Back in 1990, Barry Bonds entered the season at the age of 25. He'd been viewed as enough of a disappointment -- and difficult personality -- through his first three full seasons that the Pittsburgh Pirates had offered him around that winter, in search of a frontline starting pitcher.
There were no takers. Bonds broke out that year, raising his average from .248 to .301, his home runs from 19 to 33, his stolen bases from 32 to 52. He led the National League in slugging percentage and OPS and collected 23 of 24 first-place votes in the MVP balloting. He'd become the best player in baseball.
Twenty-two years later, another Pirates outfielder entered the season at 25 years old. Andrew McCutchen had hit .216 in the second half of 2011, a disappointing figuring considering he'd hit .291 with 14 home runs in the first half. McCutchen wasn't offered around in trade; in fact, the Pirates instead signed him to a six-year, $51 million contract extension in spring training.
And like Bonds, McCutchen has taken The Leap. He's having a season for the ages, hitting .369/.423/.649 and leading the National League in batting average, slugging percentage, total bases and runs scored while ranking second in home runs and RBIs. He may be the best player in baseball.
Is that too much, comparing McCutchen to one of the greatest player of all time?
It's interesting to look back at Bonds. He actually was one of the NL's best players from 1987 to 1989, not that anybody recognized it at the time, with a Baseball-Reference WAR of 19.2, second among NL position players behind only Ozzie Smith. Despite that, Bonds had never been mentioned on an MVP ballot, his defensive skills not appreciated and his offensive skills underrated because of a .264 average and RBI totals held down because he mostly hit leadoff.
Bonds had already acquired the personality traits that eventually turned into his branded identity. But nobody questioned his talent. "Barry's the only individual I've met who can turn it on and turn it off. I didn't think that could be done," Pirates teammate R.J. Reynolds said in a 1990 Sports Illustrated article. "I think one day he will put up numbers no one can believe." (R.J. -- you were right.)
That SI story helps illuminate why Bonds improved so much at the plate in 1990, however. "Everyone knows I want to be good, very good," Bonds said. "I had it figured out -- I was going to get a hit in every single game. And when I didn't get a hit the second game of the season, I was mad the whole week. The whole week. I was mad because I blew my streak. Can you believe that?"
Sounds like a player who finally matured and learned to channel his emotions and deal with failure. Pirates manager Jim Leyland said Bonds had tried too hard to hit his 20th home run in '89. Bonds said he learned to deal with high expectations his way: "To me, when people say I have an attitude problem, it gives me an edge. It makes me mad, so I play better."
McCutchen's changes have been well documented, how he changed his stance in the offseason, opening it up by moving his front leg back from home plate. He stuck with the change even though through the Pirates' first 25 games he went homerless while hitting .298. But he homered off Edwin Jackson on May 8 and hasn't slowed down; since then he's hitting .397/.449/.753 over 62 games. Kiss it goodbye, as the old Pirates announcer Bob Prince would have said.
Back to Bonds. McCutchen's OPS+ is 194; Bonds' OPS+ was 170 in 1990. If there's one big difference between the seasons, it's that Bonds had 93 walks and 83 strikeouts while McCutchen has 66 strikeouts and 32 walks. Interestingly, McCutchen's walk rate has declined from 13.1 percent in 2011 to 8.6 percent. Moving forward, it certainly wouldn't be surprising to see his average drop but his OBP stay over .400 as his walk rate increases.
But if he does keep that average up, we could be talking about a historic offensive season. Only two Pirates have hit at least .369 -- Paul Waner three times and Arky Vaughn once (a franchise-record .385 in 1935). Here's another way to view McCutchen's season. Leaving out the 1994 to 2008 "steroid era," since 1950 only eight times has a player hit at least .350 with 30-plus home runs -- Stan Musial (1951), Mickey Mantle (1956 and 1957), Ted Williams (1957), Hank Aaron (1959), Norm Cash (1961), Don Mattingly (1986) and Josh Hamilton (2010). (It happened 16 times between 1994 and 2008, including twice by Bonds.)
OK, we still have a long ways to go -- the Pirates still have 71 games remaining this season. Andrew McCutchen doesn't have to put up Bondsian numbers to be a great player. But I do wonder: Is this the right time to point out the 1990 Pirates improved from 74 wins to 95 and won the division title?