Barry Bonds is one of the most accomplished (and controversial) baseball players of all time. Over his 22-season career, he set many Major League Baseball records, chief among them the career home run record with 762. In this article, we will be principally concerned with Mr. Bonds’ all time career record of 688 intentional bases on balls – four-pitch intentional walks. Specifically, I will consider why it was that Mr. Bonds, while in his final two seasons after a serious knee injury had left him still productive but significantly diminished from his video game-esque heights in the first half of the 2001-2010 decade, continued to be intentionally walked at a prolific, Major League Baseball-leading rate.

Note before continuing that I am by no means a baseball expert. The bulk of my baseball watching comes from having used to watch Sports Center, and my baseball discussions were mostly with some baseball historians in my class in high school. I do have some understanding of baseball statistics and advanced metrics, but that mostly flows from my former interest in the same with basketball. My interest in writing this article about Mr. Bonds is primarily because I am interested in how Major Baseball Teams effectively created a book of unwritten rules for how to pitch to Mr. Bonds before burning the book upon his involuntary retirement from baseball. I include this disclosure just to make clear to readers that I do not consider myself as qualified to offer highly informed opinions of baseball as I did when I wrote about 2003 NBA Draft scenarios.

A General Introduction to Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds is one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time. He played for 22 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Francisco Giants. His accolades include the following:

  • 14 All Star appearances
  • 7 National League MVP awards
  • 8 Gold Gloves
  • 12 Silver Sluggers

There are many cases wherein a player’s media accolades do not necessarily agree with his advanced statistics. Mr. Bonds is no such case. Lurking in any discussion of Mr. Bonds is the issue of performance enhancing drugs. It is almost certainly on account of the strong suspicions of drug use late in Mr. Bonds’ career that baseball’s all time home run king has not added “Hall of Fame” to his list of honors. But even before he is generally suspected to have begun using performance enhancing drugs (I have generally seen it estimated around 1999-2000, but that speculation is beyond our scope), Mr. Bonds was recognized as a generational talent. Baseball statistician Bill James not only selected Mr. Bonds as the best player of the 1990s, but also said that the gap between him and the second best player was bigger than the gap between the second best player and the 10th best player.1

Mr. Bonds’ statistics, both traditional and advanced, were remarkable. In his four best seasons (generally accepted to have been drug-enhanced) from ages 36-39, Mr. Bonds put up what can only be described as video game numbers. Mr. Bonds led all of baseball in Wins Above Replacement on six occasions and led all position players (exempting pitchers) on 11 occasions (he ranks fourth and first all time, respectively, in those two categories). Mr. Bonds led baseball in On-Base Plus Slugging percentage nine times and ranks fifth all time. He was a prolific base stealer early in his career and is baseball’s all time leader in Power-Speed #.

Walking Barry Bonds

Mr. Bonds’ home runs record will likely never be surpassed. But, even so his most untouchable career records are not directly related to the pitches he hit, but those occasions he took first base without ever swing at a pitch . Mr. Bonds is the all time career leader in total bases on balls with 2,558 and in intentional bases on balls, meaning four-pitch intentional walks, with 688 (Albert Pujols is second with… 316). From 1989 to 2007, with the exception of 1999 (down year with some injuries) and 2005 (missed most of the season with injuries), Mr. Bonds ranked in the top three in walks and led all of Major League Baseball on 12 occasions.

Every year from 1991 to 2007 (except 1999 and 2005), Bonds finished first or second in the National League in that category. He led the league 12 times, including once for seven straight seasons.2

Geoff Young (Baseball Prospectus)

As dominant as he was in the category, it pales in comparison to his intentional walks record. From 1988 to 2007, again excepting 1999 and 2005, Mr. Bonds ranked no lower than 9th in intentional walks and led Major League Baseball on 12 occasions. However, as we will see, the records Mr. Bonds set in intentional bases on balls, especially in his late career peak, are without peer or precedent.

Bonds’ Intentional Bases on Balls

While I do not want to get bogged down in questions about Mr. Bonds and performance enhancing drugs since that is not the purpose this article, it is worth separating his career into two arcs. As I noted, Mr. Bonds was – at least by most statistical measures – the best baseball player in the world in the 1990s. In his age-35/36 season in 2000, he hit a career-high 49 home runs (his previous high was 46 in 1993). Mr. Bonds topped that with a Major League Baseball record 73 in 2001 at age 36/37, which would clearly be the best season for any player but for the fact that Mr. Bonds arguably improved over the next three seasons, posting what may have been the finest offensive season ever in 2004 at age 39/40.

The key point is that Mr. Bonds was an all time great, generational player prior to 2000. He was literally Babe Ruthian, if not entirely without peer in baseball history, from 2001 to 2004. While we will be mostly concerned with Mr. Bonds 2006 and 2007 seasons, which came after a major knee injury wiped away almost all of his 2005 season, we must first build up to that point.

Intentional bases on balls – again as a reminder, four-pitch deliberate walks – have been counted as a statistic since 1955. Mr. Bonds was walked at a historic rate from early his career, so much so that he was already tied for the all time lead by the end of the 1998 season. Little did anyone know that Mr. Bonds, who was 34 years old at the end of the 1998 season, had not yet recorded half of his end-career walks. Below, I present a chart of Mr. Bonds’ intentional walks by season:

SeasonIBBsMLB RankAll Time Single-Season Rank
1994 was a strike-shortened season. Mr. Bonds only played 14 games in 2005.

Mr. Bonds’ intentional walk numbers from 2002 through 2004, which are the top three single seasons of all time, are comical – the fourth most in a season was Willie McCovey’s 46 in 1969. But even before the three outlier seasons (and especially 2004), Mr. Bonds was the most intentionally walked player in baseball. On one infamous occasion in 1998, then-Diamondbacks Manager Buck Showalter opted to walk Bonds with bases loaded in the 10th inning with his team up 8-6 with two outs remaining, thereby reducing the lead from two runs to one solely to avoid facing Mr. Bonds’ bat. Mr. Showalter explained his thinking at the time:

I can’t explain to people what level Barry was compared to everybody else. It felt like every time up, he was gonna walk or hit a home run. If I wanted to end the game for sure, I would’ve let Barry hit.3

Buck Showalter

Well before Mr. Bonds went on to shatter every record having to do with intentional bases on balls beyond recognition, the tendency of teams to decline to pitch to him was already a subject of discussion. See, for example, a 1996 article on the trend.4

Mr. Bonds was baseball’s all-time leader in intentional walks heading into the 2001 season, in which he would set baseball’s single season home run mark – 73 – at age 37. Mr. Bonds was only intentionally walked 35 times in 2001, two behind Sammy Sosa’s league-leading 37, but that number – still good for a tie for 13th most in a single season, would be his most lightly walked full season (exempting his 14-game 2005) for the rest of his career. (Note: Mr. Bonds drew 177 total walks in 2001, which led the league by a huge margin and is third all time behind his 2002 and 2004 seasons.) From 2001 through 2004, Mr. Bonds walked nearly as many times as he had from 1986-1998:

From the 2001-2004 seasons, Bonds recorded 284 intentional walks. This figure alone would place him at fourth in the all-time leaderboard behind [Albert] Pujols, [Stan] Musial and [Hank] Aaron but also 24 above fourth-place Willie McCovey. Over these four seasons, Bonds recorded 45 more intentional walks than strikeouts, which attributed to his MLB-high .559 OBP and combined 43.4 bWAR.5

Steve Zavala (Fansided)

It goes without saying that Mr. Bonds 284 walks from 2001 through 2004 led all Major League Baseball players. But what is worth saying is that it was also more than any other Major League Baseball team. In 2002, Mr. Bonds’ Giants came one win short of winning the World Series (they missed the playoffs in 2001 and 2004 and were bounced in the first round in 2003). Unsurprisingly, he set the single World Series record for total walks (13) and intentional walks (7). He also set the single post-season records for walks (27) and intentional walks (13), both by significant margins (bonus: note that Mr. Bonds had the third most intentional walks for a single post-season in 2003 despite the fact that he only played in four games).

(October 16, 2023 Update: See my short post on Corey Seager breaking Mr. Bonds 2003 record for most walks in a single divisional series in the 2023 ALDS.)

At least one well-known baseball commentator at the time raised questions about whether it was a good look for baseball to see the most exciting player in baseball be walked with reckless abandon on the sport’s biggest stage:

Think it had anything to do with the fact that they kept turning on their sets to watch the magical confrontation between Barry Bonds and some defenseless Angels pitcher – and instead saw Bonds get intentionally walked in the first inning every darned night? Happened pretty much as regularly as the National Anthem. In the pre-Barry era, no player since at least 1955 had ever been intentionally walked in the first inning of a World Series game with first base occupied, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Then the Angels accorded that honor to our man Bonds three times in four games. Of course, you can’t blame them. When they pitched to him, the baseballs kept landing on Space Mountain.6

Jayson Stark (ESPN)

(Mr. Bonds batted .471 in the 2002 World Series with 4 home runs, 6 RBI, and a .700 on-base percentage.)

To be sure, there was little-to-no precedent for how well Mr. Bonds was hitting in those seasons. I have seen some debate as to the statistical wisdom of his extreme intentional walk totals from 2001-2003, but granting that some walks were more well-conceived than others, managers had good reason to dread seeing Mr. Bonds step up to the plate, especially when there was anyone on base. Mr. Bonds led all of baseball in On-Base Percentage, Slugging, and On-Base plus Slugging in every season from 2001 to 2004. After setting the single-season home run record with 73 in 2001, he posted 46, 45, and 45 in the next three seasons. While he did not match the raw power of 2001 in subsequent years, he led baseball in batting average in 2002 and 2004, peaking at a career-best .370 in 2002. Mr. Bonds set the single-season record for slugging percentage in 2001, the single-season on-base percentage record in 2004 (ahead of his 2002 season), and the single-season record for on-base plus slugging percentage in 2004 (again ahead of 2002).

Suffice it to say, one could see the temptation to walk Mr. Bonds. However, I have seen wide agreement that there was no statistical justification for walking Mr. Bonds 120 times in 2004, breaking the record set two seasons prior by 52, which itself is more than any player not named Barry Bonds was or has been walked in a single season. See, for example, an incident where the Angels issued questionable intentional walks of a violently sick Bonds in consecutive games, leading to questionable results on both occasions.7

From a Bill James statistical study on the best players at drawing walks:

First of all, you have to just throw Barry Bonds in 2004 out the window; Barry Bonds in 2004 is just stupid data. Note what I am saying; I am not saying that you have to throw Barry Bonds’ data out the window; I am just saying Barry Bonds in 2004. We all know why this is; we don’t need to talk about it or explain it. We’re just going to throw it away and move on.8

Bill James

Mr. Bonds hit his apex by many metrics in 2004. Unsurprisingly in light of the fact he finished his best season at age 40, injuries soon struck. Almost all of Mr. Bonds’ 2005 season was lost to injury, but he returned late in the season to play 14 games, in which the then-41-year old Bonds smacked 5 home runs and drew three intentional walks after nearly one year away.

The Strange Case of Bonds in 2006 and 2007

Mr. Bonds returned in 2006 with the all time home run record – which he would ultimately break in 2007 – in sight. However, while Mr. Bonds was still a good player in both 2006 and 2007, hitting 54 home runs and batting just over .270, he was nowhere near his 2001-2004 peak (much less his best years in the 90s). One would think that Mr. Bonds, who played the 2006-2007 seasons at age 41-43 and showed reduced form after his 2005 knee injury, would no longer be intentionally walked as if he were still the best baseball player in the world.

That thought would be wrong.

In 2006, Mr. Bonds hit 26 home runs with 77 runs batted in and hit .270. Fine numbers, but well short of his 45 home runs, 101 runs batted in, and .362 average in 2004. One might think that he would not have been intentionally walked more than he was in 2001 when he hit 73 home runs. But, again, that thought would be wrong. Mr. Bonds drew a league-leading 38 intentional walks, which remains good for the 9th most of all time, and he also led the league with 115 total walks in 493 plate appearances. As a result, despite Mr. Bonds decent-but-not-great .270 batting average, he led baseball with a .454 on-base percentage. Aside, to put Bonds 2001-2004 in perspective, note first that he led the league in on-base percentage in 2006 at .454 and his on-base percentages in 2001-2004 were .515, .582, .529, and .609(!?) respectively, with the last figure unsurprisingly being the single-season record.

Perhaps managers in 2006 were unsure whether the Bonds of 2001-2004 was truly gone. Perhaps they thought Bonds, at age 41/42, might regain his form and once again begin hitting at his peak level. But it did not happen. A full season of evidence revealed that the post-surgery Bonds was still a very good hitter. Mr. Bonds was still strikeout averse in 2006 and 2007, albeit not as much as he was in 2001 through 2004. With the caveat that he lacked enough at bats for many statistic measures, Mr. Bonds ranked 9th and 3rd in 2006 and 2007 respectively in at bats per home run. Taken together, despite his diminished power and batting average from his peak, Mr. Bonds was still a difficult out with plenty of home run power and a tendency to put the ball in play. But he was no longer hitting as effectively as he had been for much of the 90s, much less the arguably unprecedented level he achieved from 2001-2004. As Mr. Bonds entered his 42/43 season, one might assume that opposing teams would stop intentionally walking him at a historic rate.

Wrong again!

Mr. Bonds had a marginally better hitting season in most respects in 2007 than he did in 2006, but it was again well short of what he had been producing before his injury. He ended the season batting .276 with 28 home runs and 66 runs batted in. Solid, but not special. Yet even with his continued steady level of performance and a full season of evidence that the 2001-2004 Bonds was not walking through the proverbial door. Managers walked him even more often than they had in 2006. Mr. Bonds drew a league-leading 43 intentional walks, good for sixth most all time in a single season, and also a league-leading 132 total walks (I will add all while only playing 126/162 games). As a result, despite batting a decent-but-unspectacular .276, Mr. Bonds again easily lead major league baseball with a .480 on-base percentage, which would have been his own career high if not for 2001-2004. For perspective, that figure has only subsequently been surpassed by Juan Soto (.490) in 2020. The league leader in 2023 (as of the publication of this article) is Mr. Ronald Acuna Jr. at .418. (See note on how Mr. Bonds’ on-base percentage was calculated in light of his limited at bats, which actually undersells his on-base percentage for the at bats he had).

In a 2007 article published not long before Mr. Bonds broke the career home run record, the New York Times expressed some puzzlement about the continued extraordinarily careful treatment of Bonds:

Since Bonds returned from his 2005 knee injury, he has not been the same hitter[;] his slugging percentage has been a merely excellent .550 rather than the stratospheric .800 he posted during his peak but opposing clubs continue to treat him as if he is. While most hitters with .550 slugging percentages could expect to receive around 13 intentional walks in the 837 plate appearances Bonds has accumulated the past two seasons, Bonds has received 69. That represents an additional 2.4 wins opposing managers have handed to the Giants.9

Dan Rosenheck (NYT) [see archived]

What in the world was going on in 2006 and 2007? I was in high school at the time and I recall having asked my friend who was a proverbial baseball historian. To the best of my recollection, he did not have much of an answer. Maybe there was no answer.

Years later, I came across an interesting article by Sam Miller for Baseball Prospectus which piqued by interest and seemed to tackle the question indirectly in the context of how Mr. Bonds was walked at a historic rate for his entire career.10

First, the article noted how absurd Mr. Bonds’ 2004 season was in terms of how he was treated at the plate:

Ten years ago, we all watched something incredible happen: Barry Bonds was walked intentionally 120 times. He had very nearly tripled the previous non-Bonds record. It was the closest our generation got to seeing Babe Ruth’s home run records, to living in those years when Ruth was doubling previous records, doubling entire teams’ totals.

Sam Miller

As I noted, Mr. Bonds proved to be an aberration. His 2007 intentional walk total of 43 has since been surpassed only once – by Albert Pujols’ 44 in 2009. Moreover, that comparison is misleading. Mr. Pujols’s 44 intentional walks in 2009, which is the 5th most all time behind Bonds, Bonds, Bonds, and McCovey, came in 700 plate appearances. Mr. Bonds’ 43 in 2007 came in just 477 plate appearances (I should add his 120 in 2004 came in 617). In terms of walks per plate appearances, even Mr. Bonds’ 2006 and 2007 seasons have no subsequent precedent. For 2006 and 2007, Mr. Bonds averaged 51 walks per 162 games, which was close to his 2001-2003 average of 55 (his 2001-2004 average is 80 due in large part to 2004). I should suffice to say that there is a good chance that his 2002-2003 seasons will never be matched, much less the 120 intentional walk absurdity of 2004.

In order to answer why Mr. Bonds continued to be treated as a sort of curiosity by Managers in 2006 and 2007 when he was no longer the best hitter in baseball, we have to consider the entire context of Mr. Bonds’ career. What interested me about Mr. Miller’s article is that he does just that.

It is curious that no unwritten rule ever developed around this. Unwritten rules are squishy things, but most tend to come down to this: Don’t do anything that hasn’t been done for the past 100 years already. Walking Bonds became a totally new way of playing baseball. It was largely considered to be non-sporting, it was the sort of legalistic lawyerball move that players will complain about (especially if it’s effective), and it was about one player, not any sort of strategy that was spreading throughout the game.

Sam Miller

I think this is quite right. Mr. Bonds had already been the most-intentionally walked (and regularly walked) player in baseball for a decade before he turned into a create-a-player character in a video game and belted 73 home runs in 2001. Teams were already accustomed to dealing with the normal Bonds (normal here may mean one of the best 10-20 players of all time) by intentionally walking him or walking him through very cautious pitching. Given Mr. Bonds’ dominance in the walking stats in the 1990s and that he seems to have been the first player to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded (in extra innings no less) in more than five decades, one could argue that there was already a special set of rules for Bonds. I also agree with Mr. Miller that one reason the strategy was accepted – even as it transmogrified into a circus spectacle in the early 2000s – was because there was an unspoken understanding among all teams that unique rules applied to Barry Bonds.

Mr. Miller added another interesting note:

Presumably part of it had to do with this being Bonds. Nobody much cared to stand up for Bonds, probably. … But nobody was ever on Bonds’ side for anything if they could avoid it. And nobody has ever had to apologize for treating Bonds any which way they want.

Sam Miller

I do not claim to know the ins and outs of the perception of Mr. Bonds over his career, but this passage is consistent with my general understanding that he had a poor reputation with many sports reporters, who play an outsized role in writing sports narratives. How much of that view was shared by his teammates or fellow baseball players I know not, but Mr. Miller suggests that there was wide distaste for Mr. Bonds as a person. I would not be surprised if this, in conjunction with his having been widely viewed as the best player in baseball in the 90s, contributed to making it more socially acceptable to treat him in a unique way at the plate.

Finally, Mr. Miller summarized his conclusion:

But maybe no unwritten rule developed because everybody understood it was just Bonds and it would always be just Bonds. Nobody had to cope with the change, because this wasn’t a change, and it wasn’t going to be a change—it was just a moment, an anomaly. The league just gritted its teeth and waited until the monster moved on and left their town alone. When he did, they all looked around, surveyed the damage, and got back to living life again.

Sam Miller

While he was not talking specifically about 2006 and 2007, I think that this passage explains those years well. We can come up with some practical explanations for Mr. Bonds, in a diminished state in his 40s, continuing to be walked at a historic rate in 2006 and 2007. Perhaps managers were proverbially shell-shocked by the nightmare that the monster of 2001-2004 would suddenly return. Perhaps some of it was due in part to the fact that neither the 2006 nor 2007 Giants teams were good – the 2007 team in particular ranked near the bottom of Major League Baseball in offense – and there was generally little risk of being punished by the next man up for walking Mr. Bonds (at least compared to the risk of actually pitching to Mr. Bonds). Finally, there may have been some element of not wanting to aid in his ultimately successful pursuit of Hank Aaron’s now-former home run record of 755.

But I think the practical explanations fall short. The best explanation for how often Mr. Bonds was walked in 2006 and 2007 – from my cursory outsider perspective – is that this was just how opposing teams dealt with him. It was accepted in the 1990s that one pitched to Mr. Bonds very carefully and that he was intentionally walked by all teams more than other players. Those tendencies were taken to extreme levels in 2001-2004 when Mr. Bonds hit previously unseen peaks as a hitter, culminating in 2004 when no one was much inclined to pitch to him at all. No other batter was treated remotely similarly to Mr. Bonds in 2001-2004, and coming off his lost 2005 season, the treatment generally continued in 2006 and 2007, notwithstanding evidence that this special treatment was no longer justified. As Mr. Miller notes, nothing about the treatment of Mr. Bonds had any effect beyond Mr. Bonds. No other player has since been treated similarly. “The league just gritted its teeth and waited until the monster moved on and left their town alone.”

From an article discussing how to deal with Mr. Bonds during the 2002 Major League Baseball playoffs, when he was in the midst of his late-career peak:

How do you deal with Barry? The joke is, for Bonds, [the scouts] don’t actually write a report. They just draw a picture – of a hand, with four fingers sticking up.11

Jayson Stark (ESPN)

To summarize: It seems entirely possible that the main reason Mr. Bonds was walked so much in 2006 and 2007 was habit.

Some Thoughts From Greg Maddux

I conclude this article with some humorous and relevant thoughts from Hall of Fame Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux.12

Mr. Maddux, one of baseball’s all-time great pitchers, debuted in the same year as Mr. Bonds (1986) and retired one year after Bonds (2008). The article notes they had quite a history:

Bonds faced Maddux more than any other pitcher (157 AB) and batted .265 with nine home runs and a .376 OBP against The Professor. Maddux still got to his fair share of Bonds and struck him out 16 times, which is tied with John Smoltz for most by any pitcher.

Win some and lose some. To the point of our article, Mr. Maddux also walked Mr. Bonds 24 times, with 9 of those walks being of the intentional four-pitch variety.

Mr. Maddux offered the following quote on pitching to Mr. Bonds:

[H]e was the easiest guy in the world to pitch to because if it mattered you just walked him.

Greg Maddux

Funny. Modest. But plenty of truth to it based on the evidence.

Mr. Maddux offered a more serious explanation of the meaning behind his quip:

He was so much better than all the other hitters in the game. You got to pick your fights. You got to get 27 outs and you got to know where they are. They’re not going to be with him. So you got pick on the other eight guys if you can fight them that way.

Greg Maddux

Of course, from 2001-2004, many teams skipped the “if it mattered” from the first quip and went directly to the “pick on the other eight guys” part of the second quote. I conclude with the following stat from a 2017 article:

Bonds recorded an astounding 41 IBBs with the bases empty … In other words, 28% of IBBs ever issued with the bases empty were given to Bonds.13

John Edwards

Perhaps that was where the “walk Barry” fad got a bit out of hand…


  1. Joeredsox. 2008. “James on Biggio, Me on James.” Statistician Magician. February 27, 2008. ↩︎
  2. Young, Geoff. 2013. “Western Front: Pass the Bonds, Please – Baseball Prospectus.” Baseball Prospectus. January 29, 2013. ↩︎
  3. Apstein, Stephanie. 2021. “An Oral History of Barry Bonds’s Intentional Walk with the Bases Loaded.” Sports Illustrated, May 27, 2021. ↩︎
  4. Schulman, Henry. 1996. “Bonds Can’t Strike Back.” SFGATE. August 7, 1996. ↩︎
  5. Zavala, Steve. 2020. “Barry Bonds’ Intentional Walks Record Will Never Be Broken.” FanSided, April 16, 2020. ↩︎
  6. Stark, Jayson. 2003. “Changes Needed to Intentional-Walk Rule.” ESPN. February 4, 2003. ↩︎
  7. Schulman, Bill. 2004. “Even Ailing, Bonds Puts Signature on Win / Intentional Walk Results in Winning Run in 10th.” SFGATE. May 10, 2004. ↩︎
  8. James, Bill. 2019. “The Walkers.” Bill James Online. May 31, 2019. ↩︎
  9. Rosenheck, Dan. 2007. “Opponents Pay a Painful Price in Walking Bonds.” The New York Times, July 28, 2007. ↩︎
  10. Miller, Sam. 2014. “Pebble Hunting: The Weirdness of Walking Barry Bonds – Baseball Prospectus.” Baseball Prospectus. January 3, 2014. ↩︎
  11. Stark, Jayson. 2002. “The Ongoing Debate: Walk Bonds or Not?” ESPN. October 18, 2002. ↩︎
  12. Moore, Keaton. 2018. “Greg Maddux on Barry Bonds: ‘He Was like the Easiest Guy in the World to Pitch To.’” KNBR. January 2, 2018. ↩︎
  13. Edwards, John. 2018. “Giving Players the Bonds Treatment – The Unbalanced – Medium.” Medium, March 30, 2018. ↩︎