The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

More on Bonds

Some of you, who can read as fast as I type, will probably like the title of this post.

Maybe he is human. In his last five games, he has only managed a total of two hits, and both of those were singles. Granted, he only has a total of nine at bats in those five games, and he has been walked ten (ten!) times during that span, but it may be possible to say that Barry Bonds is in a bit of a slump. Well, maybe not a slump, but he has appeared to be mortal over the past week or so. You might be particularly quick to jump to this conclusion if you saw last night’s game against the Braves.

After being intentionally walked in his first plate appearance of the game, Bonds was called out on strikes in the 3rd. This in itself is a rare feat. After being walked intentionally – again – in the fourth, Bonds grounded out weekly in his next at bat in the fifth (yes, he did single later in the game). But that fourth plate appearance last night was the most interesting Bonds at bat that I have seen in quite some time. Bonds is revered throughout baseball for his strike zone judgment (thus taking the called third strike in the third inning was so unusual) and his nearly unflinching discipline at the plate, despite the constant barrage of balls and unhittable pitches that are offered to him. Last night though, Bonds flinched. He swung at two pitches from Antonio Alfonseca that were undoubtedly balls. After the first two pitches missed by a significant margin, Bonds swung at the third pitch (and missed). On that swing, Bonds looked more like me than himself; his hips flew open, his head pointed towards the dugout at the end of his swing, and the pitch was the better part of a foot off the plate. The swing he put on the second pitch he offered at was not much better, but he managed to foul the ball off.

The point here is not to say that Barry Bonds is anything less than the best player of the game; the point is that for the first time in years, Barry Bonds looked last night, at least to me, as if he suffered from a mechanical and mental lapse. His swing looked un-Bondsian and his approach to the at bat was far less than the controlled and disciplined plan that we have so come to expect – regardless of how many unintentional intentional walks he receives. I have been waiting to see Bonds take a few hacks like he did last night for years now. If I were Bonds, I would have started swinging at marginal pitches a long time ago – well either that or I would have seriously considered retiring. But for the betterment of his team, Bonds has not really done that to date. He has accepted his walks and taken his trips around the bases, constantly hoping that his teammates will come through with timely hits. This year though it seems that the timely hits will not come to be very frequently; Bonds is not surrounded by the lineup that he has been in the past.

Maybe that caused Barry to swing at a couple pitches that he shouldn’t have last night. Maybe that has opened up some holes in Barry’s swing that will take a day or two to tighten back up. All of this comes at an interesting time for the Florida Marlins. During last year’s NLDS, the Marlins pitched to Bonds. This came as a great surprise, myself included, as most people expected the Marlins to go by the conventional wisdom and to “not let one guy beat you.” But the Marlins played with fire and won. Barry did a little damage, but did not homer in the series, and the Fish went on to win the series three games to one (you know the rest).

Had the Marlins – Giants series taken place a week or two ago, nearly everyone would agree that it would be best to walk Bonds in just about every circumstance. Yes, I have seen the research that proves that even for the best hitters, it makes sense to pitch to them because they will still get themselves out 60 – 70% of the time, and that walking such hitters only gives the opposition more opportunities to score runs. But that analysis was run with “normal” superstars and assumed they were surrounded by normal major league lineups. Bonds and the Giants are neither – or at least they weren’t a few weeks ago. Bonds looked to be on a tear far more fearsome than anything we had seen before in baseball, and he had a four year hot streak and career long track record to back it up, and make you think it would continue indefinitely. The remainder of the Giants lineup was, and is, inept, at least by major league standards. Thus, walking Bonds nearly every time he came to the plate seemed to be a fairly risk-free proposition. You could pitch around the game’s most dangerous hitter and let those who bat after him make outs.

Padres manager Bruce Bochy put it well though when he said that there’s almost an “obligation” to pitch to Bonds – by not doing so you’re impacting history; he went on to say that “Babe Ruth only became Babe Ruth because someone pitched to him.” While technically Bochy’s statement is not correct – Ruth would have continued to be himself regardless of his success or failure on the baseball field, that’s just basic science – his assertion is correct. By continuing to walk Bonds, be it intentionally or with the now more common un-intentional intentional walk, baseball is potentially being deprived of the greatest show that we may ever see.

And now that he appears to have returned to super-super-star levels from the previous high that he was on, I hope that we see the Marlins pitch to him in the three game set that begins today in San Francisco. Brad Penny, a man whom the Marlins turned off the stadium radar gun for last year – because he always looked at it and tried to throw harder, would surely like to challenge Bonds. That is just him and his personality. Tomorrow night’s starter, Dontrelle Willis, has had a relative amount of success against Bonds. Most of Willis’s experience against Bonds came against the Giants in last year’s playoffs where Willis received one start and also came out of the bullpen, specifically to face Bonds. Darren Oliver will face Bonds in the third start, and depending on how the series has gone to that point, I hope Jack McKeon lets Oliver go after him. I’d rather see Barry really bat than have the Fish improve their chances for a sweep on Sunday. Yes, I’m getting ahead of myself to be sure, and that one game may matter at the end of the year, but I’ll see another pennant race before I see another Barry Bonds. Pitch to Barry.


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