All the anger, the venom, the indignation directed towards Alex Rodriguez comes from an essentially unproven pretense: That performance-enhancing drugs actually enhance performance. In baseball, that basically means one thing: home runs. Nobody seems to care all that much whether PEDs help players run faster or field better or throw a tighter curveball. It's all about the home runs.
Rodriguez has admitted in the past to using PEDs while he played with the Rangers; as we know, MLB now alleges he used them over a longer period of time. He's hit 648 home runs in his career and the belief -- no, the accusation -- is that he wouldn't have hit that many without PEDs. He cheated. That's the story.
But do PEDs help? Specifically, do they help players hit for more power? The consensus opinion is yes, at least if you ask Bud Selig, fans or most baseball writers.
Proof? Of course, there's proof. Runs are down and home runs are way down from 10 to 15 years ago. In 2000, when the runs per game average peaked at 5.14 (higher than any one team is scoring this season), there were a record 5,693 home runs hit; in 2012, there were 4,934 home runs, and that total was up from 4,552 in 2011. That's 759 more home runs in 2000 than 2012 and a whopping 1,141 more than 2011.
Proof? Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, Mark McGwire hit 70, Sammy Sosa topped 60 three times. Luis Gonzalez went from 10 home runs at age 29 to 57 at age 33. Brady Anderson hit 50.
Proof? In 1996, 16 players hit 40 or more home runs. In 2000, 15 players did it. In 2012, only six guys did it, and in 2011, only two. Lower the bar to 30 home runs, and in both 1999 and 2000, 44 players hit that many; in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the totals were 18, 24 and 27.
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Joe Sheehan is one of my favorite columnists (you can subscribe to his newsletter here). He's an excellent writer, opinionated, smart and, at times, smartly contrarian. His writing on the Rodriguez case -- leading up to the announcement of the suspension and after -- was superb.
On Aug. 4, he sent out a newsletter titled "The Big Lie."
His second graph read:
The big lie is this: Steroids caused home runs and testing stopped home runs. That didn't happen. I used to think it was laziness that spread the misinformation, and then I thought it was fear of math, perhaps hatred of certain individuals. I know better now. It's a lie proffered by people who can see the truth but are so invested in the lie that they would prefer you didn't.
He then presented a fascinating chart, which I'll reprint here. As Joe wrote, "It shows what happened when bats met balls over a 21-year period that bridges what is popularly known as 'The Steroid Era' and the era of testing that followed through today. '/con' is 'on contact,' which is simply at-bats minus strikeouts."
Year HR/con SLG/con ISO/con
1993 3.13% .478 .166
1994 3.65% .517 .188
1995 3.61% .511 .184
1996 3.89% .525 .193
1997 3.70% .519 .189
1998 3.74% .519 .190
1999 4.06% .533 .200
2000 4.19% .538 .205
2001 4.08% .530 .202
2002 3.77% .514 .192
2003 3.83% .518 .194
2004 4.02% .528 .200
2005 3.70% .514 .189
2006 3.97% .533 .200
2007 3.66% .523 .191
2008 3.64% .519 .190
2009 3.81% .524 .195
2010 3.52% .508 .184
2011 3.47% .504 .182
2012 3.83% .520 .193
2013 3.67% .511 .186
ISO is isolated power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average. What does the chart show? Well, in recent years, batting averages have dropped as strikeouts have risen. Joe's argument is that home runs are down merely because the rate of contact is down. When batters actually put the ball in play, their rates of home runs and isolated power haven't changed all that much through the years. In other words, steroids didn't help players hit more homers.
Joe isn't the only writer to point this out. FanGraphs author (and ESPN Insider contributor) Dave Cameron wrote last August about rising strikeout rates, "That historic lack of contact has masked the fact that power has made a pretty strong return to today's baseball game, and has perpetuated the idea that steroid testing has led to dramatically different results in offensive performance."
Joe does allude to the slight 1999-2001 power spike, explaining that it resulted from "many factors unrelated to sports drugs. The double expansion, combined with changes in roster construction, had a significant short-term impact on the caliber of pitching in MLB. ... The strike zone, as called, was very small. The success of the take'n'rake approach that helped the Yankees and Indians in the 1990s spawned imitators throughout the game. There are many reasons why power on contact would have been higher during this three-year period that have nothing to do with sports drugs."
Joe's evidence is strong; if you look at the numbers and dismiss your animosity for A-Rod or Bonds or Sosa you have to at least admit that's one compelling chart. However, I believe most of you will disagree with Joe, even when staring right at the facts. Joe would argue there's nothing to "believe" -- that he has the data.
Regardless, isn't it fair to ask: If Alex Rodriguez didn't gain any benefits from using PEDs, why get all worked up over his pending suspension? Why are some current players calling for lifetime bans for those who test positive? Is it really all a big lie?
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I looked some stuff up. Here's one thing I checked: The top 50 individual home run seasons (plus ties) over different three-year intervals. How do the numbers stack up?
1996-1998 (ranging from 70 to 38 home runs):
49 home runs every 500 nonstrikeout at-bats
1999-2001 (from 73 to 38 home runs)
51 home runs every 500 nonstrikeout at-bats
2004-2006 (from 58 to 35 home runs)
46 home runs every 500 nonstrikeout at-bats
2010 to 2012 (from 54 to 31 home runs)
41 home runs every 500 nonstrikeout at-bats
The evidence, at least in this relatively small group of players, is pretty clear: The top home run hitters are hitting for less power now, even when they do make contact -- 10 fewer home runs, on average, for every 500 non-strikeout at-bats, compared to that 1999-2001 peak. Except it's not that clear. The totals from 2004 to 2006 -- after drug testing had already started -- aren't all that different from 1996 to 1998 or 1999 to 2001.
A few more data points:
ISO/con for leadoff hitters:
ISO/con for No. 2 hitters:
ISO/con for No. 3 hitters:
ISO/con for cleanup hitters:
ISO/con for. No. 7 hitters
ISO/con for No. 8 hitters
Here's what I take from this: Power for leadoff hitters has risen slightly, held steady for No. 2 and 3 hitters, decreased for cleanup hitters, held steady for 7-8 hitters.
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Bonds had a quote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001: "There are some things I don't understand right now. The balls I used to line off the wall are lining out [of the park]. I can't tell you why. Call God. Ask Him."
I don't agree completely with Joe. I do believe steroids can help. Why do athletes continue to take them -- in all sports -- if they don't believe in some benefits, however small? This piece from Patrick Hruby on ESPN.com in 2006 does a good job explaining how PEDs could have helped Bonds -- and, thus, how they also could have helped Alex Rodriguez. (Disclosure: I worked with Patrick on that piece as his editor.)
On the other hand, how much did or do they help? It's impossible to answer that, although Patrick tried in his piece, pointing out advantages such as increased strength (which leads to more bat speed), improved eyesight and stamina, even more confidence. I think the answer is "more than zero" but "a lot less than most fans believe."
Baseball is constantly changing. Something in the playing conditions changed rapidly between 1992 and 1994, when offense suddenly skyrocketed. It wasn't just PEDs, unless you think everyone started using the same offseason. PEDs were just one factor, maybe a small one, along with expansion, livelier baseballs, more strength training, smaller strike zones, bad pitching, maple bats and new, homer-friendly ballparks.
But the conditions continue to change, even in the testing era that began in 2004 (anonymous testing was first conducted in 2003). Pitch F/x data has influenced umpires, players are still big and strong and teams are looking for more big and strong players and more new ballparks have been built -- Miller Park (2001), Great American Ballpark (2003), Citizens Bank Park (2004) and Yankee Stadium (2009) are all better home run parks than their predecessors. The weather changes. And the pool of players change, making any study of the issue complex; we don't have the same pitchers and hitters as 1998 or 2001 or 2004.
Strikeouts, of course, continue to rise -- not only because of better pitching, but also because players continue to evolve their offensive philosophy into an all-or-nothing approach. Isn't it possible that one reason players are still hitting for as much power in the post-testing era is simply because they're trying to hit for more power (at the cost of some strikeouts)? In a game where hitting for average is harder than ever, you need to hit for power to keep your spot in the lineup. Maybe the elite power hitters aren't hitting home runs quite as frequently as a decade ago, but that decline has been masked to some extent by the fact that other players are hitting more home runs. The poster boy for modern baseball is somebody like Dan Uggla -- a second baseman hitting .186 and leading the league in strikeouts but who has 21 home runs.
Personally, I find the attempts to whitewash an entire period of baseball history rather distasteful, and the exaggeration of the impact of PEDs a little exasperating at times. There are no simple answers here; my scant data isn't proof of anything, but I'm not sure Joe's data is proof that PEDs have no effect.
Before we dismiss A-Rod as a cheater -- or Bonds or Roger Clemens or Jeff Bagwell or Mike Piazza or whoever else Hall of Fame voters wish to presume guilty -- it is kind of important to know what they potentially gained by using. Joe's data suggests it may not be much.
If I had a Hall of Fame ballot, I'd certainly vote for Bonds or Clemens or, when he's eligible, Alex Rodriguez. They were the greatest players of their era, with or without PEDs.