Defending Gary Matthews, Jr.

The latest steroid story in baseball just broke.

Athletes were involved as customers in an illicit steroid distribution network that led authorities to raid two Orlando pharmacies and arrest four company officials, a New York prosecutor said.

Albany County (N.Y.) District Attorney P. David Soares refused to identify any steroid recipients, saying prosecutors were focused on producers and distributors.

Customers include Los Angeles Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., according to the Times Union of Albany, which first disclosed the investigation, citing unidentified sources. Matthews would not answer specific questions about the story Wednesday.

Gary Matthews, Jr. makes a perfect villain. He is a major league player who had a career year in 2006, which allowed the former bench player to nab a 5-year $50 million contract with the LA Angels of Anaheim.

This just makes too much sense not to be true, right? Finally we have a reason to explain sudden excellence from a mediocre player—so mediocre that the Braves once cut him to keep Dewayne Wise. The career .755 OPS player put up an .866 OPS in 2006. Aha, now it all makes sense!

To all this I say, “can’t an OK player enjoy his success in peace?” Gary Matthews’s 2006 season was mostly a product of luck. Here are his OPS for the past five seasons.

2002 .780
2003 .675
2004 .811
2005 .756
2006 .866

Yes, 2006 seems like an outlier, but so does 2003. If you throw out the good and bad years his average OPS was .778. But wait, the guy hit .866 and is linked with performance-enhancing drugs! Here is where the role of chance comes in. Gary Matthews was one of the luckiest hitters in baseball last year.

According to PrOPS, which predicts a players OPS based on the way a player hit the ball without relying on in-play outcomes, his OPS for 2006 should have been .792. This is hardly different than his .778 average, and certainly not out of step with what he had achieved with the Rangers during the previous two seasons. In fact, only four other players in the American League were luckier than Matthews. If his improvement was the result of performance-enhancing drugs his PrOPS should have improved as well. PrOPS has no knowledge of Matthews’s light-hitting history. It generates a prediction from past hitting performances of players who hit the ball similarly.

The role of luck can also be seen in some other stats, too. He hit 2 more homers in 2006 than in 2005 in 145 more plate appearances—his homer rate actually declined. His isolated power (SLG-AVG) in 2005 was .181, compared to .182 in 2006. He didn’t get a PED power boost. Where he did improve was with his batting average on balls in play, where luck can accumulate. His BABIP was up to .349 compared to the .283 of 2005.

This does not clear Gary Matthews of using PEDs, but it doesn’t look like he got much of a boost if he did use them. Who knows, maybe he would have had a .700 OPS season without them. But, I don’t want to see a rush to judgment on the player just because he had one fluke year. The important point is that the stats don’t convict him at all. If anything, they exonerate him. However, if I am an Angels fans, I am concerned for other reasons. ;-)

4 Responses “Defending Gary Matthews, Jr.”

  1. Matt says:

    FWIW, Dewayne Wise had an OPS of 0.421 in 2006 – Good for an OPS+ of 4. He only had 38 AB for the year – and didn’t draw one BB.

  2. Matt says:

    And I can’t read – made a bad assumption – It’s late.

    Sorry.

  3. Ron says:

    That’s interesting, but I’m not sure it tells us anything other than that stats are not a reliable indicator of who used steroids. The fact that Matthews was a customer of the pharmacy and in response to that fact coming to light has refused to utter the words, “I didn’t use performance enhancing drugs,” are pretty damning to me. If all it took to become a good player was using roids, then every player would be Barry Bonds. Some players are just bad (or mediocre) and no amount of artifically increased muscle mass can change that.

  4. Derrick says:

    You compared his PrOPS (.792) to his average OPS (.778). What was his average PrOPS? That would be a much more rational comparison.