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:
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:
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.