The Steroids Issue

Someone in the comments of the Hall of Fame post mentioned their disappointment that I’d support for cheaters (I assume this means McGwire and Palmeiro). I threw a quick comment up there, but I thought this post written almost two years ago (and two blogs ago) more or less covers things. There are a few additional notes on the Hall of Fame aspect at the end.

From USA Today

“Asked if he would consider reinstating Henry Aaron as baseball’s home-run king and adding an asterisk or some other notation to the statistics of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and others involved in baseball’s steroid controversy, Selig said that he might. “Once you start tinkering, you can create more problems,” he said. “But I’m not dismissing it. I’m concerned. I’d like to get some more evidence.””

Enacting this kind of thing (with consistency) requires going through a number of steps:

(1) Having evidence that a player used steroids
(2) Having evidence that using steroids increases a player’s stats
(3) Providing justification why said effects invalidate player’s stats
(4) Removing/making notation about player’s stats
(5) Profit?

Let’s use Barry Bonds as an example.

(1) I don’t think there’s much argument here, though Bonds never did test positive. [Edit: and apparently evidence isn't really necessary, as we saw with Jeff Bagwell.]

(2) Generally speaking, I’m on the “No” side of this debate. I’ve seen a fair amount of evidence saying that using steroids (and especially HGH) has no significant effect on on-field performance at the major league level. The best I’ve seen is that steroids help with the healing process and thus would allow a player to stay on the field or work-out more. Bonds did have an incredible few years in his late 30′s. He also had a great year at the age of 42 despite steroid testing having already been in effect for years. Was a late-career offensive explosion to this extent unprecedented? Probably, yes.

          [Though here's a nifty chart from Royals Review:          It's by age - Aaron is blue and Bonds is orange.

          I know that surprised me, even if it's not necessarily the best way to look at the issue.]

I looked at players with at least 400 PA for each year over Bonds’ career and it seems that for his late-career boom he was about 2.4 – 2.8 standard deviations above the groups’ average number of home runs for four of those years and 4.6 standard deviations above the average in his 73 HR season. (His second highest was 3.1 SD above average at age 28, when I don’t think anyone accuses him of using steroids.) I couldn’t get nice data from before 1974 (when Aaron’s career primarily occurred) but I estimated Aaron as being about 2.3 – 2.9 standard deviations above the average HR mark for the same type of groups for his late-career boom.

I don’t think there is any justification to say that those home runs were the direct result of using steroids, but Bonds’ performance was certainly unusual (though those players at the extreme end of the talent curve do tend to defy usual expectations). Still – for the sake of argument – let’s say that we’ll answer (2) in the affirmative.

(3) So Bonds cheated (yes) and it helped him put up better statistics (maybe). Does that mean those stats (specifically the home runs) shouldn’t count?

  • Do they all not count, or just the ones he hit while on steroids?
  • If he was on steroids and so was the pitcher he hit the HR off of does it count? (And I believe that more pitchers than hitters have thus far been caught. Plus, the most prominent potential benefit of using steroids – faster healing – would likely benefit pitchers more than hitters.)
  • If he hit a HR clean off of a pitcher on steroids, does he get a bonus?
  • If you invalidate his home runs, do you also invalidate his doubles? Or his walks? It seems like it would have to be all of them.
  • His stats helped his team win games. And he won MVP awards. Do they go too?
  • If you invalidate his home runs, do you take those homers off the records of the pitchers who gave them up? Just the clean pitchers?
  • Why just steroids? Where’s the line? Getting Lasik eye surgery can be called a performance enhancer. Or what about amphetamines? They’re a performance enhancer and it seems they would also be considered cheating (since MLB has banned them along with steroids). Hank Aaron admitted using greenies, and many (many) other players did also. Why do their stats count? Gaylord Perry was an admitted cheater – he won 314 games using scuffed baseballs (he was even caught and suspended for it). He’s in the Hall of Fame.

Lets add one * for all steroid users (there goes Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, and A-Rod from near the top of the HR list); two * for players who used greenies (bye-bye Aaron, Mays, Frank Robinson?); three * for pitchers that scuffed baseballs; four * for players that used corked bats (which research also shows don’t really do anything); five * for players that played when blacks weren’t allowed in MLB (so long, Babe – though he could also possibly be knocked out for the corked bat thing); six * for guys who played in Coors Field pre-humidor (the last couple weren’t cheating, but they were performance enhancing situations); and so on. I guess that leaves Ken Griffey Jr. as the all-time home run king. Probably. Maybe.

So, are we going to single out only the home run totals of people that were caught (or suspected of) using only steroids (or HGH, I guess)? How do you justify that?

Are steroids a black-eye on the sport from a public relations perspective? Absolutely. Are they from a competitiveness perspective (relative to the rest of the game’s history)? Probably not.

But let’s go with the outrage expressed by the country’s mainstream sports writers. They ignored steroid use while it was going on and pretend that all players before 1993 were pure as the driven snow, but boy are they mad now. We’re going to say that Barry Bonds didn’t really hit 762 HR and that Hank Aaron and his 756 HR are king again. [Bonus: if they want, we can take Bonds' 688 intentional walks and make Aaron #1 again in that category too (with his 293).]

(4) Guess what? Bud Selig doesn’t really have the authority to change the record books. They keep accounts of what happened on the baseball field, and Barry Bonds really did hit 762 home runs. Roger Maris never had an asterisk next to his 61 home runs and commissioner Ford Frick admitted that he didn’t have the power put it there.

(5) Profit. MLB will make a lot of money next year. A-Rod will hit a bunch of home runs and help the Yankees win games and New York fans will cheer. People on the road will taunt him. If it was never revealed that he used steroids guess what would have happened? A-Rod would hit a bunch of home runs and help the Yankees win games and New York fans would cheer. People on the road would taunt him.

Cheating (by using steroids) is wrong. It sets a bad example for children (Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children?!?). Cheating on your wife with Madonna is also wrong. It also sets a bad example for children. And it’s a lot weirder.


If MLB turned a blind eye to the cheating and, really, encouraged it*, how can you get too sanctimonious with the players? I’m not saying I’d encourage the use of steroids, but if such a large portion of players were using it then I think the best thing to do is to look at it as an era where that was common and adjust like we usually do (ie, more HR were hit so guys that hit really well weren’t quite as valuable – WAR does this).

* Didn’t discourage it through testing and consequences, and also pushed McGwire, Sosa, et al as heroes. It was “against the rules” with a wink and a nudge.

And how can we judge? Do we need to be 100% sure someone used to keep them out of the Hall? 99%? 90%? Better than even odds? Sneaking suspension. If it’s close to 100% then you’re almost certainly going to let a cheater in (if that hasn’t already happened, which I don’t think is improbably). If it’s much less you’ll almost certainly keep someone clean out. Is that really the most reasonable course of action?

Just because we let Mark McGwire into the Hall of Fame for being really, really good at hitting a baseball doesn’t mean that we think he’s a perfect individual. It’s not all that complicated to say “Mark McGwire was really, really good at hitting a baseball, though there is debate about how much his use of steroids helped in that regard”.

Barry Bonds was perhaps the greatest player of all-time. Roger Clemens perhaps the greatest pitcher. Keep them both out? How could you say the Hall of Fame has the best players if perhaps the two best aren’t in it (especially given that the Hall will be full of cheaters, including ones that did steroids)? If Bonds is kept out for “cheating”, then no one who has ever cheated in any manner can get in and all those who cheated and are in should be kicked out. He was such an amazing player that – unlike with Sosa or McGwire or whoever – saying steroids helped him is irrelevant (there’s no way they could have helped enough to take him from non-Hall of Famer to Hall of Famer). That means if he’s kept out it’s on a strict blanket “no cheaters” policy. And then you have to be consistent.

So I guess when Derek Jeter comes up for election, the entire argument would revolve around whether or not it was cheating when the Cap’n acted like he got hit by a pitch (but clearly didn’t) and got first-base (I think it’s pretty absurd to say it was cheating, but I also think it’s absurd to keep the #1 or #2 player in the sport’s history out of the Hall of Fame). If, say, 26% of voters think that it was cheating and don’t vote for him, how will the rest react (I would pay a billion imaginary dollars to see this happen)? I’d actually pay a trillion imaginary dollars for evidence to surface that Jeter – once – used PEDs. I’m not saying it’s likely to actually be the case, but it’s certainly not impossible. I honestly don’t know what would happen, but the most probable outcome – in my opinion – is massive amounts of hypocrisy (Bonds still out, but Jeter in at 90%).

Bonus fun fact: Barry Bonds hit a combined .288/.426/.580* in 596 PA off of future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Mike Mussina. Sick.

* Career line: .298/.444/.607.


Joe Posnanski wrote a few good things about this:

One on steroids: http://joeposnanski.si.com/2010/08/06/what-if-we-are-wrong-again-about-steroids/
One on the HoF: http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2010/12/hall-of-fame-eight-definites.html
One on a “fixed” HoF: http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2011/01/willie-mays-hall-of-fame.html

Rob Neyer addressed it today as well: http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/6738/change-will-roll-into-the-hall-someday