April 20, 2004
On steroids and asterisks

The Bleacher Guy takes ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith to task for what he believes is a disingenuous defense of Barry Bonds and his achievements against critics who assail him for alleged steroid use. Says Smith:

It's curious considering that Bonds has been clobbering home runs for years. That he's a 12-time all-star and a six-time National League MVP with a lifetime batting average of .298.

Then I think about Mark McGwire - Mr. Andro himself - and suddenly, I'm not curious anymore.

Where was everyone in 1998, when McGwire forgot to stuff the dietary supplement androstenedione in a drawer instead of leaving it out for a reporter to spot? Where was the uproar in the weeks that followed when he was exposed as a steroid user?"

To which the Bleacher Guy responds:

You've got to be kidding. Where was everyone in 1998? For weeks following the revelation of McGwire's use of andro, there was talk of asterisks, accusations of cheating. Talk on sports radio, talk in national columns, and talk in every sports bar from coast to coast. And that was in lieu of the fact that, at that time, androstenedione was not a banned substance under the rules (misguided or not) of Major League Baseball.

I don't know why Bleacher Guy didn't Google for a few links to back up his assertion. Fortunately, I did. Here are the results for "+"Mark McGwire" +andro +asterisk, which yields articles like this, this, this, and more recently, this. So Bleacher Guy wins on a TKO.

But it all got me to thinking about the whole steroid and asterisk issue. And I've got a question: How do we know that steroids made any difference to McGwire? How do we know that they've made a difference for Barry Bonds, assuming he has in fact taken them?

I know that andro, which McGwire has admitted to taking, enables the taker to bulk up. But did you ever see Mark McGwire before he started taking andro? He was already huge and muscular. He wasn't a 98-pound weakling turned into Charles Atlas - he was Charles Atlas' bigger brother from the get-go. Barry Bonds was never that huge, but he was always strong. Do we really believe that 'roids turned a bunch of warning-track fly balls into home runs for them? It could happen, I guess, but all we've got is assumption. I'm not prepared to convict on that.

There's another factor here, which is that while steroids surely increase bulk, bulk is not the only factor in hitting home runs. Can we say for sure that 'roid-induced heft doesn't have a negative impact on bat speed, eyesight, flexibility, reaction time, or any other aspect of batting? I'm not aware of any long-term studies on these effects.

There's a widespread belief that these muscle enhancers must also be performance enhancers, but from where I sit, that's all it is - a belief. You don't have to go back too many years to find a time when being too bulky was considered a bad thing for players.

During the off-season Barry's father, Bobby, a Giants scout, told his son to cut back on his upper-body weightlifting. Bobby felt that Barry was too bulky and his flexibility too limited last season when he hit .262, his lowest average in a decade. Barry heeded his father's advice and in the spring he was again stinging the ball as he had been before his injury-plagued 1999.

So who's right? I don't know, and my point is that neither do all of the moralizers who think records aren't made to be broken. What if some day a study shows that McGwire handicapped himself by taking andro?

Ultimately, I agree with Leigh Montville when he says that no records are accomplished in a lab setting. Everything is a product of its time and place. Mel Ott hit 323 of his 511 homers at the Polo Grounds, where it was all of 257 feet down the right field line. Hack Wilson drove in 191 runs in a season where the entire league batted .303 and four of his teammates had OBPs above .400. And even though Fay Vincent removed Roger Maris' asterisk, as Montville notes, he still played a 162 game schedule in 1961 while the Babe played only 154 games. I'm not willing to tamper with what Bonds and McGwire have done until someone can prove to me that they wouldn't have done it otherwise.

Bleacher Guy link via Off Wing Opinion.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 20, 2004 to Baseball | TrackBack

The difference between being a football player on steroids and a baseball player on steroids is that it's still really hard to hit a baseball. A footbal player may be able to hit the opposing players harder, but it's still not as much of a challenge as hitting a Randy Johnson fastball or a Barry Zito curveball.

If you watch ESPN Classic, you'll see much smaller players in games from 15 years ago, but even those players are probably bigger than the ones from 50 years ago. Nutrition has improved and there's more players working out off-season (now that they don't have to work to be able to eat during those months); the level of fitness is just generally higher now.

I'm willing to admit that the increased size of players may be due, at least for some, to performance enhancing substances, but I just don't think they provide as much of a competitive edge as they can in football and I just don't think there will be as many guys willing to use them in baseball as in football, where it now seems like a necessity.

Posted by: Sue on April 20, 2004 9:33 AM

The one thing I always hear about the difference between the baseball players of yesteryear and those of today is that the older ballplayers did not work out all year around. In fact, most of them had jobs during the offseason.

To me, the fact of the matter is that the hand-eye coordination required to be a power hitter in baseball can not be bought in a bottle. You can be as bulked up as you want, but you'll still have to time your swing to connect with the ball.

What I'm curious to find out about Barry Bonds, however, is how much that elbow protector he wears helps him out at the plate.

Posted by: William Hughes on April 20, 2004 10:36 AM

Some may say we're a drug-obsessed society because so many people take them. And they're right, but there's another sense in which we are drug-obsessed: we've attached a moral stigma to taking drugs, even medicinal drugs... witness the various conflicts between schools with zero-tolerance policies and kids who need their medicine. Prohibition doesn't lead to non-using kids or athletes; it leads only to more secrecy and occasional tragedy.

Face it: the lines between drugs, dietary supplements and foods are blurry. Which one you are consuming... food, supplement, drug... is largely a matter of what society chooses to call it. You can't distinguish merely by saying drugs are bad for you, because many foods are also bad for you. You make a choice what to ingest, and you live with the consequences. In many cases, the consequences are mixed.

If McGwire or Bonds decided to bulk up by eating lots of pork chops and potato chips and taking lots of vitamin pills, should we put asterisks by their names? Maybe the American Heart Association would. I wouldn't.

For the record: I've never used an illegal drug of any sort, and I do not advocate people's taking unnecessary health risks. Unless, of course, they're famous athletes trying to break a record. :)

Posted by: Steve Bates on April 20, 2004 10:50 AM

What I'm curious to find out about Barry Bonds, however, is how much that elbow protector he wears helps him out at the plate.

Quite a lot, I think. For one thing, it allows you to crowd the plate with more impunity. When you crowd the plate like that, you can hit pitches on the outside corner, and with the uncanny ability to turn on inside pitches that Bonds possesses, that's covered, too.

I'm not sure I really like the idea of body armor for batters. It seems to give batters more of an advantage, making them more able to "dig in" and making it difficult for pitchers to throw strikes that aren't easily hittable.

If I were a despotic Ruler of Baseball, I'd change the rules such that batters who were hit on the "armor" would not get to take first base.

Posted by: Tim on April 20, 2004 11:08 AM

Good argument, but there's still something that bothers me. Have you read Moneyball? It's a fun read anyway, but there's a wonderful scene in it that bears on this.

David Justice was 38 years old the year the book was written. Other teams had given up on the 12 (or so) time all star. But the A's were willing to pay him his fallen salary because he still had a high OBP.

In one at bat, he hits one solidly, but it's caught deep. He comes back to the dugout and says, matter of factly, "That used to be out."

Like Bonds, David Justice was a genetic freak who could solidly contact a major league pitch. Like Bonds, he was one of the best in the game. Unlike Bonds, his power numbers went down with age.

I have no doubt Bonds has worked out hard for his body. And he is a great, great player. But nobody else has both bulked up and doubled his power numbers after the age of 35.

Maybe he's even more of a genetic freak than we knew. He certainly has the quickest bat I've ever seen. But maybe his size, itself suspect because of the age it came and the rapidity with which it came, and his increased power at a relatively late age should make us step back and say hmm.

Steve's comment, that the difference between a better diet and a steroid is small, is a valid and important one. But, given the reports that young players are taking steroids in increased numbers (I'm always dubious about that one), and given that I certainly believe that an arms race happens ("Gentlemen, we must not have a testosterone progenitor gap!!!"), it's dangerous, I think, to simply ignore it.

It's also certainly more likely to me that steroids help more than a corked bat (which is unclear if it helps at all). Yet we all know that would be a much bigger deal.

Look, I'm a Bonds fan. I'm even moreso a McGwire fan. I'll always admire the fact that, when he walked away, he walked away completely. No pathetic hanging around the game. No selling autographs -- cough! PeteRose! cough! -- or trying to still make money.

But I do think there's more here than most give credence to. And, as a marginal at best baseball fan, I think it hurts you with me less than it hurts the more important fan, who actually goes to multiple games a year and buys the jerseys etc. that bring in the revenue.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that fan buys the jersey based as much on the dingers as anything. If so, goodbye Larry Bowa, hello Dave Kingman!

Posted by: Ron on April 20, 2004 11:22 AM

"It was a tantalizing peek at what Bonds might accomplish in the hitter-friendly park, which has the shortest rightfield porch (307 feet) in the National League."

This comment immediately being followed by three years in which Pac Bell was a brutal place to hit.

Though I suppose anyplace looks hitter-friendly when watching Bonds take BP.

Posted by: Danil on April 20, 2004 11:23 AM

Sue, I believe you are correct in the statement that steroids in football would have more of an effect on the game that in baseball.

But I would point out two things. Football has addressed this issue head-up and has negotiated testing with bans in the labor agreements. Baseball has failed miserably in this area.

Secondly, I think it's clear that while difficult to hit there is certainly circumstantial evidence to suggest that steroid use has increased power production across baseball.

Let's start with Sammy Sosa From 1989 to 1997 Sammy hit 207 HR in 4021 AB - that's 1 HR in every 19.4 AB. From 1998 through 2003, he hit 332 HR in 3522 AB, or 1 HR in every 10.6 AB. Prior to 1998 only two players in the history of the game had hit than 60 or more HR in a season. Since then Sammy's done it 3 times.

Let's look at Barry Bonds. I agree that even before he started to look oddly larger he was likely HOFer but something sure looks strange. In his first 10 years in the league he hit 40 or more HR only once in 1993 when he had 46. In his last 8 seasons he's failed to hit at least 40 only twice and in one of those seasons he was injured and still hit 34 HRs in 102 games. In those first 10 years he hit a HR in every 17.2 AB, since it's a HR in every 10.12 AB. More interesting to me is that in 1999, Barry turned 35. From that season on, he's average a HR in every 8.5 AB.

But it's not just Sammy and Barry. It's across the board. In baseball history the 50 HR plateau has been hit 36 times. The first time it was done was by Babe Ruth in 1920. In the next 57 seasons, only Ruth and 9 other players (Foxx, Maris, Mantle, Mize, Greenberg, H. Wilson, Kiner, Mays and G. Foster) ever hit 50 in a year and they account for 17 of the 36 seasons.

In the last 9 seasons we've had 10 players (Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr, A-Rod, L. Gonzalez, G. Vaughn, Thome, B. Anderson, Belle) hit 50 or more 18 times.

Sure, training is better, pitching is diluted, ballparks are smaller...or a mile high and that no doubt has contributed. But there is little doubt in my mind that some of the increased some "better living through chemistry" (BALCO, Andro, etc.) going on. And it has hurt the game. There is no way Brady Anderson should be mentioned in the same breath as Babe Ruth or Jimmy Foxx.

Posted by: Patrick on April 20, 2004 11:52 AM

Good comments. First, I agree with Tim about Bonds' elbow protector. I believe if umpires called the HBP rule as written - which is to say, only awarded first base to batters who try to get out of the way - then armor like Bonds' and Craig Biggio's wouldn't be such an advantage to them.

Rule 6.08(b): "The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball; If the ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a strike, whether or not the batter tries to avoid the ball. If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched."

As for Ron, I note that Hank Aaron had career highs in HR and SLG at the age of 37. He didn't, of course, have the kind of freak season Bonds did in 2001, but I mention this to say that some players are just different. It's also an overstatement to say that Bonds "doubled" his power numbers - while his HRs were 50% above his career peak, he exceeded his career high in total bases by about 20%. He had pretty damn high peaks to begin with.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on April 20, 2004 12:13 PM

I was watching the Dodger-Giants game over the weekend, and Vin Scully made a point about ball parks. He opined that if Willie Mays hadn't lost the two years to service and had played in a park other than the Polo Grounds (457' to center and only slightly shorter in the alleys) Mays would have passed Ruth and put the bar way beyond where Aaron ended up.

Posted by: Linkmeister on April 20, 2004 3:36 PM

(Vin Scully) opined that if Willie Mays hadn't lost the two years to service and had played in a park other than the Polo Grounds (457' to center and only slightly shorter in the alleys) Mays would have passed Ruth and put the bar way beyond where Aaron ended up.

Scully certainly has a point with the nearly two seasons Mays lost to military service. But a cursory look at the numbers makes me believe that the Polo Grounds wasn't the significant factor that Scully paints it out to be. Looking at the year-by-year stats for Mays, there's really no discernible increase in home run output after 1957, when he no longer played there.

Here's the year-by-year stats for Mays, from 1954 to 1957, with the New York Giants: 41, 51, 36, 35.

Compare his next four years in San Francisco: 29, 34, 29, 40.

If you look at Willie's "prime years" -- roughly 1954 to 1966 -- his average output was just barely less than 40 homers a season. His average as a New York Giant from '54 to '57 was 40.75 homers.

And finally, while Scully mentions the caverns in center field, the park was also just 279' down the left field line, so some of the homers lost to dead center would be regained from routine flyouts down the left field line that became homers.

Besides, the Dodgers-Giants series that just ended depressed me.

Posted by: Tim on April 20, 2004 4:12 PM

Patrick wrote: "Football has addressed this issue [steroids] head-up and has negotiated testing with bans in the labor agreements."

True enough, but it doesn't seem to be stopping the players.

I think it's entirely possible that Bonds and Sosa have used performance enhancing substances. But it also might be possible that there's another factor that hasn't been mentioned here that's in play -- the diluted state of major league pitching. As MLB has expanded, the overall quality of pitching appears to be going down. I'm not going to touch the idea of a juiced ball, because I've heard far too many different things about that, other than to say that it might be a factor, too.

Posted by: Sue on April 20, 2004 9:48 PM

I will grant that football's drug screening is not perfect but it actually exists, which is more than anyone can say about MLB. And the NFL has never been afraid of suspending even the biggest stars for drug related violations.

But it also might be possible that there's another factor that hasn't been mentioned here that's in play -- the diluted state of major league pitching. As MLB has expanded, the overall quality of pitching appears to be going down.

Sue, while I'd certainly say that is a factor, the numbers don't exactly match. Generally, there is a bump in offense production in the first 2-3 years following expansion. The last expansion was in 1993 when the Marlins and Rockies were added. But the recent offensive jump has been from about 1996 on to the present.

And if pitching dilution were the case, I'd be alright with it because I know when expansion happened. Just like I'd know when a new hitter friendly park debuted or inter-league play started, or the DH debuts. All of these datapoints are useful when comparing players of different eras. For an example, look up at the comments about Willie Mays, Mel Ott and the dimensions of the Polo Grounds.

But with performance enhancing substances, you never really know. It introduces an element that can be debated but never verified.

Instead we have to settle for reconciling the facts that we do know...like Sammy's corked bat, McGwire's Andro (which, granted was legal) and the personal trainer of Giambi, Sheffield and Bonds being busted with performance enhancing drugs, large amounts of cash and a distribution schedule. Something's rotten in the state of Denmark.

Posted by: Patrick on April 21, 2004 8:58 AM

Tim, I had forgotten that Scully also suggested that Candlestick was a lousy home-run park. I've never been there, although I've driven past it a few times, but Lord knows I've heard enough games broadcast from there, and I'm willing to believe it (Joe Morgan notwithstanding...the bum!).

And hey, that series may have depressed you, but given the relative records of the two teams over the past four or five years, let us bask in the short-lived glory, huh? ;)

Posted by: Linkmeister on April 21, 2004 3:56 PM