03/23/2005: Did I just hear the odds dropping?
Baseball statistical übermensch Bill James once had a calculation which he referred to as "the favorite toy"; basically, it was a formula which purported, given a baseball player's performance for the past three or so years, to calculate the percentage probability that the player would achieve a given performance milestone before he retires. James has been diddling with the formula since he introduced it in his annual Baseball Abstracts of the early 1980's, and the more recent The Bill James Handbook series has included a table of active players and their probabilities of reaching certain statistical milestones. My copy of The 2004 Bill James Handbook is at home (I didn't spring for the 2005 edition; so sue me), so I'm going by memory here, but my recollection is that the table gave the probability of Barry Bonds reaching 700 home runs as being practically certain (in the high 90's), of his reaching 756 homers as being fairly likely (in the 40's, I think), and of reaching 800 home runs as small but significantly non-zero (around 20% or so, if I'm remembering correctly). [UPDATE: I'm now at home and able to check; the "Career Assessments" table in The 2004 Bill James Handbook gives Bonds's probabilities as 700 HR--97% (as you probably know, Bonds reached that plateau on September 17, 2004), 756 HR--52%, and 800 HR--20%.]
Those odds may have taken a hit yesterday.
We read in a number of articles in the press (the New York Times, another article from the Times, from the MLB website, and from the Boston Herald, among many sources) that Barry gave an unusually snarky interview at the Giants' spring training facilities (unusually snarky for Barry, whose normal attitude towards the press is much, much more snarky than most players) where Bonds stated that owing to his pre-season knee surgeries he will probably miss about half of the 2005 season, and could well sit out all of the 2005 season. In addition to losing much more playing time than anticipated, it appears that Barry was dropping hints that he might just retire soon:
"My family is tired, I'm tired. You guys wanted to hurt me bad enough; you finally got there."While Bonds was probably being somewhat melodramatic, his chances of eclipsing Hank Aaron as all time major league home run champ are definitely hurting:
He added: "You wanted me to jump off the bridge; I finally have jumped. You wanted to bring me down; you've finally brought me and my family down. Finally done it. So now go pick a different person. I'm done."
For Bonds, this season was supposed to be one of the most intriguing individual campaigns in baseball history, a confluence of the steroids scandal and the career home run chase. ESPN assigned a full-time reporter to Bonds from February through September. Several veteran free agents joined the Giants in anticipation of a playoff push. If healthy, Bonds was expected to pass Babe Ruth on the career home run list in May and set himself up to break Hank Aaron's record of 755 home runs early next year.
On Sunday in Scottsdale, several players pondered a dream season in which they would win the World Series, Bonds would eclipse Ruth, then approach Aaron in the middle of an intense pennant race.
The script and the timetable now look unattainable. Without Bonds, the Giants are just another team in the National League West. Even if Bonds returns in the second half of the season and is able to pass Ruth, it will be difficult for him to reach Aaron until 2007, when he was hoping to start retirement.
It is almost impossible to fathom Bonds's leaving baseball before he hits the 12 home runs it will take to overcome Ruth, but catching Aaron is no longer automatic. Because Aaron is one of his role models and a pioneer for African-American players, Bonds has maintained that he would be content to finish second.
This is not the hitting machine most in the major leagues have come to know and fear - complaining about injuries, admitting exhaustion, satisfied with runner-up status. One of the greatest players has never looked less like a baseball immortal.
Len on 03.23.05 @ 01:57 PM CST