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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

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