On Steroids, PEDs and Baseball

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Combined between the original posts on Anno’s WSD MLBlog and this new blog, this is the 600th article posted on World Series Dreaming and as luck would have it, we’re going to be talking about performance enhancing drugs.  Anno already blogged about today’s release of the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot.  I’m generally in agreement, since I consider the entire era to be tainted and any attempt to quantify the exact contribution of steroid and PEDs to offensive production would be hazy at best.  However, I felt like I needed to put things into context.

Generally speaking, my give-a-fuck-o-meter goes to zero when it comes to getting angry at guys who dared to take steroids and PEDs back in the day.  I figure that there was plenty of crap going on in baseball since its inception, from the prohibition of black players, Gaylord Perry spitting on baseballs, etc.  Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe wrote this today:

But it’s also my belief that the Hall of Fame is a reflection of baseball history. There was a period in baseball when blacks were banned. There were 16 teams in 1920 and now there are 30. There was a Dead Ball Era. There was a time that pitchers were so dominant that they lowered the mound. There wasn’t a DH until 1973. You can go on and on about how much the game has changed.

The Steroid Era is a part of that of history, too. There was a time in baseball when everybody — owners, players, management, the Players Association, media — looked the other way at drug use. It was generally accepted that a lot of players took steroids.

The part about looking the other way is true.  For the longest time, people from the front offices down to the most casual of fans probably knew that some players were taking more than Flintstones vitamins, yet they didn’t care because baseballs were being launched into orbit and everyone loved it.  It was a very exciting time and it is thanks in part to the so-called “Steroid Era” that baseball is so successful today even if the pundits keep telling you that the TV ratings suck.  It is amazing how much people didn’t care, and then suddenly they were all up in arms and some even in support of wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money on something that shouldn’t be dealt with by the government anyway.  Carrie Muskat did a quick write-up on Sosa’s candidacy today and had this quote from former Cubs GM Jim Hendry:

“I think you have to judge people for the era they were in,” said former Cubs GM Jim Hendry in 2005. “Unless all the facts are in, speculation is a waste of time. You’ll never be able to go back and figure out who did what for sure. I’m not condoning it at all. As long as there is competitive athletics and people can get away with things, they’ll try to get a competitive edge.”

That last sentence is true.  If a pitcher can sneak an inch or two closer to the batter and off the pitching rubber (like Ted Lilly used to do), they will.  If they can scuff the ball or slobber on it while the umpire is scratching his ass, they will.  A lefty does his near-balk pickoff move because he knows he can get away with it, and as long as the fake-to-third-but-look-to-first move is allowed, righties will do that too.  That’s just the pitcher.  The hitters and baserunners will find their edges as well, some of which are likely to be shady like when Matt Holliday tries to murder middle infielders.  And in the case of many players who were on the cusp, they turn to performance enhancing drugs.  In that article by Tom Verducci, the players admit that they thought the steroids were their ticket to the majors.  In the case of legendary (with an asterisk, heh) players like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, the steroids were the catalyst to get them from mere Hall of Famers to immortals.

There are numerous sites on steroids in baseball on the internet.  Many of them have a slant one way or the other.  I’m not going to lie to you and say that I am unbiased because I’ve already admitted to you that I don’t give a shit.  What is apparent, though, is that the timeline on this site suggests that steroid use (and other PED use) was rampant even after the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the first “official” ban by MLB.  The first “official” ban was more of a wag of the finger than anything, as testing wasn’t even in place until the early 2000s.  It was a sham.  Nobody cared.  And now they suddenly all care?  Please.

There were quite a few names on the Mitchell Report and I’ve often heard people talk about the infringement of privacy rights in the leaking of these names.  Sammy Sosa isn’t explicitly implicated in the Mitchell Report but was named in the affidavit involving Jason Grimsley.  Sosa, like the others, likely took steroids or PEDs, but was never 100% proven to do so.  Some players like Jeff Bagwell were never mentioned in any official report, but because they were large and in charge, they got lumped in to the same group.  That’s the court of public opinion for you.

But you knew all that already.  What isn’t actually known is how much the PEDs will contribute to baseball production.  How many more miles-per-hour can a pitcher throw the baseball now?  Does the steroid suddenly give you an extra two inches of drop action on your power curve?  What about the swing of a juiced up batter?  What would his home run total have been with and without steroids?  And how do you prove it?  The short answer is that you cannot, because there is no way to do the proper controlled experiment to assess the change in production.  The best one can do is conjecture and estimate, and now you’re left with the same tired arguments in the media where a writer says that steroids probably made a guy 10% stronger and thus allowed him to hit the ball about five feet further than it normally would have traveled.

What isn’t being denied is that steroids and PEDs will help with conditioning.  This very amusing blog post by a guy who decided to try a legal supplement on himself describes the extra energy that he was able to derive once he started taking the supplement as recommended.  The fact is, however, that he had to actually go to the gym and do the exercises.  The act of taking the supplement alone was not sufficient to build muscle, he actually had to work out.  If he didn’t work out, he’d just be a jittery couch potato who may grow some extra muscle mass, but not enough to where he feels significantly more fit.  What I am trying to get at here is that the direct effect of taking a PED supplement is not to become better at baseball, but it is just one tool to give a player an edge so he can work out longer and with more vigor than someone who doesn’t such that he can develop that strength.  The player would still have to go to the gym regularly, do his repetitions and core work, etc. to hone his skills.

Even if you don’t believe all that, there were enough changes to the rules, equipment, conditioning regimens, diets, ballparks and other factors that could contribute to an increase in home run production.  This site has a huge catalog of information and other relevant details regarding the use of steroids and PEDs in baseball and how various factors could confound the assessment of the true effect of PEDs on production.  Generally speaking, humans are bigger and stronger today than they were a century ago.  Ballparks are also smaller.  Even traditional pitchers’ parks like Petco Field are moving their fences in.  This has two obvious effects: one, the ball can get out of the park easier, and two, even if the ball didn’t get out, the outfielder runs out of room quicker and a deep flyout becomes a double off the wall.

The aforementioned site also has details about the composition of the ball and potential “juicing” of the baseball to produce more powerful hits.  This is in addition to the elimination of the pitchers’ advantage by lowering the mound.  Baseball has a tendency to go in cycles, and rules and tactics change to adjust for shifts in offense or pitching.  Therefore it is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a power spike or a power drain, and by extension, difficult to attribute those effects to the simple explanation of “he was juiced.”

To conclude, let’s look at the career leaderboard on Baseball-Reference.com for WAR, or wins above replacement.  Even if you don’t believe in WAR (you shouldn’t treat it as gospel anyway until they fix the defensive component), you have to admit that the guys at the top of the list are all pretty damned good at baseball.  All the guys with 100+ WAR except for Bonds, Clemens and Alex Rodriguez (who is still active) are in the Hall of Fame.  They probably would have been awesome as players in this era as well, but guys like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb never played against African-American players in the majors.  Many of them played before the mound was lowered, probably when the ball was made a bit differently, and without the non-PED dietary advancements that athletes enjoy today.  Most players can probably take PEDs and steroids up the wazoo but they would never get to the level of a Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.  The issue is that we can’t define which part of the production was from their innate ability and which part was because they took PEDs.  And since all we can do is guesstimate, and most of us concede that in that era, Bonds had to hit against steroid-using pitchers and Clemens had to strike out steroid-using batters, perhaps they are Hall of Famers after all because they were that much better than all the rest.

 

 

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