I was going to wait until the off season to raise this discussion, but with the recent Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies, and the chatter about who’s now on the ballot for the Hall in 2018, there’s definitely going to be vitriolic banter about performance enhancing drugs – there always is in baseball circles. There is no sport that shits on its own product quite like MLB: In the NFL, you can use PEDs, beat your wife, partake in a double homicide, whatever – you’re a star for as long as you can play. Take PEDs in baseball and you’re an outcast.
I agree with baseball writer Jay Jaffe, who I’ll mention again in a minute: No matter what your position is on players and PEDs, someone will disagree with you strongly. Because of the above, and because I’m sure I’m going to have to use this as a reference for some off season article ideas I have planned, I figured I’ll get it out there now:
With regards to Performance Enhancing Drugs, or steroids or whatever the nomenclature du jour is, let me be clear:
I believe many players used performance enhancing drugs during their career. I believe performance enhancing drugs improve performance. I believe the latter because I have a Masters’ degree in Exercise Science and because I’m usually not an idiot. I believe laws regarding prescriptions are laws to which we should adhere. (I know, not exactly a Crash Davis “I believe” speech, but I’m focusing on one topic…)
Nevertheless, I will not use the issue of PEDs as a factor when I evaluate players. Neither should you.
First, when evaluating players, we’re comparing any alleged, admitted or caught users to players who played in the same run scoring environment. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and Adjusted On Base Plus Slugging (OPS+), both factor the era and run scoring environment into their ratings. When comparing more traditional stats like on base percentage and slugging, we’re comparing players of the past few decades to each other. We’re not dumb enough to suggest that Rafael Palmeiro is better than Carl Yastrzemski or that Sammy Sosa is better than Roberto Clemente or Al Kaline because of home run totals. Comparing players to other players in their own era is still an effective barometer of a players impact on their teams’ performance.
“But what about the players who weren’t using – it isn’t fair to them!”
I hear that often. If you use that as your anti-PED mantra, I have some thoughts for you:
First, you don’t know who was using and who wasn’t. You. Don’t. Know. Believing you do is nonsensical.
You know that player “X” used because he was jacked? (I’ll pass on the conversation about how ridiculous it is to use a barometer so subjective, but I want to address the concern of the masses, however ridiculous…)
Dee Gordon tested positive for PEDs. Bartolo Colon tested positive for PEDs. If you called those two as users before their positive tests, get back to me and I’ll apologize because they’d look like the number 10 if they stood next to each other. Until then I’ll assume you don’t know who used and who didn’t.
“Player “Y” was using because he improved as he aged, even having his best seasons into his late thirties and early 40’s!”
If this is your mantra (deep breath), there isn’t a lot of evidence to support it. Sorry.
Carlton Fisk hit 19 home runs in 298 at bats when he was 40 years old. He had a 136 OPS+ – his highest in 13 seasons – at age 41, and a 134 OPS+ at age 42. This while catching the majority of his team’s games.
Nolan Ryan led the National League in ERA+ at age 40. He also led his league in strikeouts four consecutive seasons at ages 40, 41, 42, and 43 – the first two in the NL, the 2nd two in the AL. In 1989 at age 42, he struck out 301 batters as a member of the Rangers. For some perspective, since 1989, Pedro Martinez is the only other American League pitcher to strikeout 300 in a season and he did it at age 27. Let that sink in: the best pitcher of all time at age 27 is the only other pitcher to do what Ryan did at age 42. Three NL pitchers achieved the feat, none past the age of 35…except…
Randy Johnson. From his age 35 to age 40 seasons, Johnson led the National League in both strikeouts and ERA + five out of six seasons – a stretch of dominance he didn’t duplicate at any other point in his career, from ages 24 to 34. And incidentally, he missed half the season at age 39 or it may have been six in a row.
What about Mariano Rivera? Mariano had WHIP under 1 four consecutive seasons at ages 38, 39, 40, and 41 – he had 5 total in the 13 previous seasons, at ages 25-37. He posted career bests in ERA+, K/BB ratio and WHIP at age 38 (in fact, his age 38 season was his best overall). He had his 2nd and 3rd best seasons of K/9 at age 38 and 39 (1996 was his only better K/9 season). And the four seasons from age 39-42 were arguably his best four season stretch.
And as a slight aside, Fisk and Ryan were built like NFL safeties in their 40’s as well.
Ted Williams had his second highest single season OPS+ at age 38. Hank Aaron had what is easily identified as his best season, including a career high in HR, at age 37.
I can do this all day, because there are dozens of players who had great years – some of their best, if not their best – after age 35. And I’ve never heard anyone – not once – associate Ryan, Fisk, Johnson, Williams, Aaron or Rivera with PEDs. To be clear, I’m not suggesting they were. I’m suggesting the logic that Clemens, Bonds and others were great at advanced ages as evidence of PED usage, is pretty thin logical ice on which to stand.
And now that I’ve addressed some of your issues, answer a question for me:
What is a PED?
I know it stands for performance enhancing drug. But…
Is cocaine a PED? I’ve never had cocaine, but I do drink coffee and I know caffeine is a performance enhancer, so I think it’s a safe assumption cocaine gives you a boost in performance (he wrote, as a sarcastic understatement…). Tim Raines just entered the Hall of Fame and admitted to using cocaine during games.
Are amphetamines performance enhancers? Because “greenies” were widely used both before they were against the rules and after. In fact, there was a bigger spike in home runs in the early 70’s (when “greenies” were widely used and when Aaron hit his career high in HR) than in the late 90’s.*
Is Adderall a PED? Because Adam LaRoche was on his way out of baseball due to ineffectiveness before he was granted a dispensation because of his issues with ADD and ADHD. Essentially, he couldn’t pay attention to the game while he was participating it. To use the aforementioned reasoning, this isn’t fair to Derek Jeter or Chase Utley because they could actually stay awake during their games. After this dispensation, LaRoche went on to have a pretty good career – until he ended it with his own silliness, years later.
And let’s discuss the lines of squiggly on the morality judgment barometer here…
You’ll have to define for me: Acceptable cheating, acceptable rule breaking and acceptable departures from normative behavior.
Because (baseball writer Jay Jaffe does way better than I do at getting to this point, but), as mentioned above, drug users are in the Hall of Fame. Racists, including Klan members are in the Hall of Fame. Admitted ball “doctorers” are in the Hall of Fame. Admitted sign stealing conspirators are in the Hall of Fame.
Why is getting an edge on your competition, or outright sociopathic behavior tolerated – even rewarded in those cases, but not with PEDs?
And it’s way too long of an issue to address here, but to say that there was an increase in offensive output in the late 90’s and early 2000’s due to widespread steroid use is a vast over-simplification of a more complex issue. As I mentioned, it may have been a factor – but it was only one factor of many.
Parks got smaller. As we know now, the ball changes every year. Pitching philosophies change. Hitting philosophies change. The strike zone changes. Players change. And remember: Expansion has always boosted offensive numbers historically and there were four teams added in the 90’s. With more thought we all could come up with more factors that would increase offensive output – the reality is, if steroids affected numbers, it was only one of numerous factors that affected them.
I’ll get into this in future articles as we can discuss Hall of Fame qualifications and players’ values then, but if you think Barry Bonds wasn’t one of the best three players of all time, or if you think Roger Clemens isn’t one of the best pitchers of all time, you’re going to have to come at me with more than what most people shout in sound bites and post on social media. Because “they were great because they were on steroids” isn’t cutting it.
*See Nate Silver’s work on this.
Thanks again to Baseball Reference for the statistics.