A lazy, mid-morning fisk

George Vecsey writes today about “the incredibly shrinking ballplayer.” There’s a lot of fun stuff in this article, but there’s a lot I’m skeptical about as well. So rather than sharpen some single point about it, I thought I’d change tack and just riff a little bit. Hey, it’s casual day:

Out of the roughly 1,000 major leaguers in spring training camps, a couple of dozen appear to have lost significant weight in the off-season, all in the name of health and agility.

Some of them did it by eating grilled fish. Others played active video games with their children. Some went on diet programs or took up yoga. Others cut back on alcohol. Whatever they did, clubhouse attendants are coming up with smaller uniforms all over Florida and Arizona.

Is this like how Prince Fielder went vegetarian last year and every other player is reported to be “in the best shape of his life?” Pics or it didn’t happen.

Among the biggest losers are Brett Myers and Ryan Howard of the championship Phillies, who lost 30 and 20 pounds.

If weight loss allows Howard to suddenly hit lefties, great. Otherwise, I wonder if this will be a negative for him somehow. Maybe not, because 20 pounds on him is like five on everyone else, but I have always subscribed to the adage “if it ain’t broke . . .” Performance aside, how much of Howard’s MVP support is based on the fact that he’s a fat guy in a muscle-bound world? I’m guessing a lot. If he truly is getting thin, similar numbers in the future will probably bring him less love from the BBWAA.

“You have to be a little skeptical, given the context of watching bodies change,” Dr. Gary Wadler, an internist and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said Thursday. “The explanation then was that they were eating more and working out more. Now if you hear players say, ‘We changed our ways,’ all you can do is be suspicious.”

Point taken, but it’s worth noting that suspicion of PED use = job security when you’re Dr. Gary Wadler of the WADA.

The model for clean living and technique over brute size is Derek Jeter of the Yankees, whose physique and hitting style have never fluctuated since he came up in 1995. Jeter seemed to be quietly seething last week when having to discuss revelations of steroid use by Alex Rodriguez. Not all of us did it, Jeter veritably hissed. That is an important fact to remember as players assert their inner athlete.

Just the latest entry in the “we must be suspicious of every single player — except Cap’n Jetes!” line of reasoning. If you put a gun to my head I’d say Jeter didn’t roid up, but we really can’t know that. If people insist on placing an umbrella of suspicion over everything that’s gone down in the past 20 years, he has to be included, doesn’t he? No more demonizing of individuals who are dirty, but no more extra-credit for those we perceive, but don’t know, to be clean, right?

Something else worth thinking about, Vecsey reminds us, is that all of the bulk players have put on over the years may not have been necessary:

“A lot of baseball is about something called weight transfer,” Dr. Joyner added. “In this context, there have been many superb javelin throwers who are pretty small and at least some shot-putters and discus throwers have been relatively small. “Think about the rotation in Tiger Woods’s hips, or the classic shot of Koufax with his arm essentially being used like a sling shot and trailing his body.”

Exactly. And it was just that sort of technique over brute force that allowed Koufax to retire as the all time strikeout king after leading the Dodgers to victory in the 1977 World Series.

“Remember Mickey Lolich?” he said, referring to the chubby lefty who helped Detroit win the 1968 World Series. “The more weight he gained, the better he pitched.”

Except that he didn’t. Lolich was never skinny, but he truly ballooned up after leaving Detroit, and that’s when he really fell off a cliff. That said, I suspect it was his sadistic early-70s workload that did him in, not his donut-gut.

Of course, players have always been trying to lose weight. I can remember Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard running laps — well, maybe one lap — early in spring training, all of them wearing rubber shirts and calling one another Whale Belly as they staggered from foul pole to foul pole.

Man, George Vecsey is old.

Nowadays, players can afford trainers and nutritionists, and they do not have to supplement their income as bartenders or by selling cars. But it’s hard to forget the first vague impressions of the mid- to-late ’90s, when some players showed up for spring training with enlarged teeth, larger cap sizes, acne on their backs and shoulders rising to meet their ears.

Enlarged teeth? Really? Do we have to take Elway’s Super Bowl rings away?

Yes, I’m just messin’ around here. Vecsey’s sources have a lot of intersting things to say about weight and bulk and technique and everything, and it is fun and worthy subject to consider. But it strikes me that you can’t write an article with a premise of ballplayers being smaller without checking to see if, in fact, ballplayers truly are smaller. We here about guys shedding pounds over the winter every year, and with few exceptions, they all look the same come April. Even if the most obvious muscle heads from the 90s are gone, players still seem a heck of a lot bigger than they were in the 80s and before.

I’m not sure what to make of it. Unfortunately, we don’t have anything approaching accurate player weight data so this subject, like everything else related to PEDs, will have to reside in the land of anecdote for the foreseeable future.

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  1. Jeff said...

    Without accurate weight data, it seems a bit premature to say they aren’t taking ‘roids, therefore they are losing weight.  At the start of the article, Vecsey says out of the over 1000 in training there are DOZENS who appear to have lost weight.  Granted this entire premise doesn’t rely on scientific data, but say it is 5 dozen that lost significant weight, that would be all of 6%.  Not exactly earth-shattering.  Most of us assume that well more than 6% used PEDs in the past and in the future.  If we’re talking over 100 players dropping significant weight (more than 10lbs), then I’ll start to get intrigued.

  2. APBA Guy said...

    Absolutely spot on. You can go back to the Classic games and see the guys from the late 70’s like Dave Parker, Willie Stargell et al, look pretty big compared to their peers, all of whom seem really skinny compared to today’s players. And Parker and Stargell were just big, not shredded musclebound types. And let’s not forget the cocaine scandals that followed a few years later. Blowing coke will definitly take those pounds off.

    It’s fun to fill a column with speculation (first guy I thought was on ‘roids? Mickey Tettleton. Why? Built like a football player. Proof? Zero. No matter, write a Spring training column.)

    But really. Data, please. Sizes, measurements, etc. Otherwise:


  3. pete said...

    As I said about Olney’s “character counts” article from yesterday:

    “a lot of easy-to-write nonsense”


    “an easy assertion to make and a very tough one to prove, and the evidence presented in the article is total weak sauce”

    Commentary like this basically adds nothing, and is the main reason I hardly bother with MSM sources anymore. It’s so formulaic and lazy—start with an easy hypothesis, cherry pick an example or two, get a couple empty quotes, and you’re done.

    Saying it seems harsh and mean-spirited, but that’s the truth.

  4. Pete Toms said...

    Like the Elway joke.

    Agreed that to assume any one player didn’t use PEDs is impossible.  Having said that, I’m not above pointing a finger at somebody I’ve never met (hey, its all for fun).  The Marlins era I Rod looked like an NFL fullback.  To my eye, he got a LOT smaller.  Don’t know if there will ever be good data for this debate, none of us has ever taken seriously the weight of players as provided in the press guides…I guess the team doctors would have accurate numbers…

  5. hermitfool said...

    I’ve also noticed the willowy baseball players performing in Classic baseball games. Granted, some of them are performing in the form hugging double knit uniforms Tommy Lasorda made infamous. However, the general impression that baseball players of 20-30 years ago were much slighter of build is inescapable. Someone with modest computer/math skills could come up with some interesting general size comparisons between eras. However, the accuracy of the comparisons might be limited by the data. Can we take for granted an athlete’s listed playing weight is accurate? Didn’t people laugh at Cecil Fielder’s official playing weight? I’m thinking the official statistic was 250, which some commentators thought was at least 50 pounds too light.

  6. TC said...

    I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that Brett Myers loses weight EVERY offseason, inducing Phillies fans into thinking “he’s finally going to BE somebody!”, and a steady diet of ballpark food (or whatever) has him ballooning again by June. 

    Conversely, Utley has always shown up bigger than the year before, and his clean livin’ makes that weight shed by the all-star break, as all those baseball games keep him from lifting weights and whatnot.

  7. The Common Man said...

    “Even if the most obvious muscle heads from the 90s are gone, players still seem a heck of a lot bigger than they were in the 80s and before.”

    Ditto what APBA guy said above.  As MLB has been showing more games from the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s really clear how players’ sizes have changed, going from vaguely athletic to chiseled.  Even the biggest players from that era, guys like Luzinski and Stargell, just seem fat.  Today, guys seem to be carrying their weight better (even though they are heavier than before).


  8. joepro said...

    I’m a howard fan, but not too naive to say he never took roids.  That said, I think he shed fat mainly to improve his awful fielding.  He really hurt the phils defensively last year, and apparently the club was impressed at his improved defense this spring.

  9. Detroit Michael said...

    Joel Zumaya gained 40 pounds this off-season.  He doesn’t fit the pattern so his data point can be ignored.

    Craig, what’s this all about?  You wrote that Mickey Lolich “truly ballooned up after leaving Detroit, and that’s when he really fell off a cliff.”  As a 34-year-old in Detroit, he had a 106 ERA+ and as a 35-year-old in New York, he had a 102 ERA+.  That doesn’t seem like much of a cliff to me.  He retired for a year, and then came back to pitch effectively in relief one year and then ineffectively the following year, both in small sample sizes.  I’m not saying that Lolich wasn’t overweight but his performance doesn’t match your description very well.  The Mets blew it by undervaluing Rusty Staub (to the delight of this long-time Tiger fan).

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