I had originally intended to split steroids week into three parts, but then two things happened. First, I posted a lot of "bonus" content (if by "bonus," I mean, "reactionary"). Secondly, I remembered that I hate talking about steroids. So I've decided to roll my final two posts into this one, perhaps longer, post.
Essentially, I want to cover two topics. First, what can we say about the offensive era we live in and how much if it is driven by steroids? Second, what do I think about steroids and steroid users on a personal level.
As many of you are no doubt aware, from about 1995 through the current year, baseball has been on somewhat of an offensive kick. What you may not know is that the current offensive levels aren't entirely unprecedented. Baseball is always going through transitions between eras of more or less scoring. I expect this trend will lessen some as baseball tries to regulate its product more heavily. However, historically, the current level of offense is not highly unusual.
So what is the cause of this offensive boom? Good question. Let's examine the possible reasons and their likelihood of significance.
You know all about this one, so let's get it out of the way. Essentially, the argument goes that athletes are bigger and stronger than they once were because of steroid use and therefore they are hitting better than ever.
I have no doubt that some baseball players have done steroids. I have no doubt that steroids make you stronger and that this will help you hit ball hard. I have great doubts that this effect is significant, relative to other factors. The truth about steroids, the one thing that must always be kept in mind, is that:
We just do not know what the effect of steroid use is on one's ability to hit a baseball.
Strength and baseball power are not perfectly related. The key with hitting for power is the efficient transfer of energy from your muscles to the ball via the bat. This requires the ability to make contact, proper mechanics, and, yes, some physical strength. Of these, physical strength is probably the least important when it comes to hitting a baseball hard.
2. Weight Lifting
While we're on the subject of strength, it's worth pointing out that not only is it hard to separate the effects of strength from other aspects of hitting, it's also almost impossible to separate the effects of weight-lifting without steroids from the effects of weight-lifting with steroids, with respect to baseball players.
Baseball players never used to lift weights. It was thought that weight lifting would screw up your swing and destroy your agility. Even as recently as the 1980's these things were viewed as more important than raw strength. It is not surprising that steroid use would become an issue at the same time as weight lifting; after all, the two are related. However, how do we know if Barry Bonds' strength gains are 10% due to weight lifting and 90% due to steroids or vice versa? We just don't know.
3. Smaller Ballparks
This has been rehashed elsewhere, but suffice to say that most of the modern ballparks that have been built are offensive havens. The stadiums built in the 1970's were often monstrosities that favored the pitcher. This trend has been reversing as teams have come to favor smaller, more intimate (read: pricey) ball parks.
4. Better Bats
The science of bats has come a long, long way. In the 1990's players switched to using a maple bat instead of traditional ash bat. These bats are made from better wood allowing them to be made much lighter. Lighter means faster. Faster means more bat speed. More bat speed means more power.
5. Juiced Balls
Yeah. When I first heard about this in 1998, I thought it was a conspiracy theory too. And yet, it may not have been wrong. There is good evidence that the balls in use today are much more lively than the balls used in previous generations. Some researchers claim that this may allow a ball to be hit as much as 30 feet farther. That's a lot. This also jives with the wonderment that many players and coaches often express when they see a little second baseman hit "what should have been an easy fly ball" for a home run. It's not just the big, burly men who are hitting more home runs.
6. Diluted Pitching
Expansion wouldn't cause league offense as a whole to go up for very long. For each crappy pitcher you add to the league, you also have to add a crappy hitter. However, it does mean that the good hitters that are already there get to face crappy pitchers in a higher percentage of their plate appearances. It works in reverse too: great pitchers get to face crappy hitters more often.
What's the result of this? The great ones play greater. You would see the frequency of both great individual hitting and great pitching performances go up. Anecdotally, this is the case. We've had more 20 strikeout games in the last 10 years than in all of MLB history. On a more quantitative note, almost all of the great single season strikeout performances (as a rate statistic) by pitchers are within the last 15 to 10 years. It should stand to reason that hitting would also see some bounce from this effect.
7. Different Offensive Philosophy
Joe Morgan may not like it, but guys do play for the three run homer. And they should, as it will lead to more wins. The natural strategic evolution of baseball is seeing the death of widespread use of inefficient tactics like the sacrifice bunt. It's a slow process, but as people become more educated as to the value of outs, they will be less likely to play for one run and more likely to play for three. And that's a good thing.
8. Modern Medicine
You know how many players in the 1960's had successful reconstructive elbow surgery? Zero. Nutrition and medicine are leaps and bounds better now than when even just 20 years ago. Why should it surprise is that this helps players perform better?
9. Fewer Pitchers Pitching Inside
This allegation is, of course, purely speculative, but many believe that the presence of protective gear has allowed hitters to crowd the plate more than ever, taking away half of the plate and forcing pitchers to work predominantly outside. Naturally, when you only have to worry about half as many pitch locations, it's easier to hit.
Now the point of listing all these factors isn't to convince you that steroids are meaningless. In fact, it's not even to convince you that each of the listed factors are meaningful.
No, the point is that we just do not know how much these individual factors have contributed to the offensive boom. The media has turned this into a black and white issue: steroids, used by cheaters, have caused the offensive explosion. The truth isn't nearly that simple. There are a plethora of factors that may or may not have contributed to the offensive explosion in baseball. Trying to separate one from the other is likely a fool's errand.
(Interestingly, in the case of Barry Lamar Bonds, you can also add the existence of a marvelous hitting aid as a potential factor in his power surge. I'm not sure how much I take this claim seriously, but it is fascinating to think about.)
So. What does all this mean? What do I think about steroids in baseball and Barry Bonds in particular.
First, because it's so hard to separate which factors were instrumental in the increased offense in baseball, we shouldn't be giving players asterisks or discounting their records in the record book. We should be letting history write its own narrative about the players involved. Each era in baseball has to be properly adjusted for before you can properly appreciate the achievements that took place during that era. Hitters in 1968 struggle to hit even .300. A bunch of guys will clear that number this year. Context, as always, is everything, and it is this context, completely neutral and completely scientific, that will cause us to look back on this era and properly discount the value of the offensive numbers that were put up.
It's ironic then that the media hates the very people that advocate these adjustments. We're the geeks, those guys with a slide rule. We're ruining baseball with our numbers. You'd think that the politics of steroids would have made for the strange bedfellows of geeks and writers. What does that say about how much the media hates geeks relative to steroids?
Yes, I do think steroids are cheating. I do think that they violate the spirit of the game. I do not want them to have anything to do with baseball. We now have a system in place for this. Guys who are caught cheating should serve their suspensions and then be allowed to return to baseball. They should not be banned from the Hall of Fame and they should not have their records invalidated.
That being said, the fact that they cheated should weigh into the Hall of Fame process. It speaks to their lack of character and does call their performance into question to some degree. However, this criteria should only be used in borderline cases. I don't think steroids can make a guy who belongs outside the Hall into a no doubt Hall of Famer.
As for Barry Bonds, I think that there's an excellent chance that the man used steroids. Unfortunately, he did so at a time when there were no consequences and now that there are consequences, he has not failed a test. There's absolutely no way you can invalidate what he's done officially without some kind of failed test.
Is Barry the home run king? Well, yeah, if you mean that he's hit more home runs than anyone in Major League Baseball history. Of course, that would be true even if he had failed a test. The games still count. If you mean that Barry is the greatest slugger of all time, you'd be wrong and will continue to be wrong unless Barry can belt another 150 home runs. That's about what he'd need to surpass the Babe after appropriate context adjustments.
Barry Bonds is a first ballot, no doubt, surefire, inner-circle Hall of Famer. He should get 100% of the Hall of Fame vote. He won't because some will let the steroid issue convince them that somehow he isn't worthy, despite his pre-2001 numbers. It won't matter, because no one gets 100% of the vote anyway, not even Cal Ripken.
Most importantly, I think that steroid use in baseball is not rampant. I think that most guys do not use steroids. I think that the steroid issue is a media driven frenzy designed to give themselves something about which to moralize without fear of reproach. I just want the issue to die, to go away and never return. I want baseball to be about baseball again. I want to be able to listen to a baseball game on TV without the announcers bringing up steroids.
That will be a good day.