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Wednesday, July 17
 
Greatest Living Hitter? Think Bonds

By Jonah Keri
Special to ESPN.com

For a long time, Joe DiMaggio commanded one of the highest baseball honors, Greatest Living Ballplayer. DiMaggio passed on, and Greatest Living Hitter became the hot debate among historians. Ted Williams owned that title until his death July 5. With Teddy Ballgame gone, an impressive group of candidates now stands poised to claim his crown.

Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson all enjoyed long, productive careers with great peaks, setting multiple single-season and career records. They should be a part of virtually every conversation on the topic. Some fans trot out darkhorses like George Brett, Dick Allen, Mike Schmidt and Willie McCovey as candidates. Though they may not immediately spring to mind, they could all rake and have the numbers to back it up.

Others tout Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs. Sure, these guys didn't hit many tape-measure home runs, but each ranked among the greatest contact hitters of all time. Speaking of tape-measure home runs, Mark McGwire combined monstrous power with a great batting eye and ranks sixth all-time in homers.

Then there's Barry Bonds.

"Can't count him," comes the refrain from many analysts, including Bill James. An active player hasn't completed his body of work. His case thus should be tossed aside or at least severely discounted. We should only consider him, they claim, after he's retired, wiling away his days flopped out in his giant massaging chair.

Feh, that's no fun. Everyone gets a shot at Greatest Living Hitter in this discussion. Let's whittle down the candidates. First, the singles hitters. Guys like Rose, Carew, Gwynn and Boggs were a joy to watch, but the Greatest Living Hitter has to do more than slap Texas Leaguers to the opposite field. He should rope doubles into the gap, show the keen eye required to draw walks and the power to crush mistakes into the bleachers. These guys are out.

Next, the darkhorses. Schmidt hit for power and drew walks, but batted just .267. McCovey was great for a long time, but injuries kept him from matching Musial and Robinson. His later years also put an ugly coda on what was an otherwise stellar career.

McGwire's shortcomings read like a Schmidt/McCovey hybrid. A lifetime .263 average and three seasons in the middle of his career lost to injury wipe out what could have been an intriguing argument.

Casual fans may not be all that familiar with Allen. He was a kind of Frank Thomas for the '60s and early '70s, a brooding slugger who put up big numbers. He peaked at .307/.404/.566 in 1967, which was one of the worst offensive environments in the game's history. But a drastic drop in production after age 32 left his career numbers well short of inner-circle players like Aaron and Mays.

The same goes for the Big Hurt. Though he could rebound at some point, Thomas looks like he's petering out, with just one Thomas-level season since 1997. Again, great peak, not nearly enough career-wise.

Other active players like Ken Griffey Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez could one day enter the discussion, but they all have a long way to go to get there.

Who's left? Aaron, Mays, Musial, Robinson, Brett and Bonds. All posted great numbers in their primes while enjoying long, successful careers. All stayed fairly injury-free. All hit for power, hit for average and drew walks.

To compare these six, we need to account for park and league factors. Just the thought of stacking up Bonds with the other five may be driving some of you nuts right now, given the offensive era in which he's played. That's not to mention the enchanted Gummi Bears a source close to Bonds says is the real reason for all those home runs.

To level the playing field, we'll use Equivalent Average and Equivalent Runs, expressed as EqA and EqR.

EqA is a measure of the player's total offensive performance, fully adjusted for era and park. Its scale mimics that of batting average. A .300 EqA is the mark of a good player. An average player has an EqA of .260. EqR serves the same purpose, but is expressed as a counting stat instead of a rate stat.

Here are the big six's numbers, ranked by EqR (Bonds' numbers updated through Monday):

Player     EqR
Aaron     2,609
Musial    2,363
Mays      2,362
Robinson  2,158
Bonds     2,103
Brett     1,957

Aaron is the leader by a comfortable margin. The same longevity that allowed him to zoom past the Babe on the all-time home run list serves him well here, too. Let's see what EqA shows us:

Player     EqA
Bonds     .345
Musial    .331
Mays      .326
Aaron     .323
Robinson  .323
Brett     .308

Not so fast. Bonds takes this one in a walk, or rather walks. Bonds' Ruthian knack for drawing the free pass, combined with his historic longball binge of recent years, more than make up for his mortal .293 career batting average.

So who gets the cape and scepter here? Brett finishes last in both columns, so he's out. Robinson ranks fourth and fifth, scratch him. Mays may present the best case for Greatest Living Ballplayer, given his defensive prowess in center field and baserunning skill. But he falls just short as a hitter.

We're down to Aaron, Bonds and Musial. Musial offers the second-best career EqA, Aaron the best EqR (not to mention the home-run crown and several other counting stats).

Here's where including an active player gets tough. Bonds holds a wide lead in EqA. In fact, that number has surged nine points in a year and a half. That's downright scary, given he turns 38 in a week, and just another indication of how ridiculous his two seasons have been. Bonds holds the single-season records in three major categories (home runs, walks, slugging percentage), and by the end of this year, may have the single-season mark in on-base percentage as well. He's positioned for a run at some of the greatest career records in the game's history.

Bonds has racked up more than 100 Equivalent Runs this year, and we haven't reached the 100-game mark. At that rate, he'd pass Aaron for EqR by early 2005, when he's going on 41. That's asking a lot, but it's nearly certain that Bonds will pass Musial in the next two seasons and finish no worse than second on the all-time EqR list.

If Bonds comes close to those numbers, he's a shoo-in. Even if he never plays another game, though, he'll have totaled more than 500 doubles, 1,800 walks, nearly 600 home runs and 4,900 total bases to go with his runaway lead in EqA. If he plays a couple more years at a mortal level, his EqA lead won't go down far enough to blow his lead while his counting stats come up.

Barry Bonds, Greatest Living Hitter. Get used to it.

You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus (tm) at their web site at baseballprospectus.com.






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