Perhaps we should have seen it coming when Manny Ramirez spontaneously retired five games into the season amid rumors of a second failed drug test, but 2011 gave us a very good sense of the state of the debate surrounding performance-enhancing drugs.
On one hand, the silence about any suspected PED use that greeted Curtis Granderson when he surpassed his career high in home runs with more than a month left in the season suggests that we may be moving into a post-steroid era.
But that doesn't mean we've finally reached the end of baseball's Red Scare. PED allegations aren't welcome, but neither are they particularly damaging, as evidenced when Jose Bautista signed a contract to become the Blue Jays' highest-paid player.
For Jim Thome, though, the risk of being linked to PEDs presents a danger, even if it's only in the vague sense, as in this piece. The Baseball Writers Association of America is the gatekeeper to Cooperstown; Thome's path to the Hall of Fame starts with their ballots. While Jeff Miller's tacit accusation isn't likely to be enough to sway fellow writers away from Thome, his central point has merit: When it comes to the Steroid Era, we don't even know what we don't know.
But even with 13 years of coverage, 13 years of investigation, 13 years of moralizing, recriminations and rumored use, there are still far more questions than answers. The Mitchell Report exposed a number of users; it is a virtual certainty that there are at least as many unnamed users as those who have been caught. From the players who have admitted their use -- voluntarily or under legal pressure -- we know some of the substances being abused; there still aren't tests available for the newer drugs being produced. There are certain players who have such a clean image that it is hard to imagine them as users, but are there 50 players you'd bet big money never touched a PED?
Bautista has been the subject of PED rumors since the end of 2010, when he hit a career-high 54 home runs, including closing the season with months of 11, 12, and 11 homers. When Bautista started '11 by hitting 19 home runs in 39 games, nearly a bomb every other day, the intimations were back with a vengeance. Even Thome, one of baseball's all-around good guys, couldn't escape the suspicion after hitting his 600th home run.
But the beauty of a game that keeps its history numerically is that those numbers can provide a testable hypothesis. More to the point, if the prevailing view is that PEDs made a substantial impact on those who used them, then that view should show through in the historical data.
Inspired by Nate Silver's work charting the production of minor leaguers who failed drug tests in Baseball Between the Numbers, below is a chart of the Wins Above Replacement for 46 players -- 26 hitters and 20 pitchers -- who were either suspended for PED usage, specifically admitted to taking PEDs, or were named as users in the Mitchell Report. To be included, these players also had to spend their final year of usage or year of suspension in the majors as well the year after.
The two statistics presented here are home runs and Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, as calculated by Fangraphs.com. Home runs are the canonical marker for PED use, but it is important to note that a simple power spike is by no means a clear indicator of use.
Roger Maris, whose 61 home runs in 1961 stood as the single-season home run record until '98, hit 39 and 33 in the seasons before and after his record. As though that shift wasn't abrupt enough, he failed to ever reach 30 again; in fact, despite playing 12 seasons, Maris hit 48 percent of his career home runs in the three-year period from '60 to '62. Of the 26 players to ever hit more than 50 homers in one season, only nine have ever repeated the feat -- though there are a few active players who may put up a second season above 50. While there is a tendency to believe that a marked increase in power numbers is a sure sign of cheating, there is every reason to note that even those who didn't use PEDs have seen their power fluctuate wildly.
WAR is a holistic stat that will show improvements in all manners of offensive and defensive production for hitters as well as defense-independent outcomes for pitchers, then compares them to the pool of freely available talent known as replacement level. By using a more complete measure rather than home runs for hitters and earned run average for pitchers, players who derived their value from nontraditional means are accurately represented, presenting as complete a picture of the effects of PEDs as possible.
At first glance, this confirms what many people suspected and feared: that hitters performed better, on average, when they were using steroids than in the year after they stopped using, seen largely in a 32-point increase in slugging percentage and 2.5 HR increase. The era was largely defined by a marked increase in home runs, so it isn't surprising that the most noticeable change comes in the power category. However, the results aren't as dire as they may seem.
Expecting any player to perform precisely at a given level ignores the ebb and flow that every player goes through from season to season. Certainly, we can expect players to perform within an expected range, but even the most consistent players aren't perfectly predictable. Albert Pujols, as consistent a hitter as there is in baseball, has posted WAR values of 9.3, 8.7, 7.3 and 5.1 over the last four full seasons. If a player of his caliber can't produce at a steady level, how can lesser players who are still developing or who simply lack his talent?
From '09 to '10, the average hitter who qualified for the batting title saw his WAR improve by nearly 1.8 wins, a change far larger than the 0.4 win improvement that our average user showed in the year he was using. So, while 0.4 wins' worth of improvement isn't a trivial result, it does fall within normal variance in yearly production. Two of the larger drivers of the positive result were Jason Giambi (4.7 wins better in his last year of using) and Alex Rodriguez (2.5 wins better). Both had uncharacteristically poor years after they were thought to have ceased their respective enhancing regimens, but both would rebound to better years in '05.
Pitchers in this sample saw a smaller impact, but they, too, performed better when they were using than when they were not. However, just like the hitters, they fell well within the average range of change. Pitchers as a group saw their WAR shift by just shy of 0.8 wins from '09 to '10, a shift much larger than the 0.09 wins that those in the sample showed.
It's hard to imagine, with all of the moralizing, rending of clothes, and ashes and sackcloth that we've seen the steroids controversy produce, that their real impact could be so small, but that's the reality. For all but a few players, PEDs may have produced a physiological change, but it didn't do much else.
This updated data echoes the conclusions that Silver drew by looking at minor leaguers in '04: Steroids didn't make anyone great. Good players who took them tended to remain good, and perhaps improved marginally. Mediocre players who took them didn't become good players; they became nominally better, but ultimately were still mediocre players.
Some players actually performed better after stopping their use; this could be due to better health, which led to increased playing time, or it could be due to simple year-to-year improvements. The names most closely associated with the Steroid Era -- Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, among others -- were likely going to be remembered for their offensive prowess whether they used or not, and the users who weren't tremendously talented still toiled in relative obscurity, even with their pharmaceutical security blanket.
There is a temptation to believe that steroid use was very top heavy, which is to say that only the best players used them, and that's why they were the best. This is circular logic. For every Alex Rodriguez who likely would have signed baseball's largest-ever contract even if he had never used, there was a Chad Allen, who was using to simply make a big league roster. Indeed, the latter case seems to be more common than the former, though they understandably received less coverage.
One striking factor is the number of players who used at the end of their careers. Manny Ramirez is far from the only player to retire with a suspension looming. Neifi Perez, Rafael Palmeiro and Jason Grimsley played a combined zero professional games after being suspended by MLB for substance abuse. Another set of players, headlined by Jeremy Giambi and Jim Leyritz, struggled for a while in the minor leagues before eventually bowing out; neither player would reach the majors again. Still another group of players used while in the minor leagues, believing that it would help them reach their goal of playing in The Show, only to languish in baseball purgatory without ever reaching the bigs. The idea that steroids were limited to the upper echelons of baseball talent is laughable at best and categorically inaccurate.
Many of the players most prominently linked to the Steroid Era were likely Hall of Famers before they started using. Before he'd ever left Pittsburgh, Bonds had three top-two finishes in the MVP race. If we simply cut his career off at the moment he allegedly first met Victor Conte before the '01 season, Bonds' 2,157 hits, 494 HRs, 1,405 RBIs, 471 SBs, career .968 OPS, three MVPs, eight Gold Glove Awards and eight Silver Slugger awards would have made him a compelling Hall candidate. Without playing another day, he even had enough years of service to get on the ballot.
Someday, Rodriguez will find himself in a similar position: A career that merits admission to the Hall on the first ballot, by acclimation, marred by the three years in which he used steroids. If those years could be excised like a tumor, he'd be better off; as good as those years were, he doesn't need them for his Hall case.
Ramirez, too, will struggle to get traction with voters because of his connection to the era. It is impossible to say precisely how steroids affected Ramirez, since, like Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, and countless others, he left baseball without providing a clean year to compare against his "tainted" numbers. His seven consecutive years of top-10 MVP finishes and 555 career home runs mean little to many, since it is far too easy to write him off as a druggie who had no respect for the game. The reality is, of course, that Ramirez's elite talent would have vaulted him into baseball's top tier -- not to mention an enviable tax bracket -- even if he'd never used PEDs.
The conclusions from this data don't indemnify the users -- they broke the rules; there's no way around that -- but it ought to make voters and fans more confident that these players deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, even though they made poor choices along the line.
Few, if any, steroid users who would garner enough votes to get in would have failed to do so had they never used PEDs. While the coverage of the PED issue will always center on the biggest stars, the vast majority of users lacked the talent to be remotely Hall-worthy, and nothing they put in their bodies could overcome that.