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May 7, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies

The Steroids Game

by Nate Silver

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If you're like me, you've played something called 'The Steroids Game.' The Steroids Game takes place when you sit around a bar, or a rec room, or a ballpark, with a number of baseball-loving friends, and try and guess who is on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Perhaps, if you're particularly deranged, you've even played Rotisserie Steroids, which is just like regular rotisserie baseball except that the categories are games suspended (GS), cameramen kicked (CK), testicles ruptured (TR), days spent in the company of Jose Canseco (DSJC).

Whenever I played the Steroids Game, Manny Ramirez was not a high draft pick. We all have some idea of what the typical PED user looks like: he is presumed to be someone with a lot of lean muscle mass (think Barry Bonds), and a carefully-cultivated, creepily aloof media image (think Alex Rodriguez). These things did not appear to describe Manny Ramirez, who, when he had his bandana on, bore a vague resemblance to Jabba the Hut, and whose unguarded if eccentric personality exuded a certain kind of authenticity. In fact, Ramirez was frequently taken to the counter-example, the guy who, come hell or high water, absolutely was not on steroids. He was so much of a freak that we assumed his hitting talents must have been freakish too-God-given ability, and not the result of any sort of chemical intervention.

"Outed" PED users, however, frequently turn out to defy the conventional wisdom. Nobody ever drafted or Sergio Mitre, or Dan Serafini, or Yusaku Iriki in the Steroids Game, and yet, all three were suspended by Major League Baesball for usage. I am also sometimes asked if there is some sort of statistical signature of steroid users. Perhaps barring the case of Barry Bonds, I don't know that there is-such a test would have to find positive results for both Alex Rodriguez, who has 553 lifetime home runs, and Neifi Perez, who has 64. It would have to include both Jason Giambi, who won the 2000 MVP, and Jeremy Giambi, who, after posting numbers in the minors that were far more accomplished than his brother's, played his way out of the game.

Until we gain more perspective on the Steroid Era, indeed, it is probably best to tame the urge to convict players through their statistics alone. Instead, we should think in economic terms: who has the most to gain from using steroids? There are two answers to this question: firstly, someone trying to establish or prolong their career in the majors (since the difference between minor league salaries and even the major league minimum is enormous), and secondly, someone on the verge of signing a big, multi-year contract. The former describes a lot of the more marginal players who used steroids, like Perez or Mitre, while the latter describes someone like Ramirez.

We do not know, of course, exactly when Ramirez' usage began and ended. But his performance in 2008, a contract year, turned out to be far better than most people had expected. Ramirez compiled an Equivalent Average (EqA) last year of .339, something which our projection system, PECOTA, thought he had less than a one-in-ten chance of doing. And Ramirez' performance was even more exceptional, of course, after joining the Dodgers, during which time he compiled an OPS of 1232.

Taken on its own, this performance was nothing particularly interesting-flukish statistical performances happen all the time in baseball, far more frequently than most people realize. But when a sharp uptick in a player's statistics is coupled with strong economic imperatives to use steroids, perhaps they warrant more attention in the Steroids Game.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Steroids

35 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

sbnirish77

Nate ... at what level of steroid usage does PECOTA become a 'house of cards' in predicting the performance of power hitters?

Six of the top 10 HR hitters since the middle 80s are now implicated. Better than 50 / 50 for the elite power hitter.

Haven't we crossed a threshold where these comps are worthless at predicting the path of a clean player?

Or is BP still holding onto the the mantra that PEDs are not performance-enhancing?

May 07, 2009 17:49 PM
rating: -3
 
Dr. Dave

Is it really that hard to understand the difference between "PEDs are not performance enhancing" and "We don't know which drugs, if any, enhance which kinds of MLB performance, or by how much"?

As for PECOTA litmus tests... try it this way. Many of the top offensive (and pitching) performers since the '80s are known to have prayed to God, or to Allah, or to Jobu. Other, less successful players are also implicated in prayer, especially fringy latino players trying to break into the major leagues. How much of the success of the successful ones should we attribute to prayer? Can we ignore the high incidence of prayer use among the most valuable players of the last few decades? Have we passed the point where we can expect PECOTA to predict the career of an atheist?

May 07, 2009 22:03 PM
rating: -1
 
sockeye

This is a disingenuous argument and analogy. We can inductively explain the potential benefit of a PED....we cannot do so for prayer, shoe color, or anything else.

Anytime you are attempting to evaluate the significance of a correlation, a reasonable vehicle or pathway becomes a relevant part of the discussion.

May 08, 2009 00:10 AM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

"We can inductively explain the potential benefit of a PED" - no, we cannot

May 08, 2009 06:35 AM
rating: 1
 
krissbeth

It's reductio ad absurdam: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdam

May 08, 2009 07:58 AM
rating: -1
 
Dan W.

I don't actually think it's reductio ad absurdam, but kudos for spelling it right.

May 08, 2009 09:33 AM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

Just to play devil's advocate a second, some believe clutch hitting is a skill because some players respond better to pressure situations than others. So, a belief in God might help relieve some of that pressure and thus, aid hitters in smiting that curveball.

Then again, other people believe in lucky socks. Athletes are a superstitious lot and, to an extent, creatures of habit. If a PED is part of their superstition and habit, even if the PED has no effect, they'll still continue doing it.

May 08, 2009 08:43 AM
rating: 3
 
Dr. Dave

"Anytime you are attempting to evaluate the significance of a correlation, a reasonable vehicle or pathway becomes a relevant part of the discussion."

Perhaps. In my day job, it's all too common for the accepted/obvious explanation for the correlation to turn out to be totally bogus.

But what correlation were you referring to? The important point here is that there is, as yet, no demonstrated correlation requiring explanation. Nobody has found a correlation between "PED" use and performance enhancement in major league baseball players. That's partly because we have only very spotty data on who has used what, and partly because a lot of the players we DO have data on suck, and continued to suck after using PEDs.

May 08, 2009 10:23 AM
rating: 3
 
eighteen

Maybe I'm missing a late-breaking element of this story, but from what I've heard, Manny didn't test positive for 'roids, but for a "marker" drug designed to boost testosterone production. There's no word on whether the marker is a primary, or merely incidental, ingredient in the medication Manny was prescribed. Even if the former, it's more than possible the medication's use was not intended to mask or cover 'roid use. Let's remember Manny must have passed at least a dozen drug tests before this.

I'm no Manny fan, but the media's rush to judgment here is disturbing.

May 07, 2009 20:55 PM
rating: 5
 
Robert Flaxman

Yeah, I tend to agree. I'm no Ramirez fan - as a Cubs fan I have to hate him following last year's playoffs - but just because one of the primary purposes of that drug is to restart testosterone following a steroid cycle does not mean, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Ramirez was on steroids. Frankly I think it's likely, given the dearth of other explanations... but I don't think we can just toss around language like "We do not know, of course, exactly when Ramirez’ usage began and ended." We don't know THAT it began and ended. I haven't heard even of an anonymous source stepping forward to out him for taking them, and you'd think those guys would be lining up. So we'll see.

May 07, 2009 21:20 PM
rating: 5
 
jalee121

Although I am trying hard not to rush judgement, this shole situation reeks of PED's. Why was Manny going to a non team doctor in the first place? Moreover, notice there has been no fight from Manny or the Boras camp. I know there are real medical uses for this, but a doctor, let alone one that is practicing on an MLB superstar, would know the impacts on a drug test.

With all that, this doesn't change my view on Manny. Still a HOFer, and one of the greatest hitters I have ever seen.

May 08, 2009 07:10 AM
rating: 1
 
cbirkemeier

He wasn't on a team at the time, so did he even have a team doctor?

May 08, 2009 09:38 AM
rating: 1
 
Paul Andrew Burnett

Even if he was on a team over the offseason, I don't think players exclusively go to team doctors for all of their medical needs. I could be wrong, but I doubt every team has a team urologist or a team cardiologist or any number of other medical specialties aside from orthopaedic surgeon, physiatrist, or possibly radiologist.

May 08, 2009 11:15 AM
rating: 0
 
harderj

One other high profile case with his own personal physician was Barry Bonds, and while I think it is "normal" for a team physician to be looped in on matters related to a player even if the player is seeing a specialist or his own primary care physician, I got from the Giants trainers that Barry was allowed to live under his own rules in this matter.

Manny may have been given similar dispensation, but this does now reek of inappropriateness.

For what it's worth, I read all of Barry's testimony, and what came through for me is his utter distrust of management (even my beloved Giants), and his reliance on his trusted advisers and staff (including Greg Anderson, his trainer and childhood friend).

I honestly believe that Barry may not have known, nor really wanted to, what was in the cream that Anderson rubbed into his arm (one of many over time, probably, as Barry would get into his game prep mode and turn over the trust), or squirted under his tongue (again, he took what his trainer gave him).

Now, if there's evidence that he was shot up (which he denies), then I think he will be convicted. But otherwise, I don't see the obvious lies to the grand jury that the government seems committed to prosecute.

I predict he'll walk (he was the best at that!), but no team will take a chance on him even at DH.

May 11, 2009 06:50 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Manny tested for an elevated level of testosterone. Upon a second test, the testosterone was artificial. However, he was suspended because of some documentation showing he had used hCG. MLB figured it was easier to suspend over the documentation than the elevated levels of testosterone, especially since the penalties for either the artificial testosterone or the hCG was the same. That is also why the "just cause" provision of the joint drug agreement was cited as the reason of the suspension instead of the "positive test" provision.

http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=4148907

May 08, 2009 09:00 AM
rating: 2
 
ScottyB

PLEASE!!!!!

When there is no evidence, we should suspend judgment. In a case like this we KNOW that Manny used a banned substance, and that the banned substance is commonly used when one is cycling down from roids, we actually can make a judgment.

May 09, 2009 12:22 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

That read like the sumo chapter from freakonomics. Whether or not it was the angle to the Ramirez incident, it is an angle that is worth pursuing. PEDs do not create talent, they supplement it. Who would want to supplement their talent in a relatively easy way?

May 07, 2009 21:28 PM
rating: 1
 
harderj

did you mean to say "who would not?"

May 11, 2009 06:08 AM
rating: 0
 
Juris

I think y'all need to go back to Baseball Between the Numbers, to see why it's difficult to use statistics to prove the effects of PED's on performance. A basic problem is that there's huge season-to-season variation in performance for individual players, i.e., underlying noise in the data, difficulty determining true ability from manifest performance in a given year.

For the same reason, without reliable data on usage there's no way to create a PED vs. non-PED statistical baseline for doing projections. This isn't a PECOTA problem, it's a general limitation of all statistical projection systems.

Sure, we know of some cases where we have strong reason to expect use of PED's (read: the perps have confessed, or tests have been run). But the baseline variation in performance is still very large, even without PEDs.

May 08, 2009 07:20 AM
rating: 4
 
Clonod

Agreed. It's also impossible to determine a baseline. Even if you could accurately sort out the "clean" players from the "dirty", as Nate notes, some of the players with the most economic incentive to cheat are going to be MLB replacement-level.

May 08, 2009 10:39 AM
rating: 1
 
TheBish

Here's a fun Steroid Game: What TEAM is the "most juiced" in history. I have long argued that the 1995 Cleveland Indians hold that title (although a few of Jose Canseco's teams could certainly contend in this argument). Some highlights of the '95 Indians roster:

Manny Ramirez
Jason Grimsley
Jim Thome
Albert Belle
Jeromy Burnitz
Alan Embree
Julian Taverez
Kenny Lofton
Omar Vizquel
Brian Giles

May 08, 2009 08:03 AM
rating: -2
 
sbnirish77

So we're at the 40% level with the 1995 Indians alone. Once again Nate, what is the threshold for PED use that invalidates the PECOTA projections? 20%, 40% 60% of all players? Or is it best to ignore the question and just keep using the numbers?

May 08, 2009 15:04 PM
rating: -2
 
ScottyB

why is this an inappropriate comment?

May 09, 2009 12:24 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Because, unless I missed something, I haven't seen any evidence or even strong suggestion against Thome, Burnitz, Embree, Tavarez, Lofton, Vizquel or Giles. It's inappropriate to list a series of names that you think are connected to steroids without some kind of proof or rationale.

May 09, 2009 19:47 PM
rating: 3
 
TheBish

I thought it was a steroid game, a conversation starter, and my opinion is not a court of law, just thought I'd throw it out there, sorry to offend those who believe that Manny has fallen victim to a misinformed physician.

May 10, 2009 10:57 AM
rating: -1
 
Richard Bergstrom

I gave you a negative, and it had nothing to do with Manny but with the other players you listed without proof.

Though, upon hindsight, I guess that was the nature of the steroids game that Nate proposed... so I can blame him instead ;)

I guess it would have helped me if I had read your comment then saw some of the justifications you had "long argued" was the reason the 1995 Indians were the most juiced.

May 10, 2009 16:14 PM
rating: 1
 
roryasdfasdf

Nate doesn't specifically mention it, but his line of reasoning means that there should be far many more cup of coffee kind of scrubs that got tested positive for PEDs that have since been forgotten than actual good players. This is because the economic incentive from going from AAA to the ML is very large compared to the economic incentive of say making an extra three or four million when you are already making ten. If you are stuck in the minors you really have nothing to lose whereas if you are already making a couple of million, it is not worth it to risk the couple million for a couple million more. I believe anything Canseco says now, and I bet the 80% of ML players on steroids he claimed are heavily weighted towards the scrubs at the low end of the production distribution and the very high end of the distribution, but guys kind of good enough to play in the majors and not good enough to possibly be legends are the least likely to be on PEDs.

May 08, 2009 11:29 AM
rating: 1
 
Juris

In his earlier articles on this, including in BBTN, that's exactly what Nate argued: that the scrubs and marginal players had the greatest incentive to use PED's, and indeed the data that were available showed that such players predominated in the group who were caught and penalized.

May 08, 2009 16:38 PM
rating: 2
 
Rowen Bell

Right -- and isn't that hypothesis consistent with the results of drug tests to date? There have been a number of players who have received 50-game suspensions, but unless I'm forgetting somebody, Manny is the first player to receive such a suspension that the average man on the street would have heard of. The other suspended players seem to fit more in the "journeyman" camp than the "superstar" camp.

May 08, 2009 11:35 AM
rating: 2
 
jayman4

An analysis that I would welcome builds on Silver's thinking. Perhaps you could isolate the "walk year" boost for each year going back 20 years, if there is such a boost. So, see if there is walk year boost and, if so, did that boost increase during the "PED" era and start to decline during increased testing.

I am guessing it will be noisy and bounce all over the place, but that would still be a worthwhile analysis.

May 08, 2009 21:48 PM
rating: 0
 
harderj

There is again a problem of replacement level players and other middling types in amongst the high profile free agents to be. The media seems to have in their minds that players in a walk year will be "extra motivated," but as professional athletes at the top of their game, should that be necessary? And isn't "trying too hard" potentially a problem in baseball performance?

Second, my dissertation research showed no statistically significant positive (or negative) effect on runs created or total average, controlling for career performance up to that season, of becoming a free agent the next year.

Interestingly, there was also no effect, in the two years for which I had actual contract language data, of having any kind of bonus clause in one's contract on one's performance, again net of career performance up to that point.

So, all of this suggests that while PEDs might be supposed to enhance performance (thus the acronym), we would need to look at each player's baseline before compared to subsequent performance (taking into account "normal" performance improvements that might be expected before age 27-28), and also know when the expected benefits of the PED's should have occurred (some time after doping began, presumably).

Furthermore, we would probably need to control for other factors (besides age and physical maturity) that might positively effect peformance, such as training regimens, nutrition, LASIK, etc.

Finally, it may be that some body-types (or some other similar individual variable) react differently to PED's, and that would be hard research to get done, even in a clinical setting, I would think.

May 11, 2009 06:43 AM
rating: 0
 
TheBish

Manny is the first high profile player to test positive since Rafael Palmeiro, but my concern is that it seams as though he only tested positive for a drug that was meant to help him rebound from a steroid cycle. Isn't it possible that he was using a new steroid that can get by MLBs drug tests. Maybe the players who can afford it are usng a new generation of designer steroids that is ahead of the testing.

May 09, 2009 06:50 AM
rating: 1
 
harderj

Just fwiw, as I understand it Manny was found to have been prescribed the forbidden substance, and that was all it took to suspend him via the policy...there was no failed drug test of which I am aware.

May 11, 2009 06:35 AM
rating: 0
 
btoobtoo

Nice blast from the past with Dan Serafini, coincidentally (or maybe not) from the same Serra High (San Mateo, Ca) that produced Barry Bonds.

May 09, 2009 08:25 AM
rating: 0
 
TheBish

And Tom Brady

May 10, 2009 10:57 AM
rating: 0
 
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