Barry Bonds' HR Record Tainted by Elbow 'Armor'?

By: Michael Witte (Commentary) Beyond his alleged steroid use, Barry Bonds is guilty of the use of something that confers extraordinarily unfair mechanical advantage: the ?armor? that he wears on his right elbow. Amid the press frenzy over Bonds? unnatural bulk, the true role of the object on his right arm has simply gone unnoticed.

This is unfortunate, because by my estimate, Bonds? front arm ?armor? may have contributed no fewer than 75 to 100 home runs to his already steroid-questionable total.
Bonds tied Henry Aaron?s home run record of 755 on Saturday night and will go for the new standard this week back at home in San Francisco.

As a student of baseball ? and currently a mechanics consultant to a major league baseball team -- I believe I have insight into the Bonds "achievement." I have studied his swing countless times on video and examined the mechanical gear closely through photographs.

For years, sportswriters remarked that his massive "protective" gear ? unequaled in all of baseball -- permits Bonds to lean over the plate without fear of being hit by a pitch. Thus situated, Bonds can handle the outside pitch (where most pitchers live) unusually well. This is unfair advantage enough, but no longer controversial. However, it is only one of at least seven (largely unexplored) advantages conferred by the apparatus.

The other six:

1) The apparatus is hinged at the elbow. It is a literal "hitting machine" that allows Bonds to release his front arm on the same plane during every swing. It largely accounts for the seemingly magical consistency of every Bonds stroke.

2) The apparatus locks at the elbow when the lead arm is fully elongated because of a small flap at the top of the bottom section that fits into a groove in the bottom of the top section. The locked arm forms a rigid front arm fulcrum that allows extraordinary, maximally efficient explosion of the levers of Bonds' wrists. Bonds hands are quicker than those of average hitters because of his mechanical "assistant."

3) When Bonds swings, the weight of the apparatus helps to seal his inner upper arm to his torso at impact. Thus "connected," he automatically hits the ball with the weight of his entire body - not just his arms - as average hitters ("extending") tend to do.

4) Bonds has performed less well in Home Run Derbies than one might expect because he has no excuse to wear a "protector" facing a batting practice pitcher. As he tires, his front arm elbow tends to lift and he swings under the ball, producing towering pop flies or topspin liners that stay in the park. When the apparatus is worn, its weight keeps his elbow down and he drives the ball with backspin.

5) Bonds enjoys quicker access to the inside pitch than average hitters because his "assistant" - counter-intuitively - allows him to turn more rapidly. Everyone understands that skaters accelerate their spins by pulling their arms into their torsos, closer to their axes of rotation. When Bonds is confronted with an inside pitch, he spins like a skater because his upper front arm is "assistant"-sealed tightly against the side of his chest.

6) At impact, Bonds has additional mass (the weight of his "assistant") not available to the average hitter. The combined weight of "assistant" and bat is probably equal to the weight of the lumber wielded by Babe Ruth but with more manageable weight distribution.

At the moment, Bonds' apparatus enjoys "grandfathered" status. Similar devices are presently denied to average
major leaguers, who must present evidence of injury before receiving an exemption.

Bonds has worn some sort of front arm protection since 1992. In '94, a one-piece forearm guard was replaced by a jointed, two piece elbow model. In ?95 it got bigger and a small "cap" on the elbow was replaced by a "flap" that overlapped the upper piece and locked the two pieces together when the arm was elongated. In '96, the "apparatus" grew even larger and so did the "flap."

It seems to have remained relatively the same until -- interestingly? 2001, the year of his record 73 home runs, when an advanced model appeared made (apparently) of a new material. It had softer edges and a groove for the flap to slip into automatically at full arm elongation. More important, the upper half of the machine was sculpted to conform more comfortably to the contours of Bonds' upper arm. Since 2001, the apparatus seems to have remained relatively unchanged.

Several years back, baseball was rightfully scandalized by the revelation that Sammy Sosa had "corked" his bat. The advantages conferred by the Bonds "hitting machine," however, far exceed anything supplied by cork. Ultimately, it appears the Bonds "achievement? must be regarded as partly the product of ?double duplicity" -- steroidal and mechanical.


Witte's reaction to critics can be read here.

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