If Alex Bregman were homering as often as peak Barry Bonds, we wouldn't say the Red Sox were giving him the Barry Bonds treatment. We'd just say Bregman was hot, or had somehow become as good as Bonds, and that no amount of effort on the part of Red Sox pitchers has been able to stop it.
But Alex Bregman is walking as often as peak Bonds. His 10 postseason walks represent almost 42 percent of his 24 plate appearances. Peak Bonds drew walks in 38 percent of his plate appearances (in the 2004 season), and peak Bonds walked 44 percent of the time in his final three postseason series (in 2002 and 2003). They called that the Bonds treatment then, and -- on Twitter and on podcasts and maybe in your household -- they're calling this the Bonds treatment now.
Walks are different than home runs. A pitcher is the unwilling victim of a home run. But a pitcher has at least some control of whether he walks a batter -- he can do it intentionally, he can do it semi-intentionally, and he can pick a strategy (working the corners, throwing more breaking balls, "pitching carefully") that he accepts is likely to result in more walks. Or, on the contrary, walks (and the four wayward pitches they comprise) can be totally accidental, and they can come when the pitcher is doing nothing but trying his hardest to throw strikes.
So is this the Bonds treatment or are these walks just 10 accidents? The nice thing about deliberate strategies is that they tend to leave little clues behind.
1. Are the walks particularly well timed? The point of walking somebody on purpose (or somewhat on purpose) is that the pitcher is taking control of the situation depending on the situation. Teams didn't tend to willingly walk even Bonds when he was leading off an inning or with the bases loaded. (Though, sometimes they did in both cases.) From 2002 to 2004, his peak walking years, Bonds walked only three out of 31 times he batted with the bases loaded; by contrast, he walked 41 out of 46 times he batted with runners on second and third. It was obvious they were giving him the Bonds treatment on purpose because most of the walks came when those walks were least harmful relative to the alternatives.
Bregman, by contrast, has been walked more or less randomly. We divided his 24 postseason plate appearances into two groups*: Those where a walk was especially harmless, relative to a double or a homer, and those where a walk was especially harmful.
(*We improvised this formula, using a ratio of run expectancy changes for walks and doubles in each base/out scenario; but, if it sets your mind at ease, our formula more or less matched the actual walk frequencies that Bonds had from 2002 to 2004.)
In 13 plate appearances where a walk was especially harmful -- the situations where even Bonds wasn't often walked under the Bonds treatment -- Bregman has walked five times. And in 11 plate appearances where a walk was harmless, when walking Bonds was near automatic, Bregman has also walked five times. Slightly more frequently, but you can see the tiny sample sizes as well as I can, and you can see as well that there's no glaringly obvious difference.
2. Are the walks themselves as cautious as possible? In other words, if the teams are trying to walk Bregman, are they refusing to give him anything good to hit?
With Bonds, for instance, it wasn't just that he walked far more than any player in history. The Bonds treatment wasn't about ball four. It started on the first pitch, ball one.
Of the 578 walks Bonds was issued from 2002 to 2004, 57 percent were on four pitches, including 40 percent that were intentional walks. Only 23 percent came on 3-2 counts. Pitchers walking Bonds didn't give him two strikes very often because the entire point was to keep him from getting any strikes.
But eight of Bregman's 10 walks have come on full counts, and only one was intentional. Pitchers are trying to get him out. They're just not good at it, or as good as he is at not making an out. He's better at drawing walks than they are at avoiding them.
(Here's a detail: Only 15 of Bonds' 578 walks those three years -- 2.5 percent -- took seven or more pitches. Bregman has already got three of those in the postseason.)
3. Is the batter in front of Bonds getting the reverse Bonds treatment? After all, if you're afraid to pitch to a guy, then the worst thing you can do is walk the guy in front of him, which either forces you to pitch to your Bonds candidate with men on base or walk him with a runner already on first. It was, at least anecdotally, taken as a fact in the early 2000s that the batters in front of Bonds benefited by seeing more strikes, more hittable strikes, more fastballs.
But Jose Altuve, batting in front of Bregman, has so far seen fewer fastballs this postseason than he did in the regular season. And he has seen fewer pitches in the zone, too -- 41 percent of pitches, a sizable decrease from the 46 percent he saw in the regular season. It's true that Altuve has walked only twice this postseason -- consistent with his regular-season walk rate -- but it's more that Altuve continues to swing, rather than that pitchers are pounding him with strikes.
The absence of a few clues doesn't disprove anything, and Bregman really has drawn walks in 42 percent of his plate appearances. But, if not the Bonds treatment, what more banal phenomenon can explain this?
It's the batter! Just as walks, unlike home runs, can reveal the priorities of the pitcher, so too can they reveal the priorities of the hitter. And what we've seen so far is that Bregman, in the biggest games of the year, against some of the toughest pitchers in the game, and in generally close games, is working himself some walks.
"[Alex Bregman] has become, for two weeks at least, the most effective, most disciplined hitter in the world."
Bregman was already one of the most patient hitters in the game this year. In the regular season, he swung at only 37 percent of the pitches he saw (eighth lowest in the game), including just 18 percent on pitches outside the strike zone (fourth lowest). In the postseason, though, he's swinging only 25 percent of the time, and at just 9.5 percent of pitches outside the zone. He has become, for two weeks at least, the most effective, most disciplined hitter in the world.
What separates the Bonds treatment from a hard-fought walk is how much the batter has to fight for it. The walks to focus on with Bregman this postseason aren't the intentional walk Cody Allen issued in the AL Division Series, with a runner on second and one out; or even the four-pitch walk Matt Barnes issued with a runner on first and two outs in the first game of the AL Championship Series. Rather, they're the walks he drew against Chris Sale and David Price in Games 1 and 2 of this series.
Sale started Bregman with back-to-back changeups, both close to catching the lowest part of the strike zone. Boston manager Alex Cora was chirping at the umpire when Sale didn't get the calls, but both were narrowly out of the zone -- the first one 6 percent likely to be called a strike, the second 13 percent -- and Bregman laid off both to get ahead 2-0. Sale's third pitch, a fastball, missed badly.
At this point, the Bonds treatment would call for an intentional fourth ball. But Sale threw two fastballs that caught plenty of the strike zone -- 97 and 99 percent likely to be called strikes -- and Bregman took them both. It was only when Sale badly yanked a 3-2 slider into the right-handed batter's box that Bregman drew the walk, which came leading off the inning, a terrible time for a pitcher to issue a walk.
The next night, Price also started Bregman with a changeup, again just out of the zone, again taken for a ball to start the at-bat. Price evened the count with a back-door cutter, then missed with a pair of fastballs, putting Bregman ahead 3-1. Price threw a fastball that Bregman fouled off, then a changeup -- which would have been a coin-flip call for the umpire -- that Bregman fought off. On his second 3-2 pitch, Price tried to dot a fastball on the inside corner. It was close, a great pitch, but a ball -- and Bregman took it for the walk.
It is fun to say "Bonds treatment," but it doesn't do credit to what Bregman is actually doing. He's earning these walks. Yes, opposing pitchers have been unusually wild against him, and yes, they are pitching him carefully. But he's the one who is turning this caution into offense. Against Sale, against Corey Kluber, against Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, he's grinding out walks that are turning into runs that are turning into Houston wins. He's not quite the kind of legend that Bonds is, the kind where the other team just gives up. He's the other kind who just keeps grinding.