Archive for Steroids

Roger Rehash

At one time I was writing a lot about the Roger Clemens sagam but I don’t have the energy or time to write about it as I once did. But, thanks to Internet search engines I’ve been getting several hits relating to Clemens. The problem with reading old posts is that it’s possible to interpret what I’ve said out of context. So, I thought I’d link to several old posts on the issue.

Does Clemens performance indicate steroid use? (more)

Do I think Clemens is innocent?

Thoughts on the Clemens-McNamee hearing

Disparities in Pettitte and McNamee testimony

Hit Batters and Home Runs

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article by Stuart Miller on the rise and decline of hit batters in baseball titled Plunking Parallel: Steroid Use and Hit Batsmen.

The so-called steroids era produced plenty of pumped-up statistics. Everyone talked about the home runs, but few noticed the soaring number of batters hit by pitches.

I did, and I even discussed this in The New York Times. So, I was curious about what’s new on the subject. The article looks at the recent rise in home runs and notices the co-movement of home runs and hit batters. It is true, the variables appear to be somewhat correlated, which could mean that one (home runs) is causing the other (hit batters) to move with it. In this case, Miller posits that one explanation for the recent moderate drop in HBPs is that decline of steroid use by players has caused power to decline.

Most significant was the artificially enhanced power surge. To prevent batters from extending their arms and launching moon shots, pitchers came inside with a vengeance.

“You were just trying to survive,” said Orel Hershiser, who hit more than 11 batters a year from 1996 to 2000, more than double his average from 1984 to 1988.

Hershiser, now an ESPN analyst, said pitchers traditionally worked outside because mistakes inside usually equaled a double or homer. But once players became so strong that “the outside mistake was of equal value” because beefed-up hitters could flick it over the fence, “people started pitching to both sides of the plate equally.”

Although many beanballs were not intentional, he said, “I’d think, I am really mad that this guy is so strong, so I am just going to bury the ball inside.” With guys crowding the plate — and so armored they would stay in longer — chances increased for an H.B.P.

Since 2006, however, the trend has reversed — with H.B.P. per team dropping 13 percent, to 59, then 56, then 53 last year. The shift mirrors the supposed decline in steroid use and home runs.

HBPs may be down since 2006, but they are still 40-percent above the 1992 HBP rate. The graph belows shows the home run and hbp-allowed rates (per batter faced) in the modern era.

HR and HBP

The first vertical dashed-line marks 1993, the year when home runs jumped in baseball; and I have argued that this dramatic rise is evidence that steroids are not the main cause of baseball’s present high-offense era. Players just didn’t get together and start using all at once.

Drug testing with suspensions for first offenses began in 2005 (also represented by a vertical line on the graph). Yet, the decline in home runs and hit batters peaked around the turn of the century. Home runs and hit batters were declining before testing came onto the scene. Furthermore, after testing, the observed decline in home runs is difficult to distinguish from random fluctuations. And even we grant that testing has reduced power it is very clear that the 1990s-2000s power surge hasn’t come close to returning its previous level.

Home runs and hit batters do move together, but it’s difficult to know if one causes the other or if a third factor influences both variables while they move independently of each other. (Indeed, I have spent much of the morning boning up on cointegration, which has left me with a terrible headache.) Given simultaneous jump in home runs and hit batters in 1993, the peak several years prior to testing, and the minimal decline after testing, I think there is another factor at work here explaining their movements. The article does mention a few of them, but only steroids makes it into the title, and I find this disappointing. A change in the ball, expansion, or a widening strike zone are all potential explanations. If we want to understand how hit batter and home run rates vary, we need to explain the big change in the early 1990s before analyzing the smaller and more recent fluctuations.

Steroids and Expansion

In a recent post, I briefly discussed the possibility of expansion being a contributor to the rise in home runs. It’s based on the work of Stephen Jay Gould, who posited that as talent became less (more) disperse, excellent achievements became less (more) likely to occur. Since home run hitters tend to be baseball’s best hitters, there improvement should be expected as pitching talent becomes more disperse. Expansion is one cause of talent dispersion.

Reader Shek sent me this excellent graph (actually, he sent me his beautifully crisp Stata code to recreate it) of home run rates and the number of teams per season.

HR and Expansion

The rise in home runs does seem to move with expansion in the 1990s and possibly the late-1960s, but the relationship is hardly airtight, nor necessarily causal. And even in the 1990s, it’s difficult to know if the corresponding spikes are noise or real effects.

But, expansion isn’t the only cause of dispersion. In Chapter 8 of The Baseball Economist, I discuss how league dispersion has changed over time, by measuring the variation in performance across players. With and without expansion, the difference between the best and worst for pitchers and hitters has fluctuated quite a bit with time, as the graph below reports.

Dispersion by Decade

The 1990s and 2000s are two of the most disperse decades for pitchers in the history of baseball, while there were many good pitchers who excelled, there were also many bad pitchers for batters to feast on. However, during other past expansions, pitching quality was relatively compact. So, it should be no surprise that recent expansions felt more of an effect than past expansions. But still, this is not proof, just evidence that fits with a theory that is very difficult to test.

Thanks to Shek for passing the graph along.

What Caused the “Steroid” Era?

With Mark McGwire’s recent admission that he used steroids throughout the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of chatter regarding how to view the performances of the past 15–20 years. But, I think it’s wrong to attribute most of the high home run rates of this time-frame to steroid use. The connection that many people want to make is understandable. We have evidence that many players were using steroids during this era, and steroids have been shown to increase strength and power; therefore, it should follow that home run rates should rise accordingly. (And let me make this clear before I move to the next step: I believe wholeheartedly that steroids are effective ergogenic aids to baseball players—it’s growth hormone that does nothing.) However, I do not think steroids are the main cause of the dramatic rise in offense (particularly the home run) in the 1990s–2000s.

Why do I think this? Take a look at the following graphs. The first maps home runs per game from 1921 — 2009.


It’s clear that the present era is different from the past, but I also think it’s interesting how quickly it changed and did not change. In 1993, home runs per game jumped by 23%, and in 1994 they jumped 16%. Since that time, the average absolute change in home run rates has averaged about 5% and maxed out at 9%. Home run rates rose, then plateaued. The graph below zeros in on home runs per game since the 1990s.

HR/G 90s

If steroids were the cause of the steroid era, then we should have gradually seen them enter the game. A few players use and then others slowly adopt their technique. But that’s not what we observe. Almost overnight, home runs jumped. If you want to believe home runs are largely responsible for the change then you have to believe that players all got together in 1992 and 1993 and said, “hey, it’s juice time.”

But even more convincing in my mind is the fact that the home runs haven’t gone away with steroid testing. In 2005 (marked by a vertical line on each graph), Major League Baseball began drug testing with suspensions, and the home runs didn’t go away. You might be able to look at the graphs and identify a slight decline—it’s difficult to separate the noise from real changes with so few observations—but it’s clear that home runs aren’t close to their pre-1993 level. Yes, tests are imperfect and can be beaten, but the dramatic change in enforcement—from no monitoring or punishment to strict monitoring with punishment—ought to yield more substantial declines. Do I think steroid testing has taken away some power from its users? Absolutely, and it barely shows up in the aggregate data. In my mind, the rise must be attributable to something else. And if you think Ken Griffey had two seasons of 56 home runs without the help of steroids, then it would be useful to have an alternate theory.

So, if steroids aren’t the cause, then what is? I have a few theories.

1. MLB changed the ball. I have little doubt that the league allowed (or introduced) a lively ball into the league. This would have the effect of boosting home runs for all players. Certainly, I can’t prove this, but there have been whispers about it for years. This theory explains the dramatic rise in home runs and the lack of decline after testing.

2. Expansion. Baseball expanded by two teams in 1993 and two more in 1998. As I have detailed before (see here and here), as talent became diluted, excellent performances began to happen as the very best (hitters and pitchers) were able to take advantage of the very worst. The abrupt change in home runs fits exactly with the timing of expansion. Joe Posnanski also discussed the the possible influence of expansion (as well as a few other explanations) in a recent column.

3. New stadiums. Smaller parks and home-run alleys may have caused more home runs to fly out of the ball park. While, on balance several new stadiums are home-run-friendly (Colorado) others have dampened home runs (San Diego). Given the dramatic spike in home runs, I don’t believe this could have had more than a minor effect on home runs, and the effect would occur gradually.

4. Bats. Bat technology has certainly changed since I was a kid, when nearly every player used an ash bat made by Louisville Slugger. Maple bats, hardened with shellac, with tiny handles are the new weapon of choice for batters. Again, I think this fails to explain the home run spike in the early-1990s, because they trickled into the game. It could be a contributor, but it’s not sufficient on its own.

5. Strike zone. It’s possible that the league redefined the strike zone into a more-compact area to increase offense. However, recent attempts to expand the zone (with the help of computer monitoring) haven’t dampened offense.

There may be a few explanations that I have missed, and I’m open to others. But if you have another hypothesis, it must be able to explain the near-instant rise and subsequent plateauing of home run rates. I believe steroids fail this test miserably. I’m fine with the “home run era,” but in my mind steroids can only explain a very small part of why home runs increased during this time period.

Thoughts on Mark McGwire

Unfortunately, I’ve had a glut of things pass across my desk so I haven’t had the chance to read much about Mark McGwire’s admission that he used steroids. How do I feel about this? I’ll recycle an old post.

This will be short and simple.

For the third year in a row, Mark McGwire did not receive sufficient votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to be elected to the Hall of Fame. The explanation is simple: many writers feel that his performance was aided by performance-enhancing drugs. There are certainly several sources for accusations, but they have some credibility problems. Others point to his continued excellent performance into his thirties and his bulging biceps. McGwire fits the profile of a steroid user, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he admitted to using them. McGwire hasn’t helped his case by refusing to testify under oath before Congress; however, that is the advice that every lawyer would give to his client in these circumstances.

I don’t want to pick a fight regarding whether or not he used steroids. I don’t really care. My argument is simple. Let’s assume McGwire used hard-core anabolic steroids every day of his baseball career. He didn’t violate a single baseball rule. Mark McGwire played his last baseball game in 2001. It wasn’t until 2004 when anabolic steroids became a punishable offense despite the fact that serious doping regulations had been instituted in nearly all other sports. McGwire shouldn’t be excluded any more than any other player who drank amphetamine-laced coffee prior to its ban. He’s being barred from the Hall of Fame for doing something that people wish was against the rules but wasn’t.

File Under True, But Misleading

Rob Neyer points to an AP story about the “rise” in stimulant exemptions for ADHD among MLB players.

Stimulant exemptions in MLB slightly rise again

NEW YORK (AP) -The number of baseball players authorized to use otherwise banned stimulants for ADHD rose for the second straight year.

Baseball granted 108 therapeutic use exemptions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder during the year ending with this World Series, according to a report released Tuesday by MLB’s independent drug-testing administrator. That was up from 106 a year earlier and 103 in 2007.

So, in three years total exemptions have risen by a grand total of five…and an increase in exemptions is the story? I’m more shocked that players aren’t flocking to known effective performance-enhancing drugs (unlike growth hormone) through a legal exemption. These are the same drugs that for years players openly mixed into clubhouse coffee pots.

Where Is the Caffeine Outrage?

Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008 Aug;18(4):412-29.

The effect of caffeine as an ergogenic aid in anaerobic exercise.

Woolf K, Bidwell WK, Carlson AG.
Department of Nutrition, Arizona State University

The study examined caffeine (5 mg/kg body weight) vs. placebo during anaerobic exercise. Eighteen male athletes (24.1+/-5.8 yr; BMI 26.4+/-2.2 kg/m2) completed a leg press, chest press, and Wingate test. During the caffeine trial, more total weight was lifted with the chest press, and a greater peak power was obtained during the Wingate test. No differences were observed between treatments for the leg press and average power, minimum power, and power drop (Wingate test). There was a significant treatment main effect found for postexercise glucose and insulin concentrations; higher concentrations were found in the caffeine trial. A significant interaction effect (treatment and time) was found for cortisol and glucose concentrations; both increased with caffeine and decreased with placebo. Postexercise systolic blood pressure was significantly higher during the caffeine trial. No differences were found between treatments for serum free-fatty-acid concentrations, plasma lactate concentrations, serum cortisol concentrations, heart rate, and rating of perceived exertion. Thus, a moderate dose of caffeine resulted in more total weight lifted for the chest press and a greater peak power attained during the Wingate test in competitive athletes.

Nice Work, Federal Government!

From the AP:

A federal judge has barred prosecutors from using three positive steroid tests and other key evidence in Barry Bonds’ trial next month because of his personal trainer’s refusal to testify.

Federal agents seized the samples when they raided BALCO in 2003.

All that work for nothing. And when A-Rod starts suing to find the leakers, it’s going to get even more expensive. What an absolute embarrassment.

More on A-Rod’s “Power Surge” in Texas

Yesterday, I was watching ESPN in the wake of Alex Rodriguez’s press conference when some numbers flashed on the screen. It listed at Alex Rodriguez’s isolated power (SLG-AVG) in Texas and New York, showing a much larger number with the former, during the time that he admitted to using steroids. Though it was not explicitly stated, I guess viewers were supposed to infer that this was evidence of A-Rod’s steroid use; or, at least, I can see how someone might interpret these numbers as such.

I previously addressed A-Rod’s power surge in Texas using his home-run rate, and I found the gain was about one home run per season, which is too small to indicate a meaningful change. As I stated in my previous analysis, two problems with using Rodriguez’s raw numbers are that they don’t account for park effects and aging. But, homers are not the only measure of power.

When we go beyond home runs, the analysis changes slightly. The nice thing about aging and home-run rates is that they peak at around age 30, while doubles and triples peak at around age 28. This means that when we compare A-Rod’s extra-base performance in New York to Texas, we are going to expect a decline in doubles and triples from natural aging as well as from moving to a tougher park. In terms of home runs, A-Rod was still on the upswing when he left Texas.

The table below lists A-Rod’s career performance neutralized for park and era effects—these are not his actual numbers, which are polluted by ballpark and era effects—as well as a correction for natural aging. The “Aging (v. Peak)” column reports the percent difference from his projected peak doubles-plus-triples rate (DPT/AB). The aging estimates come from my forthcoming paper on aging in baseball. I base the aging progression towards his peak using the mean of his age 23 and 24 performances to project his peak DPT/AB performance of 5.94% at age 28. This baseline appears to overestimate his future DPT/AB a bit, but all I can do is make an estimate. The DPT/AB projection has the greatest variance fluctuations among the metrics I used to estimate the aging functions of hitters; thus, it’s not surprising to see them fluctuate as they do. However, what the numbers indicate is that his non-homer extra-base hits don’t appear to be vastly different that we would expect given the changes in park and aging, because even if I lowered his expected DPT/AB it would not show a spike during the Texas years.

Year	Age	Neutral	Aging	Pred.	Neutral Pred.	Neutral -
		DPT/AB	(v.Peak)DPT/AB	DPT	DPT	Pred,
1994	18	0.00%	-34.15%	3.91%			
1995	19	5.10%	-27.81%	4.29%			
1996	20	8.70%	-22.12%	4.63%			
1997	21	7.19%	-17.08%	4.93%			
1998	22	5.83%	-12.69%	5.19%			
1999	23	4.67%	-8.95%	5.41%			
2000	24	6.51%	-5.86%	5.59%			
2001	25	5.41%	-3.42%	5.74%	34	36.03	-2.03
2002	26	4.54%	-1.63%	5.84%	28	36.05	-8.05
2003	27	5.85%	-0.49%	5.91%	35	35.35	-0.35
2004	28	4.32%	0.00%	5.94%	Gain 	01-03	-10.43
2005	29	5.19%	-0.16%	5.93%	Gain 	01-02	-10.08
2006	30	4.59%	-0.97%	5.88%			
2007	31	5.45%	-2.43%	5.80%			
2008	32	6.45%	-4.53%	5.67%			

One thing to note is that a decrease in doubles and triples could mean an increase in power as a result of those extra-base hits becoming home runs. However, there doesn’t appear to be much of a spike in home runs.

The usual caveats apply to this kind of analysis. What if he’s lying? Well, that would change things, but all I can do is test out his story. What about his admitted use of Ripped Fuel (contained the stimulant ephedra, and was legal) before going to Texas? Again, there is not much I can do here. My aging estimates are based on the past when amphetamine use was widespread, so the aging function may not be steep enough to capture his expected decline, and we can just acknowledge that. What if I used a different time to estimate projected peak age? Yes, that could have an effect, it could go down or up.

The point here is that there is not much to see in these numbers. The so-called “power surge” that we saw in Texas wasn’t all that extraordinary given the park change and aging. And before anyone freaks out, please know that I believe anabolic steroids improve athletic performance, and they ought to help baseball players hit, pitch, run, etc. That there doesn’t appear to be an obvious boost in one player’s numbers doesn’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. But, I think it would be a worse sin to look at A-Rod’s numbers and suggest there was a significant power boost from steroids.

Two Topics I Like to Write About

Cal Warlick continues his excellent cartoon work in the AJC.

Warlick Cartoon

Wow, the Gwinnett stadium and steroids. How could I not link to this? 😉