Power numbers remain steady

With steroid testing ongoing, the belief was power numbers would decline. Well, it just hasn't happened.

Originally Published: May 28, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The Steroid Hysteria of spring training is just background noise now. The games go on. The turnstiles spin. The pennant races take shape. We've got other things to worry about now, other things to cheer about, other things to write about.

But in baseball's back rooms, the steroid testing continues -- out of sight, practically out of mind. Started in March. Won't end until September.

No one has been named. No one has been suspended. No one has been positioned as the first float in the test-positive parade. And given all the anonymity and limitations built into the program, it's possible no one will.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds has as many home runs (12) at this point in the season as he had at the same point last year.

But what's more fascinating about Year One of baseball's "program testing" -- the first tangible attempt to tame the steroid monster -- is not so much what hasn't happened off the field, but what hasn't happened on the field.

Our eyeballs tell us certain players look, well, different. But whatever that means or doesn't mean, we had the Elias Sports Bureau pore through the numbers. And the amazing finding is this:

On the field, the game hasn't changed.

We heard all the predictions this spring: We'd see fewer homers. We'd see less offense. We'd see fewer strikeouts, as some juiced-up pitchers' velocities declined. None of it has happened.

After games of Sunday, when all teams had finally completed their first 40 games, we asked Elias to compare this year's stats to the same period last year. What changes we found were microscopic. Literally. Take a look:

  2004 2003
Batting average .264 .263
On-base percentage .334 .335
Slugging percentage .421 .420
Runs/game 9.6 9.5
Home runs/game 2.2 2.1
Strikeouts/game 12.9 12.7
ERA 4.38 4.39

We're not sure how to explain that. And no one we've surveyed is, either. But we've heard some theories. Here are the most popular:

1) Steroids were way too convenient a one-stop explanation for the dawn of the powerball era. Which would mean this was clearly the most overblown story since Ted Williams' trip to the cryogenic freezer.

2) This testing program is so inadequate, it didn't address the problem.

3) Whatever effects there have been have affected hitters and pitchers equally.

4) The decline of some top players has caused a seesaw rise in everyone else's stats.

5) The "survey" testing that began last year had a bigger effect than people thought. And this is just a continuation of that trend.

At the moment, we lean toward some combination of almost all of the above. But we also think this is an indication that whatever changes we've seen in this sport over the last decade, they're not nearly as much a product of steroids as many people wanted to believe.

"I look at this as a good sign," said a former player who now works in one team's front office. "I think this helps the game. It helps the image of the game. It's good for the purity of the game. No one wants to have all these issues circling. So maybe this will help reassure people. ... I strongly believe that it's wrong to take steroids. But I've never felt steroids had that much effect, overall, on the changes we've seen in the game."

Not surprisingly, Gene Orza, associate general counsel for the players' union, also took that stance.

You can never just say, 'Steroids are this. Therefore, it's that.' ... Baseball is a game with so many variables, I doubt even steroid use could cause a lot of change. And to try to figure out what the impact of them is -- it isn't as simple as people think, because it's such a young (phenomenon). I know some people have doubts whether it's even an advantage.
An anonymous player

"Players have never gotten credit for all the work they do (to become better, stronger athletes)," Orza said. "People want to attribute success not to hard work, but to cutting corners. And that's ridiculous. We live in an age now where guys are working out year-round, constantly, every single day."

Another current position player, never known for his power, agreed.

"The steroid issue has been overblown," he said. "The natural evolution in the game is for players to get bigger, stronger, faster, and more powerful."

But we all know we would have to live our lives in Smurf Land to think everybody in the sport is just a pure, hard-working guy who owed his newfound power to advances in exercise-machine technology. So a bunch of scouts and executives tried to convince us to ignore the big-picture numbers and point out specific players whose bodies -- and stat lines -- barely resemble the men they used to be.

"I'll be honest," said one assistant GM. "I don't have any evidence of anybody who does anything (illegal). But I do know I've noticed guys whose physiques are different. I've noticed a handful of guys who are not nearly as big. I've noticed pitchers who have lost 4 or 5 miles per hour off their fastballs. I've noticed players who have gotten hurt and can't heal. I have no idea if they're doing anything different. But I've seen some things that make you wonder."

We've all seen those things. We've all seen those same guys. It's impossible to see them without concluding this new testing program obviously inspired some of them to make some (ahem) changes. But if that's true, how do we explain why the numbers, across the sport, look the same? Here are some of the theories:

Maybe hitters and pitchers are affected equally
The story of pitchers on steroids hasn't been told a whole lot. But hitters have long suspected that the percentage of hard throwers taking something was as large as the percentage of hitters looking for a better career through chemistry.

We'll never know how accurate those suspicions were. But almost everybody in the game who believes steroids are, or were, a problem understands it's an issue that involves the men trying to hit the baseballs and the men who throw them.

So if we're willing to acknowledge now that some players were worried enough about the new testing program to stop doing whatever they were doing, then wouldn't it be logical, suggested one executive, "that the testing has had an equal impact on both hitters and pitchers?"

Well, could be. But the same executive suggested that the pitchers most affected this year are relievers who aren't throwing as hard. He suggested we check bullpen strikeout rates. So we did.

But the facts shot down that theory, too. The strikeout ratio of relief pitchers this year (7.13 per nine IP) is actually up (from 7.06 last year). Which epitomized our examination of this whole issue: There are facts to contradict almost every theory.

Maybe it's helped the lesser players as much as it's hurt the stars
For every cause, there's an effect. We learned that in school once. For every action, there's a reaction. We learned that, too.

"So let's say," said one front-office man, "that one guy is doing (or taking) something at the top of the sport. And another guy at the bottom is doing (or taking) nothing. If one guy's performance drops, does that make the other guy better?

"Let's say you have a pitcher throwing 98 (mph), and his ERA and strikeout rate are such-and-such. Now he stops doing what he was doing, and his velocity is down. So his ERA and strikeout rate are worse. Doesn't that have to even the field? By virtue of giving us an even field, there have to be guys who compete better against guys who have slipped."

There's a certain logic to that. But then, how do we explain why offensive numbers once jumped so dramatically in the 1990s? If steroid testing was having any effect on the sport, wouldn't we have seen some kind of drop in those same numbers this year? Hasn't happened.

Maybe the real effect was last year
Because 2003 was, in fact, the first year of any kind of testing, one GM conjectured that it may have been last season when the numbers leveled off. Nope. Elias did the same comparison between 2002 and 2003. And contrary to popular opinion, offense wasn't down last season. It was up:

  2003 2002
Batting average .263 .256
On-base percentage .335 .329
Slugging percentage .420 .407
Runs/game 9.5 9.1
Home runs/game 2.1 1.9
Strikeouts/game 12.7 12.9
ERA 4.39 4.15

One thing we didn't see last year, for a change, was a 50-homer guy. Which might suggest that seesaw effect kicked in. But if there was really a widespread drop in steroid use last year, then why did the overall numbers take such a big jump? Makes no sense.

Maybe we need more time to judge
Is a quarter of a season enough time to draw any legitimate conclusions? Maybe not. Several people suggested that.

"From what guys have told me," said one player, "the effects (of steroids) are something you feel over time. You want to know that on Aug. 23, you have what you had in April, May and June. ... So if someone goes on it in the second half of the season, it may be a timing thing."

It makes sense that we should check these numbers again in October. But one reason to look at them now is that any player concerned about testing would have had more reason to stop taking steroids early in the season than later.

Under this testing system, once a player tests clean once, he knows he won't be tested again the rest of the season. So we can assume some of those players might resume their previous, um, activities later in the season. But many players haven't been tested yet. So if numbers were going to be affected by testing, they should have shown up by now. Shouldn't they have?

Maybe this testing system doesn't work
Obviously, baseball's drug-testing program isn't as tough or extensive as the USOC's. Or even the NFL's.

Obviously, any system that only tests players once a year isn't as effective as a system that tests year-round.

And obviously, as even one player admitted, "some things are un-test-able."

No one disputes any of that. But if people everywhere -- scouts, GMs, writers, players and fans -- can see with their own eyes that certain players' body types have changed since last season, then we can also assume that a significant number of those players made those changes to avoid testing positive.

So if a significant number of players stopped taking steroids -- and steroids were really as responsible for altering the playing field as they've been made out to be -- why aren't we seeing some difference in numbers to reflect that?

Well, it just might be because people were looking for too easy an answer to a complicated question.

When offensive numbers first exploded, the convenient answer then was: Blame the baseball. But we've learned over time there was a lot more to it than juiced baseballs. So now, what these numbers really say is that it's more involved than juiced players, too.

"It's never that simple," said one player. "You can never just say, 'Steroids are this. Therefore, it's that.' ... Baseball is a game with so many variables, I doubt even steroid use could cause a lot of change. And to try to figure out what the impact of them is -- it isn't as simple as people think, because it's such a young (phenomenon). I know some people have doubts whether it's even an advantage."

You can debate whether steroids actually help everybody or not. You can debate whether players have really stopped using them -- or whether they've just started using something else. You can debate whether this whole topic has gotten more tiresome than Whoopi Goldberg.

But you can't debate what kind of picture those numbers paint. They paint the portrait of a sport that doesn't look a whole lot different than it did last year. And that's the last picture we ever thought we'd see in a year when a name was finally attached to every player's own personal urine sample.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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