Friday, May 25, 2012

More than an asterisk*

Media coverage of steroids in baseball is old and familiar. Player A injects a needle into his arm and suddenly he hits the ball farther than ever before. In the newspapers the same statistics are repeated, and the same faces on the screen go on about how players from the steroid era should have an asterisk next to their stats. Their distaste surfaced in the case of Jeff Bagwell, who was never implicated in any steroid scandal, but received fewer than expected hall of fame votes— some voters didn’t like the way he bulked up over his career.

In the most recent offseason the media’s sharp eye turned on Ryan Braun, the freshly made National League MVP. The media reduced his incredible season to one more piece of evidence of the destructive nature of steroids in baseball. “He would never be that good without the steroids,” was the common groupthink.

Forty games into the new season Braun continues to send balls to the stands. His isolated power (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average) has improved from the “steroid” aided .265 of last year to .296 this year. And over the first 42 games his triple slash line of .323/.393/.621 sits well above his career average of .313/.372/.566. Despite the steroid scandal of the offseason, Braun continues to hit baseballs a very long way. While the sample size is small, Braun’s excellent performance leads to the question: how much do steroids impact performance?

Ryan Braun’s Isolated Power from his rookie debut in 2007 to May 2012. Courtesy of Fangraphs

As a fan we expect steroids to impact performance. The steroid era of the early 2000’s was defined by the gigantic homeruns (and muscles) of sluggers like Barry Bonds and Mark Mc Guire. We are conditioned to believe that steroid use leads to more power. Steroids increase strength, and an athlete taking steroid recovers quicker and can workout with greater intensity. Naturally we assume steroids would improve a baseball player. The actual impact of steroids is not so clear-cut. Although strength helps in baseball, it’s not always the strongest player who hits the most homeruns. Hitting a baseball a long way requires a combination of mechanics, hand-eye coordination and strength. How much strength contributes to the equation is one of the unanswerable mysteries of baseball.

The basic numbers do support the popular perception—that steroids help players hit homeruns. In 1990, both leagues hit a combined 3,317 homeruns. By 2000, the height of the steroid era, that number jumped up to 5,693 homeruns. Some change in baseball was leading to more homeruns. And the revelation of mass steroid use, implicating some of baseball’s most prominent sluggers, made steroids the natural culprit.

In this ten-year period, homeruns increased by 71.6 percent, a significant increase. But change is a part of baseball. The strike zone changes, the ballparks change, and the players change. While a 71 percent increase in homeruns seems incredibly significant, in the annals of baseball it is not uncommon. From 1945 to 1955, homeruns increased from 1,007 to 2,224— over a 100 percent increase. And from 1919 to 1929, the number of long balls rose from 447 to 1349. Instead of an anomaly, the steroid era fits in with the normal pattern of homerun rates rising sharply over only a few seasons. Steroids did not cause balls to fly out of the park in the 1920’s. Perhaps in the “steroid era” steroids were not the most significant factor.  

One fourth of a season from Ryan Braun is far from conclusive, but perhaps it can serve as a “…” in the steroid narrative, to counteract the sea of *’s that add little to the debate. Until more evidence comes in we simply don’t know how steroids impact a player’s statistics. The media repeats the same numbers, ostensibly proving that steroid users caused the increase, but the actual answer is complex. Steroids impacted baseball, that is a fact. But an important question remains: How much? Perhaps we will never know, but the topic of steroid use in baseball deserves more analysis and less blind opinion. 

-Alex Harleen

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