Flaxseed oil! Flaxseed oil!The BALCO grand jury expires tomorrow, and the possibility that they may indict Barry Bonds for perjury and tax evasion remains. USA Today offered up its customary FAQ-style reportage this morning:

What is the grand jury trying to decide?

“The grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence, but only whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that a specific person or persons committed it,” according to the handbook for federal grand jurors. “If (at least 12 jurors among the 16) find probable cause to exist, then it will return a written statement of the charges called an ‘indictment.’ ”


Has Bonds admitted to using steroids?

No. In his December 2003 grand jury testimony, obtained by the Chronicle, Bonds said he never knowingly used steroids. He said that Anderson gave him flaxseed oil and arthritis balm known as the “cream” and the “clear,” which prosecutors identified as steroids.

Thank you, USA Today!

The Wall Street Journal also weighed in on Bonds this morning, as only the Wall Street Journal can. That is, with a lot of numbers. In a piece about what they call “forensic statistics,” Hank Alessio and two other number-crunching seamheads compared Bonds’ pace with the sluggers of yesteryear. I can’t like to the WSJ (it’s subscription-only, damn investors), so here’s the gist:

The trio focused on the ratio of at-bats to home runs — that is, how many at-bats on average did it take to hit one homer? ….When you plot at-bats/home runs of these nine [sluggers] for each year of their careers, you get a “bathtub” curve — as Mr. Allessio calls it. The power hitters of the past showed strength early in their careers, improved gradually, then maintained their AB/HR ratio at a low level “until age took its toll,” says Mr. Allessio….Some recent sluggers show a different pattern.

See the numbers after the jump.

For his current project, Mr. Allessio, a founder of Walden Consultants Ltd., Hopkinton, Mass., teamed up with Tom Mortimer, his head of research, and Jack O’Gara, a retired accountant, to apply to baseball what Mr. O’Gara did to business in his 2004 book “Corporate Fraud: Case Studies in Detection and Prevention.”

Before this week’s All-Star Game, they used math to examine accusations about steroid use in baseball. Call it forensic statistics.

The trio focused on the ratio of at-bats to home runs — that is, how many at-bats on average did it take to hit one homer? They took nine of the top 11 retired career home-run hitters: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Mickey Mantle and Jimmie Foxx. (Mark McGwire, No. 7, is omitted because when asked at a congressional hearing whether he had played “with honesty and integrity,” he said he was “not here to talk about the past.” Rafael Palmeiro, No. 9, is out because he tested positive for steroids in 2005.)

When you plot at-bats/home runs of these nine for each year of their careers, you get a “bathtub” curve — as Mr. Allessio calls it. The power hitters of the past showed strength early in their careers, improved gradually, then maintained their AB/HR ratio at a low level “until age took its toll,” says Mr. Allessio.

Mr. Aaron’s numbers, for instance, go from 20-some at-bats needed for each home run from 1954-1958, to 14.5 for 1959 to 1973, and end at 27.6 for 1974 to 1976. Mr. Mays peaked even faster: 27.5 in 1951 and 1952, falling to 15.1 for 1954 to 1966, rising to 25.8 for 1967 to 1973.

Some recent sluggers show a different pattern. The statisticians examined the performance of Mr. Palmeiro, Mr. McGwire, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco and other players who have admitted to (as Mr. Canseco did), or answered accusations about, steroid use. After a few years of so-so power, they showed “a sudden, sharp and sustained drop in their AB/HR ratio,” says Mr. Allessio. The improvement is at ages when players historically hit a plateau.

No player is more dogged by allegations of steroid use than Mr. Bonds, currently No. 2 on the all-time HR list. He has repeatedly denied knowingly using prohibited drugs, as he told a grand jury in 2003. A San Francisco grand jury is investigating him for perjury, it was widely reported.

By the numbers, Mr. Bonds’s career has had three phases. From 1986 to 1991, his AB/HR ratio was just under 22. From 1992 to 1998, it improved to 13.05 — he hit a dinger every 13 times at bat rather than every 22. He broke out in 1999, with a ratio of 10.4. He kept getting better, dropping his ratio to 9.8 in 2000 and to an unmatched 6.5 in 2001, when he hit 73 four-baggers. He has hardly flagged: From 1999 to 2005, Mr. Bonds needed only 8.5 at-bats for each homer.

That’s in distinct contrast to the bathtub graph of yesteryears’ performances.

But maybe Mr. Bonds’s bathtub-defying numbers reflect better training and smaller, more hitter-friendly parks. Maybe he is so good he should be compared with the top five of all time, not the top nine. So take the HR/AB ratio of the top five (Messrs. Aaron through Killebrew), multiply by Mr. Bonds’s at-bats, and he “should” have only 13 fewer home runs than he does. Take HR/AB for the top nine, though, and 169 are suspect.

Another factor: Mr. Bonds draws many walks. At-bats don’t include walks, but plate appearances do. What if you looked at that number? “Barry was deprived of a lot of chances to hit home runs,” Mr. O’Gara says. How many? By a complex calculation that combines AB/HR and walks, he missed out on 184. Give him credit for those and he’s No. 3 on the all-time HR list.

Take your pick: Take away Mr. Bonds’s statistically suspect homers and he’s behind Mr. Schmidt. Add some to reflect his many walks and he’s right after Ruth.

Well, I don’t really understand why you would add at-bats to make up for walks. Surely Bonds’ fellow sluggers also had a lot of base-on-balls, no? But then again, math has never been my strong suit. Other thoughts? My brain hurts.

3 Responses to “The science of Bonds”

  1. I think that managerial styles have changed enough to make the ratio of Bonds’ numerous int. walks/semi-intentional walks incomparable to contemporaries of yesteryear.

    Then again, I’m bad at math also- and I just enjoyed several Brubakers now that I’m officially on a mini-vacation.

    I think the whole WSJ article is a waste of space. It ignores that the thrust of the whole Bonds story has to do with cheating, not ratios. Why compare Barry to Harmon Killebrew, when the competition was completely different, and one was fed by kielbasa and the other the “cream and the clear”?

    Also, did that article just refer to “Mr. Palmeiro and Mr. Canseco!?” I need another Mr. Brubaker I think.

  2. Sarah Green says:

    I’m sorry, I forgot to add the following mandatory disclaimer: “WARNING: Economists trying to talk about sports. REPEAT. Economists trying to talk about sports. Considered nerdy and very dangerous. Do not approach.”

    Seriously though, I think this is the Journal’s idea of an HGH test…….math.

  3. If Bonds dressed up as Coach Janky Spanky or Rev. Gonna Change, there is no way a jury can convict him of anything except being hilarious.


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