Manny being Barry

by Russ Roberts on May 8, 2009

in Sports

(The title isn't mine. Stole if from some commenter at a forum somewhere.)

There are a number of ways to think about the steroid era.

1. A few hitters got an unfair edge by cheating. Their numbers should be discounted.

2. Most batters got an unfair edge. Offensive numbers should be discounted and the numbers of pitchers should be inflated.

3. Most batters and pitchers used steroids. Then the question is whether steroids help batters more than pitchers.

With every new discovery, I lean toward 3. When everyone is a cheater, it's not cheating. When everyone else is taking steroids, your taking steroids levels the playing field. I also remain agnostic about the value of steroids. It isn't so clear to me that they make a big difference. When Manny returns it will be interesting to see if he can still get around on a fastball.

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{ 44 comments }

Alexei May 8, 2009 at 10:29 am

Hi there. Long time lurker, first time poster. :)

This whole steroid thing has always annoyed me because I truly don't care, for a couple reasons

1) I'm no doctor, but I remember all the "don't do steroids, they make your gonads shrink" talks in health class. And I seem to recall that steroids won't make you stronger than you could get naturally, they just help you get there more quickly. Of course, I could be remembering wrong. But so what? There are all kinds of things that are done all the time in sports and life to gain advantages, and most of them aren't deemed bad. Why this one should be, I don't understand.

2) I don't care how strong you get from them, steroids don't teach technique. Batting, like swinging a golf club, requires good technique. Pitching requires a lot of technique and control as well, more than just raw strength. So really, I can't help but think the advantage gained by these guys from steroids is smaller than many might think. It's not like we're talking about Guards, Tackles, and Linebackers here.

Of course, maybe I'm totally off base, and steroids ARE the greatest evil in sports. That still wouldn't justify wasting taxpayer time and money on CONGRESSIONAL hearings on the matter. I about wanted to reach through the TV set and strangle everyone there (McCain especially).

Just my $.02

Mathieu Bédard May 8, 2009 at 10:55 am

"When everyone is a cheater, it's not cheating."

Not only is it not cheating, but it makes catching and suspending offenders arbitrary.

Doug Stevens May 8, 2009 at 11:04 am

Baseball thread!

I think I read somewhere that more than half of the players found to have used steroids were pitchers. Pitchers have been doing more strength training in the last few years so it may be part of that. I've also read that steroids may help players get over injuries faster and pitchers do seem to get hurt more and are less effective when playing hurt.

I personally don't care if a player uses steroids or not, but MLB has made rules against their use (although I wonder if it would be such a big deal if it weren't for the hysteria over drug use in general). I have no problem with Manny's suspension but certainly am against any State interference or investigation.

Kent May 8, 2009 at 11:04 am

I wouldn't say "most" about any of this stuff. What's more, for a thorough economist and someone careful (at least in your podcasts) with language, I'd hope that you'd distinguish between the substances in play, their actual effects, what we know, what we cannot know, and what we suspect. No doubt players in baseball (in EVERY sport) try to find an edge and training, nutrition, supplements (legal, allowed, illegal, banned, etc), and on and on are all constantly evolving. To me at least, this magic pill stuff = X result continues to be maddening.

MLB finally instituted rules and regulations re: drugs and those rules and regulations WORKED here. Whatever Manny did was against the rules, he's been suspended and will lose a huge chunk of change. Okay, let's move on. The testing will never be perfect and will have to constantly evolve. Fine, the world's complicated and baseball's a great form of entertainment.

tw May 8, 2009 at 11:11 am

I don't think you can trust a single MLB statistic for the last 20 years. It's hard to pinpoint Ground Zero for the onset of skepticism, but I'll propose Howard Johnson's HR totals for the NY Mets in the mid-80s.

John Dewey May 8, 2009 at 11:30 am

I think Major League Baseball has every right to ban the use of steroids by its employees, the players. Prolonged steroid use by adolescents can lead to adverse effects such as cardiovascular disease, liver damage, and stunted growth. If Major League Baseball wants to market its employees as role models for adolescents, then I can understand why MLB would want to ban steroid use.

To me, the whole steroid issue is about the right of business owners to set the conditions of employment. It's the same as Hooters requiring its table attendants maintain their healthy physique.

Martin Brock May 8, 2009 at 11:34 am

There are all kinds of things that are done all the time in sports and life to gain advantages, and most of them aren't deemed bad. Why this one should be, I don't understand.

Exactly. Why is this particular advantage "unfair"? Somehow, if I'm born with a high level of some hormone in my bloodstream, my advantage is "fair", but if I inject the hormone into my bloodstream, my advantage is "unfair"? Why is that?

Talk of harmful side effects are irrelevant. We might instead talk of developing safer alternatives, and even if harmful side effects exist, these harmful effects are hardly unique to steroids. Athletes seriously injure themselves while using high tech exercise equipment all the time.

Sporting competitions are themselves highly artificial contrivances that result in serious injury. Why isn't the entire enterprise "unfair"?

Even if the high level of some hormone in my bloodstream results from a genetic abnormality that harms me in many other ways, my advantage is still "fair", but if I had myself genetically engineered to produce the same genetic abnormality, the engineering presumably would be "unfair".

When everyone is a cheater, it's not cheating.

"Cheating" violates some rule that authorities construct, even if most people violate the rule. The question is: why this particular rule?

Andy May 8, 2009 at 11:42 am

Looking back, Brady Anderson's 50HR season is the defining "steroid era statistic" for me. In seasons that he had over 400 at bats his HR numbers were: 21, 13, 12, 16, 50, 18, 18, 24, 19, 8.

As for Manny, this is a case of "Manny being Manny" – the drug he is being suspended for was legal last year. He and/or his Dr. just weren't smart enough to keep up with the change.

Adam May 8, 2009 at 12:03 pm

"It isn't so clear to me that they make a big difference."

Well, the players who took them obviously disagree.

K Ackermann May 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

When everyone is a cheater, it's not cheating.

That sound's like something I'd expect to hear from am inside trader.

So what happens if they legalize it? Then they won't be cheating, and every child in little league will be expected to get a legal edge.

Maybe the pitcher should have a holster for Vasoline, bats should be made with cork in them, and cleat sharpeners should be available in the on-deck circle.

Without some structure and boundaries, we would still be swinging from trees.

mike farmer May 8, 2009 at 12:17 pm

For statistics nuts like me, I'd like to see statistics categorized as before the 90s and then after the 90s, just in case there is a huge difference. I know that when players like McGuire and Bonds started hitting pop-ups that became homeruns, something changed — whether it was the balls, the improved hitting technology, the work-out regimens, or steroids — something changed drastically in just a few years. My heart lies with the Mantles, Mays, Aarons and Killebrews.

Wilt Alston May 8, 2009 at 12:18 pm

On the point of "does it help" I'd say yes. As an athlete (aging, but nonetheless) I know for a fact that being able to recover between workouts is the biggest impediment to getting better, no matter the specific exploit. Steroids (and stuff like hGH) help in that area, immensely. Of this there is little doubt and that people use these products is indication.

As for the "wrongness" of it, on that I'm agnostic, approaching atheist. Baseball, for instance, is chock-full of things that change the balance of power: the weight of the ball, the height of the mound, the size of the park. To arbitrarily (in my mind) suppose that taking something that improves both your conditioning and your ability to recover from training is "cheating" is to put the blinders on for all the other cases. I can accept any rule, be it arbitrary or not, but let's admit that rules are arbitrary and move on.

As such, the ostensible moral outrage over cheating is misplaced and juvenile.

Gray Brendle May 8, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Steroids, I believe help athletes, particularly older athletes recover from the nagging muscle injuries that happen in the course of a baseball season. I believe that it helps pitchers more than hitters because pitching requires major muscle groups in way that hitting does not… So the problem for MLB is the legacy, in baseball they count everything… So is it 'fair' to older players from previous generations to have their statistics discounted because a bunch of otherwise average guys took drugs that prolonged there otherwise average careers.

One other thought, the game of baseball is one where the difference between success and failure are so small that if drugs give a player a slight advantage then it results in larger effects on their stats… Example: If drugs help a player to hit a ball slightly harder and that ability produces one more hit per week. Over the course of a season that player who may have been an above average hitter, say .280(500AB, 140Hits), that one hit per week would have increased their average to .330(500AB, 165Hits) all-star caliber, maybe…

oh, and one more thing better stats equal larger contracts and more money…

BoscoH May 8, 2009 at 12:42 pm

I'm more stunned by Ron Artest's story about a friend on the playgrounds getting stabbed in the heart with a table leg over a pickup basketball game.

Right now, it really doesn't matter if Manny is a roider or if his story is true. It doesn't matter that the penalty is 50 games and $7 million. What matters is what the fans think. It would be heartening to see LA fans still buying and wearing #99, picking up the dread locks at Chavez Ravine, and welcoming Manny back in July.

John Petrie May 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Russell Roberts:
"It isn't so clear to me that they make a big difference."

Andy:
"Well, the players who took them obviously disagree."

Andy's right. I don't mean to be rude in my first post at Cafe Hayek, and I certainly don't want to criticize anyone's healthy sense of skepticism, but I get so annoyed at libertarians and other anti-mainstream type of writers who say idiotic things like "The steroids hardly help MLB hitters at all because they don't improve your hand-eye coordination or your mechanics at all." Of course they help them! Why do they take them if they don't do any good?! Performance-enhancing drugs improve strength, endurance, recovery times from injuries, and performance at older ages. Anyone who's watched a single baseball game ought to know that stronger muscles can turn a fly out into a home run pretty easily.

The main trait that I notice is shared by all the writers who are skeptical of the value of steroids to baseball players is that they've never played baseball at a high level.

That doesn't change the correctness of your other points and those of your commenters, that banning performance-enhancing drugs but not other technological/medical innovations is arbitrary and hypocritical, that a lot of pitchers took them too, and that the stupid government should have no input into what substances anyone takes. Personally, I would like for sports to be rid of most of the banned substances and hope the testing and suspension policies work, as they apparently do in the Olympics and other international sports organizations.

Chris O'Leary May 8, 2009 at 4:16 pm

One of the things I do for a living is teach hitting and pitching, so I have thought and been asked about this a lot.

Some thoughts…

1. You could argue that at most steroids give you a psychological advantage, but that's still an advantage. Sammy Sosa is an example of a guy who had a beautiful swing mechanics-wise, but who did seem to get at least a psychological boost from steroids (and corked bats). His mechanics didn't change when he was on the juice, but his results did change.

2. Many baseball players (e.g. Manny Ramirez) are head cases for whom a psychological advantage is a very real advantage. At the very highest levels of the game, the really big differences are as much psychological as they are mechanical.

3. While steroids won't help your mechanics, they can help you maintain your mechanics during your swing. Good hitters have to generate large amounts of centripetal force to counter the centrifugal force. Steroids will help with that, as the example of Barry Bonds shows. I would argue that he was able to be an inside pitch hitter because he was able to apply above-average levels of centripetal force and maintain connection throughout his swing longer.

4. Pitch recognition is a major issue at the higher levels, and it may be that HGH can help improve one's eyesight.

5. The fact is that some athletes are born genetically different, so there is large natural variability in normal populations of athletes. Many of the best female athletes (and models) are genetically men but have very rare hormonal problems. Also, while Dana Torres is obviously all woman, she's built differently than most women and is put together athletically better than many men.

Crusader May 8, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Who cares?

DKH May 8, 2009 at 7:42 pm

When everyone is a cheater, it's not cheating.

Why does that have to be an insider trader's mentality? When I read that comment, and the add-on comment about arbitrariness in punishment, I immediately thought of driving. Probably 99% of my days, I drive about 5-10 miles, and still see tons of infractions. But I rarely see anyone get pulled over.

Maybe lawmakers should look at how baseball responds and learn something, rather than try to fix the problem themselves.

vidyohs May 8, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Just think, easy now muriduck, of the Greek of long ago at the first Olympic games who realized he had an advantage in racing and other sports by stripping naked.

Damn cheater.

LowcountryJoe May 8, 2009 at 10:25 pm

I just have this image of Muirgeo's thoughts about naked gladiators. I wonder if it would excite him with the same amount of fervor as what he must get from reading IPCC reports or anything by Mann or Hanson.

Anon May 8, 2009 at 10:54 pm

I passed on a chance to play ball in college to go to the Marines, and I used steroids briefly in my early 20s (after the Corps), and so I offer my semi-qualified opinion.

Steroids will not help a batter hit a ball that he could not previously hit, and will not help a pitcher hit the strike zone more consistently. Period.

They do of course make the athlete stronger, and this adds to their overall athletic ability. The batter can use a heavier bat which will result not only in more home runs, but harder line drives, and so on.

The pitcher will be able to throw harder because his body weight does add to the energy transferred in to the pitch. (Body fat doesn't work the same because that extra weight requires more work to carry, use, etc.)

So is there an edge? Of course there is, but steroids are not taking average players and making them great.

What goes usually unsaid is the mental aspect of it though. The increase in testosterone is noticeable, not like a buzz, but you just feel as if you could tackle a building, and that no doubt translates into a performance boost at the plate or on the mound. (Except for the free throw line in hoops, most other major sports can't match baseball for individual pressure situations.)

Superheater May 8, 2009 at 11:49 pm

When everyone is a cheater, it's not cheating.

Babe Ruth didn't use steroids.

Its cheating.

brotio May 9, 2009 at 3:55 am

My problem with steroids is that if it actually enhances performance, and if there is enough compelling evidence that Lyle Alzado's premature death is attributable to steroids, then those who aren't willing to risk their health or their lives to compete are at a disadvantage. I agree that it's entirely within MLB's (or any other organization's)right to ban steroids.

Babinich May 9, 2009 at 6:22 am

"So is there an edge? Of course there is, but steroids are not taking average players and making them great."

Brady Anderson? How about an aging Roger Clemens? He was clearly moving into being an average pitcher. How about Manny at this stage in his career? How good would he be at this stage in his career if he was not enhancing?

Baseball has become a joke. Look at what MLB promotes: steroids, baseballs wound tighter, smaller strike zones, shallower talent pools & smaller parks.

Add it all up and you have made MLB a video game.

Cox May 9, 2009 at 9:59 am

You missed point 4.

4. Most batters and pitchers used steroids and amphetamines (commonly referred to in the Big Leagues as Greenies). A large number of major league baseball players are diagnosed ADD (Which should be called Always Doing Drugs Disorder…Just need to add another D) so that they can legally take these drugs. Plus, amphetamines have been a much bigger problem for a longer period of time. They can be traced back to the Mick (a big amphetamine user).

The most important thing to remember about professional baseball is that it’s a game of millimeters. It’s the difference between a homerun and a ground out.

Anon May 9, 2009 at 11:46 am

Babinich:

Your example highlights guys that were already good players, and they benefitted from the "edge" that steroids give.

Steroids build strength, not athletic ability. Period.

Years ago, I think it was an episode of 20/20, they had a much younger Roger Clemens throwing into the camera that was placed behind a large sheet of plexiglass. They had a square taped on to the sheet, and I believe it was smaller than an actual strike zone. He was just drilling that impossibly small box pitch after pitch.

Strength in and of itself was not responsible for Roger's incredible ability to consistently throw a ball into that small box.

Now I concur that professional sports has become a joke. I don't take my kids to the local professional ball games because I am not going to teach my children the mass opiate of celebrity worship, which is really at the nut of this whole thing.

MLB is responsible much more so than the players. The players are merely responding as would many of us would when so many millions of dollars are on the line.

It's been stated the game is a game of millimeters, and it is.

Those figurative millimeters are physical miles however when an athlete is trying to get to a next level of play; a level where the average contract turns into a very lucrative contract with endorsement deals to follow.

Bottom line is that these guys are not coming from barely making the big leagues to superstardom. Steroids just don't work that way.

And my last point isn't directed at any one here, but generally speaking, it is appalling to me that so many people mindlessly worship the idols of celebrity and then seem so disappointed in the very deceptions they helped to create.

An average varsity player for most 4A or 5A high school teams is 10 times the athlete of the average sports fan/pundit, and to listen to so many people – again, not pointed at anyone here – but to hear so much criticism over a sport of all things by people who live their lives so vicariously because they could never come close to do doing those things themselves is quite simply pathetic. They need to focus on world peace or inventing an engine that runs on lint or something.

Anon May 9, 2009 at 11:57 am

Health Concerns
And steroids can be used in a healthy manner, although most athletes do not.

Google "life extension" or something along those lines, and there's a lot of research out there backing up the healthy use in aging males of moderate amounts of steroids.

Baseball and basketball players are least likely to abuse steroids as so much added body mass doesn't help them the way it does in football or MMA. (The NFL is a place where a guy who could barely make the NFL could become a household name with the right amount of juice.)

Alzado suffered so badly because he was on the stuff non-stop for over 20 years. Abuse comes in like that, where the guy is not paying attention, and just pumping his body up with no regard for health.

Kent May 9, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Brotio: Take a deep breath. If professional baseball turns you off for whatever reason, that's certainly your decision. But, if you think, for even a second, that professional AND amateur athletes are not filling themselves with substances (of all types) to play, to recover from injury, or to increase performance, you're…you're absolutely kidding yourself. I certainly hope that you (and others) don't condemn baseball (if you ever liked it) and give a pass to, well, to every other sport. It's entertainment for crying out loud.

Also, for the love of God, don't believe everything that the sports media-types tell you (or any of us) about these issues. You probably don't…right?

Babinich May 9, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Ironic isn't it???

We have an administration that thinks it can 'one up' an economic system where prices are set by the concept of supply and demand.

We have buffoons running the game of baseball that think they can engineer a game that is better for the fans (and in the process gauging the average fan).

Do you see a parallel? Let the game of baseball proceed naturally; let capitalism flourish without pricing distortions.

I believe Hayek referred to this phenomenon as 'spontaneous order'.

When will we learn we're all better off with an economy (baseball too) when it's built on the premise of: "that which is the result of human action but not of human design".

Liz May 9, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Steroids are weird. I find myself on the side where my kneejerk reaction is that they stink but I always have to remember that there are all sorts of things — from better training methods, nutrition regimens, medicine — that "enhance" players' abilities today over their historical counterparts.

The only thing that might make it objectively cheating, to me, is perhaps the fact that it gives athletes ability beyond normal physiological capacity; but then again, there are optional surgeries which sometimes end up improving a player's ability, to the point where athletes aren't opting after injury but prior to it!

brotio May 9, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Kent, please re-read my post from above and take note of the "if"s in my comment. I don't need to take a deep breath.

I like baseball, and I like the other North American sports, and I understand that they are simply entertainment. I didn't see my comment as showing disdain for MLB, or any other pro sport.

I shouldn't have to repeat myself, but here goes, anyway:

If there is credible evidence (there's that word, "if", again) that steroid use at the levels necessary to achieve performance gains is a threat to someone's life or health, then it's certainly within any league's prerogative to ban those substances. Hell, even if steroids are perfectly safe, but the leagues are just caving to the negative PR, then it's still withing their right to ban the substance.

Liz May 9, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Also, since my link isn't showing up in my original comment, the kind of surgery I am referring to is Tommy John surgery.

Chris O'Leary May 9, 2009 at 6:10 pm

"A large number of major league baseball players are diagnosed ADD (Which should be called Always Doing Drugs Disorder…Just need to add another D) so that they can legally take these drugs."

This is utter crap.

They are diagnosed because they have ADD.

I know one guy who has tried multiple types of amphetamines due to his ADD but hasn't found one without side effects.

Chris O'Leary May 9, 2009 at 6:14 pm

"but then again, there are optional surgeries which sometimes end up improving a player's ability, to the point where athletes aren't opting after injury but prior to it!"

It is a myth that Tommy John surgery improves one's performance.

In some cases baseball pitchers throw harder after the procedure than they did beforehand. As a result, orthopedic surgeons like Dr. James Andrews have reported that increasing numbers of parents are coming to them and asking them to perform the procedure on their un-injured sons in the hope that this will increase their performance. However, many people — including Dr. Frank Jobe, the doctor who invented the procedure — believe any supposed post-surgical increase in performance is generally due to two factors. The first is pitchers' increased attention to conditioning. The second is that in many cases it can take several years for the UCL to degrade. Over these years the pitcher's velocity will gradually decrease. As a result, it is likely that the procedure simply allows the pitcher to throw at the velocity he could before his UCL started to degrade.

See…

http://static.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/bp/1431308.html

Anon May 9, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Summation:

Do steroids enable average players to be great? No.

Do they enable good players to prolong or even revive their careers? Yes.

Could Barry have broken his big HR record without them? No. The juice didn't make him a better hitter per se, but it revived his career and made him stronger. Many of his homeruns would have only been deep line drives or long pop ups, or even strike outs due to the psychological boost.

Barry shouldn't hold any legitimate records. Manny should not be a part of the 500 club, and so on.

The perfect deterrent would be that once found using steroids, all record holding stats will be made invalid, and that player will be permanently banned from the hall of fame. I doubt Manny was happy about the $7mil, but ultimately that won't hurt anywhere near what it would if he were to be removed from the homerun record list.

Liz May 9, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Chris: Fair enough, but I do think the Tommy Jones surgery illustrates the point about contemporary athletes and their historical counterparts (for example, prior to TJ surgery, the UCL would degrade without remedy.)

Martin Brock May 10, 2009 at 12:57 am

Hell, even if steroids are perfectly safe, but the leagues are just caving to the negative PR, then it's still withing their right to ban the substance.

They could also cave to the PR and require top players to give half their income to the poor.

brotio May 10, 2009 at 2:51 am

They could also cave to the PR and require top players to give half their income to the poor.

They can certainly try. So far, as much as people gripe about overpaid athletes, they're still buying tickets.

mc May 10, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Of course steroids give a batter an edge. Hand-eye coordination is a given, but also a red herring. We're not talking about making MLB players out of shlubs, but rather giving an edge to an MLB caliber player.
If steroids can increase batspeed, then the batter can delay the start of his swing by microseconds. During that additional time he can bring his world class eye hand coordination to bear and increase his chance of a hit. Following contact, the higher velocity of the bat, applied to 1/2mv^2, will make the ball go farther. QED.

Dave May 10, 2009 at 9:24 pm

I heard a great quote on a sports talk radio show the other day. Since it was actually female hormones Manny was caught taking (allegedly), he said it was "Manny being tranny"….. :D

Paul May 11, 2009 at 8:09 am

I'm a powerlifter and have been involved in strength training and bodybuilding for 15 years. Steriods are part of the game, and many of us who choose not to use them still get quite an education.

A couple of things for you to chew on.

Many, if not most, professional athletes are on PEDs. Most college football players are on, and you'd be surprised how many weekend warriors and gym rats are on.

It is incredibly easy and simple to beat even a random drug test. Getting caught is more proof of stupidity than anything else.

There are already people in the baseball Hall of Fame who used steriods.

We are probably 20 years in to the "steroid era" in baseball.

The drugs Manny is rumored to have taken are used to restart natural hormonal production when coming off a cycle. Given the test was in spring training, it makes sense. Any doc prescribing such a drug to a professional athlete would know it's banned, or is an idiot, so the "my doctor gave them to me and I didn't know" is bull.

John May 11, 2009 at 8:14 am

Should musicians who used illegal drugs be banned from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Heck, I can't think of anyone off the top of my head who's music didn't stink once they quit drugs.

Paul May 11, 2009 at 8:14 am

RE: Alzado

The only proof his health concerns were due to drug use was his claim. There's little other evidence. It's just as likely his health issues were due to AIDS, and certainly blaming steriods would protect his reputation.

Steroids are remarkably safe, and are used by hundreds of thousands of people with little to no ill effects.

brotio May 13, 2009 at 1:35 am

John,

Your post reminds me of the comment Malcolm Young made when he was asked why AC/DC wasn't invited to perform at the Sydney Olympics. He said they weren't invited because they probably wouldn't pass the Olympic drug tests. :p

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