Friday, February 26, 2010

10 Myths about Steroids in Baseball

Myth 1) Steroids were not against the rules. 

Using steroids to enhance performance has been illegal in the United States for a very long time. This is like arguing there was no rule against knee-capping your opponent in skating so Tanya Harding boyfriend's knee-capping of Nancy Kerrigan was within the rules.

Myth 2) Steroids don't really help performance, at least not in baseball

Of course no one makes this argument any more. But it was a favorite for a while. Occasionally it gets resurrected in arguments about admitting Mark McGwire to the HOF.  Of course steroids by themselves don't have any effect, but used in the context of an exercise program they can and do have a dramatic effect.

Myth 3) Steroid use started in the late 90's

While we have no idea who first used steroids in baseball, their use in sports started at least in the 1970's. Given there are hundreds of players who see their dream of being a major league player disappearing and the difference in salary between being a AAAA player and  major league regular, you have to assume they started getting used in baseball pretty early. In the 1980's guys had started to show up in major league camps with 30 pounds of additional muscle from "hitting the weights" in the off-season. We started hearing about the benefits of "modern weight training". Its not clear that any of those terms were more than euphemisms for body-building techniques using drugs to enhance performance.

Myth 4) Steroid users are obvious, because they will immediately pop up to look like Arnold Swarznegger

While Swarznegger and other body builders made steroids popular, the effect they have depends on what exercises go along with them. Roger Clemens never really had that "steroid build", but his workouts were focused primarily on building leg strength.  The fact that a guy doesn't look like Hulk Hogan does not mean he isn't using steroids. On the other hand, if he does look like Hulk Hogan its not unlikely he is.  

Myth 5) Jose Canseco's accounts couldn't be trusted

This is arguable I suppose. Maybe there are other reasons to mistrust Canseco. But all sorts of people who attacked Canseco have turned out to be liars themselves. While not every one of Canseco's accounts have been confirmed, there aren't any that have been credibly disproved either. 

Myth 6) The ball was juiced

This was a claim made repeatedly during the steroid era to explain the sudden power surge. We now know there was another explanation. Its time to put the juiced ball myth to bed. 

Myth 7) Steroids only help hitters

Roger Clemens is the poster boy for why this isn't true. But it is doubtful that he was the only pitcher who used. There are people who argue steroids have an even bigger impact on pitchers than hitters. Although the physical signs may not be there. All those aging pitchers who "kept themselves in shape" may have been doing more than eating right and getting proper exercise.

Myth 8) Sudden jumps in production are common in players over 30

Most players have had their most productive offensive year before age 27-28. If you look at the average numbers there is a sharp improvement in performance up until that point, a leveling off and then a decline after age 30-32. Of course averages don't apply here. Some players age more gracefully than others and outstanding players have maintained high levels of production into their late 30's. But the jumps we saw in guys like McGwire and Bonds are extraordinary, not only in the size of the increase but the time of their career when it happened. 

Myth 9) Lots of players develop from singles hitters to home run hitters as they mature and put on muscle. So big jumps in home runs are to be expected.

There is no doubt that home run power develops later as players put on their "man muscles", as Torii Hunter refers to them. We saw that again with Joe Mauer. But that power potential is usually obvious. The players have the frame and gap power that projects to home run power. When a player hits 25-30 more home runs in one year than they ever have in the past, that is not a normal development pattern. It may have happened without the help of drugs, but not very often.

Myth 10) Baseball has cleaned up its act

While there is now steroid testing, it is not 100% effective at catching people who use steroids. In addition, there is no test for HGH (which, like steroids, some people now claim doesn't actually help performance). 

The larger problem is that baseball has not really rejected steroids the way they did gambling after the Black Sox episode. The players who were associated with that scandal were barred from baseball for life - in fact even after they died. Players who used steroids have been allowed to continue to play as if nothing happened. Admitted steroid abusers like Mark McGwire are hired to coach young players and  held up as role models for the next generation. While apologizing for using steroids, McGwire talks about how they helped extend his career.  Tony LaRussa and Mark McGwire keep blaming everybody but  Mark McGwire for his problems.The most recent person to "victimize" McGwire is his brother. McGwire claims his brother is lying too. 

For baseball, steroids is a PR problem. The clear message to players - don't get caught and if you do, apologize and it won't damage your career. If you expose your teammate's use, you will be ostracized and publicly defamed as a liar like Jose Canseco. The goal is to sweep the problem under the rug and hope it will disappear from public view. But that is dangerous both for the sport, and for young players faced with their career ending who hear the siren song of Mark McGwire, "at least it extended my career".


Jesse said...

If you do not think the juiced ball era of 1985-1987 is real please explain the following home run totals:

•1982 - 3,379
•1983 - 3,301
•1984 - 3,258
•1985 - 3,602
•1986 - 3,813
•1987 - 4,458
•1988 - 3,180
•1989 - 3,083
•1990 - 3,317
•1991 - 3,383
•1992 - 3,038

Specifically I would like to know why home runs seemed to average 3000-3300 for most years but went up to 4458 in 1987. If you think it was steroids I would like you to explain why players started juicing in 1985, seemed to peak in 1987, and suddenly stopped at the end of 1987. I look forward to your response.

TT said...

It was probably random - here is a slight extension of your timeline:

1993 4030
1995 4081
1996 4962
1997 4640
1998 5064
1999 5528
2000 5693
2001 5458
2002 5059
2003 5207
2004 5451

The real surge came after the 1995 when the numbers went up and stayed up from historic numbers, but the annual numbers still bounced around a lot.

I think all you are seeing in 1987 is random chance. But there are a lot of theories out there besides juiced balls including corked bats. I don't think steroid use in the 80's was widespread enough to have a noticeable impact on league statistics.

Jesse said...

I stopped at 1992 because it is the last year before the Marlins and the Rockies came into the league. 2 new teams which thinned out the pitching in the MLB plus the addition of games at Mile high Stadium would have increased home run totals.

Jim H said...


Good post, with good points. I feel that one of problems for athletes both morally and legally, is the fine line between legal PED's and illegal ones. Most athletes are going take some sort of drugs to enhance their performance, even if it is only aspirin for a headache. Legal "performance enhancing drugs" include but are not limited to, cortizone, muscle relaxers, and pain medications of all sorts.

A great many athletes take diet supplements and various energy drinks. All of this legal and often doctor prescribed but I can certainly see the temptation to enhance your performance illegally and find all sort of rationalizations for it. The climate in most sports tends to encourage the attitude of being the "best you can be" sometimes without looking to closely at how that was achieved.

Baseball, unfortunately, has a long history of this, from scuffing balls, to corking bats, to taking "greenies". I don't know if your take on Puckett was right or even if that is worth speculating on. But, "Baseball" has set itself up for this by basically encouraging anything that makes you better, as long as you don't get caught.

TT said...

Jim -

I think one of the difficulties with the steroid argument is that no one really acknowledges how catastrophic the health effects of long term use can be. Eating healthy food will enhance your performance. No one is suggesting that should be regulated.

I don't think off-field use of performance enhancing drugs is in the same category as cheating between the lines. They are a lot closer to betting on your own team in the way they impact the game's integrity. The use of amphetamines is probably somewhere in between but its good that they are now being tested.

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