Is it time for teams to treat Mike Trout like Barry Bonds?

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Friday, May 26, 2017

When Mets manager Terry Collins acknowledged this weekend that he had considered walking Mike Trout with the bases loaded, it revived a phrase we don't hear much anymore: the Bonds Treatment.

That's what it's called when teams are so afraid of a hitter they continually walk him intentionally even in the most outlandish situations, like leading off an inning or with the bases loaded. It's called it the Bonds Treatment because that's how the league treated Barry Bonds, but also because it's how the league treated nobody else before or since. It was less an evolution in baseball strategy than a public panic, a mania that gripped 29 teams' managers for about five years and then receded when Bonds went away.

Intentional walks had been dropping leaguewide when the Bonds Treatment showed up, and they've continued dropping since, and there has never been anything close to a sustained Bonds Treatment since. No matter how good Albert Pujolsor Miguel Cabreraor Bryce Harper got, they never got the Bonds Treatment. Harper's 20 intentional walks last season marked his career high. Bonds had that many in a 15-game stretch during the 2004 season. The Bonds Treatment was less about baseball than it was about Bonds.

But now here's Mike Trout, and here's Terry Collins, so here's a suddenly relevant question: Does Trout actually deserve the Bonds Treatment?

There's a case for and a case against. One of those cases is almost certainly wrong.

The case for

Here's the case for treating Mike Trout like Barry Bonds: He's hitting like Barry Bonds.

After doubling twice on Wednesday night, Trout is hitting .347 this season, with a .347/.466/.760 slash line and the fourth-highest OPS+ since World War II. The careful reader and Bonds Fun Fact aficionado will note that Trout's 1.266 OPS, while fantastic, is a full 102 points lower than Bonds' OPS from 2001 to 2004. (Peak Bonds was responsible for the top three OPS+ seasons in baseball history -- beating Trout by comfortable margins.) But the difference is mostly in OBP -- a result of the walks. Bonds hit .349 in that period, and slugged .809. Baseball Reference has a neutralizer tool that adjusts for the offensive environment of the player's era and ballpark. It converts Bonds' 2001-2004 stats to a "neutralized" .342 average and .793 slugging percentage. Trout's neutralized numbers are .352 and .762. Give him Bonds' walks -- give him the Bonds Treatment -- and he's almost there.

OK, not all the way there, but here's the other part of the case: The guys hitting behind Trout are even worse than the guys who (often) hit behind Bonds. Trout has mostly batted third this year for the Angels. Entering Thursday, the Angels' cleanup hitters are slashing .202/.269/.337, the majors' worst OPS for that spot in the lineup. The Angels' No. 5 hitters are at .217/.309/.311, the worst in the American League, and their No. 6 hitters are batting .191/.265/.279, worst in the majors.

There's a stat called weighted on base average, or wOBA, that takes the value of every offensive act, assigns a run value to it, and calculates a hitter's entire offensive output into one number. Trout's wOBA this year is .487. The Angels' No. 4, 5, 6 and 7 hitters have combined to produce wOBAs of .263, .276, .242 and .272. Those are roughly the career wOBAs of, respectively, Jose Molina, Chad Moeller, Jeff Mathis and Paul Bako. Trout is hitting like Ted Williams, and he's being protected by four backup catchers.

So what we have here is a player whose wOBA is 80 percent higher than the guy after him, 75 percent higher than the guy after that, and 95 percent higher than the guy after that. Those numbers might not mean anything to you -- except for a general "wow" -- but they can help answer the question at hand.

In "The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball," sabermetricians Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin use wOBA to calculate when it makes sense to intentionally walk a star hitter to face the guy after him. For most star hitters, the answer is almost never. For the truly elite hitters with merely average hitters behind them, there are some occasional cases when it makes sense. And for a hitter of Bonds' ability -- a class that has heretofore included only Bonds -- there are quite a few smart IBBs. Tango even made a Walk Bonds table, which lists each game state and rules on whether a manager should ("Walk Now!") or shouldn't ("Do NOT Walk!") put Bonds on.

If you believe Trout is truly a .484 wOBA hitter right now, and if you believe that the lineup protection behind him is truly this bad, then Trout merits nearly as many walks as Bonds did. Using the book's tables and these assumptions, Trout should be walked frequently when there are runners in scoring position, one or two outs, and the walk wouldn't advance any runners. Fall behind him in the count, and it becomes almost a moral mandate.

But this case is almost certainly wrong.

The case against

In June 2014, Trout had what was to that point probably the best month of his career. He hit .361/.471/.759, capping it off with a 489-foot home run. He followed it up with a .265/.341/.504 July that was, at the time, the second-worst month of his career. The same basic thing happened a year later: A career-best .367/.462/.861 in July, then a career-worst .218/.352/.337 in August.

Which is just to say that, if you were betting on Trout's next month, next week, or next plate appearance, you'd be tempted to believe he has reached some new level, but you'd probably be wrong. He has been at this level before, and like all hot streaks, it was temporary.

The same is almost certainly true, in reverse, for Pujols, whose .674 OPS this year is almost 100 points lower than his career worst. The same is probably true of Luis Valbuena and Kole Calhoun and C.J. Cron and Jefry Marte, who have collectively done an uncharacteristically bad job behind Trout.

The projection system ZiPS tells us what we should expect from all of these players. A projection system is not a crystal ball, of course, but it takes years of performances into account instead of a month or two. Trout, ZiPS says, should have a .419 wOBA going forward, which would be the second-best season of his career, but would rank just 15th for Bonds. His lineup protection should be a bunch of league-average hitters, with wOBAs around .315 or .320. Instead of being almost twice as good as the guys behind him, Trout should be around 30 percent better.

That's good enough to justify plenty of intentional walks, according to the tables in "The Book." If runners are on second and third with two outs, go ahead and walk Trout. But the Bonds Treatment requires a farcical imbalance of talent, because the Bonds Treatment is itself a farce. Trout and his teammates have approached that imbalance this year, but they're unlikely to remain there.

This case is probably right. But there's also a third possibility: that the statistical case itself is too conservative.

Say you were an alien who came to Earth and discovered the rules of baseball. Paper-clipped to those rules was Tom Tango's résumé and the "When To Intentionally Walk" tables. You'd have no reason to question those tables; you'd have no evidence or knowledge to contradict them. But we do have other relevant evidence: the collective actions of experts in the field. Big league managers clearly believed the Walk Bonds table was too conservative, because they continually walked Bonds in Do NOT Walk situations. For instance, Tango's chart finds almost no instance in which it was wise to walk Bonds with a runner on first and fewer than two outs, yet managers did so 23 times, including six in 2004 alone.

You can take one of two things from that fact. Either the Bonds Treatment was always stupid, managers were actively harming their chances to win, and to justify giving Trout the Bonds Treatment, he would have to be even better than Bonds was. Or managers were smart, factored in more variables than could be built into a single decision-making table, and the actual case for walking Bonds was stronger than the statistical case was. The actual case for walking Trout might also be stronger than the statistical case for walking Trout.

I'm skeptical, but if a major league manager actually considered walking Trout with the bases loaded and nobody out -- a clear and convincing Do NOT Walk situation if there ever was one -- we might see it tested.

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