Since talent is watered down, don't blame juice

June 13, 2006|By RICK MAESE

At some point, right about the time the war on drugs morphed into a war on baseball, a hole in logic grew to such Ruthian proportions that it's come to obscure rational thought. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased history. Barry Bonds chased immortality. Rafael Palmeiro chased a lie. And the feds chased them all.

Lost in the whole mess is a basic question: What kind of effect have steroids really had on what takes place on the diamond? The theory that performance-enhancing drugs have severely hurt the game's numbers has become more juiced up than any inflated slugger.

In fact, while the home run hitters have garnered all the attention, the true stain of steroids is being left by the pitchers. Initially, steroid talk focused on the beefy sluggers. The prevailing sentiment suggested they would seek mass and muscles more than pitchers, who have little need for added bulk.

We know now that this is not the case. Pitchers need the added edge much more. When Jason Grimsley told federal investigators in April that he has been cheating for years, he joined a long list of pitchers who've been busted. Since Major League Baseball finally changed its steroid policy before the 2005 season, 112 major and minor leaguers have faced steroid-related suspensions, according to a list maintained by ESPN.com. Fifty-nine of them have been pitchers.

Yet the public still accepts the home run hitters as the face of the controversy - all the while assuming that the power numbers over the past decade are solely attributable to performance-enhancing drugs.

"These jumps in home runs are not as odd as we think they are," says J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor and author of the blog sabernomics.com. "People think steroids is the only possible way of explaining it. That's just not the case. There's something else going on during this same period that we need to remember: The expanding leagues have diluted the talent."

Bradbury has a book due out next year that will take a Freakonomics approach to understanding baseball. He has studied numbers and charts and says that baseball has been affected more profoundly by expansion than steroids.

Since 1961, the number of franchises has nearly doubled, including four new teams since 1993, which is roughly the same time the so-called "Steroid Era" began. Let's look at some numbers that appear to be directly linked by the influx of more than 100 new major leaguers in the talent pool.

To avoid the statistical wrinkle created by the American League's introduction of the designated hitter, let's stick to the National League. There, the league ERA hasn't been below 4.00 since 1992. In the 30 previous seasons, it topped 4.00 just twice. (Yet, oddly enough, the strikeout rate in both leagues has climbed significantly over the past 10 years. We'll get to this oddity in a bit.)

The National League has averaged at least one homer per game each of the past seven seasons - going back to the 1998 expansion. Only one other time in the preceding century was there more than one a game.

And in the past decade, National League pitchers have been hitting batters more than ever before, a rate that's nearly 50 percent higher than it was before the 1993 expansion.

It's clear there has been a decline in collective pitching quality, which explains much of the offensive prowess and also helps us understand why pitchers would race to a syringe.

By now, we know that drugs aren't a golden ticket into the Hall of Fame. Steroids are merely sustenance for the desperate. Most of the players caught using aren't guys you'd have on your Rotisserie roster. They're the ones fighting for a spot on the bench, guys trying to get just one or two more years of baseball, guys who are trying to recover from injuries quicker and better. Expansion has cultivated this culture of desperation, especially among pitchers.

The counterargument suggests that the dilution of talent should have affected hitters as much as pitchers. It actually has, which is why pitchers are posting more strikeouts than ever before. What expansion did was invite lesser-quality players into the game - but the very best players are still around.

"We're seeing some more extreme performances on both sides," Bradbury says. "We're seeing strikeouts go up as well as home runs going up. The thing is, most of us are only paying attention to home runs. The very best pitchers and the very best hitters are taking advantage of much worse competition on the other side of the plate."

Art De Vany is a retired economics professor from the University of California-Irvine. He is publishing a paper in the respected journal Economic Inquiry, arguing there has been virtually no change in home run hitting over the past half-century.

Looking back on history, he says, records are cyclical and typically come in clusters. There's no reason the "Steroid Era" won't ultimately prove to be a coincidental spike on the charts.

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