Category Archives: MLB

The Gray Lines in Steroid Use That No One Talks About

I’m a steroids apologist, I admit.  Barry Bonds destroyed baseball and, even though he was a Giant (with a giant head), his play was absolutely amazing to watch.

 

We, and by that I mean most of the people I follow on twitter and certainly sabermetricians in general, kinda gloss over the actual cheating by Bonds and others. While we keep throwing around stuff about greenies in the ’70s, I don’t think anyone here really knows how rampant amphetamine use was in that day: who was taking it, how much were their doses, how effective it was, etc. Heck, we don’t even know really how rampant steroid use is today. Not to mention, amphetamines and steroids are two completely different drugs.

Baseball’s record on drugs has been pretty goddamn awful from the start and there’s a lot of myopia on all sides. Either everyone’s guilty or no one is; either we accept all players who did anything to advance their careers or none of them.

 

 

But, and this is something I’ve heard multiple times, what’s the difference between steroid users and gamblers?

Well, besides the obvious.

Steroids are banned in baseball.  So is gambling.  Why is baseball not consistent on this?  Why not be equal?  Cheating is cheating, right?

 

Ethics is unsteady ground.

 

The thing that gets kind of annoying is assuming drugs are equally bad. This isn’t even faintly true.  Steroids and HGH are not the same and when you get into Andro and other supplements, the line gets grayer. I doubt anyone here can tell the difference between Mesterolone and Tetrahydrogestrinone. Heck, I didn’t even know before I looked it up. Both are banned by MLB.

This is glossed over the most in every argument and now supplement makers are the ones making the lines grayer. MLB, in its panic to set the record straight, just said “Fuck it, we’re banning everything marked Andro and steroids by the FDA.” There’s only equivocation: a banned substance is banned and it’ll get you big game suspensions.  Occasionally, banned substances find their way into weight gainers because guess who makes anabolic steroids and andro products for sale to pharmacies. The marginal return on weight gainer is pretty goddamn slim, but a positive test is a positive test. Meanwhile, training and weight lifting regimens are getting more scientific and advanced than ever before and we like to use The Eye Test on shit like this, so everyone looks guilty.
Seems to me, though, that the ones who took steroids and are HOF players were already HOF players: Bonds, McGwire, Sheffield, etc. Probably even Clemens. In fact, it may have hurt the cases of two hall of famers in Sheffield and Rafael Palmiero and I wouldn’t be surprised if both fell off the ballot just because of their ties to use–and that the focus of the pro-steroids HOF push is going to be entirely on Bonds and Clemens. Maybe there’s an argument about how Jason Giambi had a decent borderline case, but he’ll also probably be cut out. And then players like Miguel Tejada, Bret Boone, Albert Belle, etc, never really had a chance. I think Manny’s gonna be the only really interesting case here, but that’s for a few years from now.

There’s no doubt that Manny and Bonds took steroids, but the question is really how much did it help them, and it’s not likely it catapulted them from All-Stars to HOFers. There’s a wide chasm between good players and the Hall of Famers.

 

On the other hand, the line on gambling was pretty clearly drawn and had been for the last 50 before Pete Rose arrived on the scene, as it should be and as it should always be. Maybe the smartest thing Dan Shaughnessy ever said was when Bill Buckner booted the ball in the ’86 Series, NO ONE claimed he was throwing the game.

Gambling does call into question the very idea of playing the sport and why we watch it. Without baseball’s stiff upper lip, baseball would be a step above wrestling.

 

While both are illegal, both have different punishments and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that steroids aren’t a good thing.  But MLB does right by its players.  A positive test is a positive test.  Find a different supplement if it’s a mistake.  If not, you’ll be caught again almost definitely.  There are chances for redemption, especially of the innocent.

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An End to the Hiatus

After our project wrapped up, I needed a break.  I’m done with that now.

Baseball’s been exciting.  I didn’t think it would be with a final four of San Fran, St. Louis, New York and Detroit.  Watching Phil Coke pull the pin on a beautiful slider to Raul Ibanez in the top of the 9th tonight was a lot of fun.

I hope you’re enjoying it too.

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A Brief Response to Some of the Smaller Bits of Backlash from Scorekeeping

First off, I’m really proud of the work Adam and I did, particularly Adam.  I want to show how much work this was to everyone that put it down and questioned it.

Almost three years ago, I started collecting smaller bits and pieces of broadcasters, reporters, and any kind of sports commentators calling a person of color lazy and a white person scrappy.  It wasn’t much.  I knew it wasn’t scientific and it was mostly for shits and giggles.

About a year and a half ago, Adam, who read my blog and also posted on the same message board as me, asked if we could take this to the next level and make it a real scientific study about the use of descriptors and adjectives in baseball with a hypothesis about the use of “hustle” and “grit” being primarily used for white players and laziness and all its substitutes being used for players of color.

I said OK.  After taking a month to organize PR materials, I launched a gritty little hustler of a kickstarter that worked hard in the span of another month and huffed and puffed its way to a $2,500 and even went a little past that.  All of the fundraising came from grass roots organizing, word of mouth, help from a message board, and a little help from Craig Calcaterra and Bill Baer.

And then came the hard part.

See, this wasn’t easy.  This wasn’t just some dudes watching some TV, marking down the time Vin Scully called a dude a butter and egg man in the background while playing MLB 2k11.

This was some motherfucking hard work.

When we started, we hired about 15 people to track the data.  We explicitly outlined what was required of them, what they had to pay attention to, and how to keep track of the data.  We offered a small stipend.

After the first week, about seven dropped out immediately and the rest stopped after their first (and only) week.  Only three completed an entire month’s work of data (thank you Eric, Mike and Anthony).  We were looking at about 150 games that needed to be covered with almost nobody to cover them.

When was the last time you watched a baseball game intently?  And by that, I mean while you weren’t doing some other task.  Not working on your computer.  Not while you were on your phone at the same time.  But actually sitting down, staring at the screen, start to finish, listening to the entire goddamn broadcast?  I made it through six games before it drove me insane.

That’s what I want you to see: Adam and Michael Carver and Adam’s wife Alaina and the rest of our coders who put in three hours of work every day for weeks.  Not one week, but multiple weeks.  Michael particularly worked hard–he did about 7 teams by himself.  Adam did more than all of us–I didn’t even count how many he did.  I think he did 8 or 9.

So for simple math’s sake, let’s take the conservative estimates: 8 teams covered x 6 games in a week = 48 games total, right?  48 games x 3 hours each = 144.  144 hours.  8,640 minutes of straight listening to dudes making mundane small talk while describing a baseball game happening in front of them.  I almost feel sorry for the broadcasters for having that considerable amount of pressure on them to produce that much material.

And not only that, but writing down several variables (date, inning, score, who said it, who was it said about, what was said, and what category of speech, just to name a few) for each time even the mildest descriptor/adjective was used: hustle, gamer, grit, hard-working, butter and egg man.  Don’t forget to pause after each time one is said so you don’t miss another one.

To be honest, it was fascinating, if not mind-numbingly boring.  I would do it all over again if I had a job that paid me more than 13 an hour and gave me 12 hours in the day to do anything I wanted.

When it went to publish, almost all of the fundraised money had been used with the exception of a couple hundred dollars.  I can assure you, as a nearly-broke behaviorist living in Los Angeles, this was NOT about the money.  The Atlantic didn’t even pay us, as far as I know (Adam???).  All of this was simply because Adam and I love the sport and and hey, we were curious if there was any truth to the old jokes we used to throw around about hustle and grit and laziness.

So for someone like Rob Neyer, whose work I respect immensely, to immediately shit on it breaks my heart.  This wasn’t some fly-by-night operation.  This wasn’t some BIG ATLANTIC COVERING THE SCENE story.  This was two guys who love baseball–two guys who are part of the same baseball fabric that Neyer is a part of–working diligently to see if there’s something to the old rumors and pontifications that he and we and Keith Law and Ken Tremendous and everyone else have been scoffing and guffawing at for years.

And believe it or not, we found something–and it wasn’t what we thought it would be.  We found an actual goddamn correlation to something and it was awesome.  How about that shit. Something worth publishing.

Now suffice to say that the actual printed version on The Atlantic wasn’t everything Adam and I hoped it would be.  That happens.  When you take a 4,500-word article and chop it down to 2,500, some things aren’t gonna make the cut–and that’s not even factoring in the parts where we had to edit to make it “readable” for an Atlantic audience.  It seems to me neither Adam nor I nor The Atlantic crew knew how to publish the article and it turns out that we landed in the middle spot where most casual Atlantic readers would say “tl;dr” and the baseball-specific fans tried to find the holes in the article.

As for Keith Law’s criticism, he’s at least partly right.  Our study was entirely on scrap and grit and so on, but we did harp on Jon Heyman and that was unfair.

The point of the study wasn’t to point out anyone as racist–though, I mean, how could you not love the irony of an implicit association test using Jon Heyman as a point of reference three times.

Jon Heyman is almost definitely not racist (unless he’s secretly a member of the KKK or something).  The point was that even solid reporters like Heyman, who do a great job of breaking news, can sometimes be susceptible to the potentially hidden racism of casual use of adjectives.

It’s not that Heyman’s racist, and that’s far from the conclusion we want to draw.  Heck, it’s not even about Heyman; it’s about all of us.  We know what racism is and what it looks like.  It’s far easier to draw the line at an individual being racist–does that person not like people of color?  Yes?  Then that person’s a racist.  That simple.  But the line gets blurred on institutional racism and the use of those adjectives could be potentially (institutionally) racist.

That’s what our findings show.  And if that’s the case, then we should probably not be using these terms.

The good news is the full version answers a lot more questions.  If you bought one through the kickstarter, you’ve probably received it by now.  If you want a copy, contact me on twitter.  I think we may have a few hard copies left over at the end of this.  We’re gonna try to make it available by PDF so other people can see it.

Thanks for reading.  It’s a little frustrating that such hard work was taken so lightly by a number of people, but thank you so much for even stopping by and reading it and taking it seriously if you did.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Spring Training is Almost Here and Video

This is our dull period, baseball fans. We have some basketball and some hockey to tie us over, but let’s be honest, both do nothing.

In its stead, I offer the following.

Click this link: http://youtubedoubler.com/3dNz

Mute the video on the left.

Enjoy wherever.

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A Great (Fake) Q&A About HGH and HGH Testing From IIATMS

I’m in the middle of a great conversation with my brother-in-law (a scientist) about steroids, PEDs, and the effects they have on baseball players. I think this may become a blog post (summer project!), but in the meantime, here’s this.

It’s About the Money, Stupid covered the subject of Human Growth Hormone: what it is, what “synthetic” HGH does to a human body, and why most tests on it are impotent (pun intended). Although Larry really didn’t treat his questioner nicely.

Q: Why would an adult athlete want to take HGH?

A: Depending on who you believe, HGH may make adults bigger and stronger.

Q: You mean, HGH works like steroids?

A: Well, it’s not exactly clear. Some sources report that HGH works like anabolic steroids and testosterone to help build muscle. However, there’s no proof that HGH actually increases athletic performance.

Q: That doesn’t make sense. HGH MUST enhance athletic performance if it helps make you bigger.

A: That’s the strange thing. The studies seem to indicate that HGH might promote muscle gain, but HGH doesn’t seem to make you any stronger.

One thing in this argument with my brother-in-law is that there’s a common minsconception that steroids are the same as HGH and testosterone–at least in the public eye. The three are completely different from one another. We’re not even talking about what BALCO did yet.

Q: re: exogenous (created externally) and endogenous (created internally) HGH, if there’s no difference between the two, how can you devise a test to catch the athletes doping with HGH?

A: Well, like I said, a molecule of HGH is a molecule of HGH, no matter whether it’s exogenous or endogenous. But there might be a statistical difference between a population of exogenous HGH molecules and a population of endogenous HGH molecules.

Q: You’ve lost me.

A: Let’s say I have a bunch of yellow M&Ms in my pocket. Without your knowing it, I take my yellow M&Ms and put them into your bag of M&Ms. My yellow M&Ms are exogenous, because they come from outside of your bag. How can you tell that you have exogenous M&Ms in your bag? Well, you can’t tell by testing any single M&M – they’re all genuine M&Ms. But if you empty the entire bag and count the number of M&Ms of each color, you’ll notice that there are too many yellow M&Ms. The M&M candy people wouldn’t put so many yellow M&Ms in the same bag. There has to be some other explanation.

Well-said.

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Should You Value Offense or Pitching More?

Here is your list of Baseball Hall of Famers in offense.

And here’s your Baseball Hall of Famers in pitching.

You may notice two things immediately: First, Jimmie Foxx had a freaking awesome pitching career. But secondly, there’s a pretty big gap between the OPS+ and ERA+ of these two groups, where the top eschalon of batters has an OPS+ near 200 and the top eschalon of pitchers has an ERA+ of 148.

This isn’t a statistical anomaly. Quite the opposite. It goes to the basic premise of offense vs. defense, and a few of you can probably guess what that is.

In pitching, there’s a limit: 0 runs allowed. So as the average is somewhere near 4.5 runs allowed per nine innings pitched, we’re very close to that limit.

In offense, there’s no limit. Theoretically, nine batters can get on base 100% of the time, scoring an infinite number of runs. Pitchers don’t have that.

(I’m not a statistician, but I’d bet what would actually reverse the OPS+/ERA+ split is if the average batter got on base at a clip above .500? Someone back me up on this.)

Anyway, this is why it’s a bit foolhardy to create a team based on defense. At some point, they’re going to have to score runs. The goal should be to have a decent pitching staff with a great offense that gets on base and hits for power. If defense is undervalued, an average offense is not only wanted, but needed. Offensive stats for a player need to be taken into team context.

The team that understood this the best was the late ’60s, early ’70s Orioles, where Mark Belanger and Paul Blair’s defense were allowed to play BECAUSE the rest of the offense was so sharp. Brooks Robinson and Davey Johnson manned two important defensive positions, but hit above average. And Blair and Belanger also batted at a somewhat serviceable level–it was below average, but it wasn’t bottom-of-the-barrel below.

For example: in 2011, Nyjer Morgan could play center and Yuni Escobar could play SS for the Brewers because of the potent offense at 1B, LF, RF and C. It also helped that Morgan had one of his best offensive seasons ever. Their pitching, likewise, was standard across the board: no pitcher had an ERA+ greater than 111 and only Chris Narveson had an ERA+ below 102. This helped greatly in the playoffs. Same with the 2011 Cardinals, that ended up winning the whole thing.

Unfortunately I have to end this here (on vacation), but I’m willing to bet after some research you’d be able to find that the most successful teams–the ones that went to the playoffs year in and year out–were teams with very good offense and decent pitching while teams that had very good pitching and decent offense made the playoffs on a year-to-year basis. Examples of the latter: 2010 Giants, 2005 White Sox, 2006 Tigers, 2005 Astros.

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Now That the Dust Has Settled, Here’s Why Kemp’s B-R/FG WAR Is Higher Than Braun’s

Now that most of the back and forth is over, Kemp’s WAR wasn’t higher than Braun because of defense, it was higher because Kemp played in 161 games to Braun’s 150. That’s 11 more games, 60 more PAs, and a little under 1/10th of the season.

Here’s the total WAR. In parentheses, Kemp’s WAR at Braun’s games played/PA total

Kemp’s B-R WAR: 10.0 (9.2)
Braun’s B-R WAR: 7.7

Kemp’s FG WAR: 8.7 (8.0)
Braun’s FG WAR: 7.8

B-R likes Kemp’s offense and positional adjustment more, FG is negligible if not for the games played. FG I think values baserunning more than B-R and Braun did a better job of not getting caught stealing, so there’s that. Even with that, Kemp’s still got a big edge in B-R and a minor edge in FG. As it stands, I’d be a lot cooler with Braun winning if Kemp had only played in 150 games, but that didn’t happen.

Yes, it’s this simple. It doesn’t have to do with defense or positional adjustments, but that Kemp performed at an elite level for 161 games to Ryan Braun’s 150.

Alors, c’est la vie. This isn’t anything like Juan Gonzalez winning the MVP in 1996 or anything, but I would’ve rather seen it go to the guy who deserved it more.

Congratulations to Brewers fans and to Ryan Braun, representing the Valley Jews.

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