The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Do They Or Don't They?

As spring training opens, camps are abuzz over Jose Canseco's kiss-and-roid-up book. The biggest question posed by the book is whether or not steroids really help in baseball. That topic was tackled by Barry Bonds in his press conference, where he stated that it doesn't help hand-eye coordination, it doesn't help you actually "hit" the ball.

So the question that everyone wants to know is, why then would any baseball player take steroids? The answer is deceptively simple: because it gives you an advantage over everyone else.

It's the primary reason why anyone in any sport does anything - no matter how strange, no matter how potentially harmful, no matter if it's illegal. You want to win, you do what you have to do to gain that extra edge. It's the reason why players take greenies, or sniff ammonia, or do any sort of other routines to get ready to play.

Now, I'm obviously not advocating illegal activity, but the use of steroids is, in some cases, beneficial for players. Consider the theraputic use of that class of drug, especially for athletes trying to recover from an injury. Mark McGwire (the other "poster child" of steroids, according to Canseco) utilized andro as a way of recovering from workouts and injury. It helped him hit 70 homers, mostly because he stayed healthy enough to play in enough games to hit 70. In that case, I can't say that steroids and "precursors" don't have their place. The problem with this route of thinking is that players don't do this with the supervision of a trained professional or doctor. What happened to that Oriole farmhand who died from OD'ing on that diet supplement is proof of this.

So the question now becomes twofold: does steroid use actually give a baseball player an advantage, and if so, how would we measure it? Experts on steroid use point out that the increase in muscle density improves reaction time - the latter part of the "hand-eye" coordination that Barry talks about. In essence, after the batter makes the decision to swing, his body reacts faster to the decision, meaning (theoretically) that he gets a better "jump" on the ball. Realize that steroids alone won't do this; weight training is needed along with any "supplements" or such.

So what would that mean, for a player? Balls would be hit harder and farther, basically; ground balls would be hit over the head of infielders, while fly balls that would hit the wall or the warning track now clear the fence. And, because a player would have more time to react to a swing, he'd be able to lay off on pitches that he normally wouldn't. Unfortunately, it would also mean that players would become less fussy over pitches, thinking they can hit anything because they can react faster to the pitch - which would mean more strikeouts and fewer balls put in play.

Given that information, is it measurable that there's a difference in the game? Obviously, there's been the great increase in home runs; since the last strike, players are averaging 3.2 home runs per 100 at-bats. But that difference may be attributed to other factors - like the incredible shrinking size of ballparks, for one. The part about a difference between hits (or ground outs) and extra-base hits (or line drives) can be established if there's a significant difference in total bases. In the years since the last offensive boom in the late 1920's, total bases per game have averaged about 13 to 13.4 (with the exception of the 1960's, where TB per game dropped below 12.5).

Since 1995, MLB has averaged 14.6 total bases per game - the most of any 10-year period in the last 100 years of baseball. The only other period that the majors came close to 14 TB/G was in the era between 1925-34, when the average was 13.9 per game. In the 10 years before the '94 strike (1985-94), there were only 13.4 TB per game. That's not the largest gap between 10-year periods (there were only 12.2 TB/G averaged between 1915-24, 1.7 TB less than in 25-34), but it's still more than one extra base per game.

As for strikeouts: well, there have been an average of 18.9 K's per 100 AB over the last 10 seasons; that is hands-down more than at any other time in MLB history. Strikeouts per 100 AB actually didn't top 10 until after WWII. Granted, the period from 1985-94 was at a high of 16.8, but to jump by over two strikeouts per 100 AB... well, that's a bit much. When you then consider that the percentage of outs made "in play" (fly outs and ground outs) per AB is below 55%, you see that batters are swinging for the fences (and missing) more often than not.

Now comes the tough question: should there be some sort of asterisk or "note" associated with stats that were apparently aided through the help of steroids? Let me answer this question with another question: Because gambling on your team was not considered "illegal" before the 1919 World Series, should we throw out all records achieved before 1920, because they weren't "legitimate"? Just because Pete Rose bet on baseball, does that mean we should remove his name from the record books and not consider him to be the all-time record holder in base hits? Since Ty Cobb was a southern racist and a dislikeable man, should we disregard his records as well? And since Grover Cleveland Alexander was an acknowledged lush, should we toss his career win totals out the window as well?

As much as we'd all like to put a tidy little bow on the last decade of MLB and say it was the "Roid Rage Era", we really can't. We can't say that all of those homers that McGwire and Sosa and Bonds hit were done because of steroids or andro; some of it was the really lousy pitching that Barry, Big Mac and Sammy saw on a regular basis, while some of it was smaller ballparks in the NL (including Bonds' own park, SBC).

Good players are good players, regardless of how they may have gotten that way. The really great ones find ways to stay that way, and longer. McGwire realized that he was out of options, and got out. Sammy hasn't quite dealt with his issues yet. Barry is still getting around on the ball; whether or not his injuries will affect him this year will be telling.

This has been one of the most offensive decades in baseball history - not "offensive" as in "can't stand it," but offensive as in "pro-hitting." Whether steroids were responsible for this is like trying to determine if lighting a match in the Sahara causes the ice caps to melt.