Friday, February 13, 2009

Another Take On The *

From USA Today:
"Asked if he would consider reinstating Henry Aaron as baseball's home-run king and adding an asterisk or some other notation to the statistics of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and others involved in baseball's steroid controversy, Selig said that he might.

"Once you start tinkering, you can create more problems," he said. "But I'm not dismissing it. I'm concerned. I'd like to get some more evidence.""
Enacting this kind of thing (with consistency) requires going through a number of steps:

(1) Having evidence that a player used steroids
(2) Having evidence that using steroids increases a player's stats
(3) Providing justification why said effects invalidate player's stats
(4) Removing/making notation about player's stats
(5) Profit?

Let's use Barry Bonds as an example.

(1) I don't think there's much argument here.

(2) Generally speaking, I'm on the "No" side of this debate. I've seen a fair amount of evidence saying that using steroids (and especially HGH) has no effect on on-field performance at the major league level. The best I've seen is that steroids help with the healing process and thus would allow a player to stay on the field or work-out more. Bonds did have an incredible few years in his late 30's. He also had a great year at the age of 42 despite steroid testing having already been in effect for years. Was a late-career offensive explosion to this extent unprecedented? Probably, yes.

[Though here's a nifty chart from Royals Review:It's by age - Aaron is blue and Bonds is orange.

I know that surprised me, even if it's not necessarily the best way to look at the issue.]

I looked at players with at least 400 PA for each year over Bonds' career and it seems that for the his late-career boom he was about 2.4 - 2.8 standard deviations above the groups' average number of home runs for four of those years and 4.6 standard deviations above the average in his 73 HR season. (His second highest was 3.1 SD above average at age 28.) I couldn't get nice data from before 1974 (when Aaron's career primarily occurred) but I estimated Aaron as being about 2.3 - 2.9 standard deviations above the average HR mark for the same type of groups for his late-career boom.

I don't think there is any justification to say that those home runs were the direct result of using steroids, but Bonds' performance was certainly unusual (though those players at the extreme end of the talent curve do tend to defy usual expectations). Still - for the sake of argument - let's say that we'll answer (2) in the affirmative.

(3) So Bonds cheated (yes) and it helped him put up better statistics (maybe). Does that mean those stats (specifically the home runs) shouldn't count?
  • Do they all not count, or just the ones he hit while on steroids?

  • If he was on steroids and so was the pitcher he hit the HR off of does it count? (And I believe that more pitchers than hitters have thus far been caught. Plus, the most prominent potential benefit of using steroids - faster healing - would likely benefit pitchers more than hitters.)

  • If he hit a HR clean off of a pitcher on steroids does he get a bonus?

  • If you invalidate his home runs, do you also invalidate his doubles? Or his walks? It seems like it would have to be all of them.

  • His stats helped his team win games. And he won MVP awards. Do they go too?

  • If you invalidate his home runs, do you take those homers off the records of the pitchers who gave them up? Just the clean pitchers?

  • Why just steroids? Where's the line? Getting Lasik eye surgery can be called a performance enhancer. Or what about amphetamines? They're a performance enhancer and it seems they would also be considered cheating (since MLB has banned them along with steroids). Hank Aaron admitted using greenies, and many (many) other players have also. Why do their stats count? Gaylord Perry was an admitted cheater - he won 314 games using scuffed baseballs (he was even caught and suspended for it). He's in the Hall of Fame.
Lets add one * for all steroid users (there goes Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, and A-Rod from near the top of the HR list); two * for players who used greenies (bye-bye Aaron, Mays, Frank Robinson?); three * for pitchers that scuffed baseballs; four * for players that used corked bats (which research also shows don't really do anything); five * for players that played when blacks weren't allowed in MLB (so long, Babe); six * for guys who played in Coors Field pre-humidor (the last couple weren't cheating, but they were performance enhancing situations); and so on. I guess that leaves Ken Griffey Jr. as the all-time home run king. Probably. Maybe.

So, are we going to single out only the home run totals of people that were caught (or suspected of) using only steroids (or HGH, I guess)? How do you justify that?

Are steroids a black-eye on the sport from a public relations perspective? Absolutely. Are they from a competitiveness perspective (relative to the rest of the game's history)? Probably not.

But lets go with the outrage expressed by the country's mainstream sports writers. They ignored steroid use while it was going on and pretend that all players before 1993 were pure as the driven snow, but boy are they mad now. We're going to say that Barry Bonds didn't really hit 762 HR and that Hank Aaron and his 756 HR are king again. [Bonus: if they want, we can take Bonds' 688 intentional walks and make Aaron #1 again in that category too (with his 293).]

(4) Guess what? Bud Selig doesn't really have the authority to change the record books. They keep accounts of what happened on the baseball field, and Barry Bonds really did hit 762 home runs. Roger Maris never had an asterisk next to his 61 home runs and commissioner Ford Frick admitted that he didn't have the power put it there.

(5) Profit. MLB will make a lot of money next year. A-Rod will hit a bunch of home runs and help the Yankees win games and New York fans will cheer. People on the road will taunt him. If it was never revealed that he used steroids guess what would have happened? A-Rod would hit a bunch of home runs and help the Yankees win games and New York fans would cheer. People on the road would taunt him.

Cheating (by using steroids) is wrong. It sets a bad example for children (Oh, won't somebody please think of the children?!?). Cheating on your wife with Madonna is also wrong. It also sets a bad example for children. And it's a lot weirder.


Matt Kremnitzer said...

This is really a great post. I agree with pretty much everything that you wrote; Keith Law and Rob Neyer also have similar takes on the situation.

I'm tired of hearing from Bud Selig. If anyone, he's profited more from this than any other person involved in MLB. Just look at the salary he's been pulling down each year.

He doesn't have the authority to just take records away because he disagrees with what happened right under his nose for years, and even if he did, that would set a terrible precedent. But again, you covered all of that.

It's interesting to note that Bonds could probably have reached the 800 HR mark if he wasn't denied a chance to play the last two seasons. As it's been proven, he's not the only one who cheated -- whatever "cheated" means in this case.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

To clarify: I meant two seasons if you include the upcoming one.