Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 4, 2005
BASEBALL: Yes, Steroids Help
Unless you take the strong libertarian position - that there should be no restrictions on what ballplayers can ingest regardless of the impact on themselves or the game - the debate about what to do about steroids in baseball really revolves around three questions:
1. Does taking steroids help make you a better baseball player? (If not, there's no point in banning them).
2. Is taking steroids harmful to your health? (Again, if not, there's no reason to ban them)
3. Is there a feasible way to test for steroid use or otherwise enforce a ban?
I recognize that there are serious people who disagree about the second and third questions. But I submit that, if you think about it honestly, what we do know about the first point is quite clear: steroids* can and do help performance in baseball, and specifically help in hitting for power.
* - I refer here colloquially to "steroids" to include other hormone-altering performance-enhancers like human growth hormone. As often happens in debates about drugs, precise definition of the substances involved is itself a whole sub-field of debate.
The Available Types of Evidence
Part of the confusion over the link between steroids and performance derives from the different types of evidence we use to answer these types of questions. To illustrate, let's compare this question to one with a settled answer: whether throwing the ball faster will help a pitcher strike out more batters.
One sometimes hears the argument made that we can't and don't have direct evidence of how steroids help performance. This is true enough, as far as it goes. For example, we can show directly how velocity helps a pitcher get strikeouts: you can measure batters' reaction times and show how increasing velocity makes it harder to make contact. Or, you can simply watch a guy who throws 95+ blow pitches even past guys who are looking for them. That kind of "see the causation with your own eyes" evidence doesn't exist for steroids and performance in baseball.
Where direct evidence of causation isn't available, of course, statistical proof of correlation can be good enough. A classic example of this from the intersection of law and medicine is the fact that we still don't have direct evidence that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer (i.e., scientists can't show how it happens), but the statistical evidence shows a fairly overwhelming connection between smoking and increased likelihood of getting lung cancer.
Statistical proofs of correlation are pervasive in baseball - to use our example above, it would be easy to do a study showing that pitchers who regularly throw above 95 mph get a lot more strikeouts, and are much more likely to generate large numbers of strikeouts, than pitchers who rarely or never crack 90+ mph. That correlation is so powerful that it will show up in almost any study.
Other correlations are trickier, which is why a reliable study has to use a large enough sample size to be able to generalize, and has to ensure that truly comparable players are being compared, so that different outcomes can't be explained away by some other factor.
Here, there are two problems with studying steroid use. One is finding large and otherwise truly comparable sets of players (comparing the same player before and after isn't useful because of the interfering factor of age, which ordinarily is, of course, very powerfully correlated with declining performance after about age 28 or so). But the bigger problem is that steroid use, by virtue of being illegal, is done in secret; we have so little reliable information about who uses what, when and in what amounts that for the foreseeable future, it will be impossible to do statistical comparisons with any degree of confidence.
The fallacy in many arguments over steroids in baseball is to note the lack of direct or reliable statistical evidence and declare the question unresolved. But this is not consistent with how human beings make decisions in everyday life, in law, medicine, politics or in baseball. When the best forms of evidence are unavailable, we look at what remains: at circumstantial evidence, and logical connections to be drawn therefrom. For example, even if we couldn't see fast pitches going by hitters and read the evidence of the same in box scores, what we do know about hitting a baseball - you have to time your swing to make contact - is itself strongly suggestive of the fact that a faster pitch will be harder to hit.
I would submit that that evidence is more than sufficient to persuade us that steroids help performance in baseball. Let's once again break this down to a few questions:
A. Do Steroids Help Build Strength?
This much is not seriously disputed, which is one reason why steroids are banned in the NFL and the Olympics, where physical strength and speed can be shown to connect directly to performance. There are certainly debates about precisely how and to what extent steroids help, but few serious people would debate that taking them helps build stronger muscles.
B. Does Strength Help In Hitting A Baseball?
This is really the crux of the argument. It is often said that you can't take a drug to help you hit a curveball, which is true but totally beside the point. The issue isn't whether steroids will help you or me become a major league ballplayer; the issue is whether guys with the pre-existing skills to play professional baseball will have those skills enhanced. To deny that, among other things, you have to argue that strength has no impact on the ability to hit for power. Of course, this is ridiculous. Since the introduction of the home run as a regular part of the game in the 1920s, it has always been the case that big, strong guys with powerful chests and arms have tended to be home run hitters, and skinny little guys have not. To deny that steroids have an impact on hitting for power in particular, you have to look at all the home runs hit by the Gehrigs and Foxxes and Mantles and Kluzewskis and Killebrews and all the singles hit by the Willie McGees and Vince Colemans and Nellie Foxes of the world, and argue that it is just a coincidence that physical strength has always been so strongly correlated with home run power. You have to not only look at Bonds and Giambi and all the other guys who have been placed under one sort of cloud or other and say that whatever they took or were given didn't matter; you actually have to say that all the muscle Barry Bonds has added has had nothing to do with his power surge, that Jason Giambi's increased power production as he gained muscle was just a coincidence. Sorry, I'm not buying that.
Basic physics: force equals mass times
C. Do Steroids Help In Conditioning?
Strength is the core of the debate. But correct me if I'm wrong here - I believe most of the analyses I've seen have similarly shown that steroids can assist more broadly in conditioning - beyond pure muscle mass - by assisting in the ability to train at greater length without injury, at least in the short run.
D. Does Superior Conditioning Help In Baseball?
The question, again, essentially answers itself, and doubly so for aging players seeking to stave off declining bat speed (or declining velocity, for pitchers, but pitchers and steroids are another day's debate). Honus Wagner lifted weights; Ty Cobb was a conditioning fanatic. It could be a coincidence that they lasted into their 40s in a day when few others did.
The Bonds Issue
I would stress, again, that I don't have anything but the sketchy information in the public record on what Barry Bonds took and when, and how it helped him. And it's true: Bonds' late career surge has had other causes, from better bats to a greater uppercut in his swing. But I've been disappointed at some of the efforts from otherwise reasonable people to obscure the fact that Bonds' increased strength has had an impact on his unprecedented late-30s power surge.
I meant to get to this when it ran in mid-December: the New York Times editorial by Will Carroll of the Baseball Prospectus (discussed here on his blog). I like and respect Carroll from his work at BP, but the Times piece has some serious issues. One is the point I make above: Carroll essentially implies that he is agnostic on whether strength helps with power hitting, contrary to 85 years' experience:
[W]e 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? Does using steroids reduce fatigue so that they can do any of those things more effectively than "clean" players?
Much more problematically, Carroll uses some seriously misguided examples to imply to the Times' readers that Bonds' power surge is not so unprecedented:
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.
These are terribly bad examples. First of all, Aaron in 1973, Stargell in 1978 and 1979 and Fisk in 1988 all had one thing in common: none of them were full-time, 500+ at bat players any longer, as they'd been in their primes. It's a lot easier for an older player to improve his production if he has a third to half of the season to rest as opposed to the years when he was playing every day, a fact that has absolutely zero to do with Barry Bonds.
Let's take Stargell first, as he's the most egregious example. Willie Stargell's career best slugging percentages, both absolutely and relative to the league, came at the ages of 26, 31, and 33, well within the normal range. Stargell's home run rate improved slightly in 1978-79, at age 38 and 39, but his doubles - also a key power stat - dropped off sharply from 43 in 1973 to 18 and 19 in 1978 and 1979. Was he really hitting for more power? Also, Stargell had another thing going for him: while he wasn't, strictly speaking, platooned (his backup, John Milner, was also lefthanded), the decline in his playing time allowed him to see a much more favorable mix of pitchers: Stargell had 30.5% of his at bats against lefties in 1978 and 30.7% in 1979, as opposed to 39.5% in 1971 and 33.1% in 1973. For a guy with Stargell's big platoon splits, that's a significant advantage.
Then there's Aaron. If you know the game's history, you already know that Aaron's late-career power surge was an illusion created by the improved offensive conditions of the 1970s as opposed to the 1960s, combined with his move in 1966 into homer-friendly Fulton County Stadium and out of pitcher-friendly Milwaukee County. Aaron hit 52 homers on the road and 37 at home in 1962-63; in 1971 and 1973, those figures were more than reversed to 55 at home and 32 on the road. But it doesn't stop there; with just 392 at bats in 1973 at age 39, the right-handed Aaron saw 44.4% of his at bats against left-handed pitching, up from 30.9% in 1971 and 26.5% as a full-time player in 1969.
Then there's Fisk, whose "best" home run season was 253 at bats in 1988. Do I really need to explain why a catcher might hit better playing half the time? And yes, the right-handed Fisk faced lefties 36.5% of the time in 1988, compared to 22.9% in his actual best season, 1977.
(Ty Cobb, whose career high in home runs was 12 but whose career high in slugging average was at age 24, is not even worthy of discussing at length).
None of these guys - indeed, no other player in baseball history - compares remotely to what Barry Bonds has done, and it does no service to the debate to pretend otherwise. Prior to 2000, Bonds was 34 years old and had a career slugging percentage of .559, with his two best slugging percentages (.677 and .647) coming at age 28 and 29. Since then, he has slugged .781, a 40% improvement on his career average and a 15% improvement over a five-year stretch compared to his career best season. Neither Carroll nor Davenport could find an example anywhere, certainly not outside of guys who straddled the arrival of the lively ball in the 1920s, of an established player who had anything like a 40% improvement in his power numbers from age 35 to 39. (Bonds has also batted .358 over the past three years, compared to batting above .320 just once through age 35, also nothing like a normal aging pattern).
Carroll's argument would have been better served by recognizing the fact that what Bonds has done is totally unprecedented and clearly not unrelated to his dramatic improvement in physical strength in his late 30s. Pretending otherwise does no one any good.