|Friday, October 18
The ongoing debate: Walk Bonds or not?
By Jayson Stark
SAN FRANCISCO -- Being the helpful guy he is, Kirk Rueter has some advice for Mike Scioscia.
Walk Barry Bonds.
Every time up.
Bases empty. Bases loaded.
Tie game. 10-2 game.
"I've seen him walked with the bases loaded," Rueter said, on the eve of the All-Barry-All-The-Time World Series. "I've seen him walked to move guys into scoring position in a tie game. I've seen them put that guy on second rather than surrender a two-run home run. I used to think that was amazing. Now, after seeing what he's done the last two years, I think it might be a pretty good idea (to just walk him every time up)."
We keep thinking about this: Could a man actually go through an entire World Series and never get an official at-bat? Thirty trips to the plate, 30 walks?
We know this is ludicrous. We know it makes no mathematical sense, no logical sense, no baseball sense.
No firm conclusions yet, but we bet they'll be crunching those numbers all winter. Especially if the Angels -- a team that issued only 17 intentional walks all season -- do anything crazy, and Bonds hits a home run we need to talk about for the next 300 years.
To pitch to him or not to pitch to him? That's the question that will hover over this whole World Series, unless the Angels score 10 runs in every inning of every game.
We don't know the right answer. There may be no right answer. So we surveyed men who have spent way too much time chomping on their fingernails pondering this question -- two NL West managers (the Dodgers' Jim Tracy and the Padres' Bruce Bochy) and an advance scout who had to write up a report on the Giants this year.
We also asked two Giants pitchers -- Rueter and Tim Worrell -- just to get the perspective of pitchers thankful they never have to deal with that question in real life.
None of this is meant to second-guess or even first-guess Mike Scioscia. We're just providing information. The rest is up to him.
Don't do it
How do you deal with Barry? The joke is, for Bonds, they don't actually write a report. They just draw a picture -- of a hand, with four fingers sticking up.
"If it's a game situation," said one advance scout, "where he could drive in the lead run, even if the lead run is himself -- don't pitch to him. No one on, tie game -- you walk him. I'd do exactly what Tony La Russa did the other day."
"To tell your pitchers, 'Don't ever pitch to him,' I don't agree with that," said Bochy. "I don't care who you are or how good you are. If you back off, you lose your aggressiveness. There are times we've had success going at him aggressively with good fastballs and good breaking balls. But if we fall behind, then we don't go at him."
Good thinking. When Bonds got ahead in the count this year against right-handed pitchers, his on-base percentage was (ready?) .722. His walk-to-strikeout ratio was (ready?) 153 to 7. So if you fall behind, it is officially time to surrender. This duel is over.
If you get ahead? OK, take your chances. Maybe. But even then, be suspicious.
"I know there are times he's lured the pitcher into a little false sense of security," Bochy said. "He'll take a strike or something. Then boom!"
We should probably mention, by the way, that no team walked Bonds more this year than Bochy's team (34 times -- 13 intentional). We should also mention that Bonds has hit 18 home runs against the Padres the last two years, so Bochy has seen all too vividly that no matter what you do against Bonds, uh, good luck.
Don't do it
"We've had 38 games against the Giants the last two years," Tracy said. "And I've made some decisions against that club in those 38 games I never even considered in seven years managing in the minor leagues -- all because of the left fielder. He forces you to do things in certain situations I've never done in any game I ever managed."
In the 14 games Bonds played against the Dodgers this year, they walked him 21 times (nine intentionally). Two of the intentional walks came with runners on first. When they pitched to him, Bonds hit .400 against them, batted .583 with runners in scoring position and struck out only four times. Tracy got the message.
"We played them in a four-game series in September," Tracy said. "I walked him nine times -- in one series. If it doesn't work out, if you get second-guessed, so be it. You're playing with a big keg of dynamite if you say, 'We're gonna go at this guy.' "
Tracy has never actually walked Bonds with the bases loaded, the way Buck Showalter once did. But he's thought about it. He's even convinced "you could make a good case for it" in certain spots.
In 2001, Tracy did walk Bonds intentionally with runners on first and second in the ninth inning -- and a one-run lead. And that was when Jeff Kent, the incumbent MVP, hit behind him. But Jeff Shaw, who was pitching, had much better numbers against Kent than against Bonds.
"So I went to the mound," Tracy said, "and told Jeff Shaw, 'You're not going to like this, but that's not the issue. We're going to walk Barry Bonds and take our chances with Kent.' For me to think I'd ever go to the mound and suggest that to my closer was unbelievable. But I did. I walked the winning run into scoring position. Jeff Kent popped up the first pitch. We ended up winning. Then I took a big exhale."
So who wins the game if the message is: Watch out! This man is going to ruin your day?
"I think you send a bad message to your pitching staff if you say, 'Don't pitch to that guy ... don't let that guy beat you,' " said Worrell. "As soon as you do that, you can't help but be on the defensive when you do pitch to him. When you pitch like that, you make more mistakes. And when you make mistakes to Barry, you don't get away with many of them.
"The last thing you want to have on your mind out there when you're pitching is to try to make perfect pitches. It doesn't work. I spent five years of my career trying to do that, and I wanted to quit. When I learned to be more aggressive, that's when I succeeded. Of course, I only had to face Barry one time."
So what would his advice be to the other team? Aw, what the heck. Pitch to him. (Easy for him to say.)
"Certain situations, yeah, I'd pitch to him," Worrell said. "Early in the game, I'd pitch to him whether there were guys on or not. The trouble is, he's so locked in, he can make you pay. I know one thing. I'm real glad I don't have to deal with that scenario."
When it's safe
He batted .384 against left-handers this year and .363 against right-handers. He hit .376 when nobody was on base and .376 when there were runners in scoring position. So almost no matter what the conditions, if you pitch to him, he will hit.
Still, there are specific situations when it's more acceptable than others to throw a few over the old plate (and duck for cover if necessary).
"Any time the game's out of whack, we pitch to him," Bochy said, "because I believe the fans come out to watch him play."
Tracy agrees -- to a point.
"The times when you absolutely do pitch to him are when you're way ahead or they're way ahead," Tracy said. "Then, sure you pitch to him. But if his at-bat could determine the outcome of the game, be very careful."
When it's unsafe
So there's general agreement among the entire managerial fraternity on some things. But not on everything.
The toughest call? The situation La Russa and the Cardinals faced Sunday: Tie game. Two outs. Nobody on. Bonds at the dish.
"I don't mean this as a second-guess of anyone, but I'd pitch to him," said Bochy. "The odds are, he's not going to hit a home run. He's probably the greatest home run hitter of all time -- him and Babe Ruth. But I couldn't walk him there. I'd go with the odds that say he won't hit it out of the park, especially at Pac Bell. That's a tough park to hit a home run."
But in a big game? Tracy has been there and done that, and he isn't sure he'd invite Bonds to hit a home run if that's what his team needed.
"Two outs, no one on? There's a high probability we'd walk him," Tracy said. "Now I can't sit here and suggest he's going to hit a home run every single time he goes to the plate. But face it. You're talking about a guy who loves big moments."
"The only time I'd recommend pitching to him is leading off an inning," said the advance scout. "The more outs there are, the less likely I'd be to pitch to him. Two outs -- don't pitch to him. He can hit a home run in that spot. He can leave any park.
"The type of pitcher you have out there also makes a difference. If it's your No. 1 or 2 starter -- a power pitcher who can locate -- I'd pitch to him in certain situations. From your No. 3 starter on down, the less you pitch to him, the better off you are."
The leading men
"Barry's success has made that entire lineup more difficult to deal with," Tracy said. "For one thing, now you're putting Jeff Kent in a position where he can damage you very badly, because of the guy standing on deck. And if he gets on first, you're in a position where there's no place to put this guy, and now what do you do?
"Then you've got the guy in the 2 hole (Rich Aurilia). Two years ago, he hit 37 home runs, and now he's swinging the bat very similar to how he did then."
And if the bases get crowded in front of Bonds, it's almost always trouble -- "because the guy doesn't strike out," Tracy said. "He had 47 strikeouts this year. So if the guy's coming to the plate with a runner in scoring position, what do you do? You might as well walk him, because you're not going to strike him out. ... If you go at him, the odds are not in your favor. You could get him out, but the ball's still likely to be in play and it's likely to be hit hard somewhere. So you're just hoping there if you pitch to him."
Before and after
Nevertheless, there's such a dropoff from Bonds to anybody else that teams have no choice but to challenge Santiago.
"I have great respect for Benito Santiago," Tracy said. "But when he showed up in the No. 5 hole, I think everyone said, 'This guy needs to prove to me that I have to pitch to Barry Bonds.' But Benito has taken that challenge and thrived. And what makes it easier is that he doesn't have to hit the ball out of the ballpark. He always has the opportunity to knock in runs because there are always guys on."
So who would have to hit behind Bonds to force you to pitch to him?
"Well, Kent used to hit behind him, and they still didn't pitch to him," Bochy said. "I don't know that there's anybody in the game now that could do that. You'd have to go back to Ted Williams -- somebody like that. Then you'd pitch to him."
Well, if the Giants are interested, there's a cryogenics lab we know that ...
Let's play chess
"You're thinking the whole time," Bochy said, "about having a pitcher ready just for Bonds. If it's the eighth inning and there's a guy on, or two, you're thinking, 'I've got to have somebody ready for Bonds.' He's the focal point. He's that good."
"He adds dimensions to managing," Tracy said, "that don't enter into the picture with any other club you manage against. You sit there with the card in your hand, looking at each inning, wondering if he's six hitters away. You think, if he's the sixth hitter and the bases are loaded with two outs, he's the hitter. That actually crosses your mind.
"And then what do you do with your bullpen? Is it late in the game, where you have to have your bullpen ready? You don't want to overwork your relief pitchers. But just the thought of him coming up gives you something you have to think about."
It may not make for great video clips to watch Barry walking down that first-base line. But the cool thing about this whole debate is that it could only happen in baseball, the most cerebral sport ever.
"In football, you can always snap it to the quarterback," Rueter said. "In basketball, you can always get the ball to Michael Jordan. But baseball is different. If you don't want a guy to beat you, you don't have to pitch to him."
So we're right back where we started this column. If Kirk Rueter could give some advice to the Angels, what would it be?
"Well, I could sit here and say, 'Try to make a perfect pitch,' " Rueter laughed. "The trouble is, I've seen him hit a lot of perfect pitches a long ways."
So what the heck. There's only one sure way to hold the great Barry Bonds hitless for the whole World Series. Walk him. Every time up. And we'll be happy to talk about it forever.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.