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Stats incredible: Bonds and 700
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09/17/2004 11:23 PM ET
Stats incredible: Bonds and 700
Numbers suggest only Ruth stands as Bonds' peer
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Since 2001, Barry Bonds has averaged a home run every 7.8 at-bats. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
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Baseball's ultra-elite 700 Club, the pantheon of the game's greatest home run hitters, has for years featured only two names: Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.

But with his 700th career home run, Barry Bonds has joined their ranks, and at some point in the not-too-distant future -- maybe by this time next year -- the newcomer may become the new No. 1.

In fact, with all apologies to Hammerin' Hank, the game's all-time leading longballer with 755 career jacks -- not to mention Mark McGwire, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, and countless other mashers who have menaced Major League pitchers in the last hundred seasons -- Bonds has already elbowed past him into a place next to Ruth as the two most prominent faces on baseball's Mount Crushmore.

Although Bonds still trails Aaron and Ruth on the career home run list, his claim as the greatest slugger of all time has gained considerable weight with every passing clout. A player's greatness can be assessed by evaluating his longevity, his consistency and his peak production; by all three measures, Bonds is unsurpassed and only Ruth stands as his peer.

Longevity favors Aaron, as he racked up his record 755 career home runs over 23 seasons; Ruth's everyday playing career spanned only 17 seasons after four spent primarily as a pitcher. Bonds, though, is still piling up crooked numbers on a resume that now includes 19 seasons; he's third all-time in homers, fewer than 60 behind Aaron, and he already holds the career walks record with 2277. He's a career .300 hitter -- lower than Aaron or Ruth but better than Maris, Mantle or McGwire, among other vaunted sluggers -- and he ranks sixth in modern Major League history with a .442 on-base percentage. His 5543 career total bases, seventh all-time, are good for a .610 slugging percentage, fifth all-time.

Bonds' mammoth home run production isn't based simply on sticking around, though. His home run frequency is comparable to the most prolific mashers in history. He's homered once every 12.97 at-bats, third all-time behind only McGwire and Ruth. He's gone yard once every 16.49 plate appearances during his career, fifth all-time. He's homered once every 3.86 games during his career, also fifth all-time.

Of the small handful of players who manage to place ahead of him by these measures -- Ruth and McGwire, plus contemporaries Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome and Alex Rodriguez -- only Ruth can lay any claim to a track record as lengthy, or one highlighted by as many record-breaking seasons, as Bonds boasts. While Aaron's career was built on sustained excellence over decades, Bonds is building a comparable resume in terms of duration and he already has the superior highlights.

barry bonds, the road to 700
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Of course, longevity is meaningless without consistency, and on that measure Bonds also compares well.

This season is the 13th consecutive season in which Bonds has launched 30 or more bombs, the longest streak in history, and he has 14 such seasons total. Only Ruth had more 30-homer seasons, with 15. Bonds has ranked in the top 10 in MVP voting 12 times in the last 14 seasons, a streak he is certain to extend this season. He's ranked in the top 10 in all three of on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS in 14 different seasons, and this season will be his 15th. And, to the immediate topic at hand, he's pursuing his third home run title this season and will undoubtedly finish among the top five in his league for the 12th time.

Still, that pales in comparison to Ruth, who, among numerous other offensive exploits, led his league in homers a dozen times and in OPS for a 13 straight seasons. Aaron never achieved the sublime single-season accomplishments of Bonds or Ruth, but he did top 24 homers in 19 straight seasons, including eight of 40 or more. He was an All-Star every season for 21 straight seasons, while Bonds has earned "only" 13 such honors.

Yet for all that, even consistency can only take a player so far without the highlight seasons to set him apart from the rest. And that's where Bonds separates himself from the pack.

Bonds' peak, which began in 2001 and amazingly continues to this day, is without question the greatest one-man offensive wrecking ball ever unleashed on the game. During this mad dash through the record books he has set single-season standards with 73 homers, 198 walks, a .582 on-base percentage and a 1.381 OPS -- the last three a trio of records he will rewrite again before this season is through -- not to mention an .863 slugging percentage. His single-season best for adjusted OPS, which compares his overall offensive production to that of the entire league, also surpasses any figure ever achieved by the Babe or anyone else. In fact, so does his second-best mark.

Among the game's other premier mashers, only Ruth reached comparable heights; his 1920 and 1921 seasons were the top OPS seasons in history until Bonds came along. In fact, Ruth's seven-year reign of brutality towards opposing hurlers, in which he averaged 49 homers, 151 RBIs and 143 runs per year from 1926-32, is unlikely to be matched even by Bonds. But the list of those who have scaled such incredible heights ends there.

Maris, McGwire and Sosa all topped Ruth's 60-homer plateau, but Bonds' 73-homer eruption of 2001 surpassed them all, and none have approached him in other offensive departments. Aaron never topped 47 homers, and his best OPS seasons don't even crack the top 50 all-time.

Mays did top 50 homers twice, and claimed four NL home run titles, but none of his single-season bests come close to the rarified air reached by Bonds or Ruth. Ted Williams' best seasons in terms of walks, on-base percentage and OPS certainly rank among the finest the game has ever seen, but they still fall short of Bonds and Ruth, and Williams never topped 43 homers. Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx also posted historical seasons, yet still not of the Bonds or Ruth variety.

McGwire's peak production from 1996-99, in which he averaged 61 homers per season, is diminished by the lack of consistency in his career. Although he racked up 583 career homers, his best seasons are counterbalanced by a three-year stretch in which he hit .231, .235 and .201, then back-to-back seasons of only nine homers each.

For good measure, Bonds' six MVP awards are the most ever, and he's a strong candidate -- if not the favorite -- to win again this season. Of course, Ruth might have won as many as a dozen such awards were they handed out in his day, but for all his greatness, Aaron won only one MVP award.

While some critics may scoff that Bonds has fattened up on smaller ballparks and diluted pitching, let's not forget that Ruth also got to face his share of overmatched opponents, or that the right-field foul line in Yankee Stadium once measured as short as 295 feet. The reality is that analysts from baseball historian Dr. Richard Cramer to Harvard paleontologist and baseball fanatic Stephen Jay Gould have concluded that the quality of baseball play has advanced steadily and regularly over time since the dawn of the sport.

Ruth does indeed boast the best adjusted OPS in history, but Bonds trails only the Bambino and Williams for third place all-time. But considering the more difficult competition, not to mention bullpen specialization designed to neutralize game-changing hitters like him, Bonds has so far surpassed his peers in terms of offensive production that none of the other top home run hitters, other than Ruth, can compare.

While marveling at Bonds' singular achievements not only of the most recent four seasons, but the entire body of work of his remarkable career, consider this: Since the intentional walk was first recorded in 1969, Bonds holds the top three seasons of all-time, and six of the top nine. This season he became the first player in history to crack 200 total walks and 100 intentional walks in a season; his intentional walks total alone would rank seventh in the Majors. No other player, not even Ruth, has managed such prolific and historic achievements while being given so few opportunities to do so.

In fact, opponents' unwillingness to pitch to Bonds has spawned heated debates over the intentional walk itself, with some going so far as to propose that the rule itself should be abolished, which would force teams to pitch to him. Opposing teams now focus their entire game strategy not on how to get Bonds out, but on avoiding him entirely.

This, perhaps, is the ultimate measure of possibly the greatest home run hitter the game has ever seen. The Babe would be proud.

Cory Schwartz is statistics manager for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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