Barry Bonds’ post-testing power: suddenly it’s all so clear

September 25th, 2008 → 6:10 pm @

A fascinating new study on steroid use found that…

…even years after steroid withdrawal—and with little or no current strength training—muscle fiber density and increased number of cell nuclei were comparable to drug-free athletes currently doing high-intensity strength-training. The additional cell nuclei could give a big advantage to former dopers—more nuclei means more protein synthesis, which means more muscle. So steroid use can still offer a competitive advantage years later. Which means that a clean ballplayer can still hit a dirty home run.

The implications of this are profound. There’s already very little incentive for an on-the-cusp player not to use: either he goes natural and doesn’t have an MLB career, juices and gets caught and doesn’t have a MLB career, or juices and doesn’t get caught and gets some time in the bigs. Now it looks like a worst case scenario for someone who decides to ‘roid up is getting caught, serving a suspension…and still benefiting for years to come.

Post Categories: Steroids

Do I believe John Rocker? Hell yeah I do.

February 12th, 2008 → 11:10 am @

In an interview with an Atlanta radio station, John “I’ll just keep talking until I get myself in trouble” Rocker says he and a bunch of other Texas Rangers were advised on how to juice without getting caught back in 2000. (According to Rocker, this little talking-to happened after he flunked a steroids test. He also takes pains to point out that A-Rod was one of his teammates at the time. It looks more and more like Alex’s stint with Texas wasn’t the best move: every two-bit punk who did time with him in Arlington is using him to gin up publicity.) Anyway, I believe Rocker is telling the truth.

(Sort of.*)

I’ve had an odd–well, soft spot isn’t exactly the right word, but you get the idea–for Rocker even since he went mano a mano with Deadspin’s Will Leitch, one of our all-time favorite sportswriters, period. (If you haven’t bought “God Save the Fan,” you should. It’s hysterical. And cut up into easily digestible chunks.) But that’s not why I believe him. I believe him because I think the Mitchell report underestimates — enormously — the amount of juicing within baseball. (I’m also surprised Mitchell, et al got away with the methods they used; that kind of crap would get me drummed out of journalism permanently. That’s a whole other story.) I also believe him because if the whole steroids mess has shown us anything, it’s that the least likely folks have ended up being the most honest. That’s in large part because of the frat house/high school locker room mentality of the entire baseball world, where the omerta code is lots stronger than it is in today’s mob…and guys like Jose and JR have already been kicked out of the club, so they have nothing to lose.

There you have it. Happy Potomac Primary day! If you live in the Beltway, make sure you vote. You might as well get involved in something: It’s not as if there are a lot of compelling reasons to invest your time into any of your local baseball teams.

* This is not to say, as Rocker seems to imply, that Bud sanctioned this little clubhouse chemistry lectures. I think the general sentiment is accurate: that a lot of people spread throughout every organization knew exactly what was going on and that there was a whole helluva lot of complicity.

Post Categories: John Rocker & Jose Canseco & Steroids & The Mitchell Report

How to lie with statistics, academia edition: Here’s what your $40,000 a year is paying for

December 23rd, 2007 → 12:57 pm @

In yesterday’s New York Times, a pair of academics — Columbia professor of sociology Jonathan Cole and University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler — published an article titled “More Juice, Less Punch,” which aimed to ask the question: “Do [PEDs] make a difference sufficient to be detected in the players’ performance records?” Their answer, not surprisingly, is no (otherwise there wouldn’t have been any point in publishing their story in the first place): “An examination of the data on the players featured in the Mitchell report suggests that in most cases the drugs had either little or a negative effect.”

I feel sorry for the students that are forced to sit through these boobs’ courses.

Cole and Stigler try to prove their point by comparing stats from before and after a given player is accused of using roids (or HGH, or whatever). They explain their methodology thusly: “For pitchers identified by the report, we looked at the annual earned run average for their major league careers. For hitters we examined batting averages, home runs and slugging percentages. We then compared each player’s yearly performance before and after he is accused of having started using performance-enhancing drugs. After excluding those with insufficient information for a comparison, we were left with 48 batters and 23 pitchers.” The results, they say, show no net gain in performance.

This in itself would seem to intuitively demonstrate that PEDs do, in fact, work – baseball players, like mathematicians and physicists – show a dramatic tail-off at a very young age (for the geeks, their best work is usually done in their 20s; for ballplayers, the peak years usually come between 28 and 32) and if players with extended careers don’t show any decline in performance, that would indicate an unusual pattern.

Anyone who had any slight degree of sophistication would also realize that it’s next to meaningless to compare raw data – you need to make sure you understand what the data you’re looking at actually means. In this case, that means realizing that comparing stats like ERA or home runs or OPS or anything else tells you much less about a player’s relative performance than ERA+ or OPS+. (OPS+ normalizes OPS for the park and the league the player played in; ERA+ shows the player’s ERA in relation to the league’s ERA. This explains why Pedro’s 1.74 ERA in 2000, when the league ERA was 5.07, earned him an ERA+ of 291, while Sandy Koufax’s 1.74 ERA in 1964, when the league ERA was 3.25, only garnered him an ERA+ of 187. It also helps show why Pedro’s 2000 season was arguably the best ever. It resulted in the highest ERA+ since 1880, and the second best ever. Koufax’s top season ranks as 56th.)

Let’s drill down a little more. Cole and Stigler write, “The Roger Clemens is a case in point: a great pitcher before 1998, a great (if increasingly fragile) pitcher after he is supposed to have received treatment. But when we compared Clemens’s E.R.A. through 1997 with his E.R.A. from 1998 on, it was worse by 0.32 in the later period.” As I pointed out last year, the salient point here is how Clemens performed in his late 30s compared to his mid 20s. In the 12 years from Clemens’ breakout year in 1986, when he was 23, he had an ERA+ above 180 twice; in the 10 years from age 35 to 44, he had two more. Compare that to other Hall of Fame pitchers from this era like Greg Maddux, who had four years with an ERA+ of 180 or higher before age 35 and none afterwards, or Tom Glavine, whose five best years all came before age 35. Heck, compare it to Tom Seaver, the guy who was voted into the Hall with the highest percentage ever: his six best years all came before age 34.

Cole and Stigler are just as ignorant when it comes to hitters. “What should not be overlooked,” they write, “is that Bonds’s profile is strikingly like Babe Ruth’s high performance level until near the end of his career, with one standout home run year — a year in which other players on other teams also exceeded their previous levels.”

Actually, what should not be overlooked is the fact that Bonds has put up an OPS+ of greater than 200 in three out of the last six years, compared with comperable numbers in three of his first 14 years in the bigs. Ruth also had an OPS+ higher than 200 in three of his final six years…and another eight in the previous 14. (Another thing that should not be overlooked: Bonds has played the majority of his career in a home ballpark that has a spacious right field, unlike Ruth, who got to hit in Yankee Stadium.)

I know it’s not a shocker than a pair of academics don’t really understand baseball; it has taken autodidacts like Bill James to help illuminate the game. What is shocking is how little Cole and Stigler — professors who not only deal with numbers but teach at elite institutions — seem to understand about analyzing data.

Post Categories: Jonathan Cole & New York Times & Statistics & Stephen Stigler & Steroids

Day Three: The situation’s looking worse all the time for Roger

December 16th, 2007 → 12:41 pm @

Roger Clemens, through his lawyer, has been sticking with his Casablanca-evoking outrage that he was fingered as a ‘roids user. He shouldn’t be surprised, and neither should anyone else. (Compare this picture of a middle-aged Clemens to this one when he was in Boston. It certainly looks like his body went through a Bonds-like transformation.) I’ve been curious as to why more people weren’t asking questions about Clemens since last January, when Boston was in the hunt for his services.

In the last two days, the situation for Clemens has, remarkably, gotten even worse. There ex-big leaguers like C.J. Nitkowski defending Brian McNamee after he was called “troubled” by Clemens’ lawyer–a remarkable breach of the unspoken code of omerta among current and former ballplayers. There’s Curt Schilling, who looks up to Clemens as an idol, saying “I believe it” when asked about the contents of the Mitchell report. There’s the results of ESPN’s Jerry Krasnick’s informal poll of Hall voters–a full two-thirds of whom say they either wouldn’t vote for Clemens or are undecided.

And now there’s Andy Pettitte’s classy confirmation of McNamee’s revelations about his use of HGH. (Classy so long as his statement that there were only two times he used are, in fact, true.) Not only did Pettitte not say that McNamee was troubled, he confirmed exactly what McNamee had told investigators.

The steroid mess isn’t going to be one of those Watergate/Monica situations where the cover-up is worse than the crime…but it may be a case where the public, and the press, is a lot quicker to grant absolution to guys who come clean on their own. I’m willing to be dollars to doughnuts that Pettitte gets the biggest ovation of any player when the Yankees are announced on opening day at the Stadium.

Post Categories: Andy Pettitte & Hall of Fame & Roger Clemens & Steroids & The Mitchell Report

In defense of the Yankees dynasty

December 16th, 2007 → 12:18 pm @

The presence of Clemens and Pettitte–and, to a lesser extent, of the likes of Chuck Knoblauch and David Justice–has predictably caused some people to question the Yankees ’96-’00 dominance. I’ll add myself to one of the voices for the defense. No one will ever know what the Mitchell report would have looked like had there been a strength and conditioning coach in every clubhouse that talked, on the record, about what happened while they were with their respective teams…but it’s a safe bet that more teams would look like the Yankees, with more than a dozen players named, than like the Sox, who don’t have a single major player cited for actions during his time in Boston.

Post Categories: Roger Clemens & Steroids & The Mitchell Report & Yankees

What – you want more on the Mitchell Report?

December 13th, 2007 → 6:46 pm @

Lots and lots and lots and lots of actual and virtual ink will be spilled on the Mitchell Report, which is going to make life hell for a whole mess of people. I’ll resist added too much of my drivel and will instead limit myself to some few quick points on issues such as…

Roger Clemens. Why, you might ask, would a sure-fire Hall of Famer risk his reputation and legacy over these last five or so years by taking PEDs? People asked me that question again and again during the pre-season frenzies of last season and 2006. I have no way of knowing; for some reason, Clemens won’t talk to me. But I do have an idea: because he has never, in his entire life, had to deal with the consequences of his actions. He can act like a teenage mutant ninja freak and throw broken bats across the field and it’s chalked up to competitive fire. He can demand ludicrous contract clauses like Hummers and private transportation and he’s indulged. Why, after years and years of this, would he suddenly think that the rules applied to him? (Clemens is far from alone in this regard; this is something that crops up again and again in ballplayers, who are constantly reminded that the normal rules of society–stay faithful to your spouse, clean up after yourself, don’t eat McDonald’s for breakfast–don’t apply to them.

I Love (the fact that I’m not playing in) New York. Plenty of teams’ fans are going to be crowing/letting out a huge sigh of relief…so long as those fans aren’t rooting for the Mets and the Yankees. A quick scan of what is destined to become known as the list shows current and former New Yorkers including Kevin Brown, Paul Lo Duca, Mo Vaughn, Todd Pratt, Ron Villone, David Justice, Chuck Knoblauch, Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Lenny Dykstra. Does that mean that other teams–like, say, the Sox–are (or were) any cleaner? Hell no. It just means no-one else had a clubhouse attended that got popped.

The non-inclusion of any of the Idiots: Earlier today, what turned out to be a fake list was leaked; that one included names like Nomar, Johnny Damon, and Trot Nixon, along with other usual suspects like Pudge, Pujols, and Milton Bradley. (Later in the day, well-circulated rumor had Varitek also on the list.) Back in 2005, a member of the Sox’s front office physically shuddered at the thought of what would happen in Boston if news ever broke about someone on the ’04 team roiding up. It looks like that won’t happen…for now, anyway. That brings us to…

Eric Gagne. Gagne, as everyone now knows, was on the list, which can’t be a surprise to anyone. (Also included in the report is news that the Sox inquired about Gagne’s supposed doping before acquiring him at the deadline.) It turns out that the biggest favor Gagne may have done Boston is sucking ass for the second half of the season–now, at least, no one can point to him as one of the reason’s for the team’s success.

That’s all for now. I’ve written plenty about steroids in the past, including last August, when I wondered why no one was wondering about Roger, and way back in October ’06, when I mocked the press’s surprise that Clemens had been fingered in he Grimsley affidavit. I also tagged Jason Giambi a gutless punk, ripped into the Players Union for defending the players’ right to destroy their livers, lamented the fact that Jose Canseco seemed to be the only honest guy around, and talked about how Bill James compared steroids to going through a divorce. (Sort of, anyway.)

More later, I’m sure.

Post Categories: 2004 Playoffs & Eric Gagne & Jason Giambi & Jason Grimsley & Jason Varitek & Johnny Damon & Nomar Garciaparra & Roger Clemens & Steroids & The Mitchell Report & Trot Nixon

Odds and sods: Murray the moron; BP agrees with me

May 13th, 2007 → 10:29 am @

There are days when I think Murray Chass is a bad writer, or a lazy reporter, or a grudge-carrying boob. Those are the good days. Then there are days like today, when I wonder if he knows anything about baseball at all.

Pretty much everyone who is involved with, reporters on, is a fan of, or reads about baseball is aware of the laughably porous PED-testing program MLB has in place. It’s been written about again and again and again.

But in today’s Times, Chass has a typical column, which is to say, one devoid of any new information. He also comes out with this gem, which is impressive even for him:

“Because baseball tests for steroids and other performance-enhancing substances, it is unlikely that Bonds is risking his career by using them. But baseball, as all other sports, doesn’t test for human growth hormone, so some Bonds critics believe that’s what he’s using.”

This may very well be the first time I’ve seen anyone write that the MLB testing program is so good as to all but ensure players aren’t using. In fact, Jack Curry, one of Chass’s colleagues at the Times, wrote a long, prominent story less than two months ago that highlighted just how porous baseball’s program is.

Some of the highlights of Curry’s article:

* Baseball doesn’t test for the blood booster EPO or 1GF-1, a hormone that mimics the effects of HGH.

* If a player faces a random test on game day, he has up until an hour after that night’s contest to actually give a sample. That prompted this quote: “If a guy can’t do it, he comes back in an hour?” said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an associate professor of medicine at NYU and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. “Comes back in an hour? Give me a break. They should say that he will be chaperoned from the moment of notification. It shouldn’t even be 30 seconds later.” The players, Wadler pointed out, are not chaperoned during this time.

* A GM told Curry that, on days in which a collector comes to spring training, a player could alert teammates who hadn’t shown up yet that testing was taking place.

* Some players are notified the night before a test is going to take place.
Chass is also wrong when he says that “all other sports” are similar to baseball in that they don’t test for HGH…unless Chass doesn’t consider what takes place at the Olympics as “sport.” Finally, HGH is no small exclusion: two seasons ago, when I was with the Red Sox, HGH was widely acknowledged throughout baseball to have replaced steroids as the juicer of choice.


In cheerier news, it’s nice to see Baseball Prospectus’s Will Carroll agreeing with me when he says, “I love Tim Wakefield.” Check out his piece; it’s worth reading.

Post Categories: Baseball Prospectus & Murray Chass & Steroids & Tim Wakefield