What if Walter Johnson faced Barry Bonds? Here’s our best guess at what would happen

Sure, some sports are back. But "sports" as we know them are largely still on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. Today is Day 80 without sports ⚾️. 

May 30 is a special date for both slugger Barry Bonds and baseball's first dominant power pitcher. In 1927, Walter "Big Train" Johnson set a record that will not be broken by recording his 110th, and final, career shutout. As for Bonds, the second-to-last day of May marked his big-league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 1986.

So what would happen if Johnson toed the rubber against Bonds? Well …

In his day, Johnson was the most dominant power pitcher, striking fear into the hearts of hitters. Bonds, of course, is the greatest slugger of all-time, holding the career records for both home runs and walks — a record 688 issued intentionally.

So, using the most scientific method we could find (Baseball-Reference's similarity score), we took Johnson's comparable pitchers and used the only one who faced Bonds: Greg Maddux.

Of course, this is based only on statistics against their peers. Maddux is not a power pitcher. At all. But he is a right-hander who had — like many modern-day estimates say Johnson probably had — a fastball that topped out in the 91-93 MPH range. Also, quite helpfully, Maddux faced Bonds more than any other hitter in his career.

So who had the upper hand? Bonds.

In 132 plate appearances vs. Maddux, Bonds had 35 hits, 9 homers, and 19 RBI. Only Luis Gonzalez (20 HRs, 23 RBI) fared better in homers and runs driven home, while LuGo and Craig Biggio collected 40 hits and Tony Gwynn had 39. Maddux once said Bonds was the "easiest guy to pitch to because if it mattered you just walked him."

The numbers bear this out: Maddux walked Bonds 24 times, twice as much as any other batter he faced, and he walked Bonds intentionally nine times.

So, yes, there are quite obviously some flaws with this comparison. Maddux was a control pitcher, nibbling at some very generous corners while Johnson just blew hitters away. In an attempt to level the field a bit, here's how Bonds fared against some Hall of Fame power pitchers of his era.

(bold denotes most allowed by pitcher against all batters, minimum 15 plate appearances; PA=plate appearances, OPS=on-base+slugging percentage)

  • John Smoltz: 108 PA, 9 HR, 15 RBI, 35 BB, 16 K, 1.138 OPS
  • Randy Johnson: 62 PA, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 13 BB, 6 K, 1.003 OPS
  • Pedro Martinez: 43 PA, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 12 BB, 8 K, 1.064 OPS
  • Trevor Hoffman: 24 PA, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 11 BB, 4 K, 1.069 OPS
  • Nolan Ryan: 15 PA, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 1 BB, 3 K, .619 OPS

Given that Ryan had the luxury of facing Bonds early in his Pirates career, it makes sense that he'd have the best numbers. But Bonds fared quite well against the others, especially Smoltz. Johnson, in his time, was probably more Ryan than Smoltz, but Bonds' prime aligns more with Smoltz's so those numbers deserve greater weight.

In the effort of fairness, we can also look at how Johnson fared against Babe Ruth, the best slugging lefty at the time. Ruth faced Johnson 103 times and hit five homers (most given up to a single player), drove in 15 runs, walked 23 times (most), and had a 1.170 OPS.

Conclusion: Bonds would have been just fine against Johnson.

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