MUCH ADO ABOUT ... WHAT EXACTLY IS BASEBALL FIGHTING AGAINST?

August 12, 2013

By suspending 13 players on Monday, Major League Baseball was doing its best to create the image of a sport being cleaned up. Instead it sent the message that baseball is perpetually dirty, a message that began with a big lie that has dominated the game for more than a decade: the notion that steroids caused a rush of home runs. Equating drugs with home runs enabled MLB to make drugs a bogeyman that split the union, painted the players as untrustworthy and gave management the whip hand. The big lie, unexamined, is what resulted in the players' being required to give up their bodily fluids and submit to ever-increasing punishments, and to be doubted and investigated even when their screens are clean. The big lie allowed commissioner Bud Selig to pour resources into witch hunts of players by paying for information while ignoring other problems in the game. The big lie is why we're talking about Alex Rodriguez today rather than the Pirates or Mike Trout or David Price.

The truth is that what happens when a bat meets a baseball in the testing world is no different than what happened during most of what's known as the Steroid Era. The years 1995--98 and 2008--11 are indistinguishable from each other in terms of home runs on contact (the percentage of balls in play that go over the fence) and slugging percentage on contact. There's no significant difference in the data between 2003 and '04, the first season of testing with penalties. The 2012 season had the highest rate of home runs on contact since 2006.

So why are scoring, homers, batting averages and slugging percentages down in the testing era? It's the strikeouts. Increasing K rates have driven the absolute counts of everything else down. We've had a nearly 18% increase in strikeouts since 2003. That drop in balls in play is more than enough to change the overall statistics dramatically. Clean hitters haven't caused the dip in offense. The only thing that has changed, compared to 2003, is the one or two more at bats a game in which the ball isn't put in play.

There was a spike in power on contact from 1999 through 2001; by '02 power numbers had gone back to their previous levels. I don't believe there's anyone who argues for a steroid era bounded by 1999 and 2001, but someone doing so would at least have the data to back it up. Still, a three-year power spike is hardly unusual. The 1985--87 seasons are as out of step with the surrounding years as 1999--2001 are, and power numbers varied wildly from 1975 to '81, to pick two recent examples.

What's true is that home runs—specifically the ones hit by Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire—led to steroid testing. The other reasons proffered for a testing program were red herrings a decade ago and remain so today. Player health? Players weren't pushing for testing and bans. Was it a moral issue? Cheating, with drugs and otherwise, has been a winked-at part of baseball dating back to Reconstruction. Was PED use damaging to MLB's business interests? Revenues and attendance spiraled upward during the late 1990s, and cities fell over themselves to give public money to the industry.

The NFL suspended two players for violating that league's drug policy last week. I doubt you could name the two players or the teams they play for. The NFL understands that you investigate, you discipline and you shut up the rest of the time. MLB, always at war with its players, has never grasped that. Neither the research cited here nor in Nate Silver's seminal 2005 study in Baseball Between the Numbers support the idea that PEDs have an effect on how baseball is played. This week's suspensions, in fact, will have a greater effect on pennant races than drugs ever did.

Perhaps if Trout wants Bud Selig to say his name, he should put down his bat and pick up a syringe.

PHOTOJOHN ANGELILLO/UPI/LANDOVSIGN OF THE TIMES The focus on the fate of Rodriguez, who greeted fans last week while on rehab with the Trenton Thunder, reflects MLB's problematic PED policy.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)