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Steroids in Baseball

jingber's picture

Steroids in Baseball
It is common knowledge that steroids have ruined modern baseball. Thousands of books and articles have been written on the scourge of what was once an innocent game, played by men with nothing more than pure kindness and goodness in their hearts. A nation once enthralled while watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chase Roger Maris’ longstanding record of 61 home runs in a season has seen their heroes fall from grace. The current single season and career home run leader, Barry Bonds, has entire books detailing his use of performance-enhancing drugs (1).
            Typical media coverage would have you believe the case against steroids is as clear-cut as could be. There is no question that steroids provide unfair competitive advantages for athletes who use them, as well as risk their health, and articles on the topic go straight to questions of who used steroids and their reasoning for doing so. The famous Mitchell Report (written by former senator George Mitchell at the behest of MLB commissioner Bud Selig), which named 86 players as using steroids or other performance enhancers, is a prime example (2). The fans have taken to echoing this view, and even many major league players are concerned about the effect that steroids have had on the sport (3).
            But is the case against steroids really so one-sided? For starters, “steroids” is a misleading term. The steroids that are being referred to are anabolic steroids, just a small subset of all steroids. There are two separate questions to be considered. The first is whether or not steroids affect the performance of baseball players, specifically in regards to batting power. The second question that must be asked is if steroids are really a health risk to those who use them (as well as if that health risk is significant enough that anabolic steroids deserve to be banned by Major League Baseball.) The answers are less clear than you might think.
            Steroids aid in building muscle; this is incontrovertible fact (4). But not all muscle aids in hitting. It is common knowledge in baseball that power comes from the lower body. When hitting a baseball, the only factor in the swing that affects the velocity the ball comes off the bat is bat speed (5). Bat speed is generated through torque of the trunk and legs, so for muscle buildup to make a difference on power, it would have to occur in the lower body. Anabolic steroids affect the upper body much more than the lower body (6). By the very nature of hitting, this makes the impact they can have fairly limited. Does the data back up this up? The raw numbers would indicate otherwise, but once again, close analysis reveals things are not as they might seem (and keep in mind, this is assuming rampant use of steroids in baseball in the general population of professionals, something that has never been proven.)
            When analyzing player performance in baseball with statistics, it is always the goal to minimize confounding variables as much as possible. There are many factors that go into hitting that are completely out of the batter’s control: the skill of the pitcher, the ballpark played in, the strike zone of the umpire, the skill of the defense, and the liveliness of the baseball are just a few. Because of this, looking at the total number of home runs or runs is not a good way to evaluate power. A good way then of looking at power would be the ratio of total bases to hits. The amount of hits is thus removed as a factor (the percent of balls put in play that fall for hits have been shown to be only slightly dependent on hitting skill) (7) leaving behind the power driving each hit. If this “power factor” is graphed out, it does show a large jump in 1993, which would seem to confirm suspicions. (8) Could anything other than steroids explain the jump?
            Analysis of the baseball Mark McGwire hit for his 70th home run in 1998 showed certain features that did not match MLB specifications. The ball had a rubber ring around the core, which would make the ball livelier and come off the bat faster (9). A University of Rhode Island experiment on ball cores had a similar result, this time showing that the core itself of modern baseballs is livelier (10). This provides strong evidence that the composition of the baseballs has changed, which would make much more sense as a reason for the jump in power factor in 1993. The use of steroids in baseball would come about as a gradual process, so the gain in power factor would be gradual as well, instead of the massive singular jump the graph clearly shows (8). In fact, if you remove years where there were changes to the baseball - two of which were official and known changes - and smooth out the years of the world wars (most players left to fight, resulting in a large temporary shift in the talent pool of major leaguers), it becomes clear that the power of the players themselves has not seen much of a shift. Many major leaguers may have been taking steroids, but it is unlikely those steroids had much of an effect on player ability.  This makes a lot of intuitive sense as well, because hitting has as many mental components as physical. Any major league hitter must have incredible hand-eye coordination and reflexes, without which they would be unable to even make contact with the ball.
            But let’s assume there is some flaw in the analysis that has been missed. Shouldn’t anabolic steroids be banned anyway? They hurt the health of ballplayers and kids hearing about their favorite players taking steroids may want to follow in the steps of their role model. Of course, no one argues that anabolic steroids are all bad, especially not in the medical profession. There is a long history of using anabolic steroids as a treatment for a number of illnesses and injuries (4 and 11). And except in cases of extreme abuse, usually only seen in bodybuilders, evidence of the psychological effect of hyper aggressiveness and mania known as “roid rage” seems to be minimal (6). Furthermore, baseball doesn’t ban many drugs proven to be exceptionally harmful, tobacco being a primary example. Are kids not susceptible to being influenced by tobacco use?
            The place of anabolic steroids in baseball has been highly overblown by the fans, and more importantly, the media. There is strikingly little evidence that there are any “performance-enhancing” benefits to steroids, and while abuse of anabolic steroids is bad for the body, the same can be said of any drug, many of which are not restricted by Major League Baseball. Banning anabolic steroids is fine, but the league should avoid hypocrisy, ban the use of tobacco as well, and acknowledge that the heroes of my childhood can still be considered elite baseball players, purely on the basis of their own skill.


Paul Grobstein's picture

baseball and biology

It is certainly worth thinking critically both about the notion that "steroids" give players an advantage and about their health risks.  Further complicating (making interesting?) the picture are questions like don't players have differences in steroid levels and muscles whether they use steroids or not?  Don't they have differences because they practice?   Is that "fair"?  What does "purely on the basis of their own skill" actually mean?