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January 25, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

PEDs and Discontent

by Jay Jaffe

A couple weeks back, in the aftermath of the 2008 Hall of Fame voting, I mentioned to readers that I had rant in store about the Hall of Fame vote and performance-enhancing drugs. Since then, I've waffled between my desire to write said rant and a competing desire to skip the middle man and simply take a Louisville Slugger to my own noggin. The baseball world hardly lacks for articles about steroids these days, and the next Hall of Fame vote drive doesn't kick off for another 10 months. Why go there, particularly when the topic is no damn fun to wallow in?

The answer, I suppose, is that I spend far too much time thinking about the Hall of Fame to avoid the matter, particularly in a year when PED stories dominated the election cycle. But rather than tackle the subject with the zeal I'd initially intended, for the sake of my sanity and my in-box I've confined the context to the handful of letters I received in relation to this year's Hall of Fame ballot series.

The Big Mac Attack

Here's one sent to me following the piece which kicked off my JAWS coverage back in December:

No article could show why McGuire [sic] should be kept out of the Hall of Fame any better than the one you have just written. Think about what you have just said. Donny Baseball comes up short on your metrics for the HOF and you easily dismiss him. But McGuire, with the help of metrics inflated by his use of steroids, is ready to be crowned as one of the top ten sluggers of all time. Exactly where would the metrics (and fortunes) of these two be if Mattingly had used steroids and McGuire did not?

Which exactly points out why Will Carroll and the entire BP crew underplay the steroid situation. BECAUSE YOUR METRICS, PECOTA, AND PLAYER COMPS FALL APART-when you don't know who used steroids and who didn't-just like they do in the example of Mattingly and McGuire you just cited.--T.B.

Responses like this come with the territory of writing about controversial topics, and I'm sure this pales in comparison to what the likes of my higher-profile colleagues receive on a weekly basis. Never mind the fact that among our staff, my views on the topic of steroids, at least vis vis Barry Bonds, have been something of an outlier. It's easy to tar us all with the same brush, particularly when you're relying on preconceived notions to justify your argument, preconceived notions shaped by a mainstream media whose capacity for stoking outrage over the issue far outstrips its ability to capture the issue's nuances, or a readiness to acknowledge its own complicity in furthering the problem.

As I noted before, talk of PEDs dominated this past Hall of Fame election cycle. Mind you, their injection (sorry) into the Hall of Fame mix wasn't unique to this year, not with Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and Ken Caminiti reaching the ballot in 2007. But from the Bonds indictment to the Mitchell Report's implication of Roger Clemens and 85 other ballplayers to the unsealing of the Jason Grimsley affidavit-to say nothing of the speculation surrounding the follow-up to McGwire's measly 23.5 percent showing-PEDs overshadowed the conversations in which we debated the place in history of many a bright star.

In considering their ballots, some chose to discount McGwire's on-field accomplishments, others to exalt those of "pre-PED era" players like Jim Rice, and still others to parade their own learned helpessness by mailing back completely blank ballots while throwing their hands up in despair or disgust. I spent a fair bit of time and energy railing against the misconceptions surrounding the careers of McGwire and Rice, but that last tack, which penalizes all players eligible for a vote regardless of whether their careers may have included PED use, bothers me on a completely different level. Even if it's just one or two votes in a sea of over 500, the idea that a writer is either too lazy, too enraged, or too cowed by the public perception of the ills of steroids to make an informed decision is galling.

Without touching upon the possible effects of PED usage on a player's performance or health-for a moment, at least-from a voting standpoint the issue shouldn't be an insurmountably difficult one to work through. Did Player X ever fail a drug test? Was Player X caught in possession of PEDs? Has Player X been named in a PED-related investigation? If the answer to all of those questions is no, then it strikes me as rather un-American not to give him the benefit of the doubt. He should be considered innocent until proven guilty-even if only in the court of public opinion, based on a preponderance of evidence-and he can't be proven guilty unless he's actually been charged with something.

As flawed as it is, the Mitchell Report should serve as a reminder that we don't really know what impact PEDs have on player performance. For every statistical outlier like Clemens or Bonds whose late-career greatness is supposedly attributable to steroids and/or human growth hormone, there are dozens of named players who allegedly used PEDs but who remained on the fringes of the majors, unable to win regular jobs even with whatever extra help they provided. Either that, or I simply missed the days of greatness of Adam Riggs and Phil Hiatt. Furthermore, there were many more named players who apparently turned to PEDs but simply couldn't reverse the effects of age and injuries, and were out of baseball by their mid-30s. David Justice and Chuck Knoblauch, two players on this year's ballot, come to mind.

Add to that the fact that the rising tide of home runs most commonly associated with "the Steroid Era" is best explained by more fundamental changes in the industry, not by the drugs or the myriad changes that have taken place over the past two decades-newer (but not all necessarily smaller) ballparks, expansion, the changing strike zone, and interleague play. On the one hand there are the well-publicized changes in bat composition; maple bats, as used by Bonds and others, are slightly more dense then the typical ash bats, but also more durable, allowing for thinner barrels and lighter, faster-swinging clubs which maintain the size of the bat's sweet spot. On the other hand, there are the more under-the-radar changes in balls, such as Rawlings' decision to move its manufacturing base from Haiti to Costa Rica in the late 1980s, switching from hand-wound balls to machine-wound ones during the 1990s, and introducing a synthetic rubber ring in the ball's core, one not covered by MLB specifications. A study commissioned by MLB and Rawlings done at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 2000 found that balls within the extremes of official tolerances could differ in flight distance by 49.1 feet despite being struck under the exact same conditions. Juiced balls, not juiced sluggers, likely represent the primary reason for those rising home run rates.

None of which is to say that McGwire, the player currently occupying the intersection of the steroid story and the Hall of Fame ballot, is entitled to a free pass from the voters. As his JAWS (109.4/67.5/88.5)shows, his peak measures up to the Hall of Famers at his position, but even with 583 home runs, his relatively short career leaves him a bit shy on career value. The bigger problem is that while he wasn't named in the Mitchell Report, and while his career concluded before the advent of the drug-testing program, he's got no small share of PED allegations surrounding him, from the sordid injection stories in Canseco's book, to the now-outlawed androstenedione discovered in his locker during the 1998 home run chase, to details of his chemical regimen turning up in the FBI's "Operation Equine" investigation, to his tearful "I'm not here to talk about the past" stonewalling during the 2005 Congressional hearing. With the exception of Canseco's book, which is basically one man's word against another, none of this is particularly easy to dismiss; the available evidence does suggest McGwire had help. Even if one believes that the benefits of whatever chemical regimens he may have indulged in are oversold-and here would be a good time to name-drop proto-Moneyball analyst Eric Walker's exhaustive compendium of the best research on the effects of PEDs-there's still the fact that that such alleged usage was illegal under federal law and a violation of baseball's rules, however lackadaisically enforced. As those are issues that fall outside McGwire's statistical case for the Hall of Fame, I see no reason to abandon the numbers when discussing his overall merits.

Dog the Vote?

It's obvious that all of the steroid allegations are going to have profound effects on players' potential for Hall of Fame induction. Those accused in any sense all appear to be safe bets NOT to be inducted, at least initially. Because of all of the allegations throughout the era, do you see certain players whose names have never come up in the steroid talk being helped? A guy like Fred McGriff, for example, has always been thought of as a fringe Hall of Famer, never quite reaching the magic 500 HR marker. However, he's a guy whose name has never come up in these allegations. Does this help him and others like him or just keep their stocks the same?--A.K.

Unless you were avoiding the soapbox derby in December, it wasn't all that surprising that McGwire drew just 23.6 percent of the 2008 ballot vote, 0.1 percent higher than in 2007. Many writers had suggested they would withhold a vote during his first year on the ballot, but while there was little suggestion that decision would be carried over to the following year-at least with such magnitude-it's a good bet that December's headlines played a part, creating a climate where a reversal on McGwire would be seen as politically incorrect ("We're still railing against the evils of steroids? Yeah, can't look soft there. Put me down for a no on Big Mac...").

As to whether that opens the field to others, it's tempting to see Rice's surge from 63.5 percent in 2007 to 72.2 percent this year as somehow connected. But the reality is that while Rice gained nine votes from 2006 to 2007, he actually got a higher percentage (64.8) in the year before McGwire and company reached the ballot. Furthermore, the 2008 ballots contained an average of 5.35 names apiece; according to data collected by MLB.com's Cory Schwartz, that's the lowest average ever, and it's down from 2007 (6.58) by 23 percent. Just prior to the voting results being announced, my namesake Chris Jaffe drew the connection between the votes per ballot and the perceived strength of its newcomers, even correctly predicting the record low average of names. For all of the merits of his candidacy, top newcomer Tim Raines drew just 24.3 percent of the vote; in doing so, he was the only newcomer to even receive more than two votes. If steroids are driving voters away from certain candidates, they aren't driving them towards others.

Given the writers' conservatism with regards to new candidates who don't have a milestone (300 wins, 3,000 hits, 500 home runs) among their credentials, it's difficult to imagine McGwire's PED-era contemporaries, even apparently squeaky-clean ones like McGriff, being helped enough to gain election on that basis alone. A quick peek at the Crime Dog's JAWS case shows him with 100.2 career WARP, 59.7 peak WARP, and a JAWS of 80.2, numbers well shy of the Hall benchmarks for first basemen (115.1/66.9/91.0). He does have strong October credentials, earning a ring with Atlanta in 1995 while hitting .261/.346/.609 with two homers in that World Series, and delivering .303/.385/.532 with 10 post-season homers on his career. He also led the league in homers twice, but with just five All-Star appearances and no MVP awards (his highest placing was fourth, though he finished in the top 10 four times), he's just too far off to envision a serious shot. A stronger case can be made for another McGwire contemporary, Jeff Bagwell (137.0/78.6/107.8), who was a better hitter than McGriff and who won the 1994 MVP award. Then again, if an otherwise reasonable mind like Rob Neyer can start voicing suspicions about Bagwell on the dubious basis of the "see how his body changed" test, the debate over the Hall of Fame is in big trouble.

Best Ballot Bunches

I just realized, there's a chance that in 2013, we might have Clemens, Bonds, and Piazza coming up for votes. Does that trump Gwynn, Ripken, and McGwire as the best HoFHoF class ever (excepting the initial one, of course?)--F.W.

I haven't studied this question with any precision. Since McGwire hasn't actually been elected, to say nothing of the likelihood of Bonds and Clemens going in given their current troubles, we can't really consider this question from the perspective of a Hall of Fame class. But if we consider each ballot class from based on its highest-profile first-year eligibles, a prospective 2013 ballot with Bonds (166.8 JAWS), Clemens (141.8), and Piazza (80.4)-none of whom have officially retired yet-would blow away the one with Ripken (129.0), Gwynn (95.2) and McGwire (88.5) from a cumulative JAWS standpoint.

However, neither ballot can lay a claim to the top spot, even as far as recent history is concerned. The first class that came to mind when the question was asked, the 1999 crew of Robin Yount (104.3), George Brett (102.3), Nolan Ryan (93.8), and Carlton Fisk (87.8), falls just shy of the 2013 class (388.2 to 389.0), but the 1989 cadre, which saw Gaylord Perry (100.3), Carl Yastrzemski (98.3), Fergie Jenkins (96.8), and Johnny Bench (96.6) debut, edges them both out with 392.0.

Measured by the standards of who debuted, the 1982 ballot wouldn't win, but Hank Aaron (148.0) and Frank Robinson (118.1) might be the best tandem to reach eligibility together since the Hall's earliest years of existence. What's more impressive is that ballot's depth, because it featured no fewer than 12 eventual Hall of Famers: the aforementioned duo plus fellow BBWAA electees Luis Aparicio, Don Drysdale, Harmon Killebrew, Juan Marichal, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Billy Williams, plus Veterans Committee electees Richie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Nellie Fox, and Red Schoendienst. I'm not sure if that's a record, but it may well be.

Just a hunch, but I'll bet that group was a hell of a lot more fun to talk about back then than the 2013 one will be once we get there.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  The Who,  Steroids,  Player Ballot,  Hall Of Famer,  PED,  PEDs

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