Archive for September, 2007

Another Good Article about GH

It must be my birthday.

Repoz points to an interesting article by Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader. Unlike most journalists who have written on the subject, Miner has his facts together on GH. He has a reason to be knowledgeable of the subject because he has had to administer the drug to one of his children with a GH deficiency. I only wish other journalists were as informed as Miner is.

A new paper by three endocrinologists in Ireland and Britain tells us that “although it is clear that GH abuse by athletes is widespread . . . there is no evidence of its efficacy.” The next study demonstrating that it enhances either the strength or endurance of healthy athletes will be the first. According to two American endocrinologists I’ve talked to, there’s also no evidence that HGH does what Ankiel apparently wanted it to do—accelerate the healing of bones and muscles. But the jury’s still out. “Anabolic steroids were widely abused for more than 40 years. . . before they were definitively shown to increase strength,” the Irish/ British paper cautions, adding that the administration of HGH and steroids in combination remains a particularly unstudied topic.

I haven’t seen this paper yet, but it fits with all of the studies that I have read on the subject. It’s more evidence of something that we already know, yet the media continues to stumble on in self-righteous ignorance. “Why check the facts? It would only blow my story.” There is very little evidence that GH improves athletic performance or heals injuries, and the side effects are obvious and painful to the subjects studied.

I would like to address the analogy between steroids and GH, in terms of our progress of knowledge about the performance-enhancing effects. It is true that the experts once thought that anabolic steroids were benign, yet we now know this isn’t the case. It follows that the same could be true for GH. Possibly, but scientists have learned from their mistakes. Studies of GH mirror those that demonstrate that steroids do have an anabolic effect. These are double-blind experiments that involve placebo groups, which are published in top peer-reviewed journals by respected researchers. Both scientists and laymen must make a choice based on the evidence. Is GH an ergogenic aid or not? There doesn’t seem to be much of a choice.

What about mixing GH and steroids? Yes, there is no doubt that hasn’t been studied yet. The world is full of potential cocktails that may do everything from build muscles to curing cancer. Should we lose sleep over this possibility? If we want to prevent athletes from using GH with steroids, we don’t need a blood or urine test for GH because all we have to detect is steroids for which we have tests. Duh!

Instead, we hear grandstanding from journalists calling players wimps for not agreeing to blood tests. Owners are under such uninformed public pressure that they wasted $500K to fund a search for GH-detection in urine. But the harm is worse than a few misallocated dollars going to science. The real damage is that the perception of those tempted to use performance-enhancing drugs think that it works. This actually stimulates the demand for the drug, which had led to a rise in the production of black market GH. There are reports that high school kids use this stuff, which is scary. And I’m not sure whether or not it’s a good thing that the black market is likely provided something other than GH. The best way to combat this problem isn’t to make GH illegal—prohibition doesn’t work. I’m not suggesting that anyone should encourage the use of GH. Let’s get the facts out there: GH isn’t going to help you in your athletic endeavors and the side-effects are not pretty. That’s how you stop this.

Miner does a good job of taking the media to task.

Because “shame on you” stories virtually write themselves, the drug scourge is one of the best things that ever happened to baseball columnists. They wake up on the side of the angels, thwack the devil, and sleep like children. “I’m not jumping to any conclusions about his innocence or guilt,” allowed Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We don’t have nearly enough evidence.” So why was he writing at all?

Because, his column went on, “we have more than enough circumstantial evidence to raise another doubting eyebrow at yet another suspicious athlete.” The evidentiary standard for raising a doubting eyebrow is so extraordinarily low that I’d like to think no court takes it seriously but the one parents convene when cookies disappear and children are on the premises.

But among journalists, even if there’s no proof, even if there’s no evidence, even if there’s only circumstantial evidence of evidence, there’s an airtight justification for a column.

The funny thing is that Bryan Burwell has no excuse; he’s been warned, by me. After a horrendous column he wrote claiming that PEDs were the only explanation for the home run achievements of some sluggers I sent him an e-mail. Does he do the right thing and follow up? Of course not, or at least he never reported that he did. In fact, I saw him appear on an ESPN town meeting about Barry Bonds just a few months ago spouting the same uninformed garbage. I am not asking that you believe the other side of the argument, but you need to acknowledge that the other side is there to be responsible to your readers.

It is now time for editors to step up and demand more from their reporters. If you are going to write about the GH scandal, you need to talk to some informed medical researchers. It’s not about whether or not a player is clean, it’s about making sure people who think GH works know that it doesn’t.

Braves Pitching

Here are two groups of players who pitched for the Braves this season.

John Smoltz
Chuck James
Kyle Davies
Jo-Jo Reyes
Jose Ascanio
Macay McBride
Anthony Lerew
Joey Devine
Blaine Boyer
Kevin Barry

Tim Hudson
Buddy Carlyle
Lance Cormier
Mark Redman
Bob Wickman
Peter Moylan
Tyler Yates
Rafael Soriano
Oscar Villarreal
Chad Paronto
Ron Mahay
Manny Acosta
Mike Gonzalez
Wilfredo Ledezma
Jeff Bennett
Octavio Dotel
Steve Colyer
Royce Ring

The former group includes Braves farm products, the latter group are pitchers whom the Braves brought in from elsewhere. Yes, I know that Smoltz spent some time in the Tigers organization, and some of the non-Braves group have put in short stints in the minors with the Braves, but I want to keep this simple. The lists reveal an unsettling trend for Braves fans: most of the decent pitching is coming from the outside. And the bad news continues as any potential help is too far down in the organization to count on.

I’ve heard a good bit of grumbling among Braves fans about Roger McDowell, but I’m not sure there is much to complain about. The Braves are tied for fourth in the NL ERA and the pitching staff has an ERA+ of 105. As ugly as some of the Braves pitching has been with the fourth and fifth starter spots, the team has survived. Yes, it would be nice if some of the younger products had performed better, but looking at this pattern, I’m not so sure it’s McDowell’s fault. With the sea of ill-will that followed Leo Mazzone out of town, we heard similar complaints about his inability to work with young pitchers. But, now I wonder if the problem has more to do with deficiencies in instruction or scouting of pitchers.

I believe Roger received a big vote of confidence when Davies was traded. If the front office considered McDowell the problem, I don’t think they would have moved Kyle. The Braves need young and cheap starters more than old and expensive relievers. The Braves gave up on Davies, not their pitching coach. I will not be surprised if some minor league pitching instructors move on after the season.

So Much for My Gut

I’ve got to stop doing this.

Landis loses his arbitration 2-1.

New Edition of Wages of Wins

The paperback version of Wages of Wins by Dave Berri, Martin Schmidt, and Stacey Brook is now available. It’s not just a soft cover, but includes many updates and revisions. Here is the Amazon link.

Here is an excerpt of my review, which appeared in the International Journal of Sport Finance

Sports economics is fun. That is the main lesson of The Wages of Wins, which focuses on the research of three economists who have made numerous contributions to the sports economics literature in recent years. However, the material is most certainly not frivolous, as the authors make a substantial contribution to the field of sports economics. Berri, Schmidt, and Brook demonstrate that sports economics is enjoyable not only because of its entertaining subject matter, but because sports games yield so many unanswered questions about human behavior that social scientists have failed to investigate thoroughly.

Until recently, sports economists tended to focus on issues that were excessively practical: public financing of stadiums, labor squabbles resulting from bilateral monopolies, racial discrimination, etc. These issues are important and should be studied by sports economists. Other issues that economists ought to study have been largely neglected, and this is where the authors focus their attention. Economists occasionally do employ the economic method to study many seemingly trivial aspects of human life, but rarely have economists made substantial careers doing so. When the American Economic Association awarded Steven Levitt the John Bates Clark Medal in 2003, it acknowledged the important role of the discipline in studying every aspect of human behavior. Levitt is particularly known for finding unique testing grounds for interesting economic theories, including a television game show, sumo wrestling, and sporting contests. It is in this vein that the authors promote the scientific study of sports, without apology. Furthermore, the author’s approach mirrors Levitt’s Freakonomics (coauthored with Stephen Dubner) and William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth, in writing a book that targets a general audience using studies published in the academic literature. At the same time, the authors also challenge economists working within theses spheres of research.

There is nothing subtle about the approach. The authors challenge many aspects of the conventional wisdom directly: labor disputes drive away fans, rich teams can buy championships, sports leagues are losing competitive balance, and competitive balance is crucial to the success of sports leagues. Furthermore, the authors tackle the difficult job of disentangling individual contributions from jointly-produced outcomes in team games. Their findings are often counter-intuitive, yet convincing. The book will provoke everyone from seasoned sports economists to the average fan. The prose is clear and written to entertain as well as inform the reader. The subject matter and tone remind me of the casual conversations economists have at professional meetings. It includes many of the same thought provoking ideas that the participants vow to investigate further, but feel the need to concentrate on other more traditional topics instead.

I enjoyed the first edition quite a bit, and I am using it in my sports economics class this semester. It’s cheaper and contains more information than the first edition…what are you waiting for?

Baseball in Japan

Why is MLB going after Japan? Here is what I had to say about the subject on NPR’s Marketplace.

Nancy Farghalli: American baseball isn’t loaded with Japanese players. More foreign players are from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. But Japan has the second-largest economy in the world, and fans with deep pockets. J.C. Bradbury is the author of the book, “The Baseball Economist.”

J.C. Bradbury: If you have this wealthy market, hey, and you have the fan base, you can expand into these places and it means a lot of dollars.

You can listen here— the story is at the 23:15 mark—or you can read the transcript.

Waiting on the Landis Decision

Trust But Verify continues its excellent work following the Floyd Landis doping saga. The word is that the arbitration panel has reached a decision on Landis’s appeal. We are now in day 6 of the allotted 10-day window for the announcement.

Why hasn’t the decision leaked out yet? Every other negative piece of information reached the media well before it was officially released. I say no news is good news for Landis. I guess we will know by the end of the week. 🙂

Just so you know, normally when I get a feeling about something like this my gut is WAY off.

The Most Interesting Paragraph I Read Today

To borrow from Tyler Cowen.

Skeletal maturity is one example of continued growth into the adult years. Although most epiphyseal growth is completed in late adolescence (16 to 18 years), the long bones may continue to grow until approximately age 35, and the vertebral column until about age 30. This continued growth in the long bones may add up to one-fourth inch to an individual’s height. In addition, certain areas of the braincase do not reach maturity until well into adulthood. This continued growth is evident when men (and women) who wear hats notice that they have to purchase larger sizes as they age. [Emphasis added]

This is from Lifelong Motor Development (4e, 2004) by Carl Gabbard of Texas A&M.

Finally! A Good Article on HGH

Childs Walker writes an excellent piece in The Baltimore Sun on the scientific community’s opinion of HGH as a performance-enhancing drug. There is some disagreement among the researchers he contacted, but it is clear that the media’s perception of HGH as an equivalent to steroids is wrong.

Sports fans and commentators speak of human growth hormone as a magical substance that offers the same benefits as anabolic steroids but cannot be detected in urine tests.

So when a player is linked to hGH, as Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons was by an report, many presume the player was desperate to bulk up and power baseballs into the stands.

The scientific community doesn’t uniformly agree, however, that hGH would help an athlete do so. Several studies of senior patients have found that hGH helps build lean muscle mass but does not increase muscle strength. This conclusion might not transfer perfectly to high-level athletes in their physical primes. But there is no laboratory-based evidence that hGH would help strengthen these elite performers, several researchers said.

Childs Walker is my hero!

The Media and Porformance-Enhancing Drugs

It’s common to hear sports commentators today refer to the current era of sports to be tainted. From Barry Bonds to Floyd Landis to Rick Ankiel, athletes in search of fame and fortune will stop at nothing to gain a competitive edge. It all seems so simple, and fits within a generally accepted view of human nature. But, the desire to dig no deeper than this baffles me.

On Sunday, I watched The Sports Reporters on ESPN , and heard Michael Kay say something to the effect of “we know that HGH can help you just as much as steroids” [This is not a direct quote but fits the spirit of what he said]. There is no evidence of this, yet that didn’t stop the panelists from questioning why MLB doesn’t implement blood tests for HGH. No discussions of costs, feasibility, or quantification of damage to the game. We’re arguing about policy off faulty assumptions. It seems that reporters are going out of there way to avoid the science. Isn’t the first step to become informed about the subject? Why does this ignorance persist?

The other concept that seems to get muddled in the discussion is the incentive to use PEDs by players. Apparently, the players and owners are in on this together. Owners want big performances so they turn a blind eye, which has some merit. But also, the players, as a group, want to use PEDs to get bigger contracts, so the union resists testing. This doesn’t make sense unless players are extremely dense. Players are valued relative to one another. 40 home runs isn’t as valuable today as it was 20 years ago. If everyone takes steroids, then no player gets better than any other; however, all players face negative health consequences of using drugs. The natural world is certainly preferable to the everyone-takes-steroids world—same pay, no side effects. The players have every incentive to stop PED use where they think rogue players are getting an edge. Why do players worry about more drug testing then? It’s intrusive, there are false positives, and having your body fluids on file gives your employer access to important private medical information (given all of the leaks to the media, can you blame players for being suspicious?). My guess is that there are some players who use steroids, but that the use is far from widespread.

It’s time for the media to stop and take a breath and look at what it is doing. Are you following or pushing a story? The NY Daily News talked to a doctor about legitimate uses of HGH but forgot to ask about its performance-enhancing effects. Do the allegations make sense and is there a chance that accused athletes may be innocent? See the Floyd Landis saga. He might be guilty, but the process has done nothing to instill any confidence in me that they are nabbing actual dopers.

The players may be tainted, but the journalists aren’t looking any better. It’s time for editors to stand up and demand accountability.

Ankiel and HGH

Late yesterday, The New York Daily News broke the story that Rick Ankiel received several shipments of human growth hormone (HGH) in 2004.

According to records obtained by The News and sources close to the controversy surrounding anti-aging clinics that dispense illegal prescription drugs, Ankiel received eight shipments of HGH from Signature Pharmacy in Orlando from January to December 2004, including the brand-name injectable drugs Saizen and Genotropin. Signature is the pharmacy at the forefront of Albany District Attorney David Soares’ two-year investigation into illegal Internet prescription drug sales, which has brought 22 indictments and nine convictions.

Ankiel’s prescriptions were signed by Florida physician William Gogan, who provided them through a Palm Beach Gardens clinic called “The Health and Rejuvenation Center,” or “THARC.” The drugs were shipped to Ankiel at the clinic’s address.

THARC also provided a shipment of steroids and growth hormone to former major league pitcher Steve Woodard, who pitched for Milwaukee, Cleveland, Texas and Boston during a seven-year career that ended in 2003, according to records. Woodard and Ankiel were teammates with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds in 2004.

First, let me repeat what I have said a number of times. There is no evidence that HGH improves athletic performance—none, zero, zilch. This is the consensus of the exercise physiology profession. The people who study this stuff as their profession say that HGH is useless for building strength. Why isn’t this being reported in the media? In the first post I wrote on the topic I reported the following.

With MLB’s adoption of mandatory testing for steroids, many thought that home run rates would drop dramatically. They didn’t, and many felt that the lack of a test for HGH could be part of the explanation. Well, it’s time for the scientists working on such a test to start something else more important. Even if players are taking HGH, the drug no more effective than ionized bracelets, magnets in your shoes, or jumping over the foul lines. The impact of HGH on home runs in today’s game is zero. If a player is dumb enough to take this stuff, let him go right ahead.

In a follow-up at Wages of Wins, I addressed some of the concerns about the first post.

Where we have evidence, the evidence is overwhelming that there HGH is not an ergogenic aid. If you are waiting on the perfect study, it’s never going to come. Ethical concerns will prevent scientists from running these tests. We start with the null hypothesis HGH has no effect on athletic performance, and no one has been able to reject this with the studies that exist. All we have to support HGH’s performance-enhancing claims are rumors that an extravagantly expensive drug does something very different from what we observe in carefully controlled scientific experiments. Unsubstantiated rumor or controlled scientific experiments?…I think I’ll go with the latter.

So, what was Rick Ankiel doing with HGH? Well, I’m not sure; but, if he took it to get stronger, he’s an idiot. It’s like corking a bat—which any physicist will tell you does not increase hitting distance—except corking bats is against baseball rules. At the time Ankiel is accused of receiving HGH, it was not a banned substance. More interesting is the allegation that former teammate Steve Woodward received steroids, which were against the rules and have been shown to improve athletic performance.

What is the likelihood that performance-enhancing drugs are responsible for Ankiel’s recent performance? Looking at his major and minor league numbers, I’d say that his performance is nothing out of the ordinary. Ankiel’s .338/.386/.675/1.061 line is pathetic compared to Jeff “The Natural” Francoeur’s first 22 games in the big leagues (.403/.410 /.818/1.228). They are both free swingers who can hit the ball a long way if they can get a hold of a pitch. Rick Ankiel has always been a good hitter. It’s hard to know if he got any help along the way to the majors, but one thing I know is that HGH didn’t help him one bit.