Patience, My Brothers
The winter solstice is upon us, and the days are too damn short. For baseball fans, this is a long, boring time. It's not worth chasing down every rumor about where Sammy's going, for what, and what Hendry will do with the money saved. So you're left with...not much really. That leads to impatience and a desire to trade just for the hell of trading.
Patience is key. The Cubs need to be players in the market, but can't blindly trade just to give us something to read and talk about. We're not privy to the inner-workings and machinations going on in the Tower. But suffice it to say, the Cubs starting outfield will not be Sosa, Patterson, and DuBois/Hollandsworth. Panic prior to the New Year makes no sense. The Cubs have in place the best infield in baseball; before the market shakes out, the Cubs will have a nice outfield as well.
The Clean and the Clear
Will Carroll got his name in lights. Well, in the New York Times Op-Ed Page.
Good for him. I don't know him other than his writings on
(I don't pay for BP), and for decorum sake, I'll keep my mouth shut on what I thought of his political writing.
But his piece in the Times was extremely unconvincing, perhaps because he was not able fully to articulate his argument due to the Times' word limit. But as I understand his argument, Carroll claims that criticizing Bonds and his phenomenal performance over the past five years is simply uninformed finger-pointing because we do not know whether or to what extent steroids help performance. Carroll seems to retreat from this position at the end, but, in any event, the lack of definitive scientific proof regarding the effects of steroids should not excuse Bonds' cheating.
A common argument made against those who deny steroids' performance-enhancing effects is that the athlete must think it improves his performance, or he would not risk the medical effects that accompany use. Of course, that does not prove that steroids have the performance-enhancing effect, but I think it should shift the burden to those who believe that use does not have those effects. Further, all
professional sports leagues, the Olympics, cycling, and track and field organizations ban the substances because of the unfair advantage that cheaters receive and the accompanying risks to health. Again, for those wishing to argue against the enhancing effects of steroids, why should we doubt the conclusions of the organizations and athletes with the most to gain/lose, financially and otherwise?
Carroll concedes that steroids do in fact make the user stronger. But he then states
we have little or no idea what these drugs accomplish. Do stronger players hit the ball farther, swing the bat quicker or throw the ball harder?
The appeal is that because no tests have compared the clean from "the clear," we can make no conclusions. Bob Dylan might respond "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Of course, stronger men will swing a bat faster and generate more power. The distance a ball travels depends on the force with which it is hit (and its trajectory off the bat). Force comes from bat speed (and the mass of the bat). Strong men are able to fell a tree more quickly because they generate more force with their axe--i.e. they swing an axe of a given weight faster than a weaker man. Why wouldn't the same be true for bat speed? (Honestly, if you have a compelling reason why this analogy is wrong, please leave a comment.) In any event, strength seems to be pretty closely tied to bat speed.
[T]here are no credible studies that connect drug use
to improved performance, nor any that determine what cost these athletes
may be paying. In 2004, Major League Baseball financed its first research grants with the pathetic sum of $100,000. The league values science about as much as one-third of the salary of the last player on the bench.
What I don't understand is what such a study would look like. Animal controls wouldn't work because the question is not whether steroids improve strength, but whether the improved strength corresponds to better baseball skills. Computer models? Perhaps, strength can be shown to generate greater bat speed, but as I mentioned above, that
seems pretty much beyond argument.
Obviously, the best studies would compare athletes using steroids, comparing their juiced performance to past performance, and comparing on-going performance to those with the closest age and statistical correlation. Such a study has the obvious disavantage of being illegal, immoral, and violative of the relevant collective bargaining agreement. Indeed, such studies
have probably been done by criminal firms like BALCO. These studies would undoubtedly confirm the performance enhancement effect of steroids.
Carroll then engages on the topic those with a sense of history care most about--Barry Bonds and his freaky five year performance.
It is true that Bonds's performance over what many would expect to be the twilight of his career has been incredible. Instead of a slow decline as he approached 40, Bonds has done what can only now be described as superhuman. One popular statistic notes that Bonds has hit more 450-foot homers over the past five seasons than he had over the previous 14 seasons of his career. The raw numbers, however, only reflect his increased home-run production; they do not say whether he hits more homers that fly significantly farther.
Yes, the raw numbers don't give homerun distance. But as Carroll notes, someone did the actual work behind the raw numbers and found reported distances of the homeruns Bonds hit. That's not something to be dismissed but praised. Indeed, the entire sabermetric revolution was based on going beyond "the raw numbers." If it is true that Bonds' homeruns have traveled greater distances since 2000 (and anyone who has watched Bonds the last five years really doesn't doubt that), this seems like strong evidence that the steroid use contributed to his ability to hit homeruns. Carroll simply dismisses this point and moves on to the most problematic aspect of his article:
What of this late-career surge? Certainly we can point to that with an accusing finger, sure that Bonds's numbers in the record books have been written with some "cream" or "clear" substance. It's much easier to point than to find facts.
According to Clay Davenport, a researcher at Baseball Prospectus, Hank Aaron's best year for home runs - when he had the most homers per at bat - was 1973, when he was 39. His second best was in 1971, at age 37. Willie Stargell had his best seasons after age 37. Carlton Fisk put his best rate in the books when he was 40. Even Ty Cobb had his best home run rate at age 38, though the end of the dead-ball era helped that. It is not uncommon, according to Mr. Davenport, for a slugger to change his mechanics as he ages, swinging for the fences as his ability to run the bases declines.
The first and most obvious problem is the inclusion of Cobb in that it actually suggests the opposite point: that generally, only a fundamental change in the game (i.e. the live ball or steroids) can cause dramatic late career homerun rate changes. Obviously, Carroll recognizes that Cobb was a poor example and quickly discards him.
But what about Aaron? In 1973, when Aaron was 39, his home run to at bat ratio was .102. His career ratio was .061. Thus, there is seemingly solid evidence that Aaron was successful into the late part of his career. But looking at Aaron's numbers, you see that his home run numbers picked up again after 1968--after baseball's expansion and the lowering of the pitchers mound. Additionally, Aaron's home park changed with the Braves move from Milwaukee to Atlanta
, going from a pitcher's park to a hitter's park beginning in 1969.
Further, Aaron had seasons with homerun ratios of .076 and .080 earlier in his carrer. That is, while his homerun ratio was highest at age 39, his earlier performance demonstrates that his late career homerun ratio was not such an anomoly.
Carroll's Willie Stargell example is even more misplaced. Stargell was born in 1940. His two best years
, home run ratio and by every other measure, were 1971 and 1973, when he was in his early 30's. Granted, Stargell had good years in 1978 and 1979 (while missing substantial time), but to say he had his best years after the age of 37 is simply wrong.
Similarly, Carroll's Carlton Fisk
example is extremely weak. While it is true that Fisk put up his best HR rate when he was 40, he only played in 76 games that year. Further, Fisk hit over 30 homeruns only once in his career (when he was 37 years old), thus making changes in his homerun rate less dramatic.
So what about Bonds? We know Bonds began using steroids sometime in 2000. Is his post 2000 run really analogous to Aaron, Stargell, or Fisk? Of course not. Prior to 2000, Bond's homerun rate was .0637. From 2000 through the present, age 36-40, Bonds' homerun rate was .121, 91% higher than his career rate. Bonds' rate in 2001 was a ridiculous .153, at age 37. By contrast, his best rate prior to using steroids was (an impressive) .096 in 1999.
So we have a spike in his homerun rate at or around the time he started using steroids. His rate is absurdly out of line with his past performance. The four players (presumably the best available) alleged to show a similar pattern show nothing close to Bonds' late career production.
To believe that steroids had nothing to do with Bonds' homerun rate you have to believe that 1) increased strength and homeruns are not correlated; 2) Bonds is sui generis in that he had five years past his prime unlike every other player; and 3) that Bonds foolishly used steroids without any compelling evidence to himself that it would improve his performance (or you could believe his "I did it for my arthritis" pap).
Carroll's closing statement seems a cop-out to me.
Perhaps Hank Aaron said it best: "I know that you can't put something in your body to make you hit a fastball, changeup or curveball." Baseball faces the same challenges as every other sport: the pressure to perform forces some to seek any advantage, legal or illegal. There is no reason to expect more from baseball than we do from society.
No, you can't take a drug to instantly make you able to hit a baseball, but you can to make you hit it further. Aaron also said, "anyway you look at it, it's wrong." Moreover, when we see something obviously wrong in society we punish those who committed the wrong-doing, and we reform the law if necessary. We don't simply say there's no reason to expect more from the wrong-doers.
Finally, I don't understand the analogy to speed or coke. They're banned and illegal as well. Speek and coke probably do help performance in the short run but I would guess in a less dramatic way. Further, Carroll's suggestion that last year's "clean" results are somehow exonerating adds little. First, Victor Conte wrote that the movement for better, undetectable steroids has continued with a new generation of steroids. Further, there is no year round testing, meaning players could pump up and taper off in time for testing. Carroll's statement, "[w]ithout more scientific studies on the effects that steroids and other drugs have on the game, we're left with appeals to emotion, finger-pointing or worse" is simply wrong. We can look at the statistical evidence of the cheaters and judge for ourselves.
I appologize for the length of this piece, and if you got to this point, congratulations. No, you can't have the last ten minutes of your life back. As a baseball fan, I recognized that Sammy and Barry have been cheating for some time and it doesn't affect my ability to enjoy the game. However, to argue that questioning Bonds' performance is uninformed "fingerpointing" ("or worse"--whatever that's supposed to mean) is insulting to me as a baseball fan who can recognize that Bonds' performance is such a statistical anomoly which happened to conincide with his cheating. No, I don't have metaphysical proof that his bizarre five year performance is due to his steroids, but use of Ockham's razor seems pretty appropriate here.