Before we get into this at all, it has to be stated that Dan Szymborski, and his ZiPS computer projections, have changed the way most people watch and evaluate baseball. They are revolutionary, so to call him to the mat isn’t really fair. It’s what ESPN asked, he did his job. But this latest piece, trying to numerate what Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens would have been had they not began swallowing PEDs by the fistful, which is what most Hall of Fame voters want you to believe they did, doesn’t really make the point that ESPN (but not Szymborski) is seemingly fishing for.
We could go through the whole thing, but let’s just pick out some of the choice bits here. Before we go any further, I’ll just say that in my mind, Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Fame players before they even took anything, when they reportedly did. If Bonds had retired a Pirate, he was Cooperstown-worthy. There was no question he was the best player in the game for years before that, and that’s what Hall-induction should be. Was this guy on top of the game for more than a few seasons? Bonds definitely was. In Pittsburgh, Bonds was maybe the only five-tool player around. A better version of Eric Davis. Clemens was the defining power pitcher of the late-80s/early 90s. The torch-bearer from Nolan Ryan.
Anyway, here we go. Bonds first:
Rather than the king, with 762, the projection has him at 551 career homers — placing him at No. 15, below Manny Ramirez (well, that’s another discussion) and above Mike Schmidt.
Oh no, not Mike Schmidt. The same Mike Schmdit that was a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer with basically no question. Considered maybe the best third baseman of all-time. Being one slot above him basically sentences anyone to carrying a squeegee.
For his career, ZiPS projects Bonds’ WAR total at 128.7 — dropping him from No. 2 of all time to No. 9, just ahead of Stan Musial.
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Must really suck for Bonds to think if he’d only stayed clean, supposedly, he would still be one of the 10 best baseball players in history. You know what they call one spot ahead of Stan Musial? Branson.
Let’s pivot to Clemens.
ZiPS projects Clemens was likely to have won only 85 games during that stretch — leaving him with a career total of 298, just short of the magic number of 300 that has long been a guaranteed ticket to Cooperstown. That total would drop him from ninth on the career list to 24th, just ahead of Tommy John (288).
We’ve long ago eschewed wins as a category to evaluate pitchers, but even this isn’t much of an argument. Clemens ranking 24th out of every pitcher ever to put on spikes still sounds very much like a Hall-worthy player to me.
ZiPS projects his WAR would have been 111.3, taking him from all-time leader to fourth, just below Greg Maddux and above Randy Johnson.
If you’re a pitcher and you slot between Mad Dog and Big Unit in any kind of measurement, you’re probably not asking to be relocated.
What Szymborski is really saying here, and he’s not wrong, is how Bonds and Clemens defied the usual arc of aging for a baseball player. And I suppose that’s worth something. What it also makes clear is that these were two of the greatest players in baseball history before they ever picked up a needle or eye-dropper or whatever else. Whatever voters are using to keep them out as far as discarding their numbers doesn’t work because of that. You can’t dismiss the stats they piled up.
Szymborski doesn’t pass judgment on the cheating itself, which is apparently up to the individual voter. The idea that Bonds and Clemens were the only ones is laughable. They just did it better, because they were already among the best players.
As I’ve stated before, voters will seriously wheel-pose to justify their votes for David Ortiz next month, who has been linked to PEDs, Jeff Bagwell, and Mike Piazza are already in. Bags was a dominant hitter until 36. Is that the natural aging curve or not? Piazza until he was 37. Again…
No, what this all comes down to is that Bonds and Clemens were assholes, better yet, world-class assholes. And the voters are exacting their revenge for the two of them making the voters’ jobs harder or more unpleasant. Making them talk about things they didn’t want to talk about. You already know how much baseball writers hate that by having to watch them address Trevor Bauer or carrying the owners’ water in CBA negotiations or half-a-dozen other subjects. You can be sure that if Bonds had Ortiz’s personality, he’d already have a plaque.
If the Hall voters want to thread this needle, they should induct them but not allow them to speak, or attend. What voters really fear is the victory dance that Bonds or Clemens might do at the podium, mocking them directly. To make them feel like their self-righteous gate-keeping of the Hall was all for naught. So induct them, but don’t have them show up. There’s no rule saying they have to be there. Everyone wins.