The silliest assumption I've heard in spring training [in 2005] is that offense will decline because Major League Baseball [MLB] is adopting tougher steroid testing. Home run and scoring rates increased during the first two years of testing, feeble though the program may have been. Though a slight drop-off certainly is possible, a dramatic change is unlikely.
- Players still will use performance enhancing drugs. News flash! Steroids aren't going away. Testing prevents athletes from using an optimal dosage, says Charles Yesalis, a Penn State [Pennsylvania State University] professor and a leading authority on performance-enhancing drugs. But cheaters beat the tests by using lower doses, masking agents or undetectable drugs. Human growth hormone can be detected only in blood tests, not in the urine samples used by MLB. Insulin-like growth factor, another muscle builder, is undetectable. NFL [National Football League] players circumvent tests by combining growth hormone with a small amount of testosterone, Yesalis says.
Major league players and officials say the threat of a 10-day suspension for a first-time offender will deter potential users, who won't want to risk exposure. But the testing will be controlled by MLB, not an outside agency. As Yesalis says, "Baseball can cover up any positive test they want."
- Pitchers also use performance-enhancing drugs.
OK, let's say that the new testing indeed leads to a reduction in the use of performance enhancers. The effect on pitchers might be as pronounced as the effect on hitters.
One scout says the standard for an average fastball has increased from 90 to 93 mph in the past decade. No one knows if as many pitchers "juiced" as hitters, or benefited to the same extent. But clearly, hitters weren't alone in seeking an edge.
Heck, even if most pitchers are clean, no one should expect a pitching-and-defense renaissance. Teams continue to lament the state of pitching, and the shortage of quality arms never was more apparent than this offseason, when several mediocre free agents received outrageous contracts.
Steroids Are Not the Only Reason for Home Runs
- Hitters are older—and stronger—than they were years ago. As players age, they lose speed and gain power, with or without performance enhancers. And the average hitter is approximately two years older today than he was 30 years ago. In 1975, the average American League hitter was 27.5 years old and hit home runs in 2 percent of his plate appearances (estimated as at-bats plus walks). In 2004, the average A.L. [American League] hitter was 29.2 years old and hit home runs in 3 percent of his plate appearances. The data is similar for the National League.
Improvements in nutrition and conditioning are at least partly responsible for those increases. In fact, the overall home run rates have shown a steady rise over the past 30 years—a trend that began even before the introduction of steroids.
- The game remains slanted toward hitters.
Oh, things are calming down some. Not every new park is built for offense. Complaints about a smaller strike zone are diminishing as MLB returns to rulebook specifications. Though juiced bodies are the talk of the game, hardly anyone mentions juiced balls anymore.
Yet, for all of those developments, no one would dare suggest that pitchers are about to return to 1968-style dominance. A significant percentage of the newer parks are hitter-friendly.
The only way to restore balance might be to raise the mound, and rest assured, MLB won't go there.
Little Effect on Offense
It's impossible to measure the actual effect of performance enhancers, but it seems probable that they helped account for recent extremes in offensive achievement. For example, half of the 36 all-time 50-homer seasons occurred between 1995 and 2002. That's a spike of unnatural proportions.
Tougher testing won't reverse the increase in offense. The best it can do is make things more normal again.
Ken Rosenthal, “Even with Testing, Offenses Will Be Pumped Up,” Sporting News, vol. 229, March 4, 2005, pp. 56–58. Copyright © 2005 by the Sporting News Publishing Company. Reproduced by permission.
Ken Rosenthal is a senior writer for the Sporting News.