Tuesday, February 10, 2009

MLB needs to discount steroid-stats

Since it “flew under the radar” over the weekend, I just wanted to start off by letting you know that Alex Rodriguez failed a drug test in 2003. Kidding, of course, but I applaud those of you who were able to stay sane in spite of ESPN’s obsessive-compulsive coverage. It wasn’t easy.

A-Rod has been a lighting rod for criticism ever since he signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers in 2001 so it’s no wonder ESPN felt compelled to go overboard to the point that even the good people of Tanzania are now fully aware of his transgressions. I didn’t expect that A-Rod had taken steroids but I wasn’t shocked by the news, either. My first two thoughts were 1). people who leak things they aren’t supposed to should go to jail and 2). the odds of Albert Pujols being clean keep going down with every new revelation. I don’t mean to sound cynical but when Neifi Perez and Alex Sanchez get busted for steroids, you kind of lose the ability to “be surprised” on this front.

I don’t share the mass scale of hatred that the sports world seems to have for A-Rod. He’s not my favorite player by any means but few things irritate me more than seeing someone get abused far beyond what they deserve. A-Rod has unquestionably been one of those people. This revelation clearly changes my perception of him as a baseball player. His statistical-prowess immediately loses credibility. So, while other people are busy piling onto the already gargantuan A-Rod hate-mountain, my thoughts have been on “saving” baseball. If MLB doesn’t intervene—not just to deter drug-use in the future but to tangibly fix the mess it has caused in the record books—the steroid-era could destroy the statistical aspect of baseball. Most of you know that the majority of baseball’s attractiveness involves “statistics.” That’s what gives baseball the advantage over other sports and that’s, in large part, the reason it developed into “America’s Pastime”.

Do you remember what baseball was like before the steroid-era? Remember when Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs in 1990? That story was bigger than Barry Bonds’s ego. Fielder was the first player to hit 50+ home runs since George Foster did it in 1977. Over 12 seasons, from 1977-1989, MLB saw one 50-HR season. In the steroid-era, Roger Maris’s record—one that he held for 37 years—was bested six times. Mark McGwire hit 70 in ’98 and Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. Without steroids, all of that record breaking will be paralyzed—maybe forever. Fielder’s quest for 50 was huge in 1991 before the steroid-era. As drugs make their way out of baseball, "50" home runs will once again become a notable accomplishment but nobody will care. Cecil’s son—Prince—hit 50 in 2007 and it was barely newsworthy. Fans have gotten so used to seeing inflated numbers that a return to pre-steroid era production could end up being a buzzkill.

The idea that baseball will be plagued by unbreakable records is a legitimate one. Take a look at the all-time single-season home run leaders. The top six occurred between 1998-2001. Without drugs, the astronomical numbers that have been put up over the last ten years will never be approached again. A-Rod will likely break a number of records but now that he has been “outed”, those records will be tainted as well. MLB needs to take drastic action to keep “statistics” an intriguing part of the game. Right now, the “500” home run mark has become watered-down as have many other notable milestones. The next generation of hitters—a generation presumably without steroids—will undoubtedly be held to the steroid standards. When they predictably fail to live up to those numbers, baseball is going to have a problem keeping fans interested. Of course, there is a subsection of fans who love the game no matter what. The group that MLB needs to be concerned about is the one that showed interest when steroids entered the fray. Those fans aren’t going to enjoy watered-down numbers. Fans across the board aren’t going to enjoy a sport plagued by unbreakable records.

There are a few ways MLB can go about avoiding this fate. I don’t believe it’s enough to simply increase the punishment for drug-offenses. Severe consequences are necessary to deter future use but they do nothing to alleviate the statistical problem the steroid-era has created. MLB needs to protect its statistics by somehow labeling or altering the validity of steroid stats. One way is to simply remove statistics attained in the steroid-era from the record books. Pretend it never happened. I’m not a big fan of that approach because most people can agree that Ken Griffey Jr. probably did not take steroids. It’s not a certainty but he is the one power-hitter of his generation that most can agree did his damage cleanly. Griffey—and players like him—should not be punished because “most” were doing it. Additionally, most can also agree that Roger Clemens was already a HOF pitcher before he began taking steroids. This course of action probably goes a bit overboard and I doubt MLB would ever consider such a drastic action.

Another option is to remove statistics accumulated by players who took steroids. This is better than the first option. It’s not a blanket punishment handed out to offenders and non-offenders alike. The problem is deciding whose statistics to remove and what years to remove them from. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were two of the greatest baseball players of all-time before they ever laid a finger on steroids (assuming both did, of course). I doubt that players will cooperate enough—with the exception of A-Rod who deserves credit for doing what others haven’t—to admit the specific timeframes in which they used steroids. So, it becomes a guessing game. The other question is what to do with players who haven’t failed drug tests (i.e. Sammy Sosa) but are suspected to have used steroids. This option would require a lot of guessing and players like Sosa could certainly fall through the cracks.

The last option that I’ll discuss is the asterisk. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro have all likely taken steroids. In the event that any of them hold a record, MLB could recognize multiple records. For instance, since only suspected steroid-users have broken Roger Maris’s single-season record, MLB could reinstate Maris’s single-season record as the non-steroid era record. Bonds could then have the distinction of being the single-season home run holder in the steroid-era. The problem here again involves Sosa. Since he has not failed a drug test, he cannot officially be lumped in with Bonds, Rodriguez, and Palmeiro. Where does MLB draw the line?

Some people don’t like the asterisk. I understand the arguments against it. Pitchers have been “scuffing” the ball for years to get an unfair advantage. Players have been taking methamphetamines or “greenies” for years to ward off fatigue. Cheating has been a part of baseball for years and it probably will always be in some form or another. Some suggest that it’s hypocritical to punish steroid-users and not do the same to ball-scuffers or methamphetamine-users. That’s the easy way out, in my opinion. Just because people cheated in the past doesn’t mean that people cheating now or in the future should be treated the same way. Plus, “greenies” and “ball-scuffing” never had anything close to the impact on baseball as steroids. The asterisk is not a popular notion. The one given to Roger Maris after breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record was incredibly controversial to the point that it was eventually removed. Despite the controversy, I think MLB had the right idea. Ruth’s home run record shouldn’t have been tossed aside because eight games were added to the schedule. That’s ridiculous. Ruth almost certainly would’ve hit more than 61 home runs had he been privy to the 162-game schedule. An asterisk was a reasonable thing to consider. Either that, or separate records should’ve been given. Maris should be the all-time single season record holder in the 162-game schedule and Ruth should be for the 154-game schedule. Neither should be considered the unequivocal single-season record holder. What if MLB reduced its schedule to 130 games? It’s unlikely that any record would ever be broken again. That’s a silly concept. Record books would be forced to adjust for the new schedule so that "new" records could be achieved. The asterisk gives baseball the opportunity to acknowledge the feats that were accomplished in an “apples to oranges” situation. MLB could just as easily opt for “multiple record holders” in lieu of the asterisk.

I don’t believe that any of the options that I’ve discussed are perfect. However, I don’t think that should stop MLB from doing something. Breaking records is what baseball is about. With steroid stats officially on the books combined with MLB’s big crackdown on drug-use, “breaking records” could be on the brink of extinction. No sport provides more statistical intrigue than baseball. Without that intrigue, baseball becomes just another sport.


Anonymous said...

I understand where you're coming from. Maybe I'm just more cynical but the way I look at it, we're never going to eradicate Performance Enhancing Drugs from sports.

These people who produce and supply these drugs always come up with something to be one step ahead of testing. This isn't just straight up anabolic steroids we're talking about. They're creating this stuff to beat these tests, as I'm sure you're aware.

And honestly, it doesn't bother me much anyway. Records put up before integration don't mean a whole lot to me. Neither do these records being put up today. I think everyone understands that this era is tarnished. But to me baseball doesn't have a squeaky clean past anyway.

Also, if the best hitter of the era and the best pitcher of the era were juicing, and we can then assume most of the best hitters/pitchers were also, doesn't it all cancel out?


Jake said...


I agree that baseball’s past is nowhere near squeaky clean. My problem is that these records are just going to sit there forever.

To your point about pitchers and hitters all taking steroids thus making everything equal…I agree, comparisons within the steroid era are equal. If everyone was taking them, then nobody had an advantage within the era. The problem is that players in this era have the advantage over other eras. Hank Aaron and Roger Maris hit their marks cleanly (as far as we know anyway). Players who beat those marks cleanly in the future will be robbed by the steroid era. I think it’s kind of silly to have “73” home runs as the single-season record when everyone knows that it took steroids to hit that many. The same goes with Bonds’s all-time home run record.

I don’t know how to go about doing it. There are flaws in virtually every idea. There have been so many players who have been outed in one way or another that I bet the majority of players who took steroids have been caught. If that’s the case, then putting asterisks on those players who have been caught might be the fairest idea. Again, though, Sammy Sosa hasn’t been caught. If we hand out asterisks to players who have been caught taking steroids, then Sosa becomes the single-season home run king. That’s no good.

50 years from now when nobody has even sniffed Bonds’s single season home run record, it’s going to get old looking at his name at the top of the list and it’s going to be a black mark for baseball as long as he is the record holder of its most famous statistic. The same will be true if/when A-Rod breaks the record. Maybe MLB can just reinstate records that have been broken as the “official” records instead of handing out asterisks or deleting stats. I don’t know. Someday, the idea that baseball has so many unbreakable records is going to be a big downer.

I’m with you on the idea that people will try to find the next undetectable drug. This is a problem that might never go away. MLB needs to make the punishment for failing drug tests severe to the point that nobody would even think of taking them. The system they have now isn’t good enough.

Thanks for the comments. This is a complicated subject. I wish there was someone other than Bud Selig who could make a decision on this. The fact that he’s even considering punishing A-Rod tells me that he’s clueless. If he punishes him, he has to punish half the league!

Take care!

Anonymous said...

If you wanna put an asterisk on steroid era hitters, than lets also put an asterisk on those inflated #'s before 1940; when 60% of pitchers finished their own games; the average fastball topped off at around 88mph; pitch selection was fairly weak; and of course a lack of minority pitchers in the game. I guarantee you put Manny or Pujols in the 1920's they hit 390 every year. Is Cobb a 368 hitter in todays game, i doubt it. And also lets say this, if Ruth and Gehrig and those guys played today, they would have probably juiced too.

Jake said...

Anonymous, I appreciate the comments.

It sounds like you're suggesting that cheating should be viewed in the same regard as being very good in a weak era? Of course Cobb wouldn’t hit .368 in today’s game. His numbers are clearly inflated because of the relative weakness of the era he played in. Defense was horrible which is why Cobb was able to get himself into “pickles” on purpose knowing he could get out of them. Pitching was weaker which is why pitchers hit much better than they do today. Equipment was much worse than today’s game which made fielding considerably harder than it is in today’s game; not to mention the significant improvements in training, teaching, and scouting. Baseball skill has changed significantly since the days of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ty Cobb. Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and countless others cheated. They took steroids and, as a result, artificially changed the playing field. One example involves an evolution in skill the other involves cheating. One is clearly different than the other.

The skill level in baseball is going to remain fairly constant moving forward. It is unlikely that baseball is going to see anything near the improvements that were made in the first half of the 20th century. Preparation and training techniques may change a bit but thirty years from now, we are unlikely to see baseball players who are considerably better than the ones we watch today. All that means is that without the aid of drugs, the steroid records will never be broken.

Baseball has been on a fairly level playing field for a number of decades. For 50+ years previous to the steroid era, league leaders in HRs, RBIs, Doubles, Walks, and OPS+ have been pretty equal across eras. A stat in 1955 was pretty much equal to a stat in 1995. For 50 years, it was possible to compare players across eras. Sure, there were shorterm issues that skewed statistics like the mound being raised in the 60s. But, baseball statistics were in harmony across eras for 50+ years. Now, look at all the single-season leaders in runs, walks, RBIs, home runs. It’s littered with players who played from 1998-2003. Those numbers didn’t occur because of an evolution in baseball skill. They occurred because players cheated.

I can’t fathom how cheating could be equated to not cheating but it sounds like that’s what you’re saying. Baseball—above and beyond any other sport—relies on statistics to attract fans. The steroid era has destroyed that. Cobb, Ruth, and Gherig put up their numbers 80-100 years ago. Baseball has long since reconciled the numbers put up in those eras. That’s why many baseball statistics are prefaced by saying, “since 1950” or “since the deadball era” or “in the modern era”.

Whether Ruth and Gehrig would’ve “juiced” in today’s game—something that is impossible to know—is totally irrelevant. All that matters is that they didn’t in their era. As far as we know, the only era to cheat its way to the top of many of baseball’s single-season records is this one. What’s the point of even having records if you can just cheat to the top of the record books even if you end up getting caught?


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