16 August 2012

A Quick Thought on Melky Cabrera

Yesterday, the news came out on Melky Cabrera testing positive for testosterone and that he would be immediately serving a 50 game suspension.  As I understand the suspension, it means that he will be available for the playoffs if the Giants make it.  Several writers reacted to the news:

John Sickels
Cabrera has greatly exceeded expectations the last two seasons, and now we know why. Certainly, his record as a prospect didn't imply that he was capable of this kind of performance.

Danny Knobler
Yes, Melky suspension is tough on Giants. But as one player from another team said, they already benefited from his cheating.

Jon Heyman
His career turnaround seemed too good to be true. And so it was.
All of these are really unsubstantiated comments.  Danny Knobler implicitly agrees with an unnamed player making a conclusion based on unsubstantiated connections between drug use and performance.  Jon Heyman falls into the same boat.  John Sickels, a conduit for evaluation on prospects, should know full well that player development is not linear.  It surprises me that someone who has spent his life analyzing player performance would so quickly attach himself to the idea that testosterone cures all.  It is disappointing to read such a knee jerk response from a writer who was really the person who got me into more critically evaluating prospects.

What do we know about testosterone and athletic performance?

Testosterone will increase muscle mass.  It will increase muscle mass more with exercise.  This muscle is largely functional in that it certainly does increase strength (something human growth hormone has not been found to do making it the biggest bogeyman of this thrashing, poorly thought out effort to reduce PED use in baseball).  So, yes, testosterone will make you bigger and stronger and using it with a great deal of hard work will make you even bigger and stronger.

This leads to the next part of the logic train: does strength mean you are a better baseball player?

Maybe, but we do not know.  I think everyone is aware of the wall of sound declaring that PEDs actually increase performance, but there actually is a great body of evidence suggesting otherwise.  The answer is not incredibly clear cut, so to immediately assume everything is a mirage is somewhat Chicken Little-ing the discussion.

That is what truly irritates me about the whole PED discussion...it simply is not a discussion.  It is a horde of folks running and chasing after an easy concept without truly considering the complexity of the situation.  Human growth hormone supplements could have been an amazing conversation about the state of science and how athletes are using the substances.  Instead, we throw every player using into a raging fire where taking a more conservative approach would have enabled us to determine more clearly whether or not a substance improved performance or not.  This resulted in MLB spending millions of dollar to initiate and maintain an HGH program that likely roots out (poorly) usage of a substance that in all likelihood does nothing to improve performance.

Honestly, I think the only proven effects of PED use in baseball is lazy sports writing.

Yes, Melky cheated.  No, we don't know if him cheating with testosterone had anything to do with his improved performance.  It probably is not directly unrelated.  It probably has a great deal of placebo effect riding on it.  However, a lot, if not almost all, of it is likely Melky.  His career walk rate, strikeout rate, stolen base rate, and home run rate are all in expected ranges.  The difference is that he BABIP is about 20% higher than his career level (and we should expect that to crash) and, with that increase in BABIP, he is showing an increase in secondary power.  For a player at an age where peak performance could be expected and someone who had not to dissimilar seasons in 2011 and 2009 when accounting for BABIP...this season is really not remarkable.


davidmartin said...

I love the blog here , but I really feel you are off on this one. As a former steroid user, I can say with certainty that the increased muscle mass that comes from steroid use increases speed, power, etc. look at barry bonds and the results he had when juicing. its no guarantee of success , but you'd be silly to think it didn't help MOST of the time.

Anonymous said...

Read Juiced by Conseco. Jose essentially says steroids make a person Bigger, Faster, Stronger. With the use of PED's yes you do gain Muscle mass, but what people often do not see is the other effects. Steroids have a positive effect on most physical attributes when used. Athletes gain faster reaction times, more control of their abilities and skill, and their bodies are able to rehab much more efficiently. So I agree with davidmartin with his stance in that yes Melky taking the PED's most definatly is the reason he has far exceeded his past performances. Statistics like BABIP or any other stat in MLB are just that...statistics.

Jon Shepherd said...

I do not see how hitting ground balls and line drives where fielders are not is an indication that testosterone had a direct impact on Melky's performance.

With respect to reaction times, most of the literature I am aware of has shown that increases in testosterone decreases simple reaction kinetics and mental reaction. From that base of knowledge, I simply cannot see how testosterone made Melky into a more efficient slap hitter.

Also to reiterate the point...this is not a black and white issue. Some of this performance is Melky, some from his supplements, and some for his belief in supplements. Based on what we know, most of his performance is coming from an area where most battered regress.

Chris in Hawaii said...

We know that Melky tested positive for testosterone. We do not know at what time he started using testosterone unless he comes out and admits to beginning at a specific point. For all we know, he could have played 2011 clean and started using in winter 2012 out of fear that his numbers would drop in his FA year.

The only thing we have to go on outside of an admission is in data that would be effected by testosterone (bat speed and ball speed off of the bat) and to a lesser extent data that would possibly be enhanced (babip % on infield hits could indicate increased speed or luck so it's not 100% accurate). Simply an increase in overall production could come from any number of things and is not a valid indicator as to why production increased. If it was, you might as well choose to believe that only PEDs could have caused Brady Anderson's 50 HR season.

Jon Shepherd said...

I think people put too much on things like steroids in improving performance. There is actually better data implicating the reduction in use of amphetamines for the power outage than steroids.

Steroids have been a convenient narrative and bogeyman. They likely are not blameless, but increased strength does not always improve one's ability to play baseball.

Jon Shepherd said...

One thing I do find interesting is how you can link steroids to increases in sprint time, but it appears much of that is due to strength making up for reaction time. So, there often is an initial lag. That is where bat speed cam become an issue in terms of how increased muscle mass can affect things.

It certainly is not an open and shut case. Steroids probably help performance, but it is difficult to say by how much and whether it is useful for everyone in how they play and train.

Chris in Hawaii said...

I think there's also danger in saying that Melky's production increase is all a result of testosterone too. That danger is the validation of the drug as a guaranteed performance enhancer. If we say that only PEDs could have caused his performance, that is basically an advertisement for PEDs.

Jon Shepherd said...

I think there needs to be a change in culture. MLB should be concerned first with harm. Then determine if something constitutes as an unfair advantage.

Anonymous said...

Think of it like this. Yes the hardest thing in all of sports is the ability to hit a baseball. Whether or not you want to admit it, it takes a great level of skill and talent to hit a ball coming at you 90+mph. That alone is a physical feat. However when a player adds PED's be it testosterone or HGH to the equation it acts as a multiplier to those baseline skills and talents. So maybe Melky can hit a ball where he wants to hit it, however now with his new found strength these balls travel harder, faster, further then previous. Melky now carries more bat speed which allows him to make better/harder contact with the ball. Take the illegal aspect out of PED's. Nobody would admit to using them because it is an artificial talent enhancer. It is taking the easy way out. No athlete wants that to be part of their legacy. What is the first thing you hear every great athlete say they attribute to their success? Give up? All of them say "I worked hard for my success." Nobody says "Yea, I took the easy way out." This is why PED's are bad for the game. It is a bad thing that teaches kids success can be had without sacrifice. Ask yourself as a parent. If you knew your boy/girl was using PED's to better themselves at their sport, what would you do?

-Dan in Baltimore

Jon Shepherd said...

The thing is that there is little evidence for steroids affecting performance and none for hGH.

The point is that by knee jerk reactions MLB is creating a culture where they are always behind the cheating culture and it is difficult to figure out if anything actually works.

As we have written extensively here...there is no good reason to think hGH will do anything to make you play baseball better.

Sure, there are decent reasons to think steroids work. Strength though may be generically being used and is not really applicable to baseball. I mean, look at pitchers...they throw harder than they ever did in the steroids era. If you really look at how PEDs help players do all sorts of things...it begins to make less sense the more you learn about endocrinology.

Anonymous said...

Look at what you are saying? HGH causes muscle growth, which directly makes you stronger. If I can hit a ball to the wall before HGH then after I can surely hit it over the wall. That is about as dumbed down as I can put it. I'm not saying all strong people are great players. However in baseball if you have two identical players but one can hit more home runs because he possess more strength then which player is better?

-Dan in Baltimore

Jon Shepherd said...

There is no evidence that hGH does what you claim it does. Case study after case study and research study after research study shows two things: (1) hGH increases tissue growth including muscle and (2) that growth is not functionally relevant. That means the muscle does not increase strength. Studies simply do not show that hGH alone or hGH added onto an existing testosterone treatment affects performance in any way. Testosterone will, but the addition of hGH does nothing in a performance related way.

This same sentiment was also submitted for record during the congressional hearings. No one talks about this because it is an inconvenient set of facts. There simply is no evidence that hGH will do anything to make you a better baseball player.

Check the hGH tab on the story. We have discussed these issues often. The science simply is not there. It wasn't there when I was getting my doctorate and I have not been made away of anything that shows hGH as something that athletes will benefit from by using.

Anonymous said...

I dont really care where you studied for your PhD. Bottom line is more muscle mass allows for more strength. Look at a body builder. They are all huge and layered in muscle. Is it a coincidence or luck that they also happen to be strong? Or using your "Melky" theory maybe you might think that they simply possess weight lifting skills which give them the ability to lift such heavy amounts. There certainly is technique needed to properly lift weights. But a large factor is how much strength the body builder possesses. I suppose that your ideas are the end all be all though Doc. After all, you clearly are a more educated person then myself.

-Dan in Baltimore

Philip said...

Um... Who cares whether it DID or did NOT help?
He Thought he was cheating, he Knew he was cheating, and he did it because he wanted it to help.
He wanted to cheat.
Too many people ignore the moral issue here.
He was cheating.
50 games isn't enough.

Philip said...

You guys are arguing about whether these drugs actually help.
Well, common sense says they wouldn't be in use if they didn't, but the issue here is the moral one.
I don't care, and neither should you, about whether they did indeed allow Mark Maguire or Sammy Sosa or Palmeiro(my one-time favorite Ranger) to do better.
What matters is that they were consciously and repeatedly cheating. And that's awful.
Maguire broke one of the greatest records in MLB history and e cheated while doing it.
Does it matter whether the cheating actually helped him?

adamdoctolero said...

Jon, I am 100% with you on this and I find it amazing how easily people dismiss actual evidence (or the lack thereof) because it disagrees with their opinion. The biggest problem here, as you spell out in the piece, is that people's preconceived notions about this particular topic impede their willingness to consider actual information that may change their minds. Great work!

Jon Shepherd said...

Muscle mass simply does not equal more strength. The muscle has to be able to function. The most common situation is if you suffer a severe injury to your muscle and it heals. You can have the same mass in your bicep as you did before your injury and yet your bicep will be weaker because it did not heal in a way for your muscle to work as it originally did.

What they are finding with hGH is that you get an increase in tissue development, but, with respect to muscle, it does not grow in a way that improves strength. The original research was done with the elderly, but follow up tests with athletes have shown the same thing. This means that the treatment is actually quite useful for a person where you just want something to heal, but it will likely not be very useful for someone in elite competition.

Jon Shepherd said...

Philip - I think Melky should be suspended because he agreed with his union on classifying these things as PEDs and that he would take responsibility for being aware of what he put in his body.

If it was intentional...then he intended to cheat. We do not know if he actually productively cheated or to what extent his cheating actually worked.

The main point I wanted to get to in this article (and I probably did a poor job expressing it) is not about Melky, but using Melky as a construct to get to the larger issue. MLB's kneejerk, throw-the-book response to these treatments is one of the worst ways to deal with this issue. Instead, they should worry about the health of the athlete and work with them to figure out if these things are hazardous and whether they constitute OK supplements or not OK. Instead, we get a system where millions are wasted on hGH use and testing while drugs like Tylenol and Viagara have more evidence that they improve athletic performance.

Jon Shepherd said...

Thanks Adam.