Just Maybe Steroids Didn’t Skew The Stats

By Richard Justice
Updated: July 5, 2005

MLB and Steroids

HOUSTON — Home runs are still flying out of ballparks. So is it time to reconsider the impact steroids had on the long ball?


Statistics gurus warned from the beginning of the home run explosion that there was more at work than steroid use. They emphasized there were too many other variables to blame any one thing.

As players were getting bigger, ballparks and strike zones were getting smaller, bats and baseballs were getting harder and the quality of pitching was declining.

There’s no question some players were juicing. As Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said: “When you’d see certain guys hitting opposite-field home runs, you knew something was going on.”

Yet other players apparently found they could achieve about the same results without breaking a single rule.

When fewer home runs were hit in April, some of us assumed this is what the post-steroids baseball world would look like. The real explanation might have been something simpler. Such as bad weather.

Whatever the reason, the home run returned in June. There were 2.2 homers per game, which is almost exactly the same rate they were hit in five of the past eight seasons.

Other factors at work

Home runs have increased dramatically since, say, 1990 when there were about 1.6 per game. But that increase coincides with the opening of several hitter-friendly ballparks and the arrival of an assortment of new equipment.

Steroids were a factor, too. In the three years before steroid testing began in 2003, there were seven 50-homer seasons. There hasn’t been one since.

Some players — Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti — have said steroids played a role in their success. Others, including Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi, have been linked to steroid use.

Maybe, though, the overall impact was less than originally thought. In the first year of testing, 2003, about 6 percent of big-league players tested positive for steroids. Last year, the number dropped to between 1 and 2 percent.

Food for thought

Maybe in declaring the last decade “The Steroid Era” we were screaming before thinking. Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe was the first to spot this trend.

Either the top home run guys are good at hiding steroid use, or they’ve found that eating their spinach and lifting weights might be enough.

Frankly, some of the guys atop the home run leader board aren’t the cheating types. Morgan Ensberg? Adam Dunn?

I don’t think so. Ensberg’s idea of a wild night is dinner and a movie.

Wouldn’t it be a kick in the pants if the guys who stuck needles in their rumps could have gotten the same results with hard work?

Asked if the media had overstated the impact of steroids on home runs, author Bill James, probably the most respected numbers guy in the country, said in an e-mail exchange: “Certainly.”

Plenty of evidence

James pointed to a variety of factors:

•Ballparks. “Coors Field adds a lot of home runs to the league — all by itself,” James wrote. “Bank One Ballpark adds a bunch more. Replacing the Astrodome with Minute Maid Park adds home runs. The Ballpark in Arlington adds home runs.”

•Bats. “The bats now are dramatically different than the major-league bats of my youth,” he wrote. “The handles are much thinner, the sweet spot is larger. Much more of the weight is concentrated in the end of the bat. It’s a home run hitter’s bat — and everybody uses it. Hardly anybody uses a single’s hitter’s bat anymore, even the leadoff men.”

•The lacquer on the bats. “In the mid-1990s, somebody figured out that the rules didn’t prohibit you from putting lacquer on the bat until it was as hard as concrete, so they do,” James wrote.

•Lasik eye surgery and improved contact lens. “Before 1990, there were a very limited number of players who had perfect vision,” he wrote. “Now everybody has perfect vision. It makes a big difference.”

•The “medical braces” worn by Bonds and others. “They’ve been compared by some people to bionic arms,” James wrote. “I don’t know much about them, but I know that some people think they are an underrated part of the equation.”


•Possibly other substances such as human growth hormone. “We don’t really know to what extent these are used,” James wrote.

•Legitimate strength training. “I’m not saying that steroids weren’t significant,” James wrote. “But people like simple, straightforward explanations, and reality is complicated, messy and often inexplicable.”

Your cynical side tells you steroids haven’t gone anywhere. You believe players are juicing as much as they ever did.

Except that the evidence indicates otherwise. Players look smaller, some of them significantly so.

Some players probably knew how to beat tests in the cocaine years — one guy bragged to me how he did it — but I doubt they’re doing so in any large number.

It’s also true that baseball doesn’t test for human growth hormone, which was the performance-enhancing substance of choice for some. We might never know how many are using HGH just as we might never know what percentage used steroids.

“It was never rampant,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “That doesn’t square with the facts.”

He’s probably right. Besides, fewer players have those cartoonish muscles of a couple of years ago.

Overstating the case

Whatever the truth, the home run hasn’t gone anywhere. The last three years, there has been an average of nine players hitting at least 40 home runs in a season. At the moment, there are 14 players headed for 40-homer seasons.

Maybe there are always going to be blips. Home runs dropped in 2002, which was before testing began.

“I think the only things we can be certain of is that increased strength was an asset, at least in the short term, for a handful of players (Caminiti, Canseco, Giambi),” said Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus. “I absolutely believe — I’m not a doctor — that the impact of steroids on offensive levels in recent years is vastly overstated.

“There are just too many other factors in play to isolate one, especially considering that the timelines of testing and home run levels don’t correlate very well.

“Too much of the coverage has been simplistic and, in some cases, gleefully vindictive. We don’t know, and it’s OK to say that.”