Steroids and Home Runs in The New York Times

To many baseball fans the game has been ruined — hallowed records toppled, managers playing less small ball as they wait for that three-run homer. But the blame shouldn’t be placed on pills, needles and balms. The true culprit is…

For the answer, see my op-ed in today’s New York Times. It’s based on Chapter 8 (“The Evolution of Baseball Talent”) of The Baseball Economist.

Addendum: The response I have received to this article is overwhelming. If you have sent me an e-mail regarding it, it is very likely that you will not get a response; I just don’t have enough time. I have done my best to answer many of these questions and concerns in the comments below, because most of the e-mails I am receiving argue similar points. Also, several critics have pointed out that I have left out other potential causal factors out of the op-ed. This is true, but unfortunately necessary, because there is only so much I can say in 610 words. However, I devote a full chapter to the topic in my book, where I address these concerns. I want every one to know that I appreciate almost all of your correspondence (excepting a few rude e-mails) regarding your concerns. I think it’s important to explore this line of inquiry. I appreciate the positive e-mails as well. :-)

15 Responses “Steroids and Home Runs in The New York Times”

  1. Kyle S says:

    Congrats on making the New York Times! That’s really cool.

  2. C Clive says:

    I’d be interested in seeing a follow up study to the hit batter statistics you mention in the opinion piece.

    Specifically, is there any data out there that could prove your theory that the pitchers who are hitting batters are of inferior talent in other areas?

  3. pbr says:

    I think your use of the HBP stat to prove that expansion has diluted pitching missed a key point – Craig Biggio did it first and made it cool (getting 27 plunks in 1996 and inspiring all the other great get-hitters of the last 10 years).

    But seriously though, there have only been 6 guys other than Biggio to break that 25 plunk mark since Biggio did it in ’96, and just because a few guys have stopped getting out of the way of pitches doesn’t mean pitchers suddenly got worse. HBPs per plate appearance have risen fairly steadily since the early 80s. There was a 12% increase in ’93 when the Rockies and Marlins joined the league, but there was also a 15% jump in 1986 and a 22% rise in 2001 (possibly because Biggio missed the 2nd half of 2000).

    I don’t disagree that expansion has diluted pitching, but it’s tough to show that with HBP stats because it’s hard to distinguish between more pitches headed toward batters and more batters willing to take one for the team (or at least take one for the OBP).

  4. Craig Duncan says:

    Interesting NYT piece. You may be right that the fairly sudden expansion in the 1990s explains the spike in homers and strikeouts in the 1990s. But can it explain why this rate is higher now than it was, say, the 1960s? After all, the American population was smaller then than it is now. So prior to MLB team expansion, by your theory’s lights we should have seen declining homerun and strike out statistics: as the American population grew and yet the number of MLB teams stayed constant, the talent level in the MLB should have been progressively ticking up, and so it should have been growing rarer and rarer for good hitters to face lousy pitchers or good pitchers to face lousy hitters–hence the theory’s prediction of declining statistics prior to expansion. Is this prediction born out?

    Moreover, if the 1990s expansion just returns the ratio of MLB players-to-American citizens roughly to what it was in, say, the 1960s (or whatever past decade matches the current ratio), doesn’t your theory predict the current homerun and strikout averages should be the same as they then were in that decade? But that is not the case, right?

  5. Matt says:

    Some real quick research reveals that the 1992 US population was around 255M people with 26 baseball teams, or slightly less than 10M people per team. In 2006, the population was 298M, with 30 teams, also 10M per team. I just don’t see how the dilution argument applies anymore (it was certainly true for the first few years after expansion).

  6. JC says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    First, let me say that I’m amazed that I was able to say as much as I did in 610 words. I’ll have to thank my editor for his excellent help. However, there is still a lot that I had to cut out for space. I spend 15 pages in the book laying out the dilution argument, so there is a lot more to this. These questions are understandable and I address them in the book.

    I’ll tackle a few issues.

    Correlation between HBP rates and some proxies of pitching quality since 1993 (min 30 innings pitched): ERA = 0.17, Walks = 0.15, Strikeouts = -0.05, HR = 0.02. Not super-strong correlations, but all except home runs are statistically significant. The correlation between HBPs and walks is the most telling to me.

    There is no doubt that expansion does not explain all of the rise in hit batters, in fact, I wrote the chapter on expansion before the HBP numbers jumped out it me. The first chapter of the book develops a model for predicting hit batters based on numerous factors. It’s just one piece of evidence that fits.

    As for using the population-to-player ratio to proxy dispersion, this is something I do in the book. However, I’m not sure how informative it is. First, population is rising also because of longer life spans. A lot more people are alive today, but all are not able to play baseball. Second, there are many more opportunities (athletic and non-athletic) for athletes today than there were in the past that shrinks the talent pool. So, this is not much of a guide. This is why I directly proxy the dispersion of player quality for both hitters and pitchers using the coefficient of variation in ERA for pitchers and OPS for batters (I only had time to hint at this in the op-ed). The disparity between pitchers is at an all time high. Batters have grown more dispersed as well, but not to the extent that pitchers have.

  7. Andrew W says:

    I’m glad to see someone addressing these issues, but there seems to be more likely alternative explanations for each of the phenomena you introduce in the op-ed. For example, the increase in hit batters is more easily explained by a change in hitting philosophy: batters stand closer to the plate in this era than they did in the Lau/Hriniak era–couple that with the plastic armor many players wear, making them happy to not move, and you have many more hit batters.

    Also, expansion has occurred in each of the three other major North American sports leagues without a parallel increase in record breaking. No one is scoring 100 points in a basketball game. No one is approaching Gretzky’s records. Only the NFL has seen many records recently broken–it seems to be a better candidate for the dilution-by-expansion argument, because it has had a strict drug-testing policy in effect for several years.

  8. Steve says:

    In regards to Andrew W’s comments;

    The NFL is probably the worst candidate for the dilution by expansion theory. There is today more talent on a single NFL team than there used to be in an entire league. More talent = less records. In the case of the NFL, the increase in record breaking is due to rule changes that favor the offenses, and also, the enormous drug problem they face. Heck, even the punters are on steriods.

  9. nate hale says:

    Could not agree more with your column, but one key factor for the increase of homeruns, on a par with the reasons you cited, has been the reduction in size of the playing fields. Most all left-center and right-center power alleys have all been reduced dramatically (as well as centerfields being moved in–cf. Yankee Stadium). Check the distances and you will be stunned.
    nh

  10. Mike says:

    JC – it’s great to read articles on this from people who’ve actually done some research.

    At the same time, please bear in mind: Human Growth Hormone cannot be detected by the MLB drug testing. The list of players who have and have not gotten caught under the MLB’s system is pretty much irrelevant in the debate of what has caused the HR increase and the bulkier players in the last 15 years. I believe fans have issue with performance enhancing drugs, not just steroids. Currently, ballplayers have only one single incentive not to use HGH – their conscience. They all know they can’t get caught, they all know the advantages to using that, and they know that thus far, the side effects are really quite minor.

    If you want to argue that home runs have increased more due to expansion than due to performance enhancing drugs, I think there’s a future in that investigation – though it would be hard to prove. But I fail to understand how the documented effects of these drugs, combined with the somewhat-documented, obvious use of them, can simply be assumed to have no effect at all.

    In addition… what does the expansion hypothesis have to say about the lack of .400 batting average seasons? Surely if expansion and pitcher dilution is giving an advantage to home run hitters on a level that’s never been reached before in the history of baseball, there should be a similar advantage obtained by hitters in terms of batting average as well. And yet, no one has really come close to hitting .400 since the expansion; Gwynn in 94 was the only one within .020 points, and that was a smaller sample size due to the short season.

  11. John says:

    I’m with pbr on the HBP stats. You don’t respond to his remarks about Biggio popularizing the strategy. It strikes me that various strategies become trendy in baseball, as in all things, and this is especially true of managing techniques. For example, don’t teams carry more pitchers now than ever? And don’t those pitchers specialize as never before? I think there are a huge number of variables possibly at play here.

    Also Andrew is correct about the appearance of armor (when did Bonds start with that elbow equipment?). I’d like to see the progression of HBP over time. McCarver is constantly going on about how the use of aluminium bats in college makes batters stand closer to the plate.

    And nothing about the ball itself? Are you assuming its elasticity has been constant over this period?

  12. JC says:

    On HGH. The media has dropped the ball on the performance-enhancing effects of HGH. There is strong evidence that HGH does not improve performance. And this isn’t controversial among exercise physiologists. In fact, after talking to a colleague of mine working in this field, I think it’s more likely to hinder than help performance. For more read Daniel Engber’s article on this in Slate. I plan to write up a separate post on this later this week.

    On other factors influencing hit batters (including Biggio). As I mentioned in my previous comment, I’m not saying that expansion explains all of the rise in hit batters. Even if there was there is no way to prove this. However, it does fit with the facts, and therefore it’s sufficient to infer that expansion and hit batters are related. Again, I have an entire chapter devoted to hit batters in the book that has nothing to do with expansion.

    As for other factors influencing home runs, I agree with all of these factors contributing. That lends further support to the notion that home runs rose for a reason other than steroids.

    Why hasn’t the batting record been broken? I don’t know, but I can think of a few possible explanations. 1) Hitting .400 is more difficult than breaking home run records. 2) Defense has improved as players have grown bigger and faster. 3) Grounds keeping is better.

    There are lots of potential records that have not fallen, and I cannot say why. Gould’s theory doesn’t say all records will fall, just that they are more likely to fall. What I have done is point out a few examples.

    Why didn’t past expansions influence the game in the same way? Good question, and this puzzled me for a while, and I continue to think on it. But the thing that I do know, is that talent is much more dispersed now than is was (using a direct measure that I discuss in the book) and that we have good reason to expect records to fall in this environment. Maybe expansion has nothing to do with that, but suspect that it does.

  13. I am reminded that for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple and elegant and wrong. In my soon to be humbled opinion baseball was “ruined” (I deny the major premise) by many economic factors. First, consumers don’t like “small ball.” In recent years, going back to Maris and Mantle they preferred homeruns. As Adam Smith would have predicted, baseball gave it to them by reducing the strike zone to make pitching harder. Moeover, technology like better science in good bats and proper length helped. Further, players learned that weight training made them better, not worse, as mythology had it so their BMI got lower and they got stronger. Moreover, pay went up with TV contracts so players took better care of themselves to stay in the league for an extra hundreds of thousands or more per year.

    To this we could add the Colorado light air, and probably the likliehood that as pay went up for hitters better atheletes gravitated away from pitching to hitting where the money was. Lastly, I mentioned homeruns, but suppose home uns are more exciting on TV bringing ratings up; but that to appreciate a double play you are in a better position if you are at the stadium where most viewers are not. as baseball became a televised sport it lost some charm.

  14. Oh, and I left out that through the Fifties pitchers could throw at batters and brush them back, making them less settled at the plate. sk Early Winn, Wynne? As players got more expensive owners discourage this by ejecting pitchers.

  15. John says:

    I stupidly formatted the links at the end of my posting above:

    News article
    High Boskage website