Is the Steroid Ban Responsible for the “Year of the Pitcher”? No, Say Freakonomics Writers

“Twice in the past decade, I have really tried to find evidence that say that steroids matter in baseball. And both times I invested a lot of effort, and ended up finding no evidence that steroids mattered.” — Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics

Since the publication of Freakonomics in 2005, the book has become something of a franchise for co-authors Stephen Dubner and Arthur Steven Levitt: it led to a sequel (SuperFreakonomics), a New York Times blog, a podcast, a regular segment on NPR, and a just-released documentary film. Not bad for popular nonfiction.

On Tuesday, they trained their eyes on the so-called “Year of the Pitcher,” the 2010 season which has seen a significant decline in scoring and increase in no-hitters, and asked the question: is the steroid ban responsible? Twenty-four minutes later, and after interviewing Levitt, Mitchel Lichtman, Doug Glanville, and Padre manager Bud Black, Dubner concludes that… well, it’s hard to say, really, but maybe it has something to do with defense. That’s the same conclusion drawn on their blog by Hayes Davenport (a Comedy Central writer, on staff at Will Ferrell’s “Big Lake”). The 24-minute podcast was shrunk to a six-minute segment on NPR’s syndicated Marketplace program, alongside stories about the Nobel Prize in Economics and safety guidelines for the Boeing 787.

The research presented isn’t particularly eye-opening… but then, it’s being presented on NPR. This may have been the Year of the Pitcher, but in many ways it’s also been the year of the mainstreaming of advanced statistics. Fangraphs is on ESPN! Bill Simmons is a stat nerd! Dave Cameron is King of All Media! The kind of conversations taking place here, and at Insidethebook and Billjamesonline and Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus and Athletics Nation and all the other pioneering stat sites, are expanding to latte-drinking radio listeners and Will Ferrell fans. Sabermetrics was a tiny subculture for so long that it can be hard to adjust to the fact that what used to be the bleeding edge is now the mainstream.

Welcome to the mainstream, fellow nerds!




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


51 Responses to “Is the Steroid Ban Responsible for the “Year of the Pitcher”? No, Say Freakonomics Writers”

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  1. Matt Defalco says:

    Welcome to the Machine, RBI worshipers.

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  2. Doogolas says:

    Whoo!

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  3. philosofool says:

    I get annoyed every time someone mentions the inability to find concrete evidence for an effect and then turns around acts as though this is evidence that there is no effect. Assuming you set your standards for evidence high enough, it becomes very difficult to find evidence for anything, and it is a special circumstance in which the null observation is itself informative. Given that we lack clear information about who did, who didn’t, and when players used steroids, it’s going to be very hard to find clear indications regarding steroids’ effects. In short, we don’t KNOW very much about the effect of steroids, but that is not the same thing as making it the best assumption that they have no effect.

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    • Ok but... says:

      No one is making the assumption that they have no effect. Levitt started from the assumption that there IS an effect, but couldn’t find any evidence for one.

      The thing is “we” do know a lot about anabolic steroids and how they affect the body. They’ve been used and prescribed since the 1930s.
      We also know a lot about the physiological aspects of hitting a baseball.

      So yes, we could never do a double blind study where we gave half of MLB steroids and the other half a placebo, but this doesn’t mean we can’t use the knowledge we have to make a best guess.

      There are lots of explanations that are equally as plausible as steroids.

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  4. Joe says:

    Dr. you’ve done it!

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  5. Tom B says:

    “Dubner concludes that… well, it’s hard to say, really, but maybe it has something to do with defense.”

    I would directly attribute that to the drug testing. Poor fielding sluggers are finding their place in the game disappearing by the day, and those roster spots are being snatched up by highly athletic players who are actually good all around ballplayers instead of mashers that can stand in the field. 6 years ago these players would never make the team because they couldn’t mash 15 HR’s, now they are out there saving 15 runs instead.

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  6. CircleChange11 says:

    Defense matters more in lower scoring environments and on BIP that stay in the park.

    Defense and steroids both influence.

    It always cracks me up to hear the non-athletes question the effect of steroids, and then the athletes risk a lot to take them and put up record numbers. Where are the steroid users that say they don’t effect recovery, strength, etc … Which leads to increased performance? Nowhere.

    When athletes, including baseball players, stop taking PEDs and put up similar performances, then I’ll be a believer. While it’s true that steroids don’t teach a skill, they do improve aspects of the physical performance. That we don’t have an exact number or %, doesn’t negate the reality.

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    • SF 55 for life says:

      but pitchers can take steroids too, which is why steroids might not have had so much of an effect.

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    • SF 55 for life says:

      Also there are a lot of things that “improve aspects of the physical performance” that are legal (just visit GNC if you don’t believe me). Why are steroids any different? Because they actually work? Becasuse they might be bad for you? If those are the reasons tons of medications and supplements would have to be taken off the market.

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      • tom says:

        Which legal supplements are as bad as steroids?

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      • SF 55 for life says:

        @tom

        Well I was actually talking about pharmaceuticals in general. For example the drug Paxil increases the risk of suicide in teenagers and yet is the fifth most prescribed antidepressant in the United States.

        Most drugs have side effects and can be dangerous if used in harmful ways, painkillers for example. There are many people who will tell you that using anabolic steroids the right way can be beneficial. I think outlawing something because it is potentially dangerous is stupid, let the people decide if they want to do it or not.

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      • SF 55 for life says:

        as you can see this leads to a political debate that I rather not get into on a baseball website.

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  7. SF 55 for life says:

    nah we are pretty far from the mainstream. Watch any baseball tonight or MLB tonight broadcast and it’s pretty obvious.

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    That may be a fair point.

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  9. My echo and bunnymen says:

    Because I’m on the same side as Will Ferrel fans, I’m going to jump on the “intangibles” bandwagon.

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  10. CircleChange11 says:

    I’m not a fan of most things at GNC. It’s an unregulated market where the most common result is seperating one from his money.

    Steroids work. I think the risk is dramatized.

    IMO, even if the same number of pitchers and batters used steroids, the offense would still have the advantage simply due to the amount of combined games played.

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    • Graham says:

      But that would have no bearing on individual records, the setting of which seems to be the mainstream media’s biggest problem.

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    • Tell that to every wrestler from the 80’s, and Ken Caminiti, among many others that have lived shortened lives.

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      • FG says:

        yeah, because it wasn’t cocaine the killed Caminiti. And many wrestlers from the 80’s didn’t use plenty of other painkillers, uppers and downers to maintain the frentic pace of their work.

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  11. Wally says:

    What did you say about Will Ferrell fans?

    I love me some Will Ferrell, as well as my binomial distributions, T-tests and regressions. I think you underestimate us Will Ferrell fans.

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  12. NEPP says:

    Toss in the ban on greenies too. Much harder for hitters to stay fresh over the long grind of the season.

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  13. SF 55 for life says:

    I have strong feelings on the issue of steroids, stronger than the average sports fan. The media has completely made the whole steroid situation a much bigger problem than it really is.

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  14. Guy says:

    Nice to have attention to advanced metrics. But the analysis is complete nonsense. Fielding (DER) hasn’t improved a whit over the past 4 years. The reduction in scoring is almost completely explained by more Ks and fewer HRs. They had a story they wanted to tell — it’s really fielding, not pitching! — and just distorted the data to fit that story.

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    • Gene says:

      In the AL from 2009 to 2010 (when the biggest drop happened) K/9 went down.

      Fewer HRs, yes, but that’s come with a lower GB/FB ratio, so it’s not necessarily pitching doing the work there.

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  15. SF 55 for life says:

    Honestly there are probably a multitude of factors that have this the “year of the pitcher.” Assigning all the blame to defense is just as wrong as putting the blame all on steroids.

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  16. Jared says:

    Isn’t this an easy question to answer?

    If batters are hitting fewer HRs per fly ball or more LDs per batted ball, there’s a decrease in batting performance. If batters are hitting roughly the same number of LDs per batted ball but fewer of them are dropping for hits, there’s an increase in fielding performance.

    Now, on the other hand, if there’s an increase in strikeouts, decrease in walks, or increase in GB to fly ball ratio, there’s an increase in pitching performance.

    Am I right? Could someone explain where my reasoning swerves off a cliff?

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    • Jared says:

      Sorry, I should have said “fewer HRs per fly ball or FEWER LDs per batted ball”, not “more LDs per batted ball”.

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  17. Read Freakonomics says:

    Actually, Arthur Levitt is a different guy. Both authors are “Steve” . Levitt is Steven

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  18. Brett says:

    The Year of The Pitcher narrative is a fallacy anyway. So their original question is based on false assumptions

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  19. Red Matter says:

    A small point of correction. Marketplace is not an NPR program. It is distributed by American Public Media. It does appear on public radio stations, but not all programs on public radio are NPR programs. APM, Public Radio International (This American Life, BBC World Service), and other companies make shows that public radio stations pick up. Additionally, many shows are locally produced.

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  20. TheRocket says:

    Duh. Us pitchers were taking the juice too

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  21. Train says:

    I likes those guys’ first book, but since then they’ve really been pushing dubious analysis just to get attention for their blog ad susequent books. I’ve really lost a lot of respect for them over the years and this only deepens that. They made a story out of a non-story. We looked and we couldn’t find anything one way or the other. Well then why are you even on the air?

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  22. WY says:

    “Dave Cameron is King of All Media!”

    I almost spit up all over my keyboard when I read this.

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  23. The Nicker says:

    The issue isn’t whether steroids hurt pitchers more than hitters or vice versa. The issue is whether players that weren’t taking steroids were hurt in the era where many players were, even after they were explicitly illegal.

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  24. tgaudette says:

    I find NPR to be an invaluable public resource for the free exchange of knowledge and information and while I simultaneously enjoy Fangraphs, NPR and Will Farrell, one of these things is clearly not like the other with regard to content. Whether or not this particular segment has any merit within the sabermetric community I think lumping NPR and Will Farrell together is at the very least disingenuous.

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  25. cubsncards says:

    If steroids made batters better wouldn’t there be a natural evolution of better pitching to compensate?
    If batters are no longer using steroids and this natural evolution of pitching occurred wouldn’t we have an increase of young harder throwing pitchers?

    As noted above players that were poor fielding sluggers are finding their way out of the game. Taking away the steroid effect these players also are older and given the evidence of players of this type losing their one plus ability (slugging) aren’t being given contracts to hang around as players of similar caliber were a decade ago. Hopefully this means GM’s are getting smarter about handing out contracts to the aging one trick ponies.
    Hopefully the SABR effect is that wins can come from different places and not just homeruns. This is being recognized in playing all around athletes.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      If steroids made batters better wouldn’t there be a natural evolution of better pitching to compensate?
      If batters are no longer using steroids and this natural evolution of pitching occurred wouldn’t we have an increase of young harder throwing pitchers?

      This is the big part that bothers me about people’s perceptions of steroids in baseball. The PRIMARY benefit of steroids is increased recovery. That often maifests iteself as strength, because you get bigger & stronger based on the number of progressive workouts that you can string together. Steroids reduce the rest & recovery needed between workouts.

      Likewise, the help recover during a long, hard, hot, season. The idea that steroids would churn out a bunch of 95+mph flame-throwers is unrealistic. It is possible that steroids could lead to pitchers not losing velocity as the season goes on.

      There’s a lot of folks I could quote about steroids, but let’s keep it simple … and quote Canseco … “You can be at your peak all season long.” Caminit essentially said the same thing about his MVP season, and stated that he took them to be able to stay stronger and healthier. McGwire also stated that he took them so he could work harder to get into better shape, and stay off the DL. Coming off of a string of partial seasons due to injury, McGwire had the best 3 year stretch of his career. Steroids didn’t teach McGwire how to hit, but they did allow him to “be at his best” most times. The same could be said about other players, including pitchers.

      My stance is that batters play 155 games a season, pitchers play 30-65. The overall, day-to-day affect is more pronounced for the batters.

      What I don’t get is how can one look at Sosa and see 3 60 home run seasons (Yes, the scrawny White Sox prospect). See Bonds add a ton of muslce at an advanced age, and put up offensive seasons that “tilt the machine” (at an advanced age no less), and numerous other examples … and then post something like statistics show that steroids don’t increase baseball performance. Really?

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      • blackout says:

        “a long, hard, hot, season”

        That’s downright erotic, CC…

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      • cubsncards says:

        “My stance is that batters play 155 games a season, pitchers play 30-65. The overall, day-to-day affect is more pronounced for the batters.”
        I think we basically agree I’m granting that steroids were used and that they did have an influence mostly on batting. I just wonder if the natural result of this is better pitching… natural evolution if you will. Nature answering the fact that chemistry had made one side better.

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  26. West says:

    Whether you believe steroids effected performance or not, you should still despise the players who used them for tarnishing the game of baseball, and they should not be rewarded with an election to the hall of fame.

    http://enews.tufts.edu/stories/89/2007/09/24/StudySteroidsCanPowerHomeRuns

    This study sums my beliefs on the issue.

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  27. Obsessivegiantscompulsive says:

    If you think steroids had a big effect on baseball, then you should really read about the silly ball at highboskagehouse.com, the website run by famed saber who wrote The Sinister Firstbaseman and wrote the As bible on baseball analysis. I do not see how any one can refute the logic and data there.

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  28. Adam says:

    I do find it hilarious that it’s called “the year of the pitcher” despite more home runs being hit per year than were hit in 1992, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1986 (not 1987) 1985, 1984, 1983, 1982, 1981, 1980, 1979, 1978, 1977, 1976, 1975, 1974, 1973, 1972, 1971, 1970, 1969, 1968, 1967, 1966, 1965 ect ect ect.

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    • WY says:

      Well, if you look at that list, the most recent year there is 1992. Relative to what we’ve seen over the last 15-plus years, it’s not so absurd to call this “the year of the pitcher.” It doesn’t mean it’s the greatest season ever in the history of the game for pitchers.

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  29. CircleChange11 says:

    There’s also a difference between use and abuse. I don’t think much of what goes on in the WWF/WWE counts as use. With no offseason, there’s likely very few off cycles.

    We all love Caminiti, but mixing hard drugs with alcohol is a reecipe for disaster. Steroids could have played some role, but reality points the finger in another direction.

    What we do see in many steroid using athletes are 3 career seasons followed by a joint injury. Tendons and ligaments don’t recover as fast as muscles.

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  30. CircleChange11 says:

    Another aspect could be that many of the great power hitters and/or steroid users from the previous era are no longer in baseball.

    Heck, just losing Bonds, Mac, and Sosa likely results in 100 fewer homers for the NL.

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  31. George says:

    Plenty of undetectable drugs still being used throughout baseball (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=8470).

    Drug testing hasn’t really accomplished anything at all, and there are far better and more plausible explanations for why run scoring is down this season.

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  32. George says:

    “Whether you believe steroids effected performance or not, you should still despise the players who used them for tarnishing the game of baseball, and they should not be rewarded with an election to the hall of fame.”

    Should I also despise the guys like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays who used amphetamines? Or should my hatred be restricted to the steroid users?

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  33. George says:

    “Also there are a lot of things that “improve aspects of the physical performance” that are legal (just visit GNC if you don’t believe me). Why are steroids any different? Because they actually work? Becasuse they might be bad for you? If those are the reasons tons of medications and supplements would have to be taken off the market.”

    Steroids are on the controlled substances list in the U.S. basically as a result of the political backlash following Ben Johnson’s win in 1988. They were demonized by the media and politicians despite the DEA, AMA, and FDA all opposing the decision.

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