Steroids, and our assumptions about them

One of the most beautiful aspects of baseball is the neverending debate it inspires. Whether the subject is roster construction, game strategy, or even the media’s coverage of the game itself, there’s never a shortage of points to argue. There are, however, two fundamental questions, the answers to which define one as a fan. The first has to do with numbers and such: To what degree do you believe objective analysis should be used in evaluating players? Given that you’re here, you’ve likely already answered that one for yourself.

The second question is, in my opinion, more difficult to answer: How do you feel about performance-enhancing drugs? “They’re bad” is not what I’m going for. How do you view the PED era in general? The users and non-users in particular? How big of an impact did PED’s have on the game? Are they mostly gone now? Should they be?

In the discussion over Frank Thomas‘ Hall of Fame candidacy (I won’t even call it a debate), Joe Posnanski rightly urged his considerable readership to avoid attaching the era’s stigma to Thomas’ credentials. As he documented well, Thomas is as outspoken a critic of PED’s as you will find among the ranks of the players. Certainly, given his very public stance on the issue, the baseball world would be shocked if Thomas was a user. After dealing with Thomas specifically, Posnanski—whom I consider the best writer in sports—listed a group of players “we know (or strongly suspect)” to have used:

  • Barry Bonds
  • Mark McGwire
  • Jason Giambi
  • Alex Rodriguez
  • Roger Clemens
  • Andy Pettitte
  • Sammy Sosa
  • David Ortiz
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Manny Ramirez
  • Rafael Palmeiro
  • Etc

    Posnanski proceeded to acknowledge that there is a large group of players who “probably” used. He wrote:

    Then we have a much longer list of players who probably used steroids … a list we all concoct using logic, detective work, circumstantial evidence, innuendo and recklessness. Of course, we don’t talk about these players publicly because it would be unfair and spiteful and wildly irresponsible. There are land mines everywhere.

    One of the land mines affects players; once linked to PED’s, players can’t really undo the connection. This is what concerns Posnanski: that playing in the PED era might jeopardize Thomas’ deserved slam-dunk, first-ballot candidacy. As we’ve seen concluding that a player’s statistics may have been chemically enhanced can ruin someone’s reputation. The PED issue, generally, causes so many to foam at the mouth. People are bloodthirsty; players and bloggers alike can be fodder for a PED feeding frenzy. For these reasons, as Posnanski writes, openly assuming certain players used steroids based on their appearance, style, or statistics can have damning consequences. It’s simply untenable.

    However, a few short paragraphs later, Posnanski offers the beginnings of a “Fair Play List.” As you would expect, such a list is comprised of players “who we have to believe, deep down, did not use performance enhancing drugs.” The inaugural Hall of Clean, subject to expansion, includes:

  • Frank Thomas
  • Ken Griffey Jr.
  • Greg Maddux
  • Pedro Martinez
  • David Eckstein
  • Jamie Moyer
  • Every Royals hitter since 1985.

    The well-executed dig at the Royals’ punch-less attack aside, I strongly disagree with Posnanski’s approach. I believe that assuming certain players did not use PED’s is as dangerous as assuming certain players did. Justifiably concluding that a player did not use PED’s in the first place is nearly impossible. While there are exceptional cases (like Frank Thomas), we cannot identify non-users with any degree of accuracy. Furthermore, while assuming a player probably did not use PED’s does not trigger the same immediate land mines as concluding a player probably did, such conclusions have negative repercussions that, while subtle, are real. We must be cautious about our assumptions in both directions.

    Initially, as Posnanski acknowledges, people have very different ideas about which players “probably” did or did not use. In my informal office, Facebook, and message board survey, Pedro Martinez, Shawn Green, Chipper Jones, and Nomar Garciaparra all drew both reactions. And, while it is possible to identify some players who did use with near-absolute certainty via test results, investigative journalism, and law enforcement action, no such help is available in identifying non-users. Except for abnormally outspoken players like Frank Thomas, a conclusion that a player did not use PED’s has little support.

    A frequent point of discussion in the PED drama is that users come from all walks: from superstars to 25th men, no class of players is immune. Further, men of very different builds and athletic skillsets have been outed as users. If outward physical appearance and playing style are inappropriate for fingering “probable” users, neither can we use them to identify non-users. We are also foreclosed from using statistical analysis to draw definitive conclusions about who used or did not use. We don’t have anything approaching a sufficient amount of known users (or use patterns) from which to draw rational conclusions on what a PED user’s stats look like. Simply put, identifying non-users by body type, movement, and statistics is as fraught with uncertainty as identifying players who used.

    The truly insidious aspect of assuming certain kinds of players did not use is that it reinforces inaccurate notions of which players do use. By determining that David Eckstein is a non-user because he is in danger of being blown away by a strong wind and cannot ride some roller coasters, we add silent suspicion to other small players with better physical tools. By identifying Jamie Moyer as a non-user because his fastball is often at no risk of a speeding ticket, we baselessly affirm that players who throw hard are more likely to be users. Our perceptions about what players do not use are as inappropriate as our mental image of a the type of player who does.

    Since we can no better identify non-users than users, why is it acceptable to openly speculate about who probably did not use? A wrongful conclusion that a player used can damage careers of both the player and the accuser. A flawed assumption that a player did not use, however, does no obvious harm. If a player presumed “clean” is eventually caught, those who assumed him to be operating within the rules can even profit from their error. The breathless, indignant demonization of each newly-outed user is a staple of modern sports journalism. Rushing to conclude that a player uses can break careers; getting to play the jilted lover can make them.

    The most dangerous place for assumptions about whether a player used (or not) is the evaluation of a player’s Hall of Fame credentials. The “probable” user’s statistics are subject to mental asterisks, while the “probable” non-user is given extra credit. I suggest a fairly neutral approach: except for players we know to have used and those who meet the Frank Thomas standard, one must develop and use their own standard for everyone in between. Decide what you want to do with players from the PED era and apply such a rubric uniformly. If you want to subject players from the late-90s and early-to-mid-2000s to a blanket reduction in merit, fine. If you prefer to evaluate players against their peers, do that. If you’d rather evaluate players based on how they did against their peers compared to how players from the past compared to their own peers, go in that direction. But in the absence of reliable information, do not let “probable” use or non-use into the process.

    The old cliche is that when you assume, “you make an ass out of u and me.” In the context of the PED discussion, however, assumptions have much broader implications. Concluding that one sort of player does not use PED’s necessarily harms non-users of the opposite sort. The foundation of the quantitative analysis movement is the notion that we aren’t capable of making accurate judgments about baseball players with our eyes, hearts, and guts alone. We must acknowledge our inability to distinguish users from non-users just as honestly as we once recognized our shortcomings in determining that one player is better than another. There are land mines waiting underfoot when we make assumptions on either end of the spectrum.


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    BD
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    BD

    Exactly what is the “Frank Thomas standard”?  The fact that a player is an outspoken critic of PEDs makes that player necessarily clean, just like the Big Hurt?

    Mitch Brannon
    Guest
    Mitch Brannon

    Nice article but I agree with BD. I couldn’t help but think of that guy most of us know who constantly tells us he wouldn’t cheat on his wife… methinks they doth protest too much?

    Josh Fisher
    Guest
    Josh Fisher

    BD and Mitch—

    I share some of your concerns about Thomas, but I see his situation this way: through his actions, he’s given a person with knowledge of his PED use a great incentive to rat him out. He’s asked for a heightened level of scrutiny. I’m as jaded and pessimistic as the next guy, but I’ll respect just how far out on the limb he is.

    Skip
    Guest
    Skip
    I think we should have all of these players in the Hall of Fame (Bonds, A-Rod, Clemens, etc.) as long as their stats/accolades merit inclusion. For players who have admitted or who have been caught using PEDs… 1. At their induction ceremony, have some doctors come and speak about the likely effects of using PEDs.  Have some parents, and perhaps high school coaches, come up and speak about the effects that drugs like these have on their kids, families, and schools. 2. On the plaque, clearly list everything.  Stats, records, accolades… drugs taken, when, how they admitted or how they… Read more »
    BD
    Guest
    BD
    @ Josh Fisher: Obviously, arguments can be made for why we shouldn’t suspect Thomas of using steroids.  However, the OP, through his use of the term “Frank Thomas standard,” implies that the case for Thomas’ having been “clean” his entire career is qualitatively different from that of other as-yet unimplicated players.  I just don’t see where that’s true at all.  I’m willing to assume FT never touched PEDs.  However, if it came out tomorrow that he did, would ANYONE have trouble believing it?  Aren’t we well beyond the point where any player—particularly a high-profile, behemoth slugger—can shock us with a… Read more »
    BD
    Guest
    BD
    And another thing:  As for the idea that FT must be clean because his anti-PED pronouncements would have prompted someone to rat him out, how do you know (hypothetically) that someone HASN’T threatened to rat him out and he’s paying to keep the guy quiet?  Tiger Woods somehow managed to keep an entire harem of porn stars, exotic dancers, gold-diggers, and jealous lovers completely quiet for about TEN YEARS until the dam burst a couple months ago.  Geez, if Tiger could keep probably literally 1000 people (including friends, employees, hangers-on, etc.) from talking about his sexual adventures, how tough would… Read more »
    Josh Fisher
    Guest
    Josh Fisher

    BD—

    I suppose we are. But I’m willing to float Thomas a trial balloon. I think that players, by far, get the shortest end of the PED stick. Presumed guilt and all that. If Thomas is willing to stick his neck out this far, fully aware of the consequences should he be lying, then I’ll play along. If he screws up, of course, he screws up for everybody—no one could play these cards with any credibility again.

    But I’m willing to take the wait-and-see approach with Thomas. Let’s see how this goes.

    GR
    Guest
    GR

    I agree that we cannot assume who didn’t use PEDs.  Imagine a scenario where the writers continue to keep McGwire, Bonds, et al out of the HOF and start looking at a Fred McGriff and his 493 HRs thinking that he probably didn’t use PEDs and deserves to be in the HOF by almost hitting 500 HRs in a “clean” career.  Would a watered down HOF be better than one that contains players from the steroid era?

    Jacob Rothberg
    Guest
    Jacob Rothberg

    Carlos Delgado wasn’t a user. No proof, but I do have a feeling that he will join Fred Mcgiff in the pantheon of great Blue Jays first basemen who will have dominant careers obscured by the PED era.

    Kenny
    Guest
    Kenny

    I am going to preface this entire comment by saying that I am a Mariners fan and have been for my entire life, and if this were actually true, it would probably tear me up for a while:

    Ken Griffey, Jr. tore multiple tendons in Cincinnati. Tendons are one of the things weakened by steroids the most.

    Mitch Brannon
    Guest
    Mitch Brannon
    While we’re on Griffey, I’m going to go completely off-topic. It has always bothered me that he is so often referred to as one of those lovable players who “always has a smile on his face.” Has he cracked a smile since he played with his Dad? He and McGwire always seemed like surly jerks to me and not the great ambassadors they’re made out to be by the media. No offense, Kenny. And to follow up on what Skip said. Yes these guys should be in the HOF, along with all the guys who played in a segregated league,… Read more »
    Greg Simons
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    Greg Simons
    “I suggest a fairly neutral approach: except for players we know to have used and those who meet the Frank Thomas standard.”  The problem is, as has been stated in different words in previous posts, there is no “Frank Thomas standard.”  There are known users, and there are the rest of the players – those we are 99.9% sure used PEDs, those we give a 0.01% chance of using, and everyone in between. As sad as it is, there is not a single player in the past quarter century (at least) that we can be utterly and completely certain did… Read more »
    James
    Guest
    James
    Stats don’t lie fellas.  When numbers are consistent for 100 years and they blow up during the PED years…uh yeah, we can see who cheated and who didn’t. Not every player is exposed as easy as Brady Anderson’s 15, 15, 15, 50, 15, 15, 15 HR average.  However clearly Josh’s list at the top mentions players like; Clemens, Sosa, Bonds, Mac, etc hmmm…the fact that they didn’t get hurt that much bother anyone??? It does me.  Only Nolan Ryan has that special “gene” that George Blanda had that lets a man be an athlete until 50 years old *wink *wink.… Read more »
    Brandon Isleib
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    Brandon Isleib
    All it takes is to be burned by a player before assumptions fall apart.  I assumed at the beginning of the fierce steroids debate that Rafael Palmeiro’s durability and ridiculous consistency were indicia of his cleanness.  Obviously, I was wrong, and I would say as a general matter that Palmeiro’s example serves as a counterpoint to every prominent PED presumption.  Given that much of the muckraking has revealed several players who took drugs for injury recovery or durability, longevity is about as suspicious as statistical spikes. Which is to say, as you do, that consistency is key.  It’s a well-placed… Read more »
    Greg Simons
    Guest
    Greg Simons
    Really, James, you KNOW who cheated and who didn’t?  Please give us the list.  Until then, here’s one list to consider: Brady Anderson HR totals, 1993-99: 13, 12, 16, 50, 18, 18, 24 Best season’s HR total tops second-best by 108%. Barry Bonds HR totals, 1998-2004: 37, 34, 49, 73, 46, 45, 45 Best season’s HR total tops second-best by 49%. Roger Maris HR totals, 1958-64: 14, 28, 39, 61, 33, 23, 26 Best season’s HR total tops second-best by 56%. Hack Wilson HR totals, 1927-33: 30, 31, 39, 56, 13, 23, 9 Best season’s HR total tops second-best by… Read more »
    Big Lou
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    Big Lou

    Greg Simons, I think I love you.

    Snuckles
    Guest
    Snuckles

    Not to pile on James the poster, but:
    “it takes ex-allstars to come out like Ryne Sandberg, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken and others to Scream for JUSTICE and integrity to come back to the league.”

    Would your Mike Schmidt be any relation to the perennial Phillies All-Star third baseman who admitted taking amphetamines and said that he probably would have used steroids, too?

    Graham
    Guest
    Graham
    Indeed—very well said, Greg.  To me, all of this is missing one very large point: the actual effect of the various drugs and supplements in question.  I have long believed that, during the so-called “PED era,” steroids and other PEDs infected the game on every level—from the superstars right down to guys trying to get out of A ball.  If that is the case—and it seems like a very likely assumption to me at least—then that means this notion of “I can tell who cheated” is completely and utterly baseless.  It might point us towards certain users, but not the… Read more »
    jpdtrmpt72
    Guest
    jpdtrmpt72
    t might just be me, but i think that the david eckstien/jamie moyer guys are more likely to be tempted to use and to use steroids. If your a 24 year old minor league pitcher who throws 86-88, and you think getting to that 90 mph platuea will get you noticed by the organization, then its very tempting. if you can barely hit the ball out of the infield, then maybe you give it a shot. i just think that a fringe major league player is probably more tempted than a guy who already had real ability, because it could… Read more »
    Hank
    Guest
    Hank

    James,

    If Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs by taking steroids, why the hell did he stop taking them?

    And Thomas, there is a class of “soft tosser” pitchers who routinely pitch into their 40s. Do Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Phil & Joe Neikro, Jesse Haines, Dutch Leonard, and Tim Wakefield ring any bells?

    smd67
    Guest
    smd67
    I have no problem including the PED sluggers in the HOF if you decrease their HR totals 35-40% when considering their candidacy.  I can understand why Jack Clark was so upset at McGwire.  Jack Clark’s numbers are very good, but the steroid era numbers completely eliminate him from HOF consideration.  Same with guys like Steve Garvey or Fred McGriff.  These guys won MVPs and led their leagues in a triple crown category multiple times but they get no consideration for the hall due to the inflated numbers of the steroid era.  Garvey’s stats look like a middle infielder in the… Read more »
    MarkF
    Guest
    MarkF
    Did you enjoy watching/following baseball during the PED years?  If the answer is “no”, and you blame possible PED use for your unhappiness, then continue wading in on the who used and who did not use PEDs.  If the answer is “Yes, but what about who gets into the HoF based on stats collected during PED years?”  then focus your comments on those who elect former players into the HoF or those who create the rules for who vote on former players. If the answer is “Yes, but what about guys not getting into the HoF becasue they didn’t use… Read more »
    B N
    Guest
    B N
    I think the situation in general is hopelessly unclear.  Even David Ortiz, who is now in the “probably used” list is unclear.  I found it fairly interesting that while MLB remained completely silent when A-Rod’s name got leaked, when Ortiz was leaked they released this: “It should be pointed out that the names on the list, which was prepared by the federal government and not by anyone associated with our Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, are subject to uncertainties with regard to the test results. There are more names on the government list (104) than the maximum number of… Read more »
    Paul Moehringer
    Guest
    Paul Moehringer

    I think people are trying to answer an unanswerable question when it comes to how to evaluate players who didn’t use steroids, versus ones who we know did.

    Regardless of any statistical approach you take, in the end it’s still a guessing game.

    I think you just have to take the era for what it was/still is regardless of what people say and move on.

    If your that morally conflicted with the whole steroid thing in baseball, then I suggest you stop following the sport alltogether, because it isn’t going away.

    Pat
    Guest
    Pat

    “Ken Griffey, Jr. tore multiple tendons in Cincinnati. Tendons are one of the things weakened by steroids the most.”

    No, this is not correct.  Tendons are not weakened by AAs.  Connective tissue can be damaged by cortico steroids (the ubiquitous cortisone shot), but these are not AAS.  Complete fallacy to think tendons are weakened by AAS.

    RonDom
    Guest
    RonDom

    Thank You for this read, I’ve stepped back and admitted that I don’t have the ability to make such accusations any longer. I can stipulate but not accuse one or the other. An amazing read.

    Pat
    Guest
    Pat
    “The second question is, in my opinion, more difficult to answer: How do you feel about performance-enhancing drugs? “They’re bad” is not what I’m going for. How do you view the PED era in general? The users and non-users in particular? How big of an impact did PED’s have on the game? Are they mostly gone now? Should they be?” I feel they are much more prevalent and much more effective than most people seem to.  My view is they had a HUGE impact on the game for both users and non-users.  Those who used saw significant benefits in terms… Read more »
    Thomas
    Guest
    Thomas
    I though maybe Joe’s “clean” list was meant as a joke and a conversation starter after we got past Thomas and Griffey.  I mean, if Pedro Martinez is at the top of the “fair play” list then, Houston, we’ve got a problem.  It’s not that I’m saying Pedro used, but there have been so many whispers around him that there’s no way he should make the fair play list.  No need to put him on the known user list, but certainly no way he gets on the fair play list. Moyer?  A soft tosser still pitching at 45?  That actually… Read more »
    Arstal
    Guest
    Arstal

    Some people you’d never suspect get busted.  Dan Majerle in the NBA got busted for steroids and drew a suspension at the end of his career.

    Honestly, my idea is to let the HoF take care of it themselves (I do believe the commissioner shouldn’t be allowed to make players ineligible for the HoF though)

    Jon S
    Guest
    Jon S

    This article sums up the rational take on the steroid era succinctly and with class.  Millions of internet dollars for you, Mr. Fisher!

    smd67
    Guest
    smd67
    “Do you enjoy watching baseball today?” Yes, but the power numbers seemed to have tailed off to a reasonable level.  As the 90’s progressed, I got more and more disillusioned as a baseball fan.  At first I believed those “He worked with a personal trainer in the off season” stories.  I started suspecting that something really fishy was going on during the whole McGwire/Sosa race to 61.  I could no longer suspend my disbelief when Bonds started racking up those ridiculous numbers.  It was silly, and as a fan, the game was not better for it.  For one thing the… Read more »
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