to conceptualize though. Trying to imagine Bonds being 248 percent better than league average is like trying to comprehend the size of the sun. We can’t picture it because we have no baseline for something that enormous (except for, I guess, Tyler White).
With R, however, Bonds’s performance become a little easier to quantify. Chapter 6 of Analyzing Baseball Data with R teaches one to analyze pitcher’s and hitter’s counts using data from Retrosheet. With a heavy dose of string manipulation, it’s easy albeit tedious to manage pitch sequences in useful ways.
Batters, of course, perform worse when they’re behind in the count and better when they’re ahead. A batter doesn’t have to swing at a borderline pitch that’s harder to square up if the count is 2-0. When the count is 0-2, the batter has to protect and the chances of making poor contact or no contact at all increase. Pretty basic stuff.
As pointed out in ABDR, it’s important to recognize that worse hitters are going to find themselves in more 0-2 counts. Sometimes falling behind 0-2 can’t be helped because if a pitcher throws two pitches in the strike zone to begin the at bat, the only way to avoid 0-2 is to put the ball in play. A batter can dig themself into a whole by swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, however.
Tyler White, for instance, got into 50 0-2 counts in 2018 despite only stepping up to the plate 237 times. 21.1 percent of his plate appearances got to 0-2. Despite hitting like Bonds after 0-2 for one year, White generally isn’t a good hitter as he owns a career 95 OPS+. Bonds himself got into 62 0-2 counts in 2003, but he had 550 plate appearances. Just 11.2 percent of Bonds’ plate appearances got to 0-2.
Regardless of how they got there, batters are more likely to make an out after reaching 0-2 which, of course, negatively impacts run scoring. Below is the expected run value after reaching each count for 2003.
Even in a year where the league-wide strikeout rate was 6.6 percentage points lower than it was in 2019, getting to 0-2 was disastrous for a hitter. Falling behind like that is worth, on average, -0.096 runs which is ever so slightly worse than 2016’s mark of -0.094. As it turns out, falling behind 0-2 was exactly as bad as getting ahead 2-0 was good.
Now here’s Barry Bonds in all counts.
If Bonds started at 0-2, he was considerably better than the league starting fresh. In fact, he was only 0.02 runs worse than the rest of the league when they got to 2-0. To make Bonds perform like an average, mortal player, he would have to face a penalty while everyone else was given an equal reward. In other words, he was twice as good as the average player. Or 113 percent better which, again, is exactly what his wRC+ at 0-2 suggests.
Okay, maybe my putzing around with R didn’t make it any easier to conceptualize Bonds at 0-2 than existing, easy-to-look-up splits (buy a FanGraphs membership won’t you?). To be honest, I wanted to make a parallel box plot that would show expected run value by count and highlight Bonds’s dot at 0-2, but I kept getting “object not found” errors that I couldn’t figure out how to resolve. When it comes to R, I’m more Tyler White than Barry Bonds.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.