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.
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.