06 August 2013

The Failure of MLB's Drug War

Photo: Keith Allison
As I am writing this column, boos are showering down upon Alex Rodriguez at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.  It is not a good situation for him, the Yankees, Major League Baseball, or the fans.  It has brought the worst out in many of those who wish to engage in this event.  What perhaps is most unfortunate is the lack of understanding of the dangers of how supplements are handled or perceived in baseball.  By issuing knee jerk responses as policies and then trying to backwardly apply reasoning, a moment that could have been used to improve the game has been lost.

I have been following MLB's indifference and then overreaction to the use of supplements in baseball for two decades now.  My attention was first caught with Mark McGwire's admitted usage of androstenedione, which is a precursor for testosterone and estrogens.  I think that initial story frames the error of baseball's way in dealing with supplements.  It starts out with the press finding out that a rather good player is using some sort of supplement.  That supplement then shares some connection to other supplements that are deemed illegal.  MLB then reflexively cracks down hard on those supplements before we really comprehend what those chemicals do and whether they are safe.

We see the same thing with hGH.  We know athletes have used it.  We know good athletes have used it.  The hormone is known to increase tissue mass and overdosing on it is known to cause a great number of side effects.  Based on the mechanistic research, it appears unlikely that hGH will do anything substantial with respect to improving athletic performance.  This research is not conclusive, but a general working understanding of the hormone is that it induces cell replication, but does so without the components or at too fast of a rate to produce highly functional muscle.  Why do we not really understand how it works?  Well, in my opinion, the several studies showing no increased athletic performance was bad for the therapy business.  However, being able to detect metabolites of hGH in various biological media became big business.  In other words, athletic associations care less about whether it worked and more about detecting it in order to keep it out of the games as well as to have something to point toward in their punitive approaches.

This causes another problem.  Not only do we not comprehend fully how many of these supplements work, we are also probably several years behind the curve in the development of some of these approaches.  MLB's whack-a-mole policy with these supplements make players less likely to be open with any new approaches they may be trying out.  We do not know how they use these chemicals and have no solid way of measuring the effect of taking those chemicals.  Of course, people want to jump on the performance impact of the supplements, which is important.  However, a truly responsible and comprehensive program should be invested in the health of the players.  This means not to hold a hard line, but to bend.  Why should players not use anabolic steroids or hGH (lets ignore legality for a second) if they can be used safely?  We already know drugs like cortisone are not used safely in sports.  We already know that doctors will engage in radical surgeries.  I mean, there is a lot of attempted performance enhancing going on and there should be a cohesive plan to assess new techniques, approaches, supplements, whatever.

To be succinct, MLB's drug policy is archaic and overly harsh.  I think it is an overly simple solution designed to keep at bay the stark raving congressional moralists looking to earn a few points in the polls and a few grand in the war chest on an issue that is summed up by saying with a straight face: think of the children.  What it produces is a system where players are not really all that much safer.  Some drugs are given a free pass and are used with reckless abandon.  Other drugs are framed as performance enhancing even though evidence for such a thing is light beyond some evidence of player use and whose success is as anecdotal as Jason Giambi's golden thong's impact on the Yankees winning in the past decade.  This makes new therapies more likely to cling to the dark recesses as players looking for an edge are also wary that they may be the next posterboy for cheating in the game of baseball...and cheating in a Barry Bonds way as opposed to a Gaylord Perry way or in a name-your-favorite-50s-60s-70s-80s-baseball-star way.

This driving of players on the fringe into the shadows is something that baseball needs to work on.  It is potentially catastrophic to entrust baseball players to get advice from fringe doctors or, worse, gym rats.  Both have their places in the grand scheme of things, but neither is usually all that great in determining how effective a drug treatment is.  Sample sizes of one or two are pretty worthless and those sample sizes cannot be very meaningful until data can be openly shared.  It would be truly interesting to see how procedures like stem cell therapy and platelet-rich plasma could be better understood if it had not taken so long to even get them mentioned in the press with the latter appearing to have more acceptance simply because the phrase "stem cell" is not used.

I recognize the process is not going to change.  I recognize that the health of the player is not as respected as the perceived health of the game and that MLB coming down with an iron fist approach is the easiest way to pretend to solving this issue in the game.  Unfortunately, fear of being caught is of a certain magnitude.  Likewise, the fear of being released is of a certain magnitude as well.  We are dealing with a population that is under a great deal of pressure to succeed and faces a lot of adversity.  Drug use is rampant in the game.  Much of it is legal and, I would argue, much of it is done without as much concern for the health of the player as should be implemented.

So, yeah, the veneer looks grand with many joining together in shouting down Alex Rodriguez, but there is an incredible amount of rotten wood underneath it.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article but I would argue that the current testing, albeit imperfect, has improved the situation.

Players are not as bulked, home production (except for Crush) are down and you can again predict a home run with the batter swing and crack of the bat.

Jon Shepherd said...

I think there is a decent amount of variable change that it is difficult to tie everything to steroid use and potentially other effective supplements. From 2006 to now, HR/AB has decreased from one for every 30.8 AB to one for every 32.8 at bats. However, how much of that can be attributed to strikeout rates increasing from 16.2% to a historically amazing 19.6%?

Perhaps most damning is this...home runs per fly balls. We should expect that steroids do not cause hitters to hit fly balls, right? So steroids should increase home runs on those fly balls.

In 2006, 9.7% of fly balls went over the fence.
In 2013, 9.7% of fly balls went over the fence.

So, if we choose to use power then maybe we can see that perhaps steroid testing had very little to do with any impact on power production. Instead, the game has simply recorrected itself to focus on other aspects of play or perhaps we are seeing a reaction to pitchers exhibiting increased velocity.

Unknown said...

nice article. for the camden depot passengers (IT WILL CATCH ON!) interested in this subject, i would suggest reading the 3 chapters of section 1 in the Baseball Prospectus Book, "Extra Innings". they do a nice job of looking at how little we know about the effect of PED's in baseball and what the future of PED use may look like.

Liam said...

Jon- If homeruns/flyball stayed constant and homeruns/ab decreased, flyballs/ab also decreased. Does the flyball/hr ratio include infield flies? If not maybe stronger hitters would hit more infield flies further enough to be called fly balls?

Or maybe the homeruns from linedrives have decreased?

Or maybe muscle bound sluggers do hit more flyballs, because they adjust their approach at the plate to suit their strengths?

Whatever the reason, I have a hard time believing the homerun crazy of the late 1990's and early 2000's was not partially due to more hitters taking peds that are now banned.

Jon Shepherd said...

Nate - Thanks. Yeah, we have been reviewing PEDs and effects for a while here with the HGH research being my focus. There certainly is a forced narrative employed.

Liam - Well...more players are striking out and the pitchers are throwing harder now over the past five years. A major argument is to what degree does steroids affect home run ability. There is a good bit of evidence that it had far less of an impact than most people seem to think. Steroids certainly make you stronger, but it may make you stronger in a way that is not very useful in hitting significantly more home runs.

Liam said...

But even if you take strikouts out of the equation and just look at hr/balls in play, the rate has diminished, albeit marginally, since peaking around 2000. (Interesting article about that on fangraphs today.)

I'm certainly not one of these people who thinks streoids make 50 homerun guys out of 15 home run guys. But small sample size aside, when you look at the leading hr hitters of the last 20 odd years (mcguire, sosa, bonds, giambi, arod), you'd have a tough argument that steroids didn't help these guys significantly. Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs as a 36 year old? Whatever juice he was on was pretty potent.

Jon Shepherd said...

Well, don't those graphs look more like a response to 1998 expansion? I mean, why should we see a trending decrease beginning in 2000?

I just don't see an obvious smoking gun here for steroids. I also question why a greater percentage of fly balls would not be leaving the yard if guys were maxed out.

To me, the obvious narrative would be that play has gotten better as the pool of players have rebounded from the bouts of expansion.

That makes more sense than thinking that without any pressure that steroid impact would decrease after 2000 before there was any major outcry over it.

Jon Shepherd said...

I think what this all goes back to is that there are many variables that affect play in baseball and way too often we tend to look for those silver bullets that explain everything. Even better is when that silver bullet seems nefarious. I think the whole expansion issue introduces another issue that troubles people, which is that baseball becomes a more and more difficult game as the years pass by. Things like expansion dilute the talent pool, but as long as populations increase and baseball remains a relatively popular game...the game will become more and more competitive.

Liam said...

Thats a good point- on a league wide basis, I think you've made a very convincing argument that steroids had at most a marginal effect on the game. The fangraphs article also shows how massively things can change without a particularly compelling reason.

Nonetheless, you can't deny that what Bonds, Sosa and McGuire did does not happen without steroids. These substances affect different people in different ways, but those guys saw massive benefits to their power numbers. Again, a 36 year old does not hit 73 home runs.

If I was a real conspiracy theoist I'd argue that steroid use skyrocketted in the 90's and never came down- guys just got smarter about it. I actually think a version of this is true- weight training took off in the 80's and 90's, which in some cases was bolstered by illigal substances. But even without roids guys can get pretty jacked lifting weights. I remember reading something that for years baseball players were dsicouraged from lifting weights due to the mistaken belief that it would mess up their reaction time and degrade their skills.

Thats not the only reason hr rates have risen but it partially explains why they have stayed high even as steroids seem to be mostly gone.

Jon Shepherd said...

Can a 36 year old hit an absurd number of home runs?

In 1931, the average AL team hit 72 home runs. Babe Ruth hit 46. That was 44% greater than the next place hitter Earl Averill.

So I think you can make an argument that sometimes there exists exceptional baseball players. It may mean that steroids had no effect on Barry Bonds. It may also mean that steroids enabled Barry Bonds to transform himself from being one of the top 10 players of all time to arguably the best player who ever lived.

Liam said...

You can't reasonably make the argument that steroids had no effect on barry bonds. There's just not an argument to be made. Nor can you reasonably make the argument that the top 3 single season homerun totals occured in the same 3 year period, when the "steroid era" was said to be at its peak, by chance.

Its impossible to say how good bonds was without roids because we dont know when he started, which is part of the reason he will probably never be voted into the hall of fame.

When Ruth hit 46 as a 36 year old he had hit 49 the year before and 60 a few years prior.

Jon Shepherd said...

Yes, you can. He used steroids. He built up muscle, but there is not a completely known direct association between how that muscle impacted his performance. There are assumptions at play there which may or may not be reasonable.

That is why these things are difficult to figure out.

One year blips happen...and we can roll through all of those.