Baseball and PEDs

Last summer, Joe Sheehan was circulating data about contact to home run rates among major league hitters over the past two decades (I discussed those data here). The premise was that those rates seemed to be fluctuating pretty randomly, suggesting that steroids played less of a role in the spike in the late 1990s in homeruns in particular and offense more generally than the standard narrative suggested. The reasoning – that steroids should have produced a consistent increase in the relationship between contact and home runs. Instead, Sheehan’s data showed no obvious pattern – contact resulting in balls leaving the park was not obviously higher during the steroids era than in recent years. Sheehan didn’t, for the purposes of that exercise, do any statistical analysis, like regression. As far as I understood, he was just sort of eye-balling the data. (Sheehan’s analysis is here).

The post I wrote at the time was sympathetic to Sheehan’s conclusions. But his analysis – at least what I saw of it – was incomplete. And regardless, even if this very broadly aggregate data suggested there was more to the story of the power surge of the so-called steroids era, it was hard not to conclude that at least *some* players had power spikes that would be difficult to explain without reference to PEDs. McGwire’s extraordinary run between 1995 and 1999, Sosa’s three 60-plus homer seasons, Bonds absurd performance from 2001 and 2004 – all would seem to have to be attributable, at least to some degree, to the use of performance enhancing drugs. Obviously, there are more, but those are perhaps the three highest profile cases.

So, I am not here to debate whether they used, or whether use was common, or whether common usage played some significant role in the offensive surge of the era. But here’s what I’ve been wondering about lately. Offensive performances have dropped so dramatically that no one in the game today puts up the kinds of numbers we saw routinely 10-15 years ago. Let me give a few examples to lay out what I am puzzling over.

1) Ryan Howard – Howard blasted 58 homeruns in 2006. He followed that up with 47 in 2007, 48 in 2008 and 45 in 2009. Since the start of the 2011, we’ve had exactly one 45-plus homer season – Chris Davis’ 53 last year. There may well be zero 45 homer performances in 2014.

I have never heard anyone accuse Howard of using PEDs. I have no idea whether he did or not, but this is not an accusation at all. It’s just part of what, as I said above, I am wondering about.

2) Between 2001 and 2003, Jim Thome hit 49, 52 and 47 homers. When he retired after the 2012 season with 612 career dingers, he was universally praised as one of the good ones, a guy who didn’t cheat to get ahead. Again, I have no idea what he put in his body, but no one around the game ever case aspersions on his performance.

3) Frank Thomas. The Big Hurt, recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, put up Ted Williams-esque numbers for much of his career beginning in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1997, his first full seasons in the majors, Thomas had an OBP of better than .450 five times. In 1994, he slugged a ridiculous .729. Since the start of the 2009 season, there has been one such season (Votto got on base at a .477 clip in 2012. A couple of others have come close).  No one has slugged better than .650 since Pujols in 2009.  It’s universally assumed that Thomas was not a user. Obviously, the hall of fame voters believe he was clean.

4) Ken Griffey, Jr. smashed 49, 56, 56 and 48 taters between 1996 and 1999. Again, he’s never been associated with steroid use.

One more, for now….

5) Todd Helton – in 2000, his triple slash was a ridiculous .372/.463/.698. Yes, he played in the greatest hitter’s park ever. But his road triple slash was nothing to sneeze at:  .353/.441/.633. Since the start of the 2010 season, only one player (Cabrera in 2013) has chalked up a better OPS than Helton’s road OPS in 2000. Again, no one has accused Helton of using.

There’s plenty more.

I am leaving out all the eye-popping numbers from anyone about whom any doubts have been raised: Bagwell (whom I think has been particularly unfairly treated), Albert Belle, Mike Piazza, Arod, of course, Manny, Ortiz, Giambi and so on. I am only thinking of guys who have, by near consensus, been deemed to have done it “the right way.”

And yes, I am cherry-picking some. But my point is this – no one in the game today is putting up the kinds of numbers that players were 10-15 years ago, including players with pristine reputations.

So, here’s my question: unless you believe that all these guys were using – and most people don’t, including the likes of Bob Costas – what explains the fact that we saw so many crazy offensive performances a decade ago compared to now? Something else is going on. Some of those possible something elses are addressed in the link above. Shifts, some new pitcher-friendly ballparks, perhaps PEDs that benefit pitchers more than hitters are among the candidates. In any event, more serious analysis is warranted to understand the dramatic change we’ve seen. PEDs can’t explain nearly all of it.

At least that’s my take. Happy to hear comments, suggestions, alternative perspectives, etc.

 

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3 comments

  1. Nice article and good question.

    In addition to the factors you touch on we need to address increased pitcher velocity. There are currently 40 pitchers in MLB who throw 98 MPH. Just six years ago there were only 24 flame throwers.

    Now think back twenty years ago when Randy Johnson was extreme with his 97 MPH fastball.

    Increased velocity alongside greater variance in speed b/t fastballs and change-ups makes a batter’s job harder. Better pitching has much to do with high K rates (nine straight years of higher strikeouts).

    1. Pete,

      Was just talking to a friend about this the other day. It seems that *everyone* throws hard now. Remember when good offenses would work counts, drive the starter out of the game and get into the soft underbelly of the opponents’ middle relief? Those middle relievers are now throwing 92-94 (or better).

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