Sports

Juiced Bonds Meets Juiced Balls

How many home runs would peak steroidal Barry Bonds hit in dinger-happy 2019?

Barry Bonds watches his homer fly out.
Barry Bonds hit his record-breaking 73rd home run of the season on Oct. 7, 2001, in San Francisco.
Harry How/Getty Images

On Oct. 7, 2001, Barry Bonds stepped up to the plate and knocked his 73rd baseball of the season over the fence, pushing him further past Mark McGwire as the all-time single-season home run record holder. Chemically enhanced by the cream and the clear, Bonds produced a few of the greatest offensive years of all time in the early 2000s, helping cement his reputation as arguably the best hitter in baseball history.

Bonds’ record-breaking year took place in a different era, one in which performance-enhancing drugs allowed a handful of hitters to challenge and break Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs. Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and others produced what was, at the time, the highest home run rate ever. The steroid era maxed out at 1.17 home runs per game in 2000, declining only slightly to 1.12 per game in 2001.

Today, those rates look puny. In 2019, it’s not the players that are juiced—it’s the baseball itself. Engineered to precise specifications by MLB subsidiary Rawlings, the balls have lower seams and smoother leather, characteristics that allow the baseball to slip through the air more easily, adding an extra 5 to 10 feet to each well-hit fly ball. That bonus distance is powering MLB to the highest home run rate in history this year: 1.38 per game.

While steroids turned Bonds and a handful of other hitters into home run–mashing gods, the baseball affects every player almost equally. Goliaths like Giancarlo Stanton are hitting the same baseball as scrappy middle infielders, and both tend to add more home runs to their totals. As a result, we’re on track for a different suite of home run records. While teams are shattering their marks for most dingers in a month or through the All-Star break, no individual hitter has more than 34 homers to his name. Although we’re witnessing one of the best offensive seasons in baseball history, it’s lacking in the drama of a chase to break the home run record. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, who has those 34 home runs, is on pace to hit about 57 this year, which would be the 15th-most ever in a single season.

But what if we could transport the greatest home run hitter of all time into the present day? How many juiced baseballs could a juiced Barry Bonds hit out of the park in 2019?

In Bonds’ peak year, 2001, about 2.91 percent of major-league plate appearances resulted in a home run. So far this season, that rate is 3.59 percent—about 23 percent higher than it was 18 years ago. Bonds himself managed to mash 1 tater per 9 plate appearances in 2001. Taking into account the 23 percent increase in home runs leaguewide, his 73 big flies would increase to 90 bombs, as he’d knock 1 out every 7 trips to the plate.

In reality, there’s no telling how Bonds would react to the easy high-90s heat of modern relievers or the various analytical strategies, from the shift to pitch design, that teams now employ to neutralize hitters. Assuming he could cope with contemporary pitching—a fair assumption, given that he’s Barry Bonds—it’s likely that he would benefit from a juiced ball more than the average hitter because he put so many of his batted balls in the air. We only have data on the final few seasons of Bonds’ career, but from 2002 to 2007 he hit fly balls in 46.5 percent of his plate appearances, while the league average was never higher than 37.9 percent. The flip side here is that, given his astronomical fly ball rate, Bonds likely wouldn’t benefit from the “launch angle revolution” that’s helped some modern hitters increase their home run rates. He’ll just have to settle for being Barry Bonds.

Back to the numbers: Bonds’ expected 90 homer tally puts him within reach of the awe-inspiring total of 100. What would it take to get him there? Divide the target of 100 by the record of 73 homers and it turns out that we need a leaguewide home run rate that’s 37 percent higher than it was in 2001. That gives us a version of MLB in which hitters are smashing home runs in 1 out of every 25 at bats.

Fortunately for our time-traveling version of Bonds, the league’s home run pace has been rising as the 2019 season goes on, partially due to warmer weather, which causes fly balls to travel further. Thus far, July has featured a homer in 1 out of every 26 plate appearances, close to Bonds’ required pace and much higher than March and April, in which there was 1 tater in every 29 trips to the plate.

To further maximize Bonds’ total, he’d need to play his home games in one of MLB’s smaller, more homer-friendly venues. In 2001, Bonds’ home stadium in San Francisco was the second-worst for moon shots in all of baseball; this year, the marine layer–laden park is the most homer suppressing in all of MLB. If Bonds had played in pre-humidor, homer-happy Colorado in 2001, he could have hit 15 more home runs. In the present day, place Bonds in Toronto (the park with the largest effect on left-handed batters) and his final tater tally could rise by another 10 to 15 percent, making 100 all but a certainty (and maybe putting 110 or 120 in reach).

It’s worth considering whether Bonds could suppress his own home run totals by being too good at hitting home runs. With the benefit of the new baseball, it’s possible Bonds’ prowess would be so extreme that managers would opt to avoid pitching to him entirely. That’s exactly what happened in the latter few seasons of Bonds’ career, in which opposing managers denied him record-breaking tater totals in favor of breathtaking walk numbers.

If a hitter is good enough (and the batters behind him are bad enough), the right move is to let him take first rather than allow him the chance to knock the ball over the fence. It all depends on the number of runs a hitter is expected to produce compared with how many the manager gives up by putting him on first instead.

Prime 2001 Bonds was worth about half a run every time he stepped up to the plate. Even with the benefit of a man on, the hitters behind him were slightly less likely to score a run than Bonds was on his own. Assuming Bonds got a little extra benefit in 2019 from the juiced ball (as we would expect given how many fly balls he hit), front offices would likely advise walking him in all but the most lopsided situations, such as with the bases loaded. (Then again, Buck Showalter once intentionally walked Bonds with the bases loaded, so maybe he wouldn’t get to bat even in that scenario.) The only solution to this quandary would be to trade Bellinger or Mike Trout onto whatever roster gets 2001 Bonds, giving him the lineup protection necessary to homer his way past the century mark.