The Flaw

I don’t know if it’s age, or wisdom, or just three-plus years of regular baseball blogging, but I’ve mellowed quite a bit over the last few years. I used to be a lot more willing to fight over every little thing someone might say that I thought was wrong. I’d get nasty, too — I’d try (try, mind you) never to make it personal, but I did pretty much everything I could to dismantle and ridicule my opponent’s argument, and would often hit the psyche and sense of self-worth on the way by.  I don’t do that so much anymore (I leave it to TCM). I still love to argue now and then (lawyer and all that), but I try to stay more detached from it. Realize that my opponent’s wrongness doesn’t equate to stupidity. That sort of thing.

The one thing that still gets me going a bit is when someone who should know better embraces an argument that might make sense in a kind of intuitive way, but falls apart entirely if s/he were to spend even two minutes thinking about or looking into it. Like, for instance, the argument that pitcher wins matter because Steve Carlton once won a lot of games for a bad team.

David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution (DOB) did that (but dumber than the example above).yesterday on Twitter. Twitter person Justin Haynes asked DOB: “has there been an actual determination on how PEDs help a player hit a baseball?”

Now, the only correct answer to that question is “No.” Or, “No, and come to think of it, there’s never been any remotely credible determination of whether PEDs help a player hit a baseball.” DOB’s answer (which he deleted, but our friend Wendy saved it) was…not that. Instead, it was: “See Brady Anderson, Melky Cabrera.”

Now, Melky’s inclusion there is debatable in a whole bunch of different ways (“more balls in play turning into hits” has never been claimed, to my knowledge, as a benefit of PEDs), but I’d like to focus on ten-years-retired private citizen Brady Anderson.

Anderson’s home run totals in his ten years as an everyday player, spanning 1992 to 2001, look like this: 21, 13, 12, 16, 50, 18, 18, 24, 19, 6. If you take out that one big number, it establishes a pretty darned consistent level. He had a down year in 1993 and played only 114 games in the strike year of ‘94, but for the most part was an 18-to-22-homers-a-year guy who suddenly ran out of steam at age 37.

But 1996 sticks out just a little bit. On some level, it makes perfect sense to look at a guy who suddenly, in one year, hit as many home runs (minus one) as he’d hit in the previous three combined — especially when that one year was ‘96 — and think “yep, steroids.”

Casual fans can be forgiven for letting their thinking stop there. DOB, on the other hand, gets paid to think about this game. If he’s thinking, and comes to the conclusion that Anderson’s 1996 was evidence of PEDs, he has to make at least the following three assumptions:

1. Anderson started using PEDs just prior to the 1996 season. If he’d been using them before then, there wouldn’t be any evidence that 1996 was a result of the drugs.

2. Anderson stopped using PEDs just after the 1996 season. Same story; if he hit 50 on PEDs at age 32 and then hit 18 on PEDs at age 33, that wouldn’t be very strong evidence that it was the PEDs that did it, either.

3. Anderson’s PEDs-taking wasn’t motivated by money, or fame, or anything else that motivates rational actors. If you assume Anderson cheated in 1996 and stopped cheating before 1997, you have to assume he did it because…well, I can’t for the life of me imagine why he did it, or at least why he stopped doing it. Because in a league with no testing, he had no reason to fear getting caught.

So did he do it for money? Well, no, or if he did, he really sucked at it. In 1996, Anderson was entering the third year of a four-year contract with the Orioles. He hit his 50 home runs, and then proceeded to have an on-again, off-again extension talk with the Orioles while hitting 18 homers in a 1997 season that falls perfectly in line with his 1992-95. The talks were unsuccessful, and Anderson apparently didn’t get a lot of attention elsewhere, as he finally did sign back with the Orioles in December on a relatively modest five-year deal.

So: Anderson started using PEDs (or some new, really effective PED) in 1996. They worked great, beyond his wildest dreams, and he had no fear of getting caught, but he stopped anyway. He wasn’t chasing the contract (or he’d have done them in 1997, also or only), and he didn’t do it because he wanted to become a superstar; in fact, he’d have had to consciously determine that what he really wanted to be known as was the one guy who freakishly hit a bunch of homers that one year.

So why’d he do it? I can’t think of a single reason that makes any sense at all. Maybe he was actively trying to expose the steroid problem in baseball and the superhuman caricature that those drugs can help you become? …No, then he’d want to admit to it after he did it, or after he retired, to make his point. Wouldn’t he? So, no, I got nothin’.

The thing that does make sense is randomness. In Strat-o-Matic baseball, outcomes are based on rolls of three dice. Over the course of the year, most of the time, all those dice rolls even out, and the hitter does about what he did in the real-life season that his player card represents. But it’s easy for most people to imagine that every now and then, a lot more rolls than probabilistically “should” land in his home run (or double, or strikeout) area, and he does something drastically different than he did “in real life” that season, and the game ends up looking unrealistic.

Actually, though, those random spikes are among the most realistic elements of the game. Real players aren’t governed by dice rolls, but they aren’t preprogrammed to hit a given number of home runs per season, either. Those same blips happen, and at a similar rate, in real baseball. Davey Johnson hit those 43 homers in 1973. Earl Webb, from 1930-32, hit 30 doubles, then a still-record 67, then 28. I get it if you don’t like the dice roll analogy, but there’s still a large extent to which each swing is a random event, and in those cases, a certain result came up more often than it should have.

And that’s what happened with Anderson. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Which isn’t at all to say that he didn’t take something illegal; if you care about these things, I think that simply suspecting everybody who played from approximately 1975 to the present is as fair a way to approach it as any. But I am comfortable saying that Anderson didn’t take something illegal in 1996 and only in 1996, and thus that the assumption that the 50 homers he hit in 1996 are in some way evidence of how well PEDs “work,” or that they even “work” at all, is patently absurd.

So Anderson might have cheated (or might not), but so might everyone he played with. Next time you need to prove that PEDs work, look at…well, I can’t think of any examples that hold up. Find the first example that holds up, and then use that instead. Leave poor Brady alone.