Barry and the Babe

Posted: Oct 12, 2001 12:00 AM

THIS season, Barry Bonds has been a Giant in more than name. While baseball fans and the media have been focussed on his record-breaking home-run feats, far less attention has been paid to his other feats that have been even more spectacular -- and, in fact, unique.

Barry Bonds is the first batter in the entire history of the National League -- going back into the 19th century -- to have a slugging average over .800. The only other player in the history of baseball to slug over .800 was Babe Ruth, who did it two seasons in a row.

In other words, a slugging average of .800 is rarer than a batting average of .400. The last player to hit .400 -- Ted Williams -- did it 60 years ago. But Ruth slugged .800 twenty years before that -- and nobody else has done it again until this year.

Slugging averages tell you more than either batting averages or home run totals. As far as batting averages are concerned, a bunt single and a tape-measure home-run are the same. But they are rarely the same in their effect on the outcome of a ball game.

The total number of home runs is not the whole story either. The year that Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's record for home runs in a season, Mickey Mantle actually hit home runs in a higher percentage of his times at bat. It is just that Mantle was walked more than Maris, A big reason why Maris was walked less than a hundred times that year was that Mantle was on deck. Walking Maris would just get you in deeper and deeper.

Just as batting averages count hits in proportion to your times at bat, slugging averages count your total bases in proportion to your times at bat. If you hit a single and a double in five times at bat, that's three total bases and a slugging average of .600. That slugging average for a whole season is rarer than a batting average of .300.

A slugging average of .700 is of course even rarer. Some of the great sluggers of all time -- Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays -- never reached a slugging average of .700 in even their best seasons. So a slugging average over .800 is practically unheard of.

What does an .800 slugging average mean? It means 8 total bases every ten times at bat -- all season long. You can get 8 total bases with two singles, a double and a home run. Or you can do it with two home runs or four doubles or other combinations. But, however you do it, it is hard to keep on doing it for a whole season. Only Barry and the Babe have done that.

It is not coincidental that Ruth and Bonds each holds his respective league's season records for being walked. These are not the kind of guys you can afford to pitch to when the game is on the line. It is significant that Bonds hit his 70th home run in the last inning of a game where the score was 9 to 2. He had been walked again and again earlier in that game and in previous games when the score was close.

Where does this incredible season put Bonds among the all-time greats? It certainly moves him up the list but one season is not a whole career. Like Roger Maris, Bonds hit over 20 home runs more in his record-breaking season than he did in any other season. Will he turn out to be a one-year wonder, like Maris?

This is not to say that Bonds would not have been a star player, even if he had never had this spectacular season. He would have been headed for Cooperstown anyway. Maris too was an outstanding player and had won the Most Valuable Player award the year before breaking the home run record, as well as in that year.

But if you are talking about being up there in the rarefied atmosphere of Babe Ruth, that is another story. Bonds never had a slugging average of .700 before this year. Mark McGwire reached that level twice and Babe Ruth nine times. Ruth's lifetime slugging average was .690, a level Bonds never reached in his best season before this year.

Take nothing away from Barry Bonds. He hit home runs this year with a greater frequency, in proportion to his times at bat, than anyone in the history of baseball. He homered once every 6.5 official times at bat, compared to once every 7.3 at bats for McGwire and once every 9 at bats for Ruth in his best seasons.

While Bonds' incredible performance gave new prominence to slugging averages, Ruth's lifetime dominance in that statistic makes clear that the Babe was still the greatest all-around slugger of them all, regardless of how many home runs others have hit.