Ten years ago tomorrow, Barry Bonds went 1-for-3 with a walk in Game Seven of the 2002 World Series against the Anaheim Angels. It was the first time since Game One that Bonds failed to reach base at least three times. The Giants lost 4-1.
Bonds’s ravaging run through the 2002 postseason was mesmerizing. Through 10 games in the first two playoff rounds, Bonds homered four times and walked 14 more; he carried a .286/.500/.786 playoff line into the World Series.
I think we forget sometimes just what it was like to watch Barry Bonds hit. We can look at the stats pages and see the .370/.582/.799 line from the regular season — he was unclutch in the first two rounds! — and we can contextualize it. We know how great it was as we view it through the triple-slash or the 244 wRC+ or the 12.5 WAR or whatever your metric of choice happens to be.
Those numbers are useful because they can actually compare players of times past to somebody we see play on a daily basis. Reggie Jackson, for example, hit .293/.383/.531 with a 159 wRC+ to win the MVP award in 1973; Andrew McCutchen‘s .327/.400/.553 triple-slash this season (158 wRC+) is a close approximation. This isn’t to say if you’ve seen Andrew McCutchen you know Reggie Jackson, but the comparison at least gives some idea of what Jackson did at the plate for those who didn’t get a chance to see it first-hand.
There hasn’t been a single player since Bonds retired in 2007 (or since his last full-strength season in 2004, more specifically) to even approach his level of play. The best hitting season since was Albert Pujols‘s 2008 season — .357/.462/.653, 184 wRC+. It was a season without flaw — nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts, 37 home runs, even a .340 BABIP. And it pales next to Bonds’s 2002 (or 2001, 2003 or 2004).
The 2002 World Series was just another forum to cement his dominance. Bonds mashed three home runs in the first three games, and yet somehow his team was down 2-1. But then three intentional walks in a victorious Game Four and three hits including two doubles in Game Five saw him and his Giants just a win away from a championship.
By the time Game Six rolled around, Bonds had racked up a 2.144 OPS in 22 plate appearances, a mark surpassed only by Lou Gehrig‘s 1928 series, a 2.433 OPS headlined by four home runs in four games (17 PA).
As part of their World Series programming, ESPN Classic showed Games Six and Seven of the 2002 contest between the Giants and Angels last night. As soon as Bonds stepped up to the plate and took a pitch his second plate appearance (he was intentionally walked the first time, his record 13th of the postseason) the memories of Bonds’s mastery of hitting came rushing back.
Hitting is the offense of baseball, but it often has a defensive feel to it. The pitcher has every advantage — different pitches, different locations and the inherent difficulty of simply hitting a ball with a bat all favor the pitcher; the batter is the one forced to defend the strikezone. For all the talk about how the game’s best hitters succeed only 40 percent of the time, consider therefore the game’s worst pitchers still succeed around 60 percent of the time.
That defensive feeling was never there with Bonds. His plate discipline was so tight, his power so fearsome and his decisions so quick that he controlled at-bats unlike no other player alive or dead. Kevin Appier wanted no part of it in Bonds’s second at-bat, walking him on five pitchers (including a questionable strike call off the outside corner of the plate to open the at-bat).
Francisco Rodriguez, on the other hand, gave Bonds the pitch he wanted, the inside fastball that so often ended up in McCovey Cove. Bonds hit this one a reported 485 feet — ESPN Hit Tracker says it was “just” 449 feet.
Bonds is the one batter we could actually expect to succeed more often fail. An inning later, Bonds faced Rodriguez again, and Rodriguez pitched to him again. Bonds struck out on a curveball in the dirt. He missed it by three feet, but all I could think was if he had guessed right and Rodriguez had thrown the fastball instead, Bonds would have hit it even farther than the first one.
Bonds ended the World Series quietly by his standards — 1-for-3, a walk and the loss in Game Seven by a 4-1 score. Still, Bonds finished with a 1.994 OPS in the series, the fifth-best mark ever and the best ever with at least 20 plate appearances (second being Reggie Jackson’s 1977 series, including his three-homer Game Six).
But Troy Glaus had a 1.313 OPS of his own and was backed up by a 1.067 mark from Tim Salmon. Scott Spiezio did his crazy clutch thing and went 6-for-23 with three extra-base hits in the series. Francisco Rodriguez was stellar outside of his hiccup against Bonds in Game Six, throwing 8.2 innings with 13 strikeouts and just two runs allowed, and that was enough to bring down the mighty Bonds and his Giants.
People do and will continue to have varying thoughts on Bonds for the rest of eternity given the obvious reasons that define not only his career but his entire era. For some people, perhaps, it is correct to think not of Barry Bonds the baseball player first but instead Barry Bonds the walking steroid scandal.
And that’s fine. But for me, nearly 10 full years removed from Barry Bonds’s last appearance in the World Series, all I can think of is how we haven’t come close to seeing anything in baseball like a Barry Bonds at-bat since he’s left.