Matthew Witte has written a scathing and fairly fascinating article on a topic that, frankly, I wish would die, already: the “artificial” inflation of Barry Bonds’ home run tally. Now, any article addressing Bonds illicit stat inflation that mentions home runs and nothing but is written by someone who either (A) doesn’t understand baseball very well or (B) is writing largely for sensationalism. Witte, I think, is in the latter category. Normally, I’d have no interest in this kind of article, but he takes an unusual angle to the whole issue of artificial number. He isn’t addressing performance enhancing drugs, but rather, the effect of Barry’s elbow armor. Now, plenty of people have given reason that Barry’s had helped him to hit home runs: he doesn’t fear the inside pitches, and so he’s able to loom over the play and hit pitches on the outside corner. Witte acknowledges this fact, but goes further to say that the armor actually improves Barry’s swing.
The article is short, but if you’re too lazy to follow the link and read it, Witte’s argument is essentially thus:
Bonds’ armor has a heavy joint that forces Bonds to swing on the same plane with every swing, which means Bonds’ swing is repeated almost perfectly every time he tries to hit. Furthermore, the mass of the armor keeps Bonds’ elbow close to the body, which allows him to swing the bat more rapidly than most hitters, as well as giving his swing more mass overall.
So, basically, says Witte, the armor basically allows Barry a swing that is faster, more powerful, and more consistent, and this altered swing “contributed no fewer than 75 to 100 home runs to his already steroid-questionable total”. Now, Witte is, apparently, a mechanics expert (which I am not), but his article is painfully short and without explanation. Witte only writes of his conclusion, not of his actual observations, or his method of information gathering. He claims that he has studied Bonds swing “countless times on video: and that he has “examined the gear closely through photographs” [emphasis mine]. Frankly, this puts his conclusions to be a bit suspect to me, as I, too, have examined Bonds’ swing countless times–I estimate that I’ve seen him swing the bat more than just about any non-Phillie. I, too, have “closely” examined Bonds armor in photos, but mostly that was out of curiousity. Witte makes several claims regarding the weight and function of a device he has never held, touched, or genuinely examined, and frankly, I can’t take them at face value. Furthermore, he doesn’t explain how reaches the “75 to 100 home runs” added to Barry’s total because of the pad.
I’m not really sure what the “joint” in Barry’s pad is supposed to do. My elbow operates on a two-dimensional plane, like a hinge. To the best of my knowledge, Barry’s does the same. The fact that the pad’s joint cannot bend past 180 degrees seems, to me, likewise irrelevant. My elbow also stops at “straight”. I don’t know what more Witte expects Barry’s elbow to do.
Oh, and finally, Bonds armor is sanctioned by Major League Baseball. Now, while it’s entirely possible that Bonds’ armor exceeds the MLB restriction on size (10 inches), it’s conceivable that Bonds has specific permission to use his pad, granted to him by MLB. Since Bonds’ pad is easily over 10 inches long, it’s safe to assume that Bonds has been granted special permission to use the pad, given his injury history (elbow surgery in 1999), otherwise, umpires would have thrown him out quite a few times by now.
Now, this is all to say that, assuming that Witte’s dubious conclusions are correct: that Bonds pad allows him to hit outside pitches, to swing faster, more consistently, and to put more weight into the swing, that none of this is illegal. While it may have aided Bonds to hit more dingers, this particular factor is no more illicit than the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium that Babe Ruth loved so much, or the launching pad where Aaron hit his homers.
Now, Witte argues that Bonds was helped to the tune of 10-13% of his current career home run total by this pad. As I mentioned earlier, Witte addresses nothing but Bonds home run total, and doesn’t examine the effect that these superior swings had when Barry’s contact did not send the ball over the wall. Did Barry hit for higher batting average? Pretty much, yes. Did he strike out less? No, not really. Barry walked a lot more often, but I don’t know if that’s related to his elbow pad.
Further related to the nature of this Barry Bonds witch hunt is that Witte doesn’t examine the effects of any other elbow pads. Craig Biggio, who is roughly one-twelfth the size of Barry, wears an elbow pad nearly as big. Now, Biggio is pretty well known for the frequency with which he gets plunked by pitchers coming inside, but cannot a similar argument be made for Biggio’s armor? Biggio just crawled his way to his 3,000th hit, after all, and did all his work in the steroid era. Now, Biggio was never really a home run hitter, so he’s been largely exempt from controversy (and I am certainly not trying to accuse him of something illicit), but if a pad-less Barry only tallies 87-90% of his current home run total, is it not reasonable to suggest that Biggio’s hit total would take a similar blow? If that’s the case, than Biggio stands with 2,629-2,720 hits, and at the rate he’s currently hitting, it would take him till (roughly) 2045 to reach the mythical 3,000 hit plateau.
I would not be at all surprised if body armor allows players more advantages than just a fearlessness on the inside part of the plate. But, honestly, at this point, I can’t imagine how performance is affected nearly as much as Matthew Witte seems to think.