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January 9, 2012

BP Unfiltered

Suspicious Minds

by Colin Wyers

Rob Neyer wrote an article about keeping an open mind during Hall of Fame voting season, about putting process ahead of results, about how being thoughtful is more important than coming up with the right answer. I should be supportive of these sentiments, I know. But these sentiments are being deployed alongside a rather poor example of being thoughtful. Neyer writes in the comments, in response to a reader saying there's no more evidence Jeff Bagwell used PEDs than Barry Larkin:

Really? None at all?

Let me suggest a thought experiment, AstroB.

I would like you to assign numbers to two players, representing the likelihood that they used steroids at some point in their careers.

The players are Derek Jeter and Edgar Martinez. Go.

Did anything happen in your mind at all? Did you arrive at identical numbers for each player?

My guess is that you did not. My guess is that you came up with a higher number for Martinez than for Jeter.

That’s because of evidence. And it’s there for Larkin and Bagwell, whether you like it or not.

Neyer refers to "evidence," but I don't think a thought experiment rises to the level of evidence. So let's look at the record and see what it says.

Because if we look at players who have actually been identified as taking steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs—either through the Mitchell report or suspension by MLB—they aren't any bigger than the average player. The average PED user was 73 inches tall and 193 pounds. The average MLB player over the same time span was 74 inches, 195 pounds. If you cherry-pick a handful of examples (Barry Bonds, for instance), you can get an impression that PED users are larger than the typical MLB player. But considering the entirety of the available evidence, there's no support for the idea that larger players use PEDs at a higher rate than smaller players. Players that used banned substances during the "steroids era" came in all shapes and sizes.

What if Neyer wasn't referring to body type, but position? Designated hitter has different offensive requirements than shortstop and no counterweighting defensive responsibilities. But let's look at changes in home runs per plate appearance between the two positions in the pre- and post-"steroids" era:

  SS_HR_PA DH_HR_PA
1980-1992 0.011 0.031
1993-2011 0.017 0.038
Difference 0.007 0.007

That's right, folks—the increase in home run rates for shortstops and designated hitters was essentially identical. DHs do hit more home runs than shortstops, but that's always been the case. This suggests one of two things:

  • That shortstops took steroids at similar rates to designated hitters, or
  • That steroids were not the primary cause of increased home run rates.

Of course, both could be true - they're not mutually exclusive.

So I agree with Rob Neyer when he says everyone should be be thoughtful and consider all the available evidence when approaching these issues. I just wish he'd lead by example and do those things, too. Most people would tell you that someone like Edgar Martinez is more likely to have used performance enhancing drugs than someone like Derek Jeter. But that popular supposition isn't evidence of steroid use by Edgar (or any other big damn slugger), it's evidence of a preconception that distorts our perspective on baseball history during the past decade or so. Proponents of a "clean Hall" are truly proponents of a Hall without the defining power hitters of an age, while pitchers and players at defense-first positions are largely free from scrutiny. But the evidence we have at hand tells us that players of all stripes - pitchers and pinch-runners as well as power hitters - were guilty of the same crimes. Continuing to paint sluggers with a different brush than everybody else makes it easier for Hall voters to label players as "clean" or "dirty" but it does so at the expense of telling the truth about an entire generation of players.

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

Related Content:  Rob Neyer

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