The Steroid Question(s)

If you’re like me, you’ve almost certainly got topic fatigue when it comes to steroids in baseball. Lord knows I do, even given the fact that big steroid-related news tends to put my services as a pundit in demand. Given the way the stories like Barry Bonds’ indictment and the releases of the Mitchell Report and the Grimsley Affidavit overshadowed the recent Hall of Fame election cycle, it was inevitable that I’d have to write something regarding JAWS and PEDs; I spend far too much time thinking about the Hall of Fame to avoid the topic, particularly when Mark McGwire remains on the ballot and in the headlines.

My latest piece at Baseball Prospectus (a freebie) covers several steroid-related bases via my responses to various readers. Regarding a question related to the veracity of McGwire’s statistics, I began by discussing the phenomenon of writers mailing back blank ballots (I believe there were two this year, including Rick Telander):

Without touching upon the possible effects of PED usage on a player’s performance or health — for a moment, at least — from a voting standpoint the issue shouldn’t be an insurmountably difficult one to work through. Did Player X ever fail a drug test? Was Player X caught in possession of PEDs? Has Player X been named in a PED-related investigation? If the answer to all of those questions is no, then it strikes me as rather un-American not to give him the benefit of the doubt. He should be considered innocent until proven guilty — even if only in the court of public opinion, based on a preponderance of evidence — and he can’t be proven guilty unless he’s actually been charged with something.

As flawed as it is, the Mitchell Report should serve as a reminder that we don’t really know what impact PEDs have on player performance. For every statistical outlier like Clemens or Bonds whose late-career greatness is supposedly attributable to steroids and/or human growth hormone, there are dozens of named players who allegedly used PEDs but who remained on the fringes of the majors, unable to win regular jobs even with whatever extra help they provided. Either that, or I simply missed the days of greatness of Adam Riggs and Phil Hiatt. Furthermore, there were many more named players who apparently turned to PEDs but simply couldn’t reverse the effects of age and injuries, and were out of baseball by their mid-30s. David Justice and Chuck Knoblauch, two players on this year’s ballot, come to mind.

Add to that the fact that the rising tide of home runs most commonly associated with “the Steroid Era” is best explained by more fundamental changes in the industry, not by the drugs or the myriad changes that have taken place over the past two decades—newer (but not all necessarily smaller) ballparks, expansion, the changing strike zone, and interleague play. On the one hand there are the well-publicized changes in bat composition; maple bats, as used by Bonds and others, are slightly more dense then the typical ash bats, but also more durable, allowing for thinner barrels and lighter, faster-swinging clubs which maintain the size of the bat’s sweet spot. On the other hand, there are the more under-the-radar changes in balls, such as Rawlings’ decision to move its manufacturing base from Haiti to Costa Rica in the late 1980s, switching from hand-wound balls to machine-wound ones during the 1990s, and introducing a synthetic rubber ring in the ball’s core, one not covered by MLB specifications. A study commissioned by MLB and Rawlings done at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 2000 found that balls within the extremes of official tolerances could differ in flight distance by 49.1 feet despite being struck under the exact same conditions. Juiced balls, not juiced sluggers, likely represent the primary reason for those rising home run rates.

None of which is to say that McGwire, the player currently occupying the intersection of the steroid story and the Hall of Fame ballot, is entitled to a free pass from the voters. As his JAWS (109.4/67.5/88.5)shows, his peak measures up to the Hall of Famers at his position, but even with 583 home runs, his relatively short career leaves him a bit shy on career value. The bigger problem is that while he wasn’t named in the Mitchell Report, and while his career concluded before the advent of the drug-testing program, he’s got no small share of PED allegations surrounding him, from the sordid injection stories in Canseco’s book, to the now-outlawed androstenedione discovered in his locker during the 1998 home run chase, to details of his chemical regimen turning up in the FBI’s “Operation Equine” investigation, to his tearful “I’m not here to talk about the past” stonewalling during the 2005 Congressional hearing. With the exception of Canseco’s book, which is basically one man’s word against another, none of this is particularly easy to dismiss; the available evidence does suggest McGwire had help. Even if one believes that the benefits of whatever chemical regimens he may have indulged in are oversold—and here would be a good time to name-drop proto-Moneyball analyst Eric Walker’s exhaustive compendium of the best research on the effects of PEDs — there’s still the fact that that such alleged usage was illegal under federal law and a violation of baseball’s rules, however lackadaisically enforced. As those are issues that fall outside McGwire’s statistical case for the Hall of Fame, I see no reason to abandon the numbers when discussing his overall merits.

I can’t recommend the Walker site, called simply Steroids and Baseball, enough. The man who put the OBP-is-king philosophy into the head of Oakland A’s GM Sandy Alderson back in the early ’80s has compiled a tremendous amount of research which takes direct aim at the assumptions of the Mitchell Report and challenges the prevailing wisdom about the effects of steroids (and human growth hormone) on the game. Alan Schwartz wrote about Walker in Sunday’s New York Times, but he barely scratched the surface of the site, which summarizes its author’s points on the main page, then offers detailed, citation-rich analyses in four main areas:

• the non-effects of PEDs on records
• the medical “risk” issues
• athletes and “role models”
• ethical issues concerning PEDs

Walker’s work has caused me to question my own assumptions about PEDs and baseball. As I wrote at the beginning of my piece, within BP my views of Barry Bonds and his home run records are something of an outlier. Here’s what I wrote on the occasion of Bonds’ 756th:

Even absent a positive test, the mountain of evidence that Bonds used performance enhancing drugs is enough to convince me that his accomplishment is tainted. We’ll never know the extent to which Bonds was aided, but the fact that his historically unprecedented late-career surge matches up with the well-documented timeline of his alleged usage is enough for me. However, Bonds certainly wasn’t the only player using during this sordid era, and the extent to which the drugs helped him achieve his record will forever remain uncertain. Furthermore, Major League Baseball’s failure to address in any meaningful way the pervasiveness of the steroid problem made them complicit in Bonds’ use. There’s also a growing body of evidence that MLB’s decision to introduce a livelier baseball following the 1994 strike played a part in the astronomical home run totals that followed, but that’s a story for another day.

This much we know: the three players who topped Roger Maris’ long-standing season record of 61 homers have varying degrees of evidence suggesting they had help in the matter, and it’s not unreasonable to eye their latter-day accomplishments with some degree of suspicion so long as that evidence remains. I’m not advocating an asterisk in the record books or the expungement of any stats; if the fabric of baseball history can withstand the variable impacts of the spitballers, scuffers, bat-corkers, sign-stealers, and greenie-poppers — to say nothing of the Black Sox and Pete Rose, rats of an entirely different color — it can withstand this.

As comforting as it would be for me to cling to my assumptions about Bonds, McGwire and Sammy Sosa (who still has considerably less evidence surrounding him than the other two), I have yet to encounter any studies which convince me that steroids and HGH ARE affecting the numbers to the extent that Walker’s work and the handful of other papers linked there (including the work I’ve done in this field for Will Carroll’s The Juice, cited by Walker) convince me that they are not.

This does not mean that I advocate the use of PEDs, think that baseball shouldn’t continue its efforts to clean up the game. But I do think it’s time that the media and fans drop the outraged cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater mindset and the adherance to a dogma that says steroids have distorted the statistical fabric of the game and instead take note of the facts. Suffice it to say that if you’re an open-minded fan of the game, you really should see Walker’s site before expelling another breath of hot air regarding steroids and baseball.

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