Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bonds vs. Aaron: the nth comparison

My personal contention is that Henry Aaron played primarily in an era, the better part of the '60s, when pitching was as dominant as it has been since the day of the Dead Ball. Much of Barry Bonds' career has been during a period of unprecedented bounty for the long ball.

I started thinking about how Aaron fared against the rest of the National League while he played, compared with Bonds. Of course, the two played radically different types of schedules: Aaron started when the league had only eight teams, while Bonds now faces 15 other NL foes (not to mention that interleague stuff).

Anyway, to level the field for a comparison, I adjusted league home run totals for each year of both players' careers to reflect the number 12 teams would have hit. In other words, the 1,255 home runs National League hitters belted in 1955, when the NL had eight teams, is adjusted upward to 1,895; the actual NL total of 2,595 in 2002 is adjusted downward to 1,946.

Then I measured each player's home run total against the teams-per-league adjustment. And as I suspected, Aaron comes out ahead for his 21-year career in the National League, 2.22% to Bonds' 2.05%.

Both players were remarkably healthy throughout most of their careers, until Bonds missed most of the 2005 season, which is not included here. His playing time was limited in 1999, as well, but was comparable to Aaron's final NL season, when he was reduced to part-time status.

I've included Bonds' performance so far in 2007, as he has played nearly full-time. Plus, if we throw out '05, that gives him 21 seasons to equal Aaron.

Here is the comparison (click on the chart for a larger view):

Some aspects I find interesting:

• When Bonds set his single-season record in 2001, he accounted for 3.30% of the adjusted league total. But the highest figure on the chart is Aaron's 3.41% in 1971, when he hit a career-high 47. By the way, both players happened to be 37 years old at the conclusion of their top home run seasons.

• Bonds topped 2.5% in four seasons. Aaron did so in 10, and came very close to an 11th in 1957, the year he won his sole MVP award.

• Aaron's percentages increased markedly after the Braves moved to Atlanta. But his top five seasons in Milwaukee are bested by all but four of Bonds' 21 seasons.

• Aaron played in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, when the adjusted home run total was 1,069. Bonds played during three seasons (1999-2001) that more than doubled that total, plus another two (2004 and '06) that nearly did.

Certainly, it's difficult to compare different eras. But say you had your choice of facing Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Ferguson Jenkins and Steve Carlton on a regular basis. Or your choices were … well, there are so many teams nowadays, no one faces opposing pitchers on a regular basis. Some of Bonds' recent blasts have been off the likes of Will Ohman, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang, Livan Hernandez, Scott Proctor, Tim Wakefield, Josh Towers … you get the drift.

When Bonds breaks Aaron's record, keep the quality of Hammerin' Hank's pitching nemeses in mind.

Trivia question 54: What Hall of Fame pitcher surrendered Henry Aaron's 600th home run? (Hint: It probably still was wet when it landed in the stands.)

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