I find myself in an awkward position in discussions on steroids. I’ve written quite a bit on the subject, mostly critical of those who claim steroids are ruining the game. The reason for this is that I don’t see anything in the stats that shows players are getting much help from PEDs. However, this is a different issue from whether or not players are using them.
I understand that the incentives are such that if steroids do improve performance that we ought to expect players to use them. If you think you can get a boost over your competitors, many of whom you suspect of juicing, why not? This leads me to wonder: how many players use steroids? Ken Caminiti suggested a at least 50%. Tony Gwynn estimated it’s 20%. At a minimum, MLB’s tests from the 2003 season show 5-7% of players “failed” steroid tests, though “failure” included those who refused to be tested.
Quantifying dishonest behavior is difficult. Even when you promise amnesty for revealing bad behavior, people just don’t like to cop to it. So, all we have to go on in baseball is information from three sources. First, we have the testimony of players with every incentive to bias their estimates upwards (i.e., Caminiti and Conseco)—”hey, everybody is doing it, I’m not such bad guy.” Then we have the guessers like Gwynn, which reminds me of smelling marijuana in the in high school locker room. You smell a funny smell so you know it’s going on. You have a general idea of who’s responsible, but you don’t want any problems so keep your head down and don’t ask any questions. Names and numbers are based on hunches. Then we have the “anonymous” tests—tests that everyone knows are coming with logistics that make instant testing impossible. And let’s not forget that these tests can be beaten.
I think between 10-15% of major league baseball players use some type of illegal PED. Where do I get this number? From looking at cheating where we can identify it: the bagel man from Freakonomics. If you haven’t read the book or don’t recall, Paul Feldman is the economist who quit his job to be a full-time bagel supplier on a quasi-honor system in Washington, DC. And like an economist should, he payed close attention to the data he was generating. For the specifics of his findings read the book or the linked article, but the in the end he found that about 13% of his customers didn’t pay for his bagels. It seems to me that this is a good place to start in looking for the percentage of players willing to juice in MLB. If 87% of the population is honest enough not to steal bagels, that’s probably close to the percentage of players who are unwilling to use steroids to get ahead.
Certainly, the rewards are higher for juicers than for bagel thieves, but I believe that the ethical constraints that prevent cheating are similar despite the reward. Though I think there is some moral wiggle room, either you are honest or you are not. And I don’t think ballplayers are any more or less honest than the general population.