Ken Griffey Jr’s retirement has seemingly cemented the narrative about his career. Griffey was the greatest player of his generation who, although having along, injury riddled decline phase, stands out because unlike many other great sluggers of his generation, there was never even a whiff of steroids around Griffey. For the first half of his career, Griffey was a great and likable ballplayer who played with grace, speed and power. He was not, however, the best player in the game.
Lost in the stories of surliness, controversy and steroids is the reality that during the decade or so when Barry Bonds and Griffey were both stars, and both steroid free, Bonds was clearly the better player. Bonds’ ruined his reputation sometime around 2000 by taking steroids, but nobody thinks he took steroids before, at the earliest, 1999. Before that year, Bonds not Griffey was baseball’s best player. Griffey’s reputation has been enhanced by Bonds’ association with steroids, but to tar all of Bonds’ career with the steroid brush is unfair and ahistorical.
Bonds is now remembered as the freakishly muscular and bloated slugger of 2001-2007 who drew walks and hit home runs with astonishing frequency while doing little else on the ball field. Griffey, meanwhile is remembered as the well-rounded superstar who could steal bases, win gold gloves and hit home runs during the 1990s. Bonds, however, during those year was the more well rounded player stealing more bases, hitting home runs, winning gold gloves and drawing walks.
Bonds and Griffey were contemporaries, but their careers did not overlap entirely. Bonds’ first year as a full time player was 1986, Griffey’s was 1989, but from 1989-1998, they were both full time players, healthy and steroid free. During these years, Griffey was an extraordinary hitter batting .300/.379/.568 for an OPS+ of 150. Bonds, however, was unequivocally better hitting .299/.429/.581 for an OPS+ of 175. Griffey was also a speedy player stealing 143 bases while getting caught only 53 times. During these years, Bonds stole far more than twice as many bases with a higher success rate than Griffey.
Griffey, however, was famous for his defense during these years winning nine Gold Gloves and appearing regularly on highlight reels. Bonds for his part won eight Gold Gloves and was also a great defender. Quantitative measures of defense such as range factor and zone rating suggest reasonably clearly that Bonds was the better fielder. Bonds finished in the top five in range factor per nine innings for NL left fielders nine times between 1989-1998 and six times led all NL left fielders in runs prevented. The corresponding numbers for Griffey among AL center fielders were three and two. Griffey, of course, played center field while Bonds played left, so he should get some credit for that, but Bonds, who started his career as a center fielder, was by far the best left fielder of his generation.
If Bonds’ first ten years are compared to Griffey’s first ten, the numbers still favor Bonds as h hit .286/.398/.541 with an OPS+ of 158 between 1986-1995. These numbers are less impressive partially because Bonds was a leadoff hitter for much of the early part of his career and partially because these years include more of the 1980s, when runs were scarcer. Griffey’s two best years were 1993 when he hit .309/.408/.617 with an OPS+ of 171 while slugging 45 home runs and stealing 17 bases, and 1997 when he hit .304/.382/.646 for an OPS+ of 165 while slugging 56 home runs and stealing 15 bases. For good measure, he won Gold Gloves both years as well. These were fantastic years for any player of Griffey’s generation. Bonds, however, was as good or better in both 1993 and 1997, and his 1992, 1996 and 1998 seasons were at least as good as Griffey’s best two year as well. In 1993 Bonds hit .336/.458/677 for an OPS+ of 204 while slugging 46 home runs stealing 29 bases and winning a Gold Glove. Four years later, in 1997, Bonds hit 291/486/.585 for an OPS+ of 170 while slugging 40 home runs, stealing 37 bases and winning a Gold Glove. Bonds did this for a team that still made its home Candlestick Park which did not help hitters while Griffey was playing half his games in the more offense friendly Kingdome.
Griffey’s two best years were fantastic, but they would not have cracked the top five years for Bonds in the 1989-1998 period. Griffey’s best OPS+ was 171 in 1993. Bonds exceeded that number in 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1998, as well as in the strike shortened 1994 season. According to another measure, Griffey was a total of 63.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) from 1989-1998, exceeding 9 WAR twice. Bonds was a total of 88.9 WAR and exceeded 10 WAR twice during these years.
Many baseball fans have little desire to be reminded of just how good Barry Bonds was, but during most of the 1990s he was a clean, great and graceful player at the height of his ability. Even before steroids, however, Bonds committed the greater sin of surly and nasty to the media which tainted his reputation and national profile, but he, not Griffey, was the best player of his generation. Glossing over this diminishes not only Bonds, but Griffey and his legacy as well.