The "Steroid Era" of Major League baseball
Anyone that has followed baseball for the past couple of years knows that we've actually followed steroid-scandal talk nearly as much. There's been an extraordinary amount of ink and pixels and hot-air expended on the issue, with cries for records to be asterisked or even stricken, and players to be suspended or banned or executed. OK, I'm not certain that I've heard that last one, but many of the diatribes that I've been exposed to seem to have been headed in that direction.
I want to lay out my position here at the start. It has several points.
Steroid use is not a new phenomenon. I don't approve (yeah, like anyone cares) of steroid use. I played a little bit of division III football, and while I can't swear under oath that people were using (early 80s), I'm very confident that there were teammates who were, and I could have had I chosen to. I did not. If Major League Baseball wants to eliminate "performance-enhancing drugs", and finds a means of doing so, I approve of that. If Congress wants to mandate to baseball that it do so, I do NOT approve of that. Baseball players using steroids are cheating. Cheating has been a part of baseball since its inception. That doesn't make it right. But it also doesn't require the level of over-reaction that we've gotten from the baseball media this year. There something hypocritical about a writer who would vote Gaylord Perry or Phil Niekro into the Hall of Fame but not Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds. I feel sorry for the families of any teenagers who have actually committed suicide as the results of steroid-use. That said, I cannot find any constitutional justification for that circus on Capitol Hill in March. Professional athletes are role models. So are actors, singers, politicians, parents, teachers... There are a great many things that athletes do that media members chuckle about, that are fully as damaging to the moral climate, as destructive long-term to an impressionable youth as steroid use. It sickens me to read about the number of athletes with multiple fatherless children by multiple un-married women, and the media, who are so offended that someone would do everything possible to make himself a better player, find it amusing to call one "the father of his country." Ha ha. Alcohol, promiscuous sexuality - no problem whatsoever. Drugs that require hard work to benefit from and actually reach the limits of physical potential? Unacceptable. The evidence that the baseball record book is being skewed by a few players juiced out of their minds is not nearly as strong as the "chicken littles" in the press would have you believe. One of the hysterical rants has taken the form of "these cheaters are destroying the integrity of the game." I beg to differ. Strenuously. The "integrity of the game" is threatened when there is reason to believe that the game is not "fair." To believe that someone is not doing their utmost to win. If Major League Baseball had a testing policy that targeted only certain teams while leaving the others alone, that would damage the "integrity of the game." But they don't. The ability to "enhance performance" was available to any player who wanted to take advantage of it. Once the players have done that, their performance is their performance. Another is that they're "destroying the integrity of the record book, baseball's most sacred records." That is, to some extent, a legitimate complaint. The problem is, there have always been issues with the "integrity of the record book" and that will never change. Cy Young pitched in an era where the ball was kept in play no matter how dirty or soft the ball got. What do we do with his Wins record? When Maris broke Ruth's record, he did it in a season that was 8 games longer, in a league that expanded that year. Ruth, of course, had to face spitball pitchers, but not blacks or latinos. Bonds and McGwire used training techniques that weren't available to Ruth, but have to face fresh pitchers out of the bullpen in the 7th-9th innings, not tired starters. The conditions of the game keep changing, the record book keeps changing. People will remember the late 90s as the "steroid era", but McGwire and Sosa both hit more home runs than Maris, and Bonds hit more than McGwire and Sosa. It's utterly pointless to try to pretend that it didn't happen.
Gary Trudeau used to write a funny comic strip. It was called "Doonesbury", and for most of the 1970s it provided keen observation of American society, and it was almost always funny, whether you agreed with him or not. (For me, most of the time it would be "not".) Gary Trudeau is still, of course, writing a comic strip called "Doonesbury", but it isn't funny very often, and hasn't been since his first sabbatical.
But I want to go back in time to when he was funny, because there's relevance to the steroid discussion. One of the frequently recurring characters that Trudeau used was Duke. Modeled on "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Duke had a wide range of experiences. He left his job writing at "Rolling Stone" to become Governor of American Samoa. He left the Governorship to become Ambassador to China.
And in 1978, he was hired as the general manager of the Washington Redskins.
"Safely wired". That could just mean amphetamines.
But then they got to training camp.
20 years before McGwire and Sosa topped Maris' single-season home run mark. 25 years before people were shocked - Shocked! - to discover that professional baseball players might be using every available method to improve their physical abilities.
The internet makes it very easy to do a little research into the history of steroid use. The hyperbole that I've had to listen to this winter makes it seem that that Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds invented some substance, and that every athlete who ever touched a bat before 1996 was as pure as the wind-driven snow. I don't believe that. The best piece that I've seen so far was this Justin Peters' piece from Slate. The bottom line is that the Russians were using testosterone in 1954, and John Ziegler and CIBA introduced methandrostenolone (Dianabol) in 1956. And it became widespread in usage during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
According to Dr. Michael Colgan, PhD, CCN, The Colgan Institute, "during the 60s and 70s, tens of thousands of American physicians prescribed steroids freely to athletes."An excellent overview of the literature on steroid history by Michael S. Bahrke, Charles E. Yesalis III, and James E. Wright, contains the following:
Payne (1979) suggested that the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids was a significant problem at the 1964 Olympic Games. Ljungqvist (1975) reported that one-third of a sample of elite track and field athletes in Sweden; surveyed admitted to systematic anabolic-androgenic steroid use by 1972. Silvester (1973) reported that 68% of a sample interviewed at the 1972 Olympic Games from 7 countries, and who were competing in such diverse activities as throwing, jumping, vaulting, sprinting, and running up to 5000m, admitted having used anabolic-androgenic steroids.
Given that history and background, the lack of knowledge of possible side-effects, the lack of criminal statutes governing their use, and the driven nature of professional athletes, what kind of naivete is required to maintain that the game of MLB was clean in the 1960s and 1970s, and dirty in the 1990s? If the grand jury testimony that has been leaked is, in fact, the actual testimony that was given, we know that Barry Bonds used "performance-enhancing drugs". The problem is, we have absolutely no reason to assume that Henry Aaron did not.
I do NOT want to sit here and accuse Hank Aaron of using steroids. Obviously, I have no way whatsoever of knowing that. I don't have any reason to suspect it, I don't have any evidence that points to it. As a baseline assumption, in the absence of contrary evidence, we have to presume that not only Aaron but Schmidt, Jackson, Rice and all of the other sluggers of the 60s and 70s were clean.
But we cannot, as so many have done, say that we know they were. The drugs were everywhere. We know that baseball players have used substances, both legal and illegal, as long as there have been baseball players, because baseball players are all human beings, with the same fallibilites and frailties as all human beings.
There's a wonderful Louis Rukeyser quote that I saw years ago, and made a note of, because I thought there was so much truth contained within. He was speaking of economics (I'm not certain which exact subject) but I think it's relevant to many things, and this is one of them.
If an aging America ever begins to lose its short-term memory, it will really be in trouble - because that's the only kind of memory this country seems to have. There's a perpetual tendency to believe that whatever is going on at this particular moment is absolutely unique in human history, but will, paradoxically, continue now into the indefinite future. Both assumptions are certain to be wrong, but meanwhile they have sent a passel of chickens scuttling hysterically around the U.S. barnyard.
I think we've seen a lot of "chickens scuttling hysterically around the [baseball] barnyard" in the past 2 years...
Objectively speaking, what does the evidence say? This is shocking to many people, but the evidence says that nothing new is going on. There is little to no evidence in the statistical record that says "hey, these guys are cheating, and breaking records because of it." With all due respect to North Dakota state Senator Joel Heitkamp (and that's very little, as far as I'm concerned), there is just no case to be made that Maris should still hold the HR record. I highly recommend this excellent Nate Silver piece from Baseball Prospectus (free side) to anyone that's interested in the "steroid effects" on the baseball record book. He offers several possible theories for the rise in offensive levels, including the following:
While performance-altering substances do exist, there is not a fine line between improved nutrition, legal supplements, their quasi-legal variants, and explicitly illegal steroids. Moreover, the benefits of these substances is not universally positive, but will vary substantially based on the particular substances that a player takes, his training habits, and his underlying physiology. In some cases, the impact might trigger a tipping point and be substantially positive, but in many others it will be marginal, and in other cases still, like that of Jeremy Giambi, it might be deleterious. While "steroids" might be responsible for some of the global gain in offensive levels, their impact on the competitive ecology of the game is ambiguous, and not readily distinguishable from the more routine sorts of discrepancies that have been present from the first days of the game, like differences in equipment or coaching.
That's basically my position. But I recommend the entire piece. He looks at the HR/AB averages and standard deviations, and discovers that there's no statistical evidence of a group of off-the-charts sluggers hitting home-runs at an "unfair" pace because they're cheating and the clean players aren't.
And I've been looking at the historical record, in a slightly different way. There are a couple of things that need to be pointed out. One is that Jose Canseco accused McGwire of cheating starting in the late 1980s, but he didn't break the Maris record until age 34, well past his theoretical "peak" age of 27. Had it taken that long for the steroid use to arrive at full effect? Or, perhaps, had something else changed?
The fact is, if you look at the SLG and PA/HR numbers for baseball as a whole, it's clear that something changed. Something that is not explained by the simplistic explanation of "in the early-to-mid 90s, a few superstar players discovered that a drug regimen that had been widely known and available for 40 years could help their performance." If there were only a few players using, then we would expect to see the league averages not change much, but we'd see a few players making sudden changes in their performance level. Instead, what we see is that the league performance profile, as a whole, changes suddenly, and then maintains those levels.
We all remember 1987, and the spike in home runs. There was a lot of talk about different baseballs, because the game changed. As the chart shows, in 1985, the average Major League position player hit 1 home run for every 43 plate appearances. In 1987, that spiked to 1 for every 35, then dropped back to 1 every 48 in 1988. Well, there was another spike from 1992 to 1994, and unlike the '87 spike, it did not subside. From 1980 through 1993, the average position player hit a home run every 47 plate appearances - since then, he's hit one every 35. That's a significant difference.
The following chart shows that trend. What we have the PA/HR for the AL, the NL and all of MLB baseball from 1980 through 2004.
There are a couple of things that happened between 1992 and 1994 that make the NL a little problematic to evaluate, mainly the expansion to Colorado, but it mirrors what happened in the AL. So we can look at the AL and see if there are obvious reasons for what happened. Is the expansion limited to just a few people? Was there a new set of pitchers with the general expansion of baseball? Were there a lot of new stadiums added?
No. No. And no.
Maybe there was a big influx of new players during the 1994 season that drove those numbers? Nope. There were 106 players that had 100+ AB in the AL in both 1992 and 1994. As a group, their home run rates improved by 33%, an enormous difference. Of the 106, 80 of them saw their home run rates improve and just 26 saw them drop. The average age of the players in the group that improved was 29.4, the average age in the group that declined was 30.5. The overall average age of the group was 29.6 in 1994, or two years PAST the theoretical (and practical) historical "peak age".
In 1993, the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins started play. This expansion obviously brought an extra 22-25 pitchers into the Major Leagues who would not otherwise have been there. Even though we're limiting this to the AL (largely to avoid the issue of Mile High Stadium), there's still a limited number of Major League caliber pitchers and an expanding Major League pitching job pool. So we'll go look at the group of pitchers who pitched in the AL in both 1992 and 1994, and see what happened to them. If these extra home runs are all coming off the "AAAA" pitchers at the bottom of the talent pool, it ought to show here.
Worse 54 55.68%
Better 17 -24.54%
Total 71 34.80%
That looks like a smoking gun to me. Or, if the question is the culpability of steroids for the recent offensive explosion, it looks like an old, cold, rusty gun with a missing firing pin. Either hitters went on the juice in vast quantities between the end of the 1992 season and the start of the 1994 season, and the pitchers either skipped it entirely or derived no benefit from it, or there's something more going on here. The hitters who were playing in 1992 and 1994, as a group, saw their home run rates increase dramatically. The pitchers who were playing in 1992 and 1994, as a group, saw their home runs allowed rates increase dramatically. The only new park in the AL during that span was Jacobs field which produced a park factor similar to Cleveland stadium, which it replaced.
Something else happened. Something that affected the way that Major League Baseball plays. Something not limited to a few players "juicing."
Now, let's examine what the theoretical impact of a mid-late career assumption of a doping regimen might look like. To do that, we'll project a couple of different players and call them Carl Clean and Dick Dirty. Ideally, what we see is that Carl starts off as a young player hitting about the league average number of HR, then increases until he peaks at the age 27-29 area. He then starts to slowly decline, at not quite the rate that he inclined on his way up. Dick would start the same way, and start to decline the same way. Then, at an age when his power and salary should be declining, he discovers the magic beans, and suddenly shoots to a new high in his mid-30s. Hmm. Very suspicious.
Now, when measuring player performance, we need to be careful how we do it. A player who hits one home run every 12 at-bats is performing very differently if the league average is 1 for every 50 than if the league average is 1 for every 30. So what I looked at is performance ratio vs. the rest of the position players in the league. I took the PA/HR for the league, divided by the PA/HR for the player in question, and expressed it as a percentage advantage. In a league where the average player hits 1 home run every 50 at-bats, for example, a player who hits 1 every 25 would be at 200%.
I've got here charts of Dick and Carl, along with 3 actual players.
Here we see that actual human performance is nowhere near as clean as theoretical performance is.
And we see a couple other things. One is that player 1 has both the latest peak, and the greatest advantage over the league average. And, of the three, he demonstrated the greatest improvement in his relative home-run rate from his age 22 season to his peak, hitting home runs at a relative rate at age 37 that was 2.88 times higher than his relative rate at age 22. Player 2 peaked at 2.22 times at age 36, player 3 peaked at 2.21 at age 33. All 3 players were noticeably bigger in their late 30s than they were in their early 20s.
I've been told repeatedly that Bonds has got to be cheating to break McGwire's record, because he's hitting so many more home runs now than he did earlier. And that it would be offensive if he ever broke Aaron's record, because Aaron was clean and Bonds is a cheater.
Player 3 is Mark McGwire.
Player 2 is Barry Bonds.
Player 1, with the latest peak, the greatest rate differential from his league context, the greatest improvement from age 22 to his peak, is Henry Aaron.
Again, I'm not accusing Aaron of anything. But I am pointing out that Maris' record fell, not because a couple guys are cheating, but because the conditions of the game changed. I've been told that the fact that 62.5% of all 55+ HR season happened between 1997 and 2002 was proof that players were on drugs. And I don't believe it.