PED arguments I despise

The Ryan Braun suspension—and looming potential suspensions for another 20 or so players—has brought discussions regarding performance-enhancing drugs to the forefront once again. There’s been plenty of good conversation, but there’s also been lots of bloviating.

At the risk of coming across as just another of those bloviating morons, here are some arguments I’ve read about PEDs that I’m simply tired of reading.

PEDs don’t really enhance performance

Look, I don’t know exactly how much PEDs improve a baseball player’s ability to perform his assigned task on the field, whether that’s hitting, pitching, running or taking a 3-0 pitch right down the middle. And neither do you. There’s been no detailed study—nor do I think there ever will or even could be—to determine precisely what steroids, HGH, amphetamines, etc. do to a baseball player. However, I feel confident in assuming they do something.

To simplify things greatly, PEDs are designed to improve a person’s physical abilities by adding muscle and/or speeding up recovery. If a hitter is stronger, the ball will leave his bat faster and travel farther or he’ll be able to run faster. A pitcher who can recover more quickly from the brutal task of throwing a ball 90-plus mph will be able to throw more pitches and/or pitch more often.

Certainly, the magnitude of these effects will vary from person to person and be influenced by the specific program a user is on. But even if they turn one or two warning-track shots into homers, allow an extra ball a month to squeak through the infield, help a player sneak in safely on a stolen base attempt once in a while or enable a hurler to dial up one additional mid-90s heater a game, there’s a benefit to that.

And even if we were to determine the real physical benefit was nothing, there would be some sort of placebo effect with at least some players. Simply believing a PED provides a benefit could instill a heartier approach in a ballplayer, leading to increased confidence and greater success.

Do I think PEDs are a magic serum that turns an ordinary Joe into Captain America? Of course not (more on that below), but I simply refuse to accept the stance that PEDs do nothing to enhance performance.

We don’t know the effects, so we must assume it’s nothing

This is a corollary to my first point. As objective analysts, many sabermetricians are programmed to look for concrete ties between A and B. In the absence of a proven relationship, the default is to conclude there is none. If we can’t determine how much PEDs help players, we have to conclude the answer is “not at all.” This is ridiculous.

We don’t know how much chemistry impacts a clubhouse, but there’s a strong chance it does. What do you think the Brewers clubhouse will be like next spring and summer when Braun comes back? How have the Yankees been mentally and emotionally impacted by Alex Rodriguez‘s numerous screw-ups and the questions they have to answer about him?

I know, they’re professionals, but that doesn’t make them immune to this stuff. How much is your productivity impacted by your relationships with your co-workers? Your boss?

In a related vein, how much benefit, or detriment, can coaches—hitting, pitching, bullpen, bench, etc—make? Beats me, and I’ve never seen this quantified. But should we default to the notion that there’s no effect? Sounds silly to me.

Just as assuming PEDs don’t make a difference because we can’t measure it is silly. We may not be able to firmly quantify this stuff, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Why don’t PEDs turn journeymen into Hall of Famers?

This may be the stupidest argument of the bunch,and I’ve read it in numerous places: if PEDs were some sort of panacea, why don’t they turn minor league scrubs into Hall of Famers?

First of all, who ever contended that they did? People often throw out this argument as if it’s a rebuttal, but I’ve never read or heard anyone claim that PEDs are like Popeye’s spinach, transmogrifying the 98-pound weakling into Mr. Universe.

It’s inarguable that a player has to have innate talent, a strong work ethic, and the correct mental makeup to succeed as a big league ballplayer. You won’t find any 5-foot-3, 220-pound ballplayers in the majors. There’s not going to be a pitcher in the bigs who cries every time he gives up a hit. There’s a natural baseline that must exist for a person to be a professional athlete.

The gap between Triple-A player and All-Star is massive. The former sit on the upper tail of the bell curve of baseball talent, and the latter make that upper tail look like Mt. Fuji. Given equal effort, you can’t get from A to B.

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But given artificial assistance, maybe that Triple-A player becomes the last man on a major league bench—the third catcher, fifth outfielder or last reliever who rarely pitches in anything other than blowouts. That player would go from making 30-40 grand a year to nearly half a million bucks. Sure sounds like a tempting proposition, doesn’t it?

PEDs can’t make a mediocre player great. Trying to argue against their effectiveness this way is a straw man argument worth burning into oblivion.

Ban all the users from baseball

No, not all of the points I’m making are one-sided. Well, at least they’re not all same-sided, and now it’s time to jump across the aisle.

An argument that seems to have picked up steam recently is the proposition of simply throwing all PED users out of the game right away, a one-and-done lifetime banishment. Ummm, what?

First of all, accidents do happen, and it’s possible that a player past or future has or will be busted for a false positive. Yes, they all say they’re innocent, but the many who cry wolf shouldn’t prevent the rare player who actually is clean from getting a second chance. Yes, the odds are small, but they’re not zero.

Secondly, there are rules in place to dictate what punishment will be meted out for what offense. The first time a player is busted for PED use, he gets a 50-game suspension, the second offense earns a 100-game unpaid vacation, and the third violation puts you in the company of Pete Rose and the Black Sox.

Unless Major League Baseball and the Players Association agree to different discipline, this is what ought to happen. If someone is arguing that those rules should be changed, that’s one thing. But saying the rules should be ignored is nonsensical. A mindset that violating the rules is permissible is how we got into this messy discussion in the first place.

This is actually something about the Braun suspension I’m not sure I like. Technically, he’s never tested positive before, so a 50-game ban is the spelled-out punishment. However, given the background, these more recent developments and the murky “other” category found in the CBA, the 65-game discipline for his transgression is understandable.

The calls for a lifetime ban for A-Rod, though? I’m not seeing the reasoning behind them.

Restoring the game’s purity

People who want to take the game back to “the way it was” need to spell out exactly what they’re talking about, because I don’t have any idea what exactly they’re talking about.

Before the so-called “Steroids Era” of the ’90s and 2000s, there were the cocaine years of the ’80s. Go back a decade or two, and you had greenies, amphetamines that even Hank Aaron has admitted taking. Before that, Hall of Famers were showing up to games drunk, and many probably were experimenting with the crude precursors to the PEDs of today.

Head back to the 1930s and ’40s, and you still had a significant portion of the population that was unwelcome in the majors because of skin color. Earlier than that, Babe Ruth was creating the guidebook upon which future carousers would model their behavior. And in the early 1900s and late 1800s, some players were more than willing to give something less than their best if it meant a healthy payout from gamblers.

There is no truly pure era in professional baseball. When you put a price tag on success, you can’t help but open things up to all sorts of shady behavior. Money drives many people to do immoral, unethical things, and baseball has been paying its players for 150 years. And if it’s not monetary motivation, well, vanity leads to similar actions, and people have been vain as long as there have been people.

Simply put, a “pure era” of professional baseball is a false target that cannot be hit.

Strip ’em of their awards and records

Matt Kemp isn’t alone in thinking Braun’s 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award should be taken away from him, though given his second-place finish in the voting, Kemp is anything but unbiased. The problem is, what do you do with the award? Give it to the second-place finisher? Well, what if Kemp’s name shows up some day in a PED investigation? Re-vote? Not at all practical. Vacate the award? Maybe …

The same thought process applies to records such as Bonds’ single-season and career home run tallies. Chris Davis said a few weeks ago that he considers Roger Maris‘ 61 as the single-single longball mark to beat. Sure, as the American League record, he’s correct. But the major league mark? Sorry, that’s 73.

The numbers are concrete. Context, as touched up earlier, is crucial. The various influences of each era—and expansion is one I’ve not mentioned until now—will change what is and isn’t an impressive performance. We’re all free to view each accomplishment as we see fit, but the numbers themselves are incorrigible.

***

That’s my list of issues—for now. I’m sure there will be others that bug you, so share them in the comments. Maybe there will be enough for a follow-up column.

And I’m sure some of you disagree with my stance on some of these issues. Fire away. I enjoy the discourse. My one request is to keep it civil. It’s good to know our readers maintain a level of discourse that often isn’t present at some other sites.


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Greg has been a writer and editor for both The Hardball Times website and Annual since 2010. In his dreams, he's the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up.
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Professor Longnose
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Professor Longnose

This doesn’t sound like bloviating moronitude to me, but that may be because I have similar opinions.

Kenn Frye
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Kenn Frye
I am also tired of the babble of PEDs as a magic elixir.  The increased offense of the mid-90’s is more appropriately attributed to a juiced ball (see 1987 batting stat, e.g. Wade Boggs), smaller ballparks, smaller strike zone, and expansion.  Jose Canseco, poster child for PED use, claimed he was a scrub until the miracle of PEDs made him a superstar.  Unfortunately, Jose has an identical twin, Ozzie, who also took these PEDS. Scientifically, the same drugs acting on the exact same DNA should produce roughly similar results.  If PEDs actually do enhance performance significantly, Ozzie should have had… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
I know, they’re professionals, but that doesn’t make them immune to this stuff. How much is your productivity impacted by your relationships with your co-workers? Your boss?—- Apples and oranges. These guys are nothing like you and me. Their powers of focus and concentration are extraordinary. If they didn’t have such powers, if they were so easily distracted, they’d get weeded out in A ball. Give you an example: Here’s perhaps the stupidest question (and that’s saying something) I’ve ever heard a sportswriter ask. When Patriots camp opened the other day, somebody asked Tom Brady how much of a distraction… Read more »
Mat Kovach
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Mat Kovach
I’m actually not convinced that any ban has a large effect on stopping players. For many players, when doing a cost benefits analysis of using PEDs, the risk of getting caught against the benefits of cheating will fall on the side of using. Granted, I don’t mean all of those players would ultimately use, but it certainly isn’t going to be based on the punishment for getting caught. Face it, if you use just long enough to sign your first free agent contract, a 50 game ban and the lost of a small portion of your contract money really isn’t… Read more »
Greg Simons
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Greg Simons
Shane – It will be very interesting to see how the case against A-Rod develops.  The “best interests of baseball” argument seems specious to me.  MLB was just as interested in getting its grubby paws on the Biogenesis documents as A-Rod (reportedly) was.  They’d have to prove he intended to buy and destroy them.  Good luck with that. And as you said, they didn’t go after Melky Cabrera for more than 50 games despite him creating a fake website to help cover his tracks.  That set a bit of a precedent, though maybe not a really strong one. Kenn –… Read more »
Greg Simons
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Greg Simons
bucdaddy – Maybe these are better, more concrete examples of how chemistry could impact a team. What if you’re a middle infielder and you don’t like your double-play partner.  Would you ever toss a ball so that he’s more likely to get taken out by the runner? Or what if you’re a pitcher and you catcher is a major jerk (say his name rhymes with A.J. Beerzynski.)  Would you ever consider that he might call for the wrong pitch in a given situation?  Say it’s the 8th inning of a 12-1 blowout, and it really doesn’t matter what the next… Read more »
Greg Simons
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Greg Simons

Mat – With PEDs, as with so many things in life, “Follow the money.”

Drew
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Drew

When people say Brady Anderson / Luis Gonzalez / Jay Bell / Barry Bonds “juiced” and point to certain individual outlier seasons, I ask – what happened? Did they just juice a little bit and then stop? Is juice on some sort of time release that lasts only for a season? Did they juice a while, then go “oops my stats look too obvious, id better start hitting less homers again”?

I would assume you would despise my arguments. Am I right?

Greg Simons
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Greg Simons

Drew – Anderson, Gonzalez, Bell, and Bonds (among many others) have something in common with Roger Maris – a big single-season spike in homers compared to the rest of their careers.

Maris was 26, whereas everyone else was in their early-to-mid 30s, but lots of things could explain that discrepancy.

No despising here.

Paul G.
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Paul G.
Jacob Beck in The Atlantic argues that all arguments for banning PEDs in sports fail under scrutiny except the “arms race” argument, which results in success/failure being based on finding the newest and best pharmaceuticals regardless of financial and/or health cost.  Here’s the link: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/06/the-only-good-reason-to-ban-steroids-in-baseball-to-prevent-an-arms-race/276932/ (I don’t agree with all his arguments.) Personally, I think the best argument for banning PEDs is the health issue, but more for baseball as a whole rather than any particular individual.  Football is currently dealing with a crisis of safety as more and more former players display serious, probably football related health issues later… Read more »
Professor Longnose
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Professor Longnose

2001 did see a big spike in Bonds’ HR/AB ratio that came down in 2002, but it didn’t come down to his previous levels. From 2000 until the end of his career his HR/AB ratio was considerably higher than it had been before.

Johnston
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Johnston

Two quotes:

“The guys who have cheated have created an uneven playing field, and I don’t have any sympathy for them.” –  Brooks Robinson

““Fans aren’t stupid. Fans know that Hank Aaron is the all-time leading home run hitter.” – Bert Blyleven

Drew
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Drew

I’d submit that any fan (or HOF pitcher) who can’t count is stupider.

Beerment
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Beerment
A distinction I don’t hear much in PED discussions is that between *cheating* vs. *gamesmanship*. For example, a little doctoring of the baseball here and there is gamesmanship; artificially increasing your strength with illegal substances is cheating. Sliding hard at a SS to break up a double play is gamesmanship; patronizing legally dubious hack clinics and parading as taking ‘anti-aging’ medication is cheating. Charging homeplate and dropping a shoulder on a plate-blocking catcher is gamesmanship; pumping chemicals into your buttcheeks because you’re too weak to put the ball in the stands is cheating and pathetic. Don’t be a cheat. Be… Read more »
Drew
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Drew

So…

No team trainers, cortisone, LASIK surgery?

No nutritionists? No weight room?

No tapes? No computer generated stats?

Ban it all, right?

Beerment
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Beerment

I assume, Drew, you’re being facetious.

You do realize that all the things you have listed are legal and encouraged for professional athletes with millions of dollars invested in their physical well being.

PEDs on the other hand are illegal.

Unfair advantage. I presume you’d like to invest against thousands of inside traders?

Johnston
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Johnston

Can you imagine how different things would be if we had a strong and moral commissioner like Bart Gianmati in charge of the game today instead of Bud Lite?

Drew
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Drew

Beerment:

I get what you mean but I don’t think professional athletes have any claim on being real men anymore.

If all you want is raw talent and skill, then just go out and play. No weights, no doctors, no nutrition.

Bruce Markusen
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Bruce Markusen

Well done, Greg. Logical, cogent arguments throughout

Shane Tourtellotte
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Shane Tourtellotte
The rumored punishment for Alex Rodriguez may deal with more than PED use.  There have been stories floated that A-Rod tried to buy up Biogenesis’ records in order to destroy them and obliterate the documentary evidence against him.  If this story is corroborated, he’s committed an act (or tried to commit one) for which there’s no set penalty.  Selig can go as far as he wants, or as far as he thinks he can against A-Rod’s lawyers and the possible intervention of the players’ union. Selig might have a better case along those lines if he had decreed some additional… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
While I agree with much of what was written here – well done article overall – what I’m tired of hearing is that there are no strong evidence. Eric Walker has collected a vast amount of evidence supporting the supposition that steroid and PEDS were not responsible for the so-called Steroid Era of heightened offense, and that it was a juiced ball: http://steroids-and-baseball.com/ http://highboskage.com/juiced-ball.shtml In addition, the Baseball Economist has posted a long while ago that when he spoke with fellow professors at his college, who worked in their Physical Education or Physiology department (can’t remember which), the professors stated… Read more »
Mac
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Mac
Thank you. This article is that cold dose of reality that is often missing in the media. I will be linking to this often and appreciate the themes of describing what it is we really know (not that much regarding this issue), acknowledging that effects can vary from person to person, and that those fringe MLB players have just as much, if not more incentive to take PEDs to help their careers. That last point is one I’m especially ashamed of for baseball watching society. The cheaters are potentially taking roster spots from the clean players, possibly risking their health… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

Greg Simons,

I have no trouble believing there are big enough assholes in MLB to think of doing things like that. That they actually would do things like that … Hell, I don’t know. Was Crash Davis’ “Here comes the deuce, and when you speak of me, speak of me well” fact or fiction? Are there players who would sabotage a teammate they didn’t like? We’re speaking of treason here.

I just think that when they get out on the field, all of that goes away, and instincts to WIN take over.

Brad Johnson
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Brad Johnson

On point #1, PEDs are assumed to improve on-field performance by massively improving off-field performance. The gains from being able to practice/workout better and more often could be substantial.

Hank G.
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Hank G.
“Personally, I think the best argument for banning PEDs is the health issue, but more for baseball as a whole rather than any particular individual.”  There would have to be some actual proof that steroids have an adverse long-term effect on human health first. “Football is currently dealing with a crisis of safety as more and more former players display serious, probably football related health issues later in life.  The sport’s popularity has not waned much yet, but there is a reason why they keep advertising all the efforts to make the game safer while simultaneously talking about lawsuits as… Read more »
Paul G.
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Paul G.
Two points on Elster: 1. Elster could never stay healthy.  He probably would have had a pretty good career if not for that.  (So would a lot of other players.) 2. The 1996 season is not as impressive as it looks.  He was playing in Texas in a very good hitters park.  It was a good offensive season for a shortstop, but his OPS+ was only 90 and he earned only 1.5 bWAR. I suppose he could have been taking something to help him heal, whether it PEDs or something else, but my suspicion is if he has been blessed… Read more »
Drew
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Drew

Yeah, Elster was a pretty big guy for a SS, and from what I remember he had decent power numbers in limited at-bats with the Mets in the “dead-ball” era of 88-92, then slightly bigger numbers (but not w/r/t the league) in the “juiced BALL” post-1993 era.

Paul E
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Paul E

Steroids work-plain and simple. That’s why athletes take them and 1) the elite break records, 2) the average excel, and 3) the mediocre compete.

Por ejemplo:

1) Bonds, McGwire, A-Rod
2) Brett Boone, Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez
3) the anonymous ones here who put everyone under suspicion by failing to hit 50 HR’s or slug .550+

Rigsby
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Rigsby
Regarding why journeymen weren’t changed into hall-of-famers: I’d argue that a player still needs special hand-eye coordination in order to make full use of the advantages that PEDs provide.  It a hitter tends to get fooled on off-speed pitches or hits a lot of pop-ups, what does it matter whether he’s juicing or not?  Also, PEDs by themselves don’t do much; you still have to put in the time in the off-season to workout and gain strength.  There aren’t too many players who have the focus to dedicate their time to strength training every single off-season.  One off-season, sure.  Then… Read more »
Paul E
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Paul E

‘tooth:
  “The pitchers weren’t enhanced?”

Yeah, Clemens, Pettite, etc….however, it sure seems there are a lot more “names” named from the batters box side than the pitcher’s mound. Hindsight is 20-20, but is it possible that angry horse’s ass Albert Belle was just a sweet loveable guy w/o the juice and the subsequent ‘roid rage? Mysteries of the ‘90’s …..

Drew
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Drew

Lots of commenters didnt seem to read the article, and/or are willfully ignorant of its content.

Sabertooth
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Sabertooth

“Por ejemplo:”

The pitchers weren’t enhanced?

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