Sunday, August 5, 2007

Steroids Week, Part One

Barry Bonds will almost certainly claim the position of the game's greatest power/speed combination, and probably will hold that spot for many years. He will probably break the career record for walks drawn, Babe Ruth's record now, Rickey Henderson's perhaps before it becomes Bonds'. He may well break the career record for runs scored, Ty Cobb's record now, with Henderson also in line to intercept that one. Unlike Henderson, he drives in almost as many as he scores. He will break or has already broken the career record for intentional walks. When people begin to take in all of his accomplishments, Bonds may well be rated among the five greatest players in the history of baseball.

- Bill James, as published in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, analyzing Bonds' career through the 1999 season.
Welcome to Steroids Week here at Basebology! As perhaps all of you know, steroids is my least favorite baseball topic in the world, mostly because it's not a baseball topic. Any remaining distaste for this subject is introduced by the grandstanding of media members, who at least have a job selling papers, and politicians, who apparently prefer to wag their finger at rich people more than they prefer to solve actual problems.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled, given the events of the weekend to discuss this topic at length before I finally shelve it for all time. It is my sincere desire that after this week I will have nothing more to say about the issue and therefore can simply talk about the greatest sport ever created by man.

An Apology To My Reader(s)

Therefore, the time has come to unveil the mystery names that you all have been waiting for with bated breath. Allow me to re-run the chart of last week with player names included and one (not so) slight modification, in bold.

Home Runs by Age:

Age: 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
Hank Aaron: 13 27 26 44 30 39 40 34 45 44 24
Barry Bonds: xx 16 25 24 19 33 25 34 46 37 33

Age: 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42
Hank Aaron: 32 44 39 29 44 38 47 34 40 20 12 10
Barry Bonds: 42 40 37 34 49 73 46 45 45 5 26 20

As many of you supposed, Player A was indeed Hank Aaron, whose home runs as presented here do total his career mark of 755. However, many were stumped as to who Player B was. Your confusion was not without cause: I cheated you. In fact, there is no player in MLB history who has put up Player B's numbers. In this corrected version of the chart I have restored the 30 home runs that I lopped off of Barry Bonds' record setting campaign at age 36.

Why do this? Because it is a striking how similar Bonds' career is to Aaron's once the spectacular aberration of 2001 is removed. It was this realization that prompted me to host Steroids Week. Today, rather than talk about steroids in general, which will happen later this week, I want to focus on Barry Bonds in particular. I want to examine what the evidence against Barry is, what his accomplishments are, what his accomplishments should be regarded as, and why he is so controversial.

Let's get started.

The Statistics

Much has been made of Barry Bonds' late career power surge. In fact, this surge, along with elevated levels of offense in general, is the impetus for the media circus that surrounds Bonds' quest to break Hank Aaron's record.

But why?

Reread, if you would, Dear Reader, the opening quote from Mr. Bill James. Bill wrote those words before Barry Bonds played his age 35 season, a full year before Bonds shattered the single season home run mark.

Barry Bonds, in 1999, was an inner-circle Hall of Famer, a rare baseball talent and a perennial MVP. Yet, when he exploded for 73 home runs in 2001, people were shocked. As if a Hall of Famer having an historically great season was unusual. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we expect these types of seasons to come from Hall of Famers, not that they always do.

In a certain sense, then, it was Bonds' misfortune that he should suddenly have a season for the ages right when people's sensitivity to steroid use was beginning to peak. If, as in my original quiz, Barry Bonds had hit only 43 home runs that year, no one would have noticed. Bonds' career path would look suspiciously like that of Mr. Aaron.

Furthermore, it's not as if this type of fluke season is entirely unprecedented. In 1996, Brady Anderson had one of the most famous fluke seasons of all time, hitting 50 home runs. He never hit more than 24 in any other season. Outside of his 61 in '61, Roger Maris had a single season high of 39 home runs. He had only one other season over 30. If Maris and Anderson can do it, why then are we so shocked when an all time great player does it?

And then there's the proverbial other shoe: why did Barry's home run totals immediately return to his established career norms. If Barry had really found the fountain of steroidal youth, why did it only manifest itself in one spectacular season? I will grant that he did sustain some, though not nearly all, of his power: his at bats per home run did drop in later seasons. But is this cause or effect? Bonds has always had one of the most selective batting eyes in baseball. It is entirely possible that Bonds' decreased at bats per home run post 2001 is rather the result of higher percentage of his at bats ending on mistakes by the pitcher: they were trying to be careful and perhaps walk him, but they screwed up, and Bonds capitalized. Pitchers dramatically altered their approach to Bonds after 2001, and separating this new approach from Barry's new home run rate is nigh impossible.

Additionally, the idea that Bonds was not always a power hitter is thrown around haphazardly, usually in conjunction with an observation that 40 year old Barry is bigger than 25 year old Barry. This idea is silly. When Bonds arrived in the majors, power numbers in MLB were not where they are today. When one adjusts for context, Bonds' numbers are more impressive than they initially appear early in his career and less impressive later on. The inverse is true for Aaron's numbers: he arrived in a high offense era and ended his career in a pitcher friendly environment. When these adjustments are applied, their career paths are even more similar.

In fact, when you properly adjust for context, Aaron's career home run totals are still more impressive than Bonds', though not as impressive as Ruth's. The irony of the media cacophony for an asterisk is that they don't need one: the era adjustment that should always be applied when comparing players of different eras already adjusts for the increased offense of the late 1990's and early 2000's.

Finally, it should be noted that Barry also plays in an era with vastly improved medical technology. This technology, even and especially the legal kind, has allowed Bonds to play healthily far longer than he otherwise would have been able to. Other players too have seen this benefit. It's a shame that people attribute his late career productivity entirely to steroids and not to in any part to modern medicine.

The Physiology
Twenty-one years ago, Barry Bonds looked like the graphite shaft of a golf club.

- Vin Scully, during a Giants-Dodgers broadcast this week. (Jon Weisman, SportsIllustrated.com), as quoted at Baseball Prospectus.
Apparently, if you get bigger as you get older, you are on steroids. This comes as a great surprise to every 40 year old, beer league softball player in the world. Honestly, the idea that Barry is juicing because he's bigger than he was when he was 20 is absurd. Lots of things can change naturally in twenty years.

Of course, none of this should discount the possibility that Barry wanted to change and worked to enact change in his body. I have no doubt that Barry made a concerted effort to add muscle mass as he aged. However, no one ever seems to acknowledge that this can be done without having to use steroids. Baseball players until the 1990's were not heavily into weight training. It was thought that being too muscle bound would rob you of necessary agility and screw up your swing. There has been a massive increase in general strength training in baseball in the last two decades. Why couldn't Barry's increase in muscle mass be attributable to this? There are plenty of examples of athletes who are incredibly chiseled despite undergoing an Olympic level drug testing program. But if you're Barry Bonds, you're on steroids.

The Media

Two of the key events in the steroid saga in MLB has been the publishing of Jose Canseco's Juiced and Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams's Game of Shadows.

Barry has long been a favorite target of the media, and, to be fair, it's mostly his fault. He has often acted like a spoiled, petulant child. He plays the race card at will. He's not the most accessible guy. Barry Bonds, Jerk became an unshakable characterization long before the steroids accusations.

And yet, that's not even the biggest problem with Bonds as a media target. Quite simply, there's a wee bit of a conflict of interest at play for both Mr. Canseco and Messrs. Fainaru-Wada and Williams.

Not much needs to be said about Canseco. I mean, why wouldn't you take the word of an admitted cheat with an axe to grind, a love of the spotlight, and a need for income at face value?

As for Williams and Fainaru-Wada (I'm getting tired of typing that), they've been using the shield of journalism to lend their work credibility. For the record, I have not yet read Game of Shadows, though I plan on doing so in the near future. Therefore, my critiques have more to do with the tactics and motives of the two than their accusations.

First, being journalists, there is very little mainstream public forum to hold them accountable, as they themselves are the mainstream public forum. Journalists love to push the idea that they are saints: selfless heroes who hold The Man's feet to the proverbial fire, defenders of truth, justice and The American Way.

Of course, what they really are is employees of publishers who need to move product. Just like everyone else, journalists are subject to the pressures of the market, of supply and demand. Writing a book and publishing articles about how Barry Bonds didn't break the law, and worse, the spirit of baseball, is worth nothing. Taking down the most dominant athlete in the last half-century of baseball makes you a household name.

And, of course, since every other journalist is in the same scenario, the vast majority of them will not acknowledge this reality. After all, you need credibility to sell papers, and you can help maintain that credibility by refusing to acknowledge that selling papers has anything to do with your journalism. It's hypocritical, a charade of the most perverse variety, and it's why you will forgive me for not immediately crucifying Barry Bonds because two self-interested reporters illegally obtained sealed testimony and interviewed a jilted ex-mistress.

How I View Barry

I know this post has come across as one giant apology for Barry, and that's unfortunate. Ultimately, I don't know what Barry did or didn't do. I'm just angry that a complex issue has been reduced to a variety of sound bites that don't stand up to basic scrutiny. We've allowed the media to control the entire discussion on Barry Bonds and they've done what they do best: they've manufactured a crisis.

Ultimately, there are a few facts on which Barry can hang his supposedly over-sized hat: first, he was already an elite Hall of Famer before the steroids scandal. Secondly, he has never, not once, failed a test for performance enhancing drugs, despite the increased testing due to his failure of a test for banned stimulants. Third, even Victor Conte, BALCO mastermind and outer of many other high-profile cheaters, maintains that he did not have Bonds on a steroid regimen.

How should Bonds be viewed? If you want to be objective, do it the right way: adjust his numbers for context and put them in proper perspective. You'll find him comfortably behind Ruth and Aaron. Ultimately though, the fact remains that Barry Bonds has never been caught breaking a MLB rule regarding banned performance enhancing drugs. He has maintained his post 2001 home run rate despite being tested for steroids multiple times a year. What more can he possibly do?

Welcome to Steroids Week here at Basebology!

Further Reading

This list may grow as I remember more, but until then:

"What Do Statistics Tell Us About Steroids?" excerpted from Baseball Prospectus' Baseball Between The Numbers

"Prospectus Today: Principles" on Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada

2 comments:

die Amerikanerin said...

What happened to Barry Bonds that caused him to have only five home runs his 40th year? I suppose I ought to know this, but I don't.

John Lynch said...

He was injured most of the year. It happens when you are 40. Ironically, this can be used as both evidence for steroid use (See! He broke down from pushing his body too hard.) and against (Obviously steroids weren't helping him or we wouldn't get hurt!).