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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Steroids update: baseball 2005

The baseball season is a month old and steroids are still dominating the news.

Commissioner Bud Selig has called for a much stricter penalty for those found using performance enhancing drugs. He wants the first offense to cost the user a 50 games suspension and the second offense to be 100 games lost. The third offense would be banishment from the game: "three strikes, you're out."

The union says the current plan is working (the latest suspended player is Twins pitcher Juan Rincon) and no stronger penalty is needed. Since the issue is deterrence, I'm not sure when we'll know whether players are now clean.

Meanwhile, former pitcher and pitching coach Tom House says that baseball players were using steroids and human growth hormone as far back as the 1960s. House's revelation is interesting because many in the media have denigrated the current crop of sluggers compared to the generation that matured when they were younger. Note: House is the guy who caught Hank Aaron's 715th HR ball on April 8, 1974. He was drafted in 1967 and was in the majors by 1971.

Willie Mays played his last season in 1973; Aaron played through 1976; and Frank Robinson through 1976. The career home run list is dominated by guys who played all or part of their careers since 1970. For every 1990s slugger (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro), one can name a 1970s counterpart (those named, plus Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt).

Notice, I've just identified every player in the top 11 career HR list, save Babe Ruth. Number 12 is Mickey Mantle.

House told the SF Chronicle's Ron Kroichick that 6 or 7 pitchers per major league team were on these drugs during his 1970s career:
"I'd like to say we were smart, but we didn't know what was going on. We were at the tail end of a generation that wasn't afraid to ingest anything. As research showed up, guys stopped."

House was listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, and he ballooned to 215 or 220 while on steroids.
House claims that the drugs did not add zip to his fastball, but reliever Juan Rincon significantly increased his strikeouts per inning pitched last season.

Want more evidence that this is not a new probelm? Lyle Alzado, the football player who admitted using steroids, started his professional football career after being picked in the 1971 draft. Note this fact: Alzado says he started using steroids at Yankton College, a tiny NAIA school in South Dakota.

Imagine how widespread steroids would have had to have been in sports to reach a tiny NAIA program in South Dakota in the late 1960s.

Behind the iron curtain, the infamous East German women's swim team used steroids to achieve dramatic victories at the 1972 and 1976 Olympic games. Thousands of athletes were drugged, including young teenage girls!

This is a new issue causing the HR burst of the past decade? Hmmmm.

What do the data show? ESPN has been tracking HRs per game. In 2005, teams are hitting 0.955, down from 1.123 last year (which was up from 1.043 and 1.071 in 2002-03). That means teams are hitting only 85% as many this year as they did last year, but note:
1. Cold weather hurts offense and this has been a wet and cold spring in many major league cities. We'll have to monitor these numbers through the summer. I think ESPN is comparing this year's April data to full season data for other seasons.

2. Single season fluctuation of this magnitude isn't that unusual. Go back and compare 1987 leaguewide HR numbers to the three years prior and after. It's a major outlier as the league hit over 700 more HRs in 1987 than in 1986, and then dropped by almost 1300 in 1988!
I'll be following this story as the summer progresses.

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