Baseball Tested Again

Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, January 13, 2008

We currently live in what has been termed the Steroid Era in baseball, but it would be more accurate to call it the Performance-Enhanced Era.  Then we can include players who illegally injected testosterone and human growth hormone alongside those who chose only anabolic steroids.

A rebuttal to any contrarians who believe that performance-enhancing drugs don't enhance performance:

From the ages of 21 to 34, Barry Bonds only once compiled a slugging percentage higher than .650 (.677 in 1993) and launched home runs in over 9% of his at-bats just twice (9.5% in 1994 and 9.6% in 1999).  From the ages of 35 to 39, however, Bonds slugged .688, .863, .799, .749, and .812.  Meanwhile, his home run rate per at-bat increased to 10.2%, 15.3%, 11.4%, 11.5%, and 12.1%.

In addition, from the ages of 22 to 28, spanning six full seasons, Mark McGwire slugged over .500 just twice while posting home run rates per at-bat of at least 9% just once.  After missing the majority of the next two seasons due to injury, McGwire proceed to slug .685, .730, .646, .752, .697, and .746 while posting home run rates of 12.3%, 10.7%, 13.8%, 12.4%, and 13.6% from the ages of 31 to 36.

There is the possibility that each man's improved power production derived naturally from improvements in preparation, concentration, and workout regimen, but this hypothesis runs opposite to rational thought.  After compiling impressive power numbers in their primes, McGwire and Bonds suddenly began producing historic statistics the likes of which the Major Leagues had never seen before at ages where every other player sees his skills decrease steadily.  Consider those performances enhanced.

Eric Gagne is a prime example of a pitcher affected unnaturally for the better.  The All-Star's name surprised no one when it was listed on the Mitchell Report (page 217) as a human growth hormone customer of former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski.

In his first two full seasons, 2000 and 2001, the promising young Dodgers starter posted a disappointing 10 wins, 13 losses, and a 4.91 earned run average.  Cue the injections.  In 2002, Gagne rebuilt his career as an ace closer, saving 52 games while recording a microscopic 1.97 ERA; in 2003, he paired 55 saves with an even better 1.20 ERA.

It is apparent, then, that this is an epoch of baseball history affected by unnatural means.  How greatly affected is unknown.  I am one of those who believe that performance-enhancing abuse was widespread throughout baseball, particularly in bullpens, but this is pure conjecture on my part.  It is highly doubtful that we shall ever learn the pervasiveness of abuse.

An important question arises:  How do we evaluate statistics from games in which cheating pitchers faced clean batters, cheating batters faced clean pitchers, and, most interestingly, cheaters faced off against cheaters?

Well-respected broadcaster Bob Costas has opined that baseball's record book should include a foreword detailing the specific factors that have affected the statistics for each of baseball's eras - segregation, the dead ball, the competition of the Federal League, World War I, the lively ball, World War II, the Korean War, expansion, a longer schedule, divisional play, and now performance-enhancing drugs.

Costas' point is valid.  Baseball has gone through dramatic shifts, a pendulum of significant advantage swinging back and forth from hitters to pitchers throughout its history that renders a statistical comparison from generation to generation highly difficult without careful analysis.  Baseball has never remained a consistent game.

After two decades of dead-ball play at the start of the 20th century, allowing star hurlers like Big Ed Walsh to notch an amazing 40 victories in the 1908 season, Babe Ruth heralded the arrival of the lively-ball era in 1920 with more home runs than entire teams had ever totaled before.

World War II stole the best and brightest standouts from the national pastime, denying men like Bob Feller, Ted Williams, and Joe DiMaggio prime seasons from their careers and causing seasons of mediocrity and anomalous statistics from run-of-the-mill players.

This was still segregated baseball, however, and it has been argued that the true best-of-the-best competition could only begin with the debuts of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in 1947.  Integration from the Negro Leagues provided an infusion of superstar talent at the same time that the game expanded west, with the Braves moving to Milwaukee, the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles, and the Giants moving to San Francisco.

Expansion followed in the 1960s, as did Roger Maris' breaking of Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.  Record numbers of home runs were being hit everywhere in the Major Leagues during the early part of the decade, convincing Commissioner Ford Frick to enact rules to make hitting more difficult.  The pitcher's mound was raised.  The strike zone was widened.  These changes worked... too well in fact.  In 1968, pitchers ruled the game.  The Cardinals' Bob Gibson notched a record 1.12 ERA while the Tigers' Denny McLain became the last pitcher to win 30 games (31-6).  The Red Sox's Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title with a .301 average, the lowest ever to win the title.  He was the only hitter in the league to hit above .290.  Realizing his mistake, Frick reversed his rulings.  The mound was lowered to its original height while the strike zone returned to its original size.  Statistics consequently returned to 'normal' in 1969.

The difficulty with the Performance-Enhanced Era is that today's players are not like those of 1908 or 1920 or 1947 or 1968, who all competed against the same factors.  Uneven ground has been created by the presence of a division in the game, that between the players who have abused performance-enhancers and those who have not.  A distinct advantage has been created.

But there is another difficulty.  Other illegal advantages gained by players over the years, whether using a corked bat or throwing a scuffball - are against the rules of baseball and hence penalized severely with fines and suspension.  But in their heyday, performance-enhancing drugs were 'only' against the laws of the country, not base-ball's sacred rulebook.  They were also never as concealed as confidentially as a corked bat; fellow players knew, managers knew, front office executives knew, and members of the media knew (and wrote articles on the usage of steroids ever since the mid-1980s and Jose Canseco).

This was a culture of cheating that was implicitly or explicitly rewarded by coaches and executives with more playing time and more lucrative contracts.  After all, a player who gained a chemical advantage did so to the benefit of his team.  Power-hitting and power-pitching was (and continues to be) celebrated over other skills because it attracts the most casual fans to the stadium; these were also skills that were most obviously affected by performance-enhancing drugs.

There is no question that both individual ownership and the league itself profited off of players injecting themselves with steroids, testosterone, and human growth hormone.  And so controlled substances ran rampant amongst baseball's subjects, aristocracy and hoi polloi alike...

And now we find ourselves, in a time of reports, hearings, and lawsuits, confronted with our original question.

How do we evaluate statistics from this Performance-Enhanced era?

We evaluate them as they are, regardless of illegality.  Feel free to blame the owners, if you'd like.  Blame the sponsors.  Blame the media.  Blame the players themselves.  And sympathize with all of those clean players who were victimized, for they played an unclean game.

We do not deny Preacher Roe his 22 wins in 1951, gained, Roe proudly boasted later, thanks to a spitball; nor do we retroactively assist the hitting statistics of all the batsmen he illegally victimized.  We do not deny Stormin' Norm Cash his league-leading .361 batting average in 1961, gained, Cash proudly boasted later, thanks to a corked bat; nor do we retroactively assist the pitching statistics of all of the hurlers he illegally victimized.

It is the same here.  Whether we know the names of the abusers during the Performance-Enhanced Era or not, we should not strip them of the statistics they compiled, for they were compiled under the auspices of baseball as much as segregation occurred under the auspices of baseball.

It is a sad fact, but a fact all the same:  the national pastime and its proudly compiled statistics have never been pure.

2008 PER Sports, Inc.

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